Original Meaning of Prophecies

Why is the original meaning of prophecy important when the prophets were sometimes concerned with events that would take place in the distant future?

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When we study or preach or teach through the Prophets, it's important to grasp the original meaning of the prophet's message in the context of his own time and culture, even though he's often speaking about things in the distant future. And here's why: that immediate context is the springboard for his future prophecies, whether those prophecies look forward to Christ — the coming of Christ and the events around his life and the life of the apostles — or the church age and the end of time and the second coming of Christ. So, his immediate context gives us the understanding of at least three things. First of all, the spiritual issues he was dealing with, with his immediate people. Those issues come time and again. We're told by Paul in Corinthians that, "No temptation has overtaken [us] but such as is common to man." So, we continue to have these same issues of idolatry, of injustice, of carnal living and so forth. And so this prophet is giving us an excellent historical example of how to pastorally and prophetically deal with these things. Secondly, his message becomes a "type" of the issues that Christ and the apostles and the church would be dealing with. So, we notice in the New Testament that Jesus and the apostles quote, more than anybody else in the Old Testament, these prophets and how they addressed issues and how they laid out certain spiritual priorities and in their vision of God and his relationship covenantally with his people. And then thirdly, there is always in the immediate message some foreshadowing of a future event. It could be the judgment of God upon the world or upon the church, maybe some corrective discipline he's going to give, or some grand vision of renewal, and out of what happens in his own time, many of these prophets saw revivals. They saw restorative works of God. Some of them, unfortunately, saw painful things like invasions and exiles and dispersions. These things become the foreshadowings, the "types" of things that will happen to the New Testament church in our age, only on a grander, worldwide scale. So, it's really important for the student, the pastor, the teacher to study the immediate context — the danger is to jump right into the application for today, without studying the context — so that we could go from the "then" to the "now" and put our message in the same spiritual context that was originally given by God through the Holy Spirit to these wonderful prophets of the Old Testament.

Answer by Dr. Michael Ross

Dr. Mike Ross formerly served as Senior Pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, NC, and adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte.