The Keys of the Kingdom

© Copyright 1998, 2001 (Revised) by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Key

Jesus said, “I will give you [Peter] the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).

Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:15-20).

Locked Church Door

These passages are familiar to most Christians, and yet for all their familiarity, much of their rich significance is missed by many who do not understand the cultural and spiritual significance. Both passages are in some ways cryptic, because they assume familiarity with first century and Old Testament religious practices that most readers today don’t have.

People tend to take such enigmatic scriptural statements as those in Matthew 16 and 18 and build explanations around them that go beyond the bare bones of the text. Evangelicals point to Matthew 18 to support the idea that “church” is wherever “two or three” are gathered in Christ’s name. Mormons point to this same passage to support the idea that salvation (exaltation) is only available through the Mormon church. Roman Catholics use Matthew 18 to support the teaching that the church, represented by the priest, “mediates” between humans and God regarding the forgiveness of sin. Roman Catholics use Matthew 16 to affirm the primacy of Peter as the first universal “pope.”

Ugly Church

When a reader understands the cultural, historical, and biblical background of the two passages, it becomes clear that the interpretations above are inadequate. We can have a richer understanding of the passages once we understand the Old Testament background, the first century cultural context, the context of the texts, and the relationship of the texts to other New Testament passages.

Matthew 16:19 asserts that Jesus chose Peter as his “viceroy” to display God’s redemptive plan of the church after Jesus’ ascension, when he promised Peter and the eleven that they would be empowered to bring the good news to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the extent of the Roman Empire.

Matthew 18:15-20 asserts that when the local expression of the church, the congregation, acts under Christ’s authority, in God’s Will, by God’s standards, it can and should announce judgment and exclusion to those who reject God’s redemption, but it also should announce forgiveness and salvation to those who embrace God’s redemption.

First, Matthew 16 uses the metaphor of “keys” to indicate representative power from God. Although the word “keys” is used only in this passage, we know that Jesus also granted power to the twelve in Matthew 10:12-15, 32-33, 40-42 and John 20:21-23; to the Seventy disciples in Luke 10:10-16; and to the church in Matthew 18:18-19. The metaphor was a common one both in the Old Testament and in the cultures around Palestine during that time and the time of Christ. Isaiah 22:20-22 is a clear example. The passage reads,

In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

This is a Messianic reference incorporating a general custom in Israel and surrounding nations during the first millennium B.C. The custom was that the king, governor, prince, master, or head of household could give someone the power to act “in his name,” that is, in his place in his absence or for certain duties. This “prime minister” or “right hand man” was given a ceremonial robe, belt, and key to signify his authority under the leader. When the individual with the “key” (and other items) made a judgment over his master’s property and/or people, it communicated and represented the master’s will.

In Matthew 16, Jesus is appointing Peter as his “viceroy,” and in the Book of Acts we see Peter fulfilling that commission in Jerusalem, Judea, among the Samaritans, and among the Gentiles.

Peter receives the keys

The principle concerning the power of a royal representative is especially clear in the story of Esther. Throughout Esther we see the formal relationship between the king and Mordecai, the king and Haman, & especially between the king and his wife, Esther. This is particularly clear in Esther 4:9-11, where Esther recites the royal edict that no one may approach the king without his gesturing them forward with his scepter (a synonymous symbol to a royal key).

Matthew 16 and 18 were written before Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and before Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) by which three thousand were converted. At Pentecost the Jewish Christian “church” was established distinct from Jewish churches that did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, we can assume that the “church” Jesus referred to was the local synagogue congregation, which usually had one or more rabbis (teachers), a minimum of 10 or 12 Jewish adult males in each prayer service (minyan), and a maximum of about 200 regular members and their families. These synagogue “churches” served their local neighborhoods (in a metropolitan setting such as Jerusalem) or local community (in smaller towns, villages, and rural areas). They were places of prayer, worship, teaching of the scriptures (the Old Testament at that time), fellowship among believing members, regulation of Jewish religious life, and as courts of arbitration in local civil disputes.

Synagogue meeting

As a matter of fact, this basic structure was carried over into the Jewish Christian congregations and Jewish/Gentile Christian congregations in the first and second century. We still see remnants of it in the order of service in liturgical traditions such as the eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Episcopalian/Anglican, and the Lutheran churches.

The issue Jesus addresses in Matthew 18 is apparently a civil or personal dispute between two members of the same synagogue “church.” As such, the synagogue church represented God’s will in much the same way Israel did to the nations. We can take this as good advice for the Christian church of today as well.

