Monday, April 11, 2011

The Study of Bible Prophecy - in Perspective

In our last post, the first of a trilogy on End Times Prophecy, we examined the question, Are we living in the last days? If, as we determined, we can’t know the time or exact circumstances of Jesus’ return, would our study time be better spent on other Biblical doctrines rather than studying prophecy? In this second blog post, we’ll answer this question and discuss the study of prophecy within the context of our overall Bible study practice.

Before we go any further, I’d like to clarify the meaning of "prophecy" as used in this post. The chief Biblical use of the word “prophecy” entails forth telling, that is to accurately proclaim God’s message or Word, with primary application on the present times. Thus, anyone who can properly interpret and elucidate God’s word by the illumination of the Holy Spirit is a prophet. In this article however, we’re referring to the other Biblical meaning of prophecy, that of foretelling or predicting the future.

The Bible tells us that All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Tim 3:16-17). This statement alone confirms the importance of studying Biblical prophecy. Over one-fourth of the Bible was prophetic at the time each book was written. Over half of the roughly two thousand documented prophecies have already been fulfilled without error, so we can be confident that the others will likewise be fulfilled in the future. Therefore, the study of prophecy familiarizes us with God’s plan for the ages, protects us from the deception of false teachings, and gives us confidence for the future. It is also evangelistic and apologetic in that, our studies impart in us the urgency to share our faith in whatever time we have left, and enhances our knowledge of doctrine which further equips us to defend the Faith. In addition, much of the proof of Jesus as the Messiah rests upon fulfilled OT prophecy.

So, we easily see that we should not neglect the study of Biblical prophecy. Nevertheless, we’d like to offer a few comments on balancing the study of prophecy with the study of other Biblical doctrines.

When studying systematically, we generally maintain a pretty good balance between most of the topics such as the Bible, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Man, Sin, and Salvation; although some erroneously minimize the essential study of the Church. With the study of Eschatology (last things) however, many tend to go to one of two extremes, either outright neglect or becoming so preoccupied with prophecy that the other doctrines are practically ignored. We’ve already mentioned several reasons not to overlook the study of prophecy, so we'll make a few remarks on the latter case.

One glance at the number of teachers and internet sites devoted exclusively to prophecy (some Biblical, others not so much) gives us a hint of its popularity. Most people are fascinated by the unknowns of the future, so it’s easy to see how we can easily become engrossed in the study of prophecy while overlooking the other Biblical doctrines, but we must be careful to avoid this trap. For one thing, our understanding of prophecy will be sorely lacking without a good working knowledge of the other essential doctrines.

Some folks might ask, what about those scholars who specialize in the study of prophecy. We are grateful for those who have dedicated a good part of their research time to Bible prophecy, but keep in mind that the more orthodox ones had already developed sound doctrine based upon all Scripture prior to their decision to specialize. For example, well known pastor and author Tim LaHaye, who has written many books on prophecy including the Left Behind series, had already researched and written many other books on a variety of other Biblical topics, and continued to study the entire Scriptures while concentrating on prophetical writings. Therefore, before anyone decides to “specialize”, they should become very familiar with the whole of Scripture.

This last statement also applies to other Biblical and related subjects other than prophecy. Many times, I’ve been in a Christian bookstore and overheard a customer ask for books on a topic such as predestination, non-Christian cults, or some gray area that doesn’t affect any major doctrines. After a minute or two, it often becomes obvious that the customer has little overall Bible knowledge. While a few these areas of study can be somewhat profitable after we obtain a solid Biblical foundation, they will be of little use to anyone with limited understanding of the Scriptures and, in some cases, can be outright dangerous. For example, David Jeremiah, a very respected pastor and author once testified that he was never so relieved to finish a project because, as he researched the occult for an upcoming book, he could feel the dark forces attempting to draw him in. We must be firmly anchored in historically orthodox doctrine prior to venturing into secondary topics.

I can speak from experience about wasting a lot of study time during my younger days. I began seriously researching Biblical doctrine about twenty years ago. Rather than consulting with experienced orthodox pastors and teachers, I set out on my own. I would often gauge a topic based upon interest rather than importance or truth. Unlike many others that fall into this trap, I had read the Bible most of my life, so I was fortunate enough to discern that many things that I was reading were not correct, but because I had yet to spend enough quality time studying the basics, I had no idea how to respond to these errors. Therefore, I decided that I must first become very familiar with orthodox Biblical doctrine before branching out into these side issues. Even today, I study the Bible daily, adding the study of an additional four to six books on rotating days. In an attempt to stay well rounded, I choose books from different categories such as Systematic Theology (includes prophecy), Church History, Apologetics, Prayer, Hebrew Heritage, Christian Philosophy, Evangelism, Christian Living, Spiritual Warfare etc.

In summary, we recommend that everyone first become well grounded in the historical Biblical doctrines of the Faith (which also includes the basic study of prophecy). Then, for those who are called to devote additional study time to Biblical prophecy, go for it. Just remember however, while you are spending time trying to determine who or what the third toe on the right foot of the image in Daniel 2 represents, don’t neglect your other Bible studies.

Speaking of Daniel, his OT book is filled with various prophecies given during the sixth century BC, some that came to pass over the next several centuries (primarily during the Intertestament period) and others that still await their fulfillment during the last days. In the final chapter, Daniel asks the angel for more information concerning the end times prophecies. The angel basically tells Daniel to go his own way (Dan 12:9) and not concern himself with the extra details that are sealed up until the end. This does not mean that we should not have a healthy interest in prophecy, but we should not become so obsessed with the future that we fail to faithfully carry out our faithful duties in the present. This will be the subject of our third and final post in this trilogy.

Update: Part 3, Present Living in Light of Prophecy is loaded.

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