When I was growing up, bible prophecy was something that was discussed quite a bit in my family, so it’s always been a part of my life. The church I was in also talked about it quite a bit, though it seemed to be falling out of favor around that time. What I’ve witnessed in the last 15-20 years has been a pendulum swing the other way, to where talking about prophecy in the bible in any kind of detail almost makes people uncomfortable. People who study it in-depth are looked at as radicals, and the very idea of speculating about events, times, etc. gives people hives.
I get where some of the reaction is coming from, to some extent—for a long time, people were setting specific dates and claiming to know things, and none of it was true. And certainly, there are many other things besides prophecy that we should be focusing on, such as growing in Godly character, showing love to our brethren, and readying ourselves spiritually for the kingdom. I’ve had people argue that if we’re doing all of these things, it doesn’t really matter if we’re studying prophecy in the bible. But I don’t agree with that argument.
This post is meant to be a thought-starter for people who don’t or haven’t studied prophecy, not an all-encompassing look at the topic. This was originally a presentation that’s been adapted into article form, so we’ve included a downloadable Powerpoint at the end that covers the highlights and can be printed out if desired. The main purpose of this post is to talk about why studying prophecy in the bible is important, and then offer some key insights and direction for getting started or digging back in.
3 reasons we should care about prophecy in the bible
The bible is a lot more seamless than we give it credit for—prophecy is one of the major common threads, if not THE major thread, through the entire thing
You’d be hard-pressed to find a book in the bible that doesn’t contain prophecy (there may be a couple, but you have to try really hard). In fact, Genesis—which many people wouldn’t list as a prophetic book—is one of the most important prophetical books we have, the foundation of all bible prophecy. Go read Genesis 3, when God pronounces the punishment of Satan and Adam and Eve, and basically tells them that they’d totally screwed up, but it’s okay because He’d thought ahead and already had a plan to fix it. Read about the Tree of Life, and God commanding the start of a family. In fact, the bible starts and ends with a marriage and the establishment of a family—think that’s a coincidence? It all starts there.
Additionally, the holy days give us a framework for God’s plan for mankind. They’re the macro view of prophecy, a large-scale roadmap of when He plans to step in and how He plans to accomplish His will. Bible prophecy is a constant reminder of God’s power and omnipotence, His everlasting nature, and His ability to accomplish everything He says He will.
Jesus cared about prophecy, & talked about it often during His first coming
Jesus announced His ministry by reading from a millennial prophecy in Isaiah, saying:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18, ref. Is. 61:1-2)
During His ministry, He spoke often of prophecy and its fulfillment. Much of His prophetic focus was on what He was in the process of fulfilling by coming to earth and ultimately sacrificing Himself for mankind. But toward the end of His physical life in particular, He did give the His disciples instruction on what was to come at the end time. A few examples:
- Matt. 24-25 – the Olivet prophecy, parable of the ten virgins, parable of the talents
- Matt. 22 – parable of the wedding feast (which should be a particularly sobering warning)
- John 14 – He’s preparing a place to receive us, and will come back for us
Let’s not forget that when God is spoken of in the Old Testament, this was generally the God-being that later became Jesus Christ in the flesh, the logos or Word (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2, 10). It was by the Son’s hand that God the Father created the earth and interacted with the patriarchs, and as the spokesman of the Father, much of Old Testament prophecy would have been imparted by Jesus. So we must remember that this is as much His plan as it is the Father’s!
We are commanded to—and it will affect us whether or not we want it to
Sometimes it’s easy to think that the events that occur at the end of this age are going to be so crystal-clear to anyone who has read the bible that we’ll definitely know what’s going on and be able to take action. But we wouldn’t be warned so often to be watching if it were going to be that obvious or simple. Remember, the Jews in Jesus’s time were actually looking for the Messiah to come around that time—they had the scriptures, and yet the majority missed Him.
- Luke 21:35-36 – “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass and to stand before the Son of Man.”
- Matt. 24 & 25 – tells us that many people [this is speaking of the church specifically] will be deceived, the love of many will wax cold, and there will be many false prophets who will deceive even the elect; parable of 10 virgins
- Luke 12:39 – “But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
“Bible Prophecy 101”
Studying prophecy in the bible isn’t something you undertake for a few weeks, then tie up with a neat bow and move on. Studying prophecy is a lifelong endeavor, and is a lot like doing one of those 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles (yet weirdly, I like it, and I hate those dumb puzzles…).
To get started, you look for the obvious starting places—the corner pieces, then all the flat edges. Slowly but surely you begin to put together the outline of the big picture, a foundation to build the rest from. Then you start to look for the bigger areas that are colored similarly, and start building those out. Sometimes you think you have a piece that just has to fit in this area, and you kind of shoehorn it in, then later realize that it doesn’t go there at all.
Here are a few of what I’d consider “ground rules” for diving into prophecy:
More than anything it’s important to understand that you will see the same things differently over the course of time. As you study different topics or read various passages over the years, you’ll be looking at things through different personal or study filters, or all of the sudden get a “light bulb” moment that you’d never had for that verse. That’s exactly as it should be, since God works with us in different ways depending on where we are in life.
Some other suggestions:
- Keep an open mind and look for different connections or similarities to avoid becoming too fixated on a pet idea. Be willing to see different points of view or consider other people’s ideas.
- Consider the effects of different bible translations/versions. While newer, more modern translations can help make certain passages easier to understand, they can also miss important phrasing and language nuances that help you make prophetic connections. If you favor a newer translation, definitely try comparing a KJV or NKJV alongside it.
- Something I find extremely useful is tools such as e-Sword and BibleHub, which allow me to search and filter by various words, look at Greek/Hebrew translations and meanings, see where a word is used in other places, etc.—these tools are invaluable for making connections
- Don’t let past teachings or organizational bias get in the way—revisit all your old assumptions and see if they still hold up. They may, but you’d be surprised what prophetic paradigms you still hold true from when you were young.
- Don’t fixate on every minute detail—look for the signposts, the big framework. If God wanted us to have all the details, He would have given them to us.
- “Speculation” isn’t a dirty word! In today’s Sabbath-keeping churches many people are incredibly uncomfortable with speculating about prophetic events, but this is one way we exercise our brains and try and make connections to learn more.
Okay, I want to start studying bible prophecy—but where do I start?
Find the major frameworks & build off that
Personally, I recommend starting by reading chunks of the bible—not a commentary or a brochure, the actual bible. There are many places you can start, but personally I’m quite fond of Daniel 2, which is Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the statue made from gold, silver, brass, iron, and clay. This vision gives an overview of the entirety of mankind’s time on earth, ending with the establishment of God’s kingdom. From there, there are quite a few other prophecies that tie in and give even more detail.
- Daniel 2 – statue made of gold, silver, brass, iron, & clay
- Daniel 7 – four beasts, similar to Daniel 2 but slightly different detail
- Revelation 13 – pulls together both Daniel 2 and 7, adds more detail and understanding
- Basically all of Revelation – if you’re looking for an exciting bedtime read, this is your guy
- Daniel 11 – king of south & north (longer & a little convoluted, but also fascinating in the extreme detail and length of time it covers)
- Matthew 24 – Olivet Prophecy
Continuity of themes, symbols, & language
One thing that’s so fascinating about the bible is how specific things are used consistently throughout the entire book. Start by doing searches in an e-Sword or BibleHub, or your bible’s concordance or cyclopedic index. Look for similar words, language, colors, etc.
- Mountain – Is. 2:2, Rev. 17:9-11, Ps. 30:7, Dan. 2:35, 44-45
- Dragon – Rev. 12 & 13, Ez. 29:3, Rev. 16:13, Rev. 20:2, Is. 27:1
- Lamb – basically all of Revelation, I Pet. 1, John 1:29-36, Jer. 11:19, Ex. 12
- Woman/bride/virgin – Rev. 12, Amos 5:2, Is. 61:10, Rev. 19:7-10, Matt. 25:1-13
- Harlot/prostitute – Is. 47, Is.1:21, Jer. 2:20, Ezek. 16, Rev. 19:2, Rev. 14-18
- Stars – Rev. 1:20, Rev. 12:4, Is. 14:13, Dan. 8:10, Rev. 9:1
- Beasts – Dan. 7, Rev. 13, 15, 17, & 19
- Numbers – 42, 3 ½, 7, 4
- Colors – white, purple, scarlet
- Day of the Lord, “in that day”, “in the latter days”, etc.
All roads lead to Jerusalem
“I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling [drunkenness] to the nations unto all the people round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah & against Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it” (Zech. 12:2-3)
The entire bible is centered around Jerusalem and the land of Israel, and end-time bible prophecy is no different. We in the United States in particular tend to be very U.S.-centric in our way of thinking, but that’s dangerous when studying prophecy in the bible. The fact is that there’s no indication that the U.S. will play a major individual role in end-time events. Where will the world’s eyes be focused? On Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the powers trying to control them.
When you read many swaths of prophecy in the bible—particularly Daniel 9 and 11, much of the minor prophets, and most of Revelation—Jerusalem is the focus. Particularly in scriptures where the context isn’t specifically mentioned, such as speaking of the Kings of the North and South in Daniel 11, it’s very important to have Jerusalem as the frame of reference or you could end up at an entirely different conclusion.
We also have to be careful about “current events” bias. In the middle of the 20th century, many thought that the events of Revelation would include the U.S. being militarily subdued and everyone put into concentration camps. In the 80’s there were people who thought one of the beasts of Daniel would be Russia. Looking at the current event filters of those two points in time, it’s easy to see where these thoughts came from. But they don’t mesh with the bible at all. So while we’re speculating and trying to put the pieces together, it’s important to take a longer view of history and possible future events.
Dual fulfillment—think both short- & long-term
The bible is chock-full of types and antetypes. For instance, there were many different people in the Old Testament who were a type—a pre-figure or shadow—of Jesus Christ, the antetype or ultimate fulfillment. The types share many characteristics or have similar purposes as the antetype, such as Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed by Abraham, Jonah being in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights, and Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery, giving the Law, and standing as intercessor between them and God’s wrath. The lamb’s blood on the doorpost for Passover and the wine we take during the Passover now were types or symbols of the antetype—Christ’s blood that washes away our sins.
Types and antetypes are critical in studying bible prophecy as well. In many cases, the type is a relatively minor event in history, while the long-term fulfillment is generally a major world event (e.g. the abomination of desolation; Dan. 11:31, 12:11, Matt. 24:15). Trying to pick through the earlier and latter fulfillments is, for me at least, the most difficult part of reading through the minor prophet books. And in some cases of type and antetype, the former is a physical fulfillment while the latter is a more spiritual fulfillment (e.g. Matt. 24:2 – temple being destroyed in 70 A.D. as earlier physical fulfillment, the church in the last days as latter fulfillment).
Look for signposts
There are many, many , MANY things we don’t know about how everything will happen at the time of the end. As I said earlier, God would have given us all the details if He’d wanted us to have them. But there are several things we DO know, and have to be watching for. These events are often not major themselves, but act as signposts or markers along the larger timeline.
First, there were a few things that have already happened that were critical in setting us on the final path to Christ’s return. For instance, we (the world) had to have the ability to efficiently annihilate ourselves (Matt. 24:22, Rev. 9:15). With the development of the atomic bomb and long missile capabilities, we gave ourselves the ability to destroy pretty much every life on earth within a few hours. Additionally, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 gave us a Jewish-controlled Jerusalem, which a lot of end-time prophecy alludes to (Zech. 12-14, Dan. 12).
So what are we told to still watch for? In terms of very specific things, Daniel tells us, “And from the time that the daily sacrifice is taken away, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is he who waits, and comes to the one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days” (Dan. 12:11-12). This tells us a few things: 1) that the daily sacrifice will be taken away from the Jews three and a half years before Christ returns, 2) that the Jews will have to start daily sacrifices again (in some form or fashion) before that since they are not currently doing this, and 3) there is both a 45-day period and a 1,290-day period that we should be looking for.
In terms of broader signposts, this is where constantly studying and meditating on prophecy is important. We have to be looking for religious, economic, and military powers to start to align in certain ways to see the beginning of the end. We don’t know exactly how they will finally gel just yet, but if we read through Daniel 11 and Revelation 13, it gives us some details about combinations of powers, relationships between rulers, economic systems, who will go to war with each other, and other important tidbits that will help us recognize the signs if we’re actively watching.
Putting it together
Why is it important to have more than a superficial knowledge of biblical prophecy? Well, since the beginning Satan has had God’s playbook. What he’s done over the past several millennia is to set up counterfeit religions, myths, and prophetic beliefs that almost mirror God’s way, with only small differences. The best counterfeits are almost identical to the original. When it comes to counterfeit money, even you or I wouldn’t be fooled by Monopoly money, but a really good counterfeit would fool us every time. It’s only the people who study it 24/7 that can tell the difference. They feel the paper, smell it, taste the ink, crumple it up, submerge it in water, and basically do everything so that they know every single nuance and can recognize even the best fake.
The same is true of us in our path to follow God. Read all the warnings about the end time in Matthew, Luke, and other places—it says that even the very elect could be deceived, and cautions that God’s people will be turning on each other and growing cold in the faith at the end time. There will be signs and wonders done by the false prophet that will seem to only be possible for God to do (Matt. 24:24-46). It is only by studying all of the prophecy that God gives us in the scriptures, thinking and praying about it, talking to each other, and watching world events that we will be able to read the signs and be ready when Christ returns.
Download a powerpoint version of topline notes from this post here (with bonus “4 Lego Horsemen of the Apocalypse” pic!): Prophecy 101