According to the law given by God through Moses, both criminal and civil disputes were settled using the principle that a party can prevail only if there are “two or three witnesses” to the offense (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Deuteronomy 19:15 declares,

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Jesus himself commended this practice, noting in John 5:31 that “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true,” not because the Son of God is a liar, but because no one should believe someone who claims he is the Son of God merely based on his claim, but instead we should believe because of multiple unequivocal “witnesses” or evidences. He continues, saying, “There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true” (v. 32), further noting additional “witnesses:” John the Baptist (v. 33), Jesus’ miracles (v. 36), the Father’s voice (v. 37), and the scriptures (v. 39).

He returns to this theme in John 8:14, paradoxically announcing that “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true” [since he has proven by other witnesses that he is the Son of God]. Immediately following, he refers to the rules of witnesses (8:16‑18).

Later in Christianity, the apostle Paul commended the Bereans for testing his teachings (Acts 17:11), and warned the Galatians not to believe false witnesses, even if the witness is an angel or Paul himself (Gal. 1:6‑10). They would have been tested not only by the content of their preaching, but by the evidence or testimony available, following the “two or more” rule.

Testimony

In Matthew 18, in the context of correcting the sinning brother, the person sinned against has an obligation to go to that person to try to resolve it privately. If he is unable, then he is to take “one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'” (Matt. 18:16). If the brother still refuses to repent, then it is the obligation of the congregation (the “church”) to act as Christ’s representative in holding the sinning brother accountable, and then expelling him from the church if he remains unrepentant (vv. 17‑19).

Thus, Christian churches today should place great responsibility on the local congregation for ensuring that its members are treated fairly and that unrepentant sin is inexcusable. When the church (including, but not limited to, the “two or three” witnesses required) judges someone guilty or restored, it is acting as Christ instructed it to act, and as God commanded both in the Old Testament synagogue churches and in the New Testament and historical Christian churches after Christ’s coming.

Christians should be careful to distinguish that the “keys,” the power to “forgive” and “retain” sins, is a derivative or reflective power of announcing forgiveness or judgment according to God’s standards.

There are additional aspects of the “keys of the kingdom” mentioned in Matthew 16:19, Isaiah 22:22, and Rev. 1:18. (There is an analogous passage about the “key of knowledge” in Luke 11:52). The contextual passage of Isaiah 22:22 reads,

In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah.  I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah.  I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.  I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a seat of honor for the house of his father.  All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars. In that day,” declares the Lord Almighty, “the peg driven into the firm place will give way; it will be sheared off and will fall, and the load hanging on it will be cut down.” The Lord has spoken.

The apostle John’s reference to Christ with the keys in Rev. 1:18 would have been immediately understood by his first century A.D. readers as a reference to Is. 22:22. In Revelation 1:18 the risen Christ says to the apostle John,

Do not be afraid. I am the first and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Likewise, when Jesus used the term in Matthew 16, his disciples understood that they were to act in his behalf and communicate his will through their own actions and words. This responsibility is echoed in John 20:21-23, in which the resurrected Christ commands his disciples, saying,

Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

In this sense, all Christians have the responsibility to communicate God’s will and God’s plan of salvation to those who don’t know it. We are God’s representatives, and individual congregations are represented by their pastors.

Revelation keys

The passage in Matthew 16 refers specifically to Peter, and by inference to all Christians. We see from the book of Acts that Peter, representing both Christ and the church, “used” the “keys of the kingdom” in first proclaiming the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2), then confirming that the gospel was meant also for the Samaritans (Acts 8:14‑25), and finally confirming the universal nature of the gospel, including to the Gentiles (Acts 10). This is the pattern Jesus commanded in his concluding remarks just before his ascension (recorded in Acts 1:7-8):

It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The risen Christ summarized this authority and responsibility in Matthew 28:19:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.

Of course, any misrepresentation that churches or Christians make are invalid uses of “the keys” or acting “in His Name” since they contradict the will of the Master (Jesus Christ). We are told to represent Jesus, but not that we can act with authority outside his will. We are commissioned to announce God’s forgiveness and judgment, not to determine God’s forgiveness and judgment. The Augsburg Confession (XXV 3) summarizes this principle:

It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command.”

The concept of “the keys of the kingdom” provides a depth and richness to our understanding of Jesus commissioning Christians to share the gospel and warn people of God’s judgment against unrepentant sinners. Rather than fearing human judgment, we can be confident of Christ’s perfect judgment communicated by his church.

Christ_JudgmentDay

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The Testimony of Two or Three Witnesses: We Can Trust the Factuality of the New Testament

Testimony

© Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

The evidence for the historical Jesus, his teachings, miracles, and resurrection from the dead, is so overwhelming that it places Christianity far above any other world religion. What distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is not its morality – Buddhism promotes moral behavior; not its longevity – Hinduism is older; but its claim that God became man and redeemed the world by his own sacrifice. This is Christianity’s strongest attribute, since it can stand the test of history and historical empiricