Prophecy or Promise?

One of the Sunday night classes at my church this semester is “One Hundred Old Testament Prophecies Fulfilled by Christ.” But while understanding the background of the Incarnation is very important, there’s another important but subtle point that I feel needs to be made: Not everything that Jesus fulfilled was a prophecy. We need to understand the differences between prophecies, promises, and “the words of the prophets.”

For example, one of the first “prophecies” covered in the class was God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his seed. This is not a prophecy or a prediction, any more than it is a prophecy or prediction when a borrower promises to repay his debt; it is a promise. And while “Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” might—might—be reasonably considered a prediction or prophecy, it’s really the context being given for the promise to the apostate king Ahaz that by the time that child Immanuel “knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good” their dreaded enemies will be conquered by Assyria.

But not everything that the prophets said was a prophecy per se or even a divine promise, even if, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is interpreted as being prophetic. For example, the line from Hosea “Out of Egypt I called my son” is not a prophecy, but narrative; the prophet is speaking of Israel, and even Matthew doesn’t claim that what’s being fulfilled is prophecy. Remember, he says that the flight to Egypt is “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

While we’re on the subject of prophecy, I’d like to note that every Biblical prophecy was given to its original recipients for a reason—in most cases because the fulfillment was within their lifetime, though many that were to encourage them in seemingly-hopeless situations remain unfulfilled. Because of this general principle, when we consider a prophecy, and find in history events less than half a century afterward that fit a literal interpretation of the prophecy uncannily well, it’s at best folly to insist that the prophecy will be fulfilled “any day now!” by citing the latest headlines. Particularly when too many Christians have shamed the Church by doing the same thing over and over for decades.

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