by Clay Watts

"The Basics of End Times Bible Prophecy"


The purpose of these studies is to show that Bible prophecy is not only greatly relevant today, and that we have a role to play a role in fulfilling end times prophecy, but that we must also be very careful not to expect that events will fit a particular prophetic scenario.

These studies are written from the perspective that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that Jesus is returning for his bride prior to a thousand-year reign on earth. (For other views see a Comparison of End Times Views.) Most people in this pre-millennial audience fall into one of three camps:

  • Those who have a clear picture of the nature and sequence of end times events. They may even believe that the proper interpretation is a critical part of the Christian doctrine.
  • Others who think that end times prophecy is irrelevant because God has predetermined everything, and we should therefore not waste time trying to understand the inevitable.
  • The majority who fall somewhere in between these two extremes. This group is happy to trust the judgment of others and typically believes that end times will play out according to a generally predetermined scenario, but they're not sure of the details.

The following topics are covered in this study:

Why Study Bible Prophecy?

Since the Bible is the inspired Word of God, everything in the Bible is profitable to study (2 Timothy 3:16). Most people, however, like to concentrate on the stories and doctrines that are most meaningful to them. Prophecy is often not very interesting because it appears to deal with the distant past or the indecipherable future. Either way, it doesn't seem to affect us today.

To understand the importance and relevance of Bible prophecy, we first need to see its importance in the Bible itself. At least 25% of the Bible is explicitly classified as prophetic. God's prophets were dear to him. He often judges people on how they treated the prophets. He also is quite fond of saying that certain events must take place in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. Also, the New Testament writers and Christ often referred to Old Testament prophecy. There are over thirty such direct references in the Gospels alone. Finally, there are many scriptures that attest to the critical value of prophecy. For example,

For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. Habakkuk 2:3

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Matthew 5:18

Christianity is based on the infallibility of God's Word. It is the only religion in which unfulfilled prophecy plays such an important role. It may be said, without exaggeration, that Christianity depends on the literal fulfillment of Bible prophecy. For if God's prophets are not true, then the Bible itself is not true. Therefore, to have a full appreciation for God's plan for us, as revealed in his Word, we need to know what the prophets have said, what has already been fulfilled, and what has yet to be fulfilled.

The most important personal reason for studying Bible prophecy is to keep from being deceived in end times. We study the Bible as a standard for how we should believe and act. Many deceitful events will occur in the end times, so it is essential to know what God's Word says as a baseline for discerning what is true and what is false.

For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-- if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. Matthew 24:24-25

Verse 24 warns of great deception aimed at the elect of God. We can overcome the enemy's lies by heeding verse 25, "See, I have told you ahead of time," but we must know what the Word of God has already told us through intensive study and meditation. Then we must have an open mind to be able to apply the Word to what are sure to be surprising end times events.


What Is Prophecy?

The Hebrew word translated prophecy is "naba," which means in its root form to flow forth, implying a freely flowing word that comes very smoothly, without any effort on the speaker's part. The Greek root word for prophecy "propheteuo" means to speak for another, indicating that the speaker is merely a messenger, and that the authority for the message is from another source.

The common Pentecostal meaning of the word is a supernatural utterance in a known tongue. This is "forth telling." When the word of wisdom is used in conjunction with prophecy, it is "foretelling" a future event. When tongues are followed by interpretation, the result is the same as prophecy, since the supernatural utterance in an unknown tongue is translated into a known tongue.

A general definition of prophecy, then, is a message from God, delivered supernaturally by a man, that may reveal a future event.


Purpose of Prophecy

There are two purposes of Bible prophecy. One is to unfold future events to manifest God's power and wisdom. In other words, God foretells events through the prophets and then records the fulfillment to demonstrate that He is in control. Much of the Bible contains these prophecies and the corresponding fulfillment. This is done that we might believe those prophecies that are unfulfilled, but also that we might have complete confidence in all of the scriptures.

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Deuteronomy 29:29-30:3

Here is a painfully clear example of this type of prophetic word to the Israelites. While it almost seems cruel in its apparently fatalistic view of Israel's future, God is really saying that he loves them and will ultimately show his compassion and mercy in spite of their rebellion. What a strong and yet loving example of the power of his prophetic word.

but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him-- Romans 16:26

This verse illustrates the importance of prophecy in establishing the validity of all scripture so that we can be obedient in faith. When we consider the requirement that prophets had to be 100% correct, it confirms our faith in all scripture--doctrine and history as well as prophecy.

The other purpose of Bible prophecy is to allow those who will listen to prepare for what must ultimately happen. This can be done through strengthening, encouragement, and comfort as stated in 1 Corinthians 14:3.

But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.

Occasionally, prophecy strengthens by giving instruction that requires specific action, such as not taking the mark of the beast in Revelation 14:11-12. The many other detailed prophecies in Revelation likewise instruct us in what is about to happen so that we might strengthen ourselves through wise preparation, as athletes condition themselves for the upcoming season.

Prophecy provides encouragement, or stirring up our God-given courage, as in the call to battle of verse 8 of 1 Corinthians:

Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?

It can also convict us, as in verse 24:

But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all,

In many cases, prophecy is used to pronounce God's judgment on sin. If God's people listen to the prophecy and courageously repent, then judgment will be postponed. Jonah's prophecy of God's impending judgment on Nineveh is the classic example of this.

We are ultimately comforted by the hundreds of examples of fulfilled prophecy. These assure us that God indeed is in control and that His Word is true, as stated in Romans 15:4:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Preparation takes on both active and passive aspects. Active preparation for fulfillment of the prophetic vision occurs as men cooperate with God to create the right environment and enlist the support and activity of others to make things happen. Noah is the prime example of this principle. Daniel also did this, undoubtedly as he was reading Jeremiah 29:10. He knew that something had to happen, and he wanted to be open to what God would have him do to help fulfill the prophecy.

in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:2-3

Although there is no record of Daniel's intervention as a court official, his prayer of confession and appeal to God's mercy was heard and God acted upon it to fulfill his word.

Passive preparation allows us not to minimize the effect of future fulfillment. This is best done by establishing a framework for understanding and interpreting the prophecy so that when it does occur it can be appreciated. Otherwise, its fulfillment will go unnoticed and the full impact on people will be diluted and misdirected.

An important element in establishing the proper framework for understanding prophecy is maintaining a sense of the immediacy of fulfillment. One must always watch and be alert so that the fulfillment does not catch one off guard. When Jesus was crucified, most still doubted his authenticity, although many scriptures pointed to the very act itself. We must not make the same mistake by missing prophetic fulfillment when it occurs in an unexpected way before our eyes.

This was a constant issue for Jesus with his disciples. He frequently would challenge them to hear what he was really saying, but they simply would not because of their preconceptions. Even when he appeared to two of them on the road to Emmaus after his death and resurrection, they still did not recognize him, a vivid illustration that they did not understand or appreciate the prophecies that he would be crucified and then arise after three days.

He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:25-27

These disciples, and the eleven, would have to see and touch Jesus and receive more detailed teachings before they could fully appreciate what the prophets had written hundreds of years before.

Another aspect of passive preparation is making sense of the many apparently contradictory interpretations of prophetic passages.It is very tempting to pick one, to the exclusion of others, just to reduce oneís level of discomfort.However, there is nothing wrong with considering multiple interpretations, in spite of the strident calls for one side or the other. Matthew 12:25 shows that a kingdom divided against itself will not stand.Scripture, and especially prophetic scripture, must not contradict itself.It must work together for a common purpose.Therefore, to use scriptures to bring division is not of God.Often the solution is to seek a higher plane where the prophetic scriptures can be understood as parts of a consistent whole.We may not reach this level of understanding until the actual fulfillment, but to reject potentially valid interpretations may lessen our ability to recognize the fulfillment.


Prophetic Principles

There are several "laws," or principles, of interpreting Bible prophecy that will keep us from misusing God's Word.

One is that prophecy is primarily confirmational rather than directional. This means that we should look to prophecy to confirm that what is happening was foretold and that God is therefore in control of our past, present and future. We can depend on him for guidance and comfort. We generally should not look to prophecy to tell us what to do about a particular situation. Rather, a prophetic word is more likely to confirm what the Holy Spirit has already been speaking to us.

For example, in Acts 11:27-30, Agabus prophesied that a great famine was coming soon. From this, the Christians knew that the Jewish Christians left in Jerusalem would be very hard hit, and would need aid. Based on this, Christians in other parts of the world could begin to supply the need when it occurred. The prophecy simply told what was going to happen, but God's people were responsible for determining what action they should take. It would have been very uncharacteristic of Bible prophecy to have given specific instructions for aiding the Jerusalem Christians.

In Acts 20:22-25 and 21:4,10-14 the prophetic word was clear that Paul was going to have serious problems in Jerusalem. At first, Paul's companions jumped to the conclusion that, knowing this, Paul should not go there. They were trying to read into the prophecy specific direction. The prophecy did not contain such direction. It was meant as confirmation of what Paul had been feeling in his spirit. It let him and the church know that his troubles were allowed by God for an unknown reason, and were not to be considered God's judgments. Thus, just because trials and problems are prophesied, we should not necessarily assume that we should use that knowledge to avoid the trials. Rather, it may be that we should trust God to see us through the trials and to use them for the greater purpose he has ordained.

Another law is that prophecy is fulfilled literally, but not necessarily chronologically or in the way we expect. For example, when we read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53, we clearly see these as prophecies of Christ's suffering. Although these scriptures were well known at the time of Christ, most who knew them could not imagine that they applied to Jesus of Nazareth. It is one thing to recognize a prophecy's fulfillment after the fact. It is quite another thing to recognize it as it is happening. Also, the prophecies relating to Jesus are scattered throughout the Old Testament in anything but chronological order.

Then we have the law of double reference or near/far. This often takes the form of a near fulfillment that is a type of a far fulfillment. For example, Ezekiel 28:1-19 details the rise and fall of the "King of Tyre." This was certainly fulfilled by the historical king of the great city of Tyre, but the language from verse 11 on clearly applies as well to the ultimate destiny of Satan. This law also applies to the second and third chapters of Revelation, where the obvious subject is a church in a particular city. But we know that these churches also are types of Christianity throughout the history of the church and throughout the world at any given time.Near/far prophecies stimulate awareness of possible ways in which a prophecy might be fulfilled.The past, or near, fulfillment gives us an example that we can imagine playing out in different ways today, particularly in areas which were apparently not completely fulfilled previously.In this regard, it is very important to pay attention to the exact wording of prophetic passages.We can have a general impression about how we expect it to come about, influenced by partial or past fulfillments.However, the final fulfillment may be quite different and yet still be true to the precise words.

A critical law is that of prophetic perspective. This says that a prophecy will often describe future events as if they were continuous and in immediate sequence, although the fulfillment might actually involve varying spans of time with gaps or delays at unexpected points, and even in a different sequence. The most famous example of this is Daniel's seventieth week in Daniel 9. This prophecy contains three time periods, 49 years, 434 years, and 7 years. There is nothing in the prophecy itself to imply any gaps, and indeed, the 49 and 434 years can be shown to match very closely with the historical period between the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Christ's first coming. However, the final 7 years have yet to occur, some 2000 years later. The explanation here is that one day is as a thousand years with the Lord. Timing is entirely his province and patience is ours.

Finally, we have the extensive use of types and antitypes.An example is the temple design as the type of what God was going to ultimately do through the antitype of Christ and the church.The laver represents water baptism and the altar our living sacrifice.The bread is the Word of life, and the mercy seat depicts Godís forgiveness of sin as it is covered with Jesusí blood.These and many other types are used as language that may only be understood by faith.But then they add infinite richness to our understanding of what God wants to do in our lives.


Puzzles of Prophecy - Why A Mystery?

The message of Jesus in the Old Testament is apparent to us today, ever since Jesus instructed the disciples on the road to Emmaus and the Holy Spirit was given to reveal the mysteries of the Scriptures to us. Today, we have the sure word of prophecy and we have the utmost confidence in the accuracy and fidelity of the Scriptures, especially those in the Old Testament, since there is a clear record of fulfillment over and over again. We also know that most Old Testament prophecy has its fulfillment in Jesus. This gives us the key to unlock much of the Old Testament, so that even apparently simple stories are seen to contain rich symbols and references to Jesus, and give us today a much greater appreciation for his enduring work in our own lives. We are overwhelmed when we recognize that God, through the Holy Spirit, has for thousands of years, and through an entire nation, been building a beautiful preview of the redemptive work of Christ. How great is his love for us that he would go to so much trouble to illustrate the breadth and depth of his plan for our salvation and thereby to prepare a bride for himself.

All of this is so clear today. However, let's imagine what it was like to the people of the Old Testament. They certainly had a good sense of the accuracy of prophecy. They clearly understood the criteria for a true prophet of God, and were undoubtedly quick to judge those who proved to be unreliable. However, they also were rather harsh even to the true prophets. This was because they often did not either like or understand the prophetic message. God did not expect them to grasp the mysteries that were only to be revealed to later generations. He did, however, expect them to listen and accept what his prophets spoke. He also expected his people to be patient and to trust him in the long run, often measured in generations.

Why did he specifically use mysteries? Why was he not more explicit about his intentions? Did he want to keep them off guard so they would be better examples to us of what not to do? Of course not. God wants his people to do the right thing, and he is not in the business of frustrating us just so someone else will learn something. He also wants to do a work in us, but we are not always ready to understand the next step or to fully appreciate what we need to do to grow and mature.

Often, the only way this maturing process happens is through experience. Some things just take time. For everything there is a season. At times we can handle a rapid succession of changes. At other times we may need to keep going around the mountain until our weaknesses become apparent and we are finally motivated to do something about it.

The same thing happens to groups of people, whether families, churches, or the nation of Israel. When we look back on our own life, or our family's, we can more clearly see what God was doing and the real significance of what were mysteries at the time. This then puts us in a position to go on and trust him for the next and even more difficult growth period. The same is true of the nation of Israel. They required many long periods of such instruction and experience in order to grow and be in position to receive God's ultimate blessings.

Thus, mysteries serve a definite purpose in God's plan. They provide an opportunity to learn and grow at the proper pace, without prematurely putting God's people in positions that would not allow this growth. What would have happened if the Old Testament Jews had prematurely understood the mysteries of Christ? Would they have developed the unquestioning faith to really trust God for centuries of trials and persecutions? We don't know what tests lie ahead, so we should welcome God's perfect timetable that takes us one step at a time into the future. Only when we learn to rest in this progression of faith steps can we begin to really appreciate the wonder and mystery of his infiniteness.

God also uses mysteries because he wants man to search out the hidden things of God (Proverbs 25:2). It shows a desire to know him and to obtain Godly wisdom that can only come from above. When searching out such things, though, man must know what questions to ask and when. Daniel knew when to ask and when to simply wonder at God's revelations. Jeremiah knew when to ask for specific signs from God concerning Israel's return from Babylon. We can get into real problems and even deception if we ask outside God's will, i.e., lacking faith and purity in our motives (see James 1:6-7; 4:3).

Keil and Delitzsch (The Prophecies of Isaiah, page 220) say that the virgin of Isaiah 7:14 was "a mystery smiling with rich consolation upon the prophet and all believers, and couched in the enigmatic terms, in order that those who hardened themselves [as Ahaz] might not understand it, and that believers might increasingly long to comprehend its meaning." Jesus gives a similar reason for parables in Matthew 13:34-35 and Luke 8:10, showing that he was finally revealing great secrets but in a mysterious way so that only those really wanting to follow him would be able to understand.


Puzzles of Prophecy - Why Two Comings of Christ?

One of the great mysteries of the Old Testament was the dual nature of Christ--the suffering servant vs. the conquering king. The distinction was not at all clear in Old Testament scripture. To make sense of it the rabbis of that time assumed that there were two different persons rather than two different appearances of the same person. The time gap between these two appearances was not foreseen or understood. This is why even Jesus' disciples insisted on his role as the conquering king, in spite of his own statements to the contrary.

If, then, Christ's two comings could not be easily distinguished in Old Testament times, how much more should we be careful not to jump to conclusions about how any particular prophetic event might be fulfilled? Could we not make similar assumptions with potentially disastrous consequences? The real message of Christ's coming, although clearly told in practically every ritual and story of Jewish history, was missed because of the desire to focus instead on only a part of the mystery. The Jews at the time of Christ did not think they needed another suffering representative; they needed a hero, a deliverer from Roman oppression. So they rejected the very savior who ultimately could have delivered them. How ironic it is, that the well-meaning study of scriptures, in trying to make sense out of these mysteries, led directly to the deception.


Avoiding the Pitfalls of Prophecy

Jesus chastised his disciples in Luke 24:25-27 for not believing the prophets, and then proceeded to teach them how all the prophetic scriptures concerning the Christ had been recently fulfilled. His disciples should do no less today. We must know the facts and relationships about his return in prophetic scriptures and be able to apply them properly when the time comes.

There is more to understanding prophecy, however, than just knowing the "what's" and "how's." We must also be aware of our own spiritual condition, and thus the need for repentance, so that we may be clean and thereby fully comprehend prophetic events as they happen. This is not easy. Christ's own people did not appreciate his first coming to a large degree because of the selfish use of prophecy. The religious leaders had a preconceived notion of how Old Testament Messianic prophecy should be fulfilled so that their own position and lifestyle would be confirmed and enhanced. They didn't want to accept the Suffering Servant who emphasized repentance and true holiness, because if they did, they would have to admit their own sin.

As an example, in John 7:41-42,52, the Jews implied that Christ could not come from Galilee because it was not mentioned in scripture.

Others said, "He is the Christ." Still others asked, "How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?"...They replied, "Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee."

However, Matthew 4:14-16 confirms that the scripture, found in Isaiah 9:1-7, was literally fulfilled by Christ's Galilean origin.

to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."

The real reason the Jews couldn't see this was their sinful prejudice against the region, which had a low social status. They would much rather have seen the Christ come from Judea, a more acceptable area, and also more prominently mentioned in prophetic scripture.

There were other reasons the Jews missed their Messiah. Many were simply led astray by the leaders because they could not search the scriptures themselves. This compounds the condemnation of those leaders. Others may have known better, especially those who were personally touched by Jesus' ministry, but they still allowed themselves to be overcome with doubt and fear when things didn't work out as they had hoped. Perhaps they really wanted a leader who would save them from the Romans, not one who would merely save them from themselves.

Then there were the many who went from miracle to miracle, not seeing the overriding significance of what was being done and said, but just trying to get their needs met. These would simply have to experience many difficult things before they could even begin to grasp any deeper significance. Witness this dialog after the feeding of the five thousand:

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."...Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you...On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"...From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. John 6:26-27, 53, 60, 66

An unusual amount of attention has been placed on end times in the past 30 or 40 years. There is a high level of expectation that the time is near, and that Scripture is being fulfilled almost daily. With all of the excitement, it is very tempting for the believer to pick a specific interpretation of prophetic Scripture and consider it to be doctrine. Doctrine is meant to be believed and followed completely, but prophetic Scripture, as we have seen above, cannot be so exactly applied. It is especially dangerous to see prophecy as predicting a rigid series of events that must happen in a certain order or time frame. This can result in great disappointment and even questioning true doctrine when events do not occur according to the predetermined pattern.

An example of this a few years ago was the publicity surrounding the book 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Could Be In 1988. While it generated a lot of attention and got people interested in Christ's second coming who wouldn't have otherwise, it also generated a lot of frustration. Even those who knew that setting dates was wrong couldn't help but have their expectations raised, only to be dashed once again as the month and year slipped by without incident.

A good example of dealing with Biblical prophecy is how some Christians have learned to handle personal prophecy in their own lives. As we receive prophetic words about our own circumstances from the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, from Godly people whom we trust, or from scriptures that come alive to us, we quickly learn not to read too much into the prophecy or jump to conclusions. Usually the timing turns out to be quite different from what we first imagined, and God often has very unexpected ways of working out his plans. Most Christians who have experienced the joy of waiting on God's perfect timing and method to fulfill a prophetic vision for their life have also learned to receive prophecies gratefully and respectfully and then to put them on a shelf and patiently wait for the fulfillment. They also have learned to wait on God's specific direction and timing in working out the details of the fulfillment, and they know not to try to force things on their own.

Like Simeon and Anna in Luke 2, who spent a lifetime preparing to meet the baby Jesus, we must be willing to lead lives of holiness and dedication, being constantly led by the Holy Spirit, and earnestly expecting Christ's return. Most likely, Simeon and Anna had long since given up on the popular theories about where the Messiah would come from and what he would be like. They simply trusted God, spent time in his presence, studied the Scriptures, and listened very carefully to the Holy Spirit. They were expecting Jesus at any time, and were going about God's business when he appeared to them in a very unexpected way.


Site Index.

If you are already familiar with end times scriptures, go to the next study.

Otherwise, please see the studies a Parallel End Times Passages in the New Testament and a Summary of End Times Events.

Copyright 2005 by Clay Watts, Dallas, Texas. All rights reserved.