Guidelines for the Use of Scripture in Prophecy
General Overview of Certain Dangers in the Prophetic Movement
The Legitimate Use of Scripture in Prophecy as:
- a) correct understanding of context and true future orientation
- b) historical typology, as an analogy for the present
The current fascination with the restoration of the gift of prophecy in the Church has almost the appearance of a worldly fad. I am reminded of the run on Cabbage Patch Dolls during a Christmas season a few years back. Everyone wanted one, store lines were long. Consumerism at its finest: the rush to acquire the coveted object caused people to throw caution to the wind. In the same way, the hunger for the prophetic today creates the same risks in God's people. Caution may be trampled under foot by our greed to receive. Contemporary prophecies run the gamut from the flaky and the merely questionable to the sure word of the Lord. What makes this diversity troublesome is that there appears to be no guidelines for measuring the accuracy of the delivered word. Obviously, a word can be tested by the Spirit of God as other prophets are called to weigh what is said (1 Cor. 14:29), but in practice, the enthusiasm of people who are desperate for a "word from the Lord" creates an atmosphere where the most wildly encouraging messages are often given and received without qualification. To make matters worse, ministers with well known ministries often engage in the most questionable use of scripture in support of "words from the Lord." Often these "words" appear to confirm pet doctrines or personally held end time theologies. None of these considerations make the word spoken invalid, but honestly, there is so much fawning over ministry and so much deference to reputation that a pure word from the Lord is rarely given which challenges! Most are deferential and supportive of the man or woman. But in balance, a little more correction might go a long way towards stemming the tide of emotionalism that masquerades as prophecy.
There are many dangers in the prophetic mood of the modern church. One of them is the "bless me club," mentality of the modern church go-ers. Most want a word that will encourage. That desire is human enough, especially in this age of pressure and discouragement. But a word of encouragement, even from the Lord, will not take the place of obedience. Often what we need is personal accountability. We need to serve God and sacrifice self. Yes we need to be encouraged, but when congregations run to hear the prophet coming to town, but neglect to offer their lives in service to God on a daily basis, you are forced to wonder about the legitimacy of the words of "blessing" that are continually coming forth from the mouth of the prophets.
An example of this mentality I have seen in my own church, where a prophet with a mighty ministry came to town and prophesied up a storm over individuals in the church. His offering was huge. Everyone was going to have an important ministry, it seemed... (I have no doubt God wants to bless his people with significance and that He desires to do more good to us than we understand or will receive, but the hope that people place in these prophecies without a proper respect for the process of sacrifice is what troubles me.) Well, 6 months later, half the church traveled over an hour away for 4 nights of meetings to hear this same prophet speak in another church. Yet of all of them, maybe only one was willing to come out and help in a neighborhood ministry to the disadvantaged run by a couple of ladies in the church. Their focus was on the blessings they hoped to receive. Yes, we need to be blessed by God, but it is in laying down our lives that we find it and in serving others that we become blessed by God. The word of the prophet is no substitute for obedience, and promises no substitute for maturity. Yet people will pay good money to hear good things said about them, and I am sure it is a subtle temptation to many prophets to hype the good for the sake of the temporal reward. It may be a temptation to which they yield unknowingly; for the excitement and enthusiasm of a good worship service and of a large Christian meeting often puts us in an environment where good feelings about God cloud our discernment over all that claims to be taking place in His Name. Our flesh and our emotions gravitate towards those good feelings acquired in worship, and prophecy may be influenced by the atmosphere.
A second aspect of the prophetic chaos that is shredding our sensibility is the prophecies of well meaning Christians who are being inspired not by God, but who are prophesying out of their emotions and desires. Things they hope for and yearn for, many good in themselves, provide a backdrop for utterances that are not from the Lord but inspired by good intentions and hopes. While Jeremiah was uttering words telling of the coming destruction, many of the "prophets" were going around prophesying good things about the nation and the nation's future. Since everyone wants good things to happen, and we all hope for our nation, those words are easy to receive, even if they are not from God, because they speak to our deepest longings and our deepest fears. We cannot be faulted for desiring the best for our land, but we need to be careful by what spirit we are motivated to speak and to receive. The word could even be God's heartfelt desire for this land (for his desire is always for repentance) , but it may not be God's Word for us today.
My deepest concern is for these well meaning prophecies over individuals and over this nation. There is so much hype and emotionalism accompanying the flood of utterances, almost all of which are good and hopeful words, that just as in Jeremiah's day, the people might be led astray by the volume of what is being spoken rather than be led towards the Lord by the weight of the Word which is spoken. And I have a sense that when the United States goes through a tremendous chastening, the people who have poured their hopes into false words and the people who have pinned their hopes on genuine words - but who have failed to grow up in the discipline of the Lord - that these people will be thrown into a mass of confusion, fear, doubt, and uncertainty. As Paul said, they will make a shipwreck of their faith (1 Ti 1:19).
In order to give some balance in the matter of the flood of prophetic utterances coming forth, I want to focus on one matter as regards to the legitimacy of prophecy. The problems of immaturity in believers, a lack of discernment over words given, and deceptive motives in ministry are best handled by the local church elders and prophets in the community who are called to discern the genuineness of ministry on behalf of the church. But in general, there is a simple way to test the genuineness of a stream of prophecy or prophetic utterances that may be spoken by certain schools of prophets. That way is in the use of scripture.
There is a legitimate use of scripture in prophecy as prophecy; and there is an illegitimate use of scripture that is far too common among those even with respected ministries. Too often, certain scriptures are pulled out of context and used to back a point of prophecy through a questionable or faulty interpretation. God indeed may be saying something fresh to a prophet, but it certainly calls into question the validity of that word when the scriptures used to establish it don't even say what the prophet says they are saying!
In order to focus this discussion, I want to address standard and legitimate uses of the scripture and then give examples which contrast the proper use. Scripture is used legitimately as prophecy when 1) the Scripture is actually speaking about events yet to come which have not yet been fulfilled; and 2) when it has been fulfilled historically, but the Holy Spirit says that it is an example of things that are yet to come.
In the first instance, the Old Testament prophesied about the coming Messiah. Those prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus, Son of David. Yet many of the scriptures in both Testaments are yet unfulfilled. Jesus prophesied when he said, "Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled," Lu 21:24. Paul also prophesied along the same lines, for he said, "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in and then all Israel will be saved..." Ro 11:25-26. These prophecies may finally be coming to pass in our day, since for the first time in 1900 years, Jerusalem is back in Jewish hands and since mass numbers of Jews are now believing in Jesus as Messiah.
Pointing to the unfulfilled scripture and pointing to the present or a time yet to come is a legitimate use of the future orientation of the prophecies God has had recorded in His sacred Word. These scriptures are meant to tell us of God's plans for the future.
Another instance of this legitimate use of scripture is the use of 2 Thessalonians when it speaks about the final confrontation between Jesus Christ and a "man of lawlessness," an anti-Christ:
Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, NIV).
Now it is legitimate to speak of that future time when the "man of lawlessness" will be revealed. It is even legitimate to speak of that time as today and to attempt to identify who in current events might be that "man." The problem is that this attempt is usually NOT prophetic, but speculative. Like reading tea leaves and other forms of divination, people use scripture like a Rorschach inkblot test. It often reveals more about what is going on in the mind of the reader than what is actually taking place in the objective world. In this practice of interpretation, a person's particular eschatology, prejudices, and nationalism is more often exposed than any eternal truth about the end times. For example, during WWII many people saw Adolph Hitler as the fulfillment of 2 Thessalonians. Surely Hitler had many of the characteristics of the "man of lawlessness," but the speculation proved false as did any attempt to tie prophecy to then current events. The problem here is that mental speculation is trying to substitute itself for the God's Holy Spirit who gives us revelation. In short, it may be a legitimate to try to use scripture as prophecy, but we can be just plain wrong in our interpretation and application of the scripture.
It would be a legitimate use of that scripture however, under the prophetic unction of the Lord, to say, "this scripture is now being fulfilled in your hearing. The anti-Christ is in the land and will be revealed within this year..." It would be a legitimate use of scripture, but as with any prophecy, it ought to be judged! We have all seen countless end times predictions come and go to the point that the Church has become a laughingstock for being so willing to suffering so many fools in the name of Christianity. Nevertheless, scripture can be used legitimately as prophetic when it itself speaks of the future. In 1994, we had such a prophetic declaration about God ripping evil out of the earth, but we found that no such event took place. The scriptures were used prophetically and legitimately, but the word that came forth was not God's prophetic word. The people who gave those prophecies have since repented, and most are receiving counsel. That is the reason we need to judge the prophetic word. It can even appear to align with scripture, but that alone does not make it true.
In contrast, an illegitimate BUT ALL TOO COMMON use of scripture is to take a passage that is NOTspeaking about the future and try to apply it as a prophetic word being fulfilled in our generation. A common mistake is to take a scripture that was future when it was written, but was fulfilled in the writer's time, or soon thereafter, and then, through gross negligence or out-right ignorance, take that same word as a prophetic word for today. A common misuse of scripture, or at least a very questionable one, is the whole "latter rain" prophetic movement. In Joel 2:23-24, it says, "Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God: for he hath given you the former rain moderately, AND HE WILL CAUSE TO COME DOWN FOR YOU THE RAIN, THE FORMER RAIN, AND THE LATTER RAIN IN THE FIRST MONTH. And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the fats shall overflow with wine and oil." (Joel 2:23-24, KJV).
The prophetic stream of the "latter rain" movement basically stated that this last outpouring of God's Spirit on the earth, on the Church, was going to be mightier than anything the world or the Church has ever seen. In fact, it was going to be so mighty, that it would be like receiving both the early and latter rains in a single, gigantic outpouring. Two major problems with using this scripture to back this prophetic word is that 1) the interpretation is based upon a mis-translation of the scripture, and 2) this scripture was already fulfilled in Joel's day.
In the first instance, modern translations indicate that God was speaking of restoring the natural blessings of abundance to Judah because of her repentance in response to Joel's message. Joel prophesied, Judah repented, God responded by removing the plague of locusts and by restoring the blessings of harvest to his people. Other translations make this time frame clear: "He sends you ABUNDANT SHOWERS, BOTH AUTUMN AND SPRING RAINS, AS BEFORE,"(NIV). ".. he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before..."(RSV). It was not both rains in a single season (in one month) nor a double outpouring, but a restoration of the natural cycle of rain and harvest and blessing.
The second error has to do with the fact that the prophecy was already fulfilled! The people, in Joel's day REPENTEDand cried out to God because of the locust plague and the message of God's judgment. When they repented, God removed the curse! He didn't wait for 2,000 years to stop the famine. He responded in Joel's day as the people repented. That scripture was fulfilled 2,500 years ago. It had a real historical fulfillment, and it applies to time past. This particular scripture was never intended to speak about events of today, nor about an outpouring of a double portion of the Holy Spirit on the Church today. To use this scripture in such a way as to imply that it does is to call into question the integrity and intelligibility of the scripture. If it had a particular meaning in days gone by, and if it was already fulfilled, we had better appreciate it in its historical context and not try to bend it to mean whatever we want it to in the present, just so we can prove our own pet theologies.
Now the reason this scripture is so often misquoted and misused is the context. Several verses later, the scriptures switch to a future outpouring of the Spirit which was fulfilled in Acts on the day of Pentecost: the gift of the Holy Spirit to all flesh, who are believers in Jesus the Messiah. However, while some of Joel may point to the final fulfillment of all things, to take the earlier verses mentioned before as evidence to prove the validity of a certain prophetic theology is illegitimate. In fact, it is downright dishonest, because it doesn't respect God's Word for what it actually says!
In spite of this misuse of this passage of scripture, a whole school of theology and a whole prophetic movement has been built upon it. It calls into question the legitimacy of the whole prophetic revelation when the KEY verse used to support it is found to be incorrectly translated and incorrectly interpreted.
To be kind, it could indeed be true that God may be speaking about a coming revival that will totally surprise us in its volume and magnitude. Such an outpouring may be like nothing we have ever seen. This could indeed be the word of the Lord for our generation. Icertainly hope so, for we desperately need it. However, the prophets would do well to search the scriptures, interpret them correctly, and find other scriptures which may truly be about the end times and which support that word. I can think of at least two which might lend themselves more fully to such a "word:" For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14, RSV).
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1-2, RSV).
Bad theology, and bad interpretation of the Word does not necessarily make the inspiration false, because God uses ignorant humans as his messengers. However, bad theology and bad interpretation certainly make the Word and the prophet who delivers it suspect. My concern is that the mutual back-patting society of prophets sometimes bless ignorance and error in the name of supporting the prophetic move of God. Surely God is big enough to both speak prophetically through us and still hold us accountable. At least we ought to know and understand what his word says! Iam convinced that what I too often see are emotional inspirations substituted for divine revelations, and we don't have the inner discipline to be able to distinguish between the two. And so what passes as prophecy is just our hope and yearning. God help us to be faithful to what he is actually speaking.
The second legitimate use of scriptures in prophecy is typological. That is when a scripture speaks of something which it foreshadows that is yet to come. The book of Hebrews speaks of the blood of bulls and goats which were symbols of the blood to be shed on the cross by our Savior Jesus (Heb. 10: 4). In a sense, the sacrifice of bulls and goats for atonement was a prophetic act which anticipated Christ's sacrifice. The whole Old Testament is often viewed typologically, as it foreshadowed Christ in the Temple, the Altar, and the waters of Baptism (the Flood). A typological use of scripture would be: "as it happened in the past, so today..."
