We have noted the “Now and the Not Yet” of biblical prophecy. This speaks of lesser and greater fulfilments of prophecy.
We have also noted that early in Holy Week Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple (which was brought about by the Romans 40 years later in AD70). But he also prophesied the End Times and urged his disciples to look out for both early (recurring) and later signs of his Return (see Matthew 24). We then quoted various scholars who agree with this interpretation.
Jesus’ prophecies here are typical of biblical prophecy:
· Prophecy can have an early and a later fulfillment.
· Prophecy can “concertina” future events widely separated in time to appear close together.
There are other examples of the dual reference of biblical prophecy:
1. Joel 2:28-3:2 is seen as a prediction of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2: “And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” But the prophecy goes on beyond the Day of Pentecost to the future day of the Lord: “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls ‘In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will put them on trial for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel, because they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land.”
2. Sometimes people, events or statements in the Old Testament are seen as symbolizing and prefiguring Jesus, and events in the New Testament. Traditionally the Old Testament symbol or prefiguring has been called a “type” and the New Testament equivalent the “antitype”. So Jesus sees Jonah as a “type” of himself and his death and resurrection: “He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:39-42).
3. A similar approach is described in the IVP NT Commentary series, referring to Jesus on the Mount of Olives speaking of both AD70 and the still future End of the Age in Luke 21. It refers to how divine history was read by the Jews, as well as by the prophets in the 1st century AD.
“The belief was that God’s judgment followed certain patterns. How he judged in one era resembled how he would judge in another. Because God’s character was unchanging and because he controlled history, such patterns could be noted. Thus deliverance in any era was compared to the exodus. One event mirrored another. Exilic judgments, whether Assyrian or Babylonian, were described in similar terms. This ‘mirror’ or ‘pattern’ interpretation of history has been called a typological-prophetic reading of the text, with the ‘type’ reflecting a basic pattern in God’s activity. This way of reading history sees events as linked and mirroring one another. Sometimes the events are described in such a way that we modern readers would not readily notice that distinct events are being discussed. Sometimes a text offers clarifying reflection after more events detailing God’s program have been revealed.
Jesus’ eschatological discourse links together two such events, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the events of the end signaling his return to earth. Because the events are patterned after one another and mirror one another, some of Jesus’ language applies to both.”[i]
However, some scholars are critical of the idea of the dual reference of biblical prophecy. Some of this has been focused on Isa 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” This was an immediate historical reference. King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel had attacked Jerusalem and the Lord spoke to King Ahaz of Judah through Isaiah, urging him to seek a sign that he (the Lord) would protect him. But Ahaz refused ‘to put the Lord to the test.’ Isaiah said this refusal was trying the patience of God and the Lord would give him a sign. Such a sign would be fulfilled within a year or two. The word “virgin” could be translated “young woman” and the name Immanuel could be another name for Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, whose birth is recorded in Isaiah 8:3, see 8:8.
Matthew understands Isa 7:14 as predicting the virgin birth of Jesus: “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt 1:22-23).
Some scholars say this is not a second fulfilment but it is Matthew using Isa 7:14 as a parallel, an association of ideas. This would have been quite an acceptable thing to do in Matthew’s day. The same could be said of 1 Cor 14:21 “In the Law it is written: ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’” Paul is, of course, referring to speaking in tongues and he is quoting Isa 28:11-12. But Isaiah is saying God will “speak” to rebellious Israel through the Assyrians, i.e. through an invasion by Assyria. It does not seem likely that Isaiah had in mind what the New Testament calls ‘speaking in tongues.’
Andrew Perriman writes about Jesus reference in Matthew 24 back to the prophet Daniel (for example Matthew 24:30 and Daniel 7:13) and says this is not a case of two fulfilments but “that Jesus would have understood perfectly well the original historical frame of reference [in Daniel’s day] but intentionally re-uses the symbolism to interpret an analogous state of affairs [in the 1st century AD] …. Jesus, therefore, does what prophets often do: they retell biblical stories and arguments in a new context in order to give faithful but troubled Israel understanding and hope …. He saw the historical relevance of the analogy and creatively retold Israel’s story, centred on himself, in light of it. That cannot be understood to mean that Daniel 7-12 intrinsically has two fulfilments. Nor does it mean that we can take any prophecy willy-nilly and claim that whatever relevance it may have had under the particular historical conditions of the first three centuries, it still has relevance for the church today. That cannot be ruled out, but it must be done with prophetic and scriptural discrimination.[ii]
Perriman believes that Matthew 24 refers only to the AD30-70 period which, as I have already said, I believe to be a mistaken view. However he does allow for biblical prophecies to have “relevance to the church today” so long as the relevance is worked out “with prophetic and scriptural discrimination.”
Professor John Walton[iii] makes some interesting comments. He is quite clear that, strictly from the point of view of language, there is no strong argument for understanding the Hebrew word in Isa 7:14 as “virgin.” He goes on to point out that in ancient Israel prophecy, as a word from God, was regarded as not just predicting a future event but as having an important effect on the future. This effect would not necessarily be foreseen by the prophet. It would develop as time progressed. So Isaiah wouldn’t necessarily have foreseen the virgin birth and the child who really was “God with us” but he would have been quite happy with Matthew’s use of his prophecy. Isaiah would have expected that the fulfilment of his prophecy might have developed
Peter speaks of this – Old Testament prophets expecting a major future fulfilment but not knowing what it would be. He was referring primarily to prophecies like Isaiah 53. Peter writes: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:10-12).
However, it must be borne in mind that the New Testament writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to interpret the Old Testament prophecies as they did. We must be very careful if we do the same because we don’t have that special inspiration.
A good number of scholars do accept the dual fulfilment of prophecy. Professor R V G Tasker, speaking of the Virgin Birth, says Matthew “is led to see in it a fulfilment of the words spoken by God through His prophet and recorded in Isaiah vii. 14. …. this prophecy was in fact more far-reaching than the prophet himself was aware.” It was not limited to the historical fulfilment in the 8th century BC.[iv] Professor Herman Ridderbos says Isaiah was not speaking of a miraculous birth but that nevertheless the prophecy obtained its essential fulfilment in Christ.
Commenting on Ridderbos, Professor G C Berkouwer wrote: “Thus the event in Mathew 1 (this birth) is not simply a “coming true” of an earlier prediction but a fulfillment which, on the one hand, is related to the faith in Ahaz’ day and with the name “Immanuel.”[v]
Speaking of the Book of Revelation, Professor Robert Mounce writes: “The predictions of John, while expressed in terms reflecting his own culture, will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history. Although John saw the Roman Empire as the great beast that threatened the extinction of the church, there will be in the last days an eschatological beast who will sustain the same relationship with the church of the great tribulation. It is this eschatological beast, portrayed in type by Rome, that the Apocalypse describes. Otto Piper notes that many modern interpreters overlook the distinction between the historical fulfillment of prophecy and its eschatological fulfillment. The pattern of imperceptible transition from type to antitype was already established by the Olivet Discourse, in which the fall of Jerusalem becomes in its complete fulfillment the end of the age.”[vi]
It seems quite acceptable to believe in the dual fulfilment of biblical prophecy whilst accepting that the Old Testament prophets did not necessarily have the second (main) fulfilment in mind, even though they may have been “trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing.” However the New Testament writers, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recognised the second fulfilment. The same thing applies to New Testament prophecies. The writers made predictions which sometimes referred to 1st century events and did not necessarily have a second major fulfilment in mind. Similarly Jesus made predictions which his hearers may have applied only to 1st century events. But it is clear that some of these predictions do have a second major fulfilment which is still future. We have to be careful, though, in seeking a correct understanding of these predictions.
[ii] Andrew Perriman, How many times is a prophecy fulfilled? http://www.postost.net/2010/10/how-many-times-prophecy-fulfilled
[iii] John H Walton, Isa 7:14: What’s in a name? Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, (September 1987) 289-306, http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/30/30-3/30-3-pp289-306_JETS.pdf
[iv] R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to Matthew, Tyndale, London, 1961, p. 34.
[v] G C Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, Studies in Dogmatics Eerdmans Grand Rapids 1965, p. 115
[vi] Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, New International Commentary on the NT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1977, p. 44f