Why Is Biblical Prophecy So Confusing?
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To understand biblical prophecy better, one must be knowledgeable of how the New Testament understands the Old. Armed with this knowledge, we are more fully prepared to understand both Old Testament and New Testament prophecy! This could help to lessen the uncertainty and confusion I spoke about earlier.
I will comment first on the Jewish misunderstanding. It is a sad fact that the Jewish leaders of Jesus' day almost totally misunderstood critical points of Old Testament prophecy, especially those prophecies related to the Messiah and the Kingdom. After noting the Jewish fallacies in these two areas, I will then turn to the New Testament's correct understanding.
1. The Messiah
The Jews in Jesus' day were expecting a Messianic king who would rule over them and overthrow the tyranny of Rome. They delighted in such a prophecy as: "The government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called 'Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.' Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and for evermore." In their minds the Messiah would come to govern from Jerusalem; he would establish the throne of David; he would reign politically over the whole world. And so, one time at least, a crowd of Jews listening to Jesus thought to make Him king"they were about to come and take him by force to make him king" (after His feeding the five thousand), but He "withdrew again to the mountain by himself" ( ). This Messiah who had come was not the Messiah they expected, or that their reading of the prophets had led them to expect. They failed to understand other words of the prophet Isaiah, such as, "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted...like a lamb that is led to the slaughter...he opened not his mouth" (53:7). A Messiah who would be oppressed, suffer, and die is right there in Old Testament prophecy, but the Jews could not see it because they had no idea of why He was really coming, namely, to bear their sins and those of all mankind. To this day, almost two thousand years later, the Jews still cannot really comprehend their own Old Testament or receive the Christ who came in its fulfillment.
The New Testament reads and understands the Old Testament quite differently. Christ was indeed the king prophesied by Isaiah and many others, but He came to set people free not from Roman bondage but from a far greater bondage, namely, from their sins. The angel declared to Joseph: "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (). Christ, therefore, came not to rule outwardly but to save inwardlyand thereby to be a king of a spiritual kingdom. Thus prophecies in Isaiah 9 and 53 fit together: Christ is both King and Savior!
Tragically, the Jews are still looking for the Messiah. Many believe He will soon arrive. They have yet to comprehend that He has already come and that this same Christ is coming again.
2. The Kingdom
Likewise, the Jews expected the ushering in of a kingdom of power and glory. Since the prophesied Messiah was to be over David's kingdom "to establish it...to uphold it," this surely meant an earthly kingdom that would endure forever. They also recalled another passage in Isaiah: "Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations..." (2:3-4). So when Jesus appeared on the scene and said "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (), many of the Jews were eager to believe that the time of glory had finally arrived! At last the long awaited kingdom would be established with Jerusalem the capital, Israel ruling over the nations, and all people abiding by the law going forth from there.
But, we must vigorously respond, this again is not the New Testament understanding. Indeed, just following Jesus' words, "the kingdom of God is at hand," He added: "Repent and believe in the gospel" (same verse). It will not be an earthly political kingdom but a spiritual one (note the alternate reading in"the kingdom of heaven is at hand") in which the participants will be those who "repent and believe."
The Jews consequently were no more members of this kingdom than any one else; they could only be participants by entering the door through repentance and believing the gospel. Recall how later Jesus was talking with Nicodemus, "a member of the Jewish ruling council" (niv), who was told by Jesus quite bluntly, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (v. 3 kjv). The kingdom is totally invisible (surely not a visible political realm) except to those who are born again. Even more, Jesus added, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (v. 5 kjv). Nicodemus, a man highly placed in Jewish circles, who was surely looking for the kingdom, was totally blind to its true reality. For the kingdom of God was now something quite different from what he expected; it was visible only to the eyes of those born again and accordingly true citizens of it. Jesus thereafter lamented, "Are you [Nicodemus] a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?" (v. 10). Israelincluding its teachers, rabbis, and leadersto this very day, does not understand and is still looking for a political Messiah. Does this mean that Christ was not a king (as the Old Testament had said the Messiah would be)? Indeed, he was a king and has a kingdom. But the kingdom was not, and is not, of this world.
Recall later in John's Gospel when Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate and the governor asked Him: "Are you a king?" Jesus shortly thereafter replied, "You are right in saying I am a king" (niv). But, before that, Jesus had declared, "My kingdom is not of this world" (v. 36). Pilate was utterly confused, for all he knew about kings was someone like the emperor in Rome, or King Herod in Israel. Perhaps this confusion was understandable for a Roman. But the Jews, especially the rulers, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others were so blinded by their own self-importance, their unspiritual outlook, that they put to death the king and removed His kingdom from them. Remember one time during His ministry when Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, "I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit" ( niv). Who are those people? Those who believe in Jesus and belong to Him. "Fear not, little flock," said Jesus to His disciples, "for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" ( ). Even today, it is those who believe in Jesus that are heirs of the kingdom.
Finally, I add a penetrating statement by Paul on the spiritual nature of this kingdom: "The kingdom of God [means] righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (). And that Christ alone can bring about!
Leaving behind Jewish misunderstandings, let me clarify further the New Testament understanding of the Messiah and the kingdom. My main point is that both Christ and the kingdom have come (as we have discussed) but also both are yet to come. I have earlier commented on the return of Christ; now I add that when He returns it will be in total victory with His kingdom ruling over all. Paul writes inabout the coming of Christ with "those who belong to Him" (remember, similarly, 1 Thess. 4:14), and how this relates to the kingdom. After speaking of "when he comes [with] those who belong to Him," Paul adds: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power" (v. 24). Thus, although the kingdom is here and we are citizens in it, the kingdom is not yet over all: enemies of Christ and the kingdom of God are on every hand.
Pause a moment to reflect on some of the antichristian forces in the world. Think of America alone with its rising tide of secular humanism, raw immorality, blasphemy against Christ in many places, witchcraft and the occult, of so-called "new Age" thinking that seeks to identify humanity with Godon and on. No matter how we strive against it (and strive we must), the situation is dark indeed. This is what the New Testament calls "the dominion of darkness" (), out of which Christians have been "transferred [by God]...to the kingdom of his beloved Son." Thus, although God through Christ has already established this kingdom, there is a victorious climax yet to come which will follow the destruction of "all dominion ["the dominion of darkness"], authority, and power." This coming kingdom will still be "not of this world" (recall ), that is, belonging to the present order of things, but will be a spiritual kingdom devoid of evil. There will be nothing but "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (recall ), and Christ will be forever with His people.
This, I submit, is the New Testament understanding of both the kingdom now and the kingdom to come.
Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D. Used by permission. Originally presented as “Prophecy by the Book” a series of eight talks on prophecy given at CBN by Dr. J. Rodman Williams.
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