Genesis is the book of beginnings. In it, each seed produces after its kind. There is the good seed and the bad as well. Just as genetic codes dictate the outcome and appearance of the fully grown tree from the seed, so the archetypes of the future are foreshadowed by their occurrence in Genesis. For example, the Tower of Babel was a one world government, an empire controlled by one man, Nimrod. The Tower, actually was a "stairway" to heaven. Babel actually means "gateway of (or to) God." Human beings, through a unity based upon a human political and religious government were striving to attain eternal life, all without being forced to have a relationship to God. They hoped to attain heaven through their own efforts (Gen 11). This was Humanism at its finest. We see that same humanistic striving today, as human beings try to create a world without war, a political union, peace and prosperity through a human system of government, but all the while denying the very One who is Peace, even Jesus. It is man's system and man's attempt to counterfeit the Kingdom of God, without God at the center. In it, man is attempting to build a universe where there is no god but himself. Finally, the typology is complete in the scripture's picture of the end times under the "man of lawlessness," (2 Thess 2) and elsewhere. We can see that the Tower of Babel foreshadows the end time striving of Satan to gain control over the whole earth through a geopolitical and religious system under his domain. The seed (Babel) is revealed in the fruit of the fully grown tree (the man of lawlessness); and its final form has already been foreshadowed for us in Genesis. Genesis is typologically prophetic of what is to come.
Likewise, the coming of Christ is prophesied by God to Adam and Eve, when he spoke of the "seed" that would crush the serpent's head. The righteous seed was there in Genesis as well. And Eden is a type of the Eternal Kingdom of God, yet to come. It would be foolish, therefore, not to take the whole Bible as prophetic typology, for God revealed his plans for the end from the beginning. And Genesis is the key to understanding the entire plan; for whatever we see initiated there will be brought fully to maturity at the end - both the growth of evil after its kind and the good after its kind into the Kingdom of God on earth.
Scripture was always viewed typologically and prophetically by the New Testament writers. The Jews of Jesus' days were looking for a type of prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15-19) who would give them Manna, for they believed that the Messiah would do the very same miracles that Moses did (John 6: 30-31). The problem was the Jews did not see that when Jesus divided the loaves and fishes, it was a new type of the miracle of the Manna. They looked for the exact, literal Manna to be given again, so they could not see what was obvious. Jesus did the same works as Moses. He was the new Moses foretold by the scriptures.
The Jews were also seeking a new Joshua who would lead them out of their oppression under Rome into a new promised land of freedom. John is very careful to point out that Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Joshua, on the way to his crucifixion, crosses the river Jordan, just as Joshua did when he led the people of Israel into the promised land ( John 10:40). Now, however, Jesus - the New Joshua - is leading the entire world free from captivity - out of the wilderness of sin - into the promised land of liberty in the Holy Spirit. Not just a temporal liberty, Jesus is giving people an exodus from death into the promised land of eternal life.
Since the scripture writers themselves used scripture typologically as prophetic, it is legitimate for us to use it that way as well. When I look at how God judged Israel for the slaughter of innocent children to idols in the days of Manasseh (2 Ki 23:26), it would be legitimate to say, "as God judged Israel, so he will judge us for our slaughter of the unborn today by abortion." Whether that is a prophetically inspired Word of the Lord, or just sound reasoning based upon the principles of God's character revealed in the scripture in the past is a reasonable question. However, if a prophet were to say, "As I sent Judah into captivity for the sin of Manasseh, so I am about to send you into captivity, O America," it would be a legitimate use of scripture in prophecy. It would still have to be judged by the Spirit as to whether the word was a word of the Lord, however.
Now, however, one of the major mistakes of the prophetic school I often see is the misuse of scripture, not as typology, but when it is used as if the scripture was actually speaking of today when it is not. For example, the letters written to the seven Churches in Revelation were real letters written to historical churches in particular situations. There is no indication whatsoever that those scriptures were meant to represent the future "ages" of the church, or that the Laodicean church was a type of the end time church. Other parts of Revelation surely are prophetic in nature; parts even dealing with the end of time, but these sections to the churches were historical sections dealing with the need for those churches to repent in that day. Surely there are lessons for all of us in every age in each of those letters, but to treat this section of the book as if it were intended to be taken as prophecy is completely illegitimate in the use of the scripture.
Certainly the letters to the churches can be used typologically, and legitimately so. For in every age, there are churches whose situations correspond very well to one of the seven churches of Revelation. "As I warned Laodicea for its complacency, so I warn you, O Church of the First Prideful, that I will take away your lamp stand if you do not repent!" Such a prophetic use of the scripture in a contemporary prophecy would be a legitimate use of scripture in prophecy. But to use this passage, for example, as if it were speaking prophetically about today's church makes a mockery of what God intended by that Word. Yet this error is all too common in those who trade in prophetic "revelations."
Now, bear with me please. My personal conviction is that most of what was written about in Revelation outside of the seven letters was prophetic literature and was fulfilled around 70 A.D. with the destruction of the Temple. Whether you agree with me or not, please hear me out. If my conviction is correct, it would be an illegitimate use of prophecy to look to literally for a beast with a tattoo and the number 666 on his forehead. The number 666 was the number of Caesar Nero, and that was well understood at the time the book was written. Typologically, it is legitimate to speak of Nero as a type of anti-Christ, but to look at that scripture as if it were written about our end time man of lawlessness is an improper application of God's word.
In other words, I believe a type of Nero may be foreshadowed in the book of Revelation as an anti-Christ, just as Nimrod, in Genesis, foreshadows the "man of lawlessness" yet to come. But it is important not to look too literally for a resurrected Nero or for the number 666. Surely, God in his sense of irony, might reveal to his people such a man by a number, but it may not be a man at all.
For example, a type of Nero raised from the dead (the one who suffers from a mortal wound yet seems to be miraculously raised - a true anti-[or counterfeit]-Christ - Rev. 13:3) could easily be a type of an anti-Christ for today. If, for example, not Hitler, but Nazism were to be resurrected throughout the world, what would seem to have been destroyed in 1945 would indeed be raised from the dead. Such a type would easily correspond to the message of Revelation without us being forced to take the prophecies as a literal prediction of events of the 20th Century. Thus we preserve both the original intent of the Word of God in its historical setting, while we allow it to speak to us today afresh. Notice here however that the scripture is being used with the knowledge that the original author was not directly prophesying about today. And we avoid the trap of trying to apply too literally the historical text to our present situation.
Caution and wisdom should cause us to respect the texts given us by God. That we ought to at least give God the credit for allowing His words to speak directly to concrete historical situations in the past before we try to apply them to our present circumstance. If we do that, we should make a lot less errors and confuse far fewer people with our speculations.
So an example of contemporary prophecy, based upon the typology of scripture might run like this: "Just as Isaac prospered 100 fold during the middle of a famine (Gen 26), and just as I fed Israel with Manna in the desert for 40 years, so I will prosper my people, who are called by my name, when I judge the earth for its ungodliness and bring to naught their thoughts of empire and make empty their system of trade. For I will again make a distinction between my people and the people of this world, and I will bless my people, while I bring the people of this world to naught," ( Ex. 8: 22; Mal.3: 18, & Rev. 18: 4) This example respects the historical meaning of the text, but gives a contemporary application and revelation. It must still be judged however as to its inspiration.
Finally, as a word of humility about the prophetic process, I am reminded how there was in Jesus' day a mass of popular expectation which had arisen in the people over it being the time of the Messiah's coming. Because of the political situation under Rome and because of contemporary speculation about the nature of the Messiah and the Teacher of Righteousness, there were many groups of people who were looking for God to do something! The people were looking for a prophet like Moses, a King like David, and a priest like Samuel. They were eagerly expecting the Messiah. The only problem was, there was nothing in the scriptures to indicate to them that the time of the Messiah's coming was indeed at hand. Also, the prophecies of the Messiah were very unclear about who he was and what he was to do. Even the concept of resurrection from the dead, though popular with the Pharisees, was a fairly new concept in popular religion. It is only vaguely hinted at in the scriptures themselves up until the time of Jesus. Yet apparently God was speaking to the people through popular religion, regardless of how sophisticated or exegetically accurate such notions seemed to be. Yet, in the end, though they were expecting the Messiah, the vast majority of the people did not recognize him when he came. Their popular expectations did not match the reality of God. Jesus was not the political deliverer like David, even though he was a ruler. He was like Moses, but greater, and he was like Samuel, but a perfect high priest. The notions of the people were true to an extent, but incomplete.
So too today, we out to be cautious. Surely God is about to do something in this generation. He may indeed be speaking to the Body of Christ through popular expectations. But the final form of the end times may take an entirely different character than we have expected through our popular but limited notions. The anti-Christ may indeed come in a form we do not expect. He may be a man of laws, who has an appearance of righteousness. It is also possible, that the anticipated fury of the devil will be much less a threat to the vitality of the true church than anyone has anticipated. For Jesus said, "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against the Church. He who is in us, is indeed greater than he who is in the world.
Jefferis Kent Peterson
The Scholar's Corner