Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are Prophesies Always Fulfilled Literally?

I recently got into a discussion about Biblical prophecy with an acquaintance who happens to be a dispensationalist. The conversation got started when he told me that prophesy “is always fulfilled literally.” To clarify the point he provided an example: If a prophet declares that it’s going to rain on Tuesday, and it doesn’t rain on Tuesday, then he is a false prophet. He can’t suddenly say, “Well, when I said rain I was referring to spiritual raining down of God’s blessings; not actual rain!” He worried that if fulfillments aren’t “literal” then we have no objective way of determining the truth or untruth of any prophesy.

I don’t think that this is the case at all. We simply have to look at a few prophesies given in the Old Testament whose fulfillment is explicitly recorded elsewhere in the Bible to see that his point is mistaken. Let’s take a look at just a few examples of such prophesies:

Isaiah 22:20-23
Then it will come about in that day, That I will summon My servant Eliakim to the son of Hilkiah, And I will clothe him with your tunic And tie your sash securely about him. I will entrust him with your authority, And he will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, When he opens no one will shut, When he shuts no one will open. I will drive him like a peg in a firm place, And he will become a throne of glory to his father’s house.
The fulfillment, according to the vision of John, is expounded upon in Revelation 3:7:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this…

Although the passage in Isaiah was made about the man Eliakim, in Revelation 3 Jesus claims this prophesy for Himself! This is clearly not a literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. Isaiah made his prophesy about someone other than Jesus; in fact, without the passage in Revelation, there would be no reason why anyone would even think to apply Isaiah 22:22 to Christ at all. None of the things which Isaiah predicts for Eliakim ever literally occur during the ministry of Jesus: Jesus never literally had the key to the house of David, nor did He literally shut or open anything of note during his time on earth.

Despite this, Jesus Himself claims that He presently holds the key of David and is the one who opens and the one who shuts. This isn’t about some future time, Jesus says these things are true about Himself now. It seems that the proper understanding of this passage is a spiritual one, not a literal one.
Isaiah 28:16
Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.

There are several places in the New Testament where the Apostles point out this fulfilled prophesy (Romans 9:33, 10:11, 1 Peter 2:6, Acts 4:11), yet if I were to apply a literal standard to this passage I could not apply this passage to Christ. Jesus was never a literal stumbling stone, certainly not in the wooden sense that my acquaintance forcefully advocated to me.

The fulfillment of this passage is spiritual: Christ is the spiritual foundation of the present spiritual Kingdom of God. For the Jews (and many others today), Christ was and is a stumbling stone in a spiritual sense – they do not want to believe that He is the Messiah they are waiting for. It’s a spiritual hang-up, not a physical one.
Isaiah 8:7-8
And I will wait for the Lord who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him. Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.
The author of Hebrews references this passage and applies it to Jesus in 2:13. While many actual children came to Jesus during His earthly ministry, they are not what the prophesy is referring to. God does not have physical children in view here, but spiritual Children, the author of Hebrews make this clear in vs. 14 and 15:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

We become His children when God becomes our Father through our love of Christ, as Christ Himself stated in John 8:42.

I could give more examples of spiritual fulfillments from the prophesies which the Apostles tell us are fulfilled in Christ, but I think these three make my point clearly.

When my acquaintance provided the example of a prophesy for rain on Tuesday, he was articulating a standard which would require that all outsiders would be able, with simple observation, to independently confirm or refute the accuracy of the prophesy. The point of bringing up these three passages from Isaiah is that, in each case, there is nothing for the observer to observe. Without the divinely inspired writing of the Apostles these passages would have no concrete, observable fulfillment that contemporaries of Jesus could have confirmed or denied. That said, the lack of an observable fulfillment does not make these prophesies any less true or any less fulfilled than Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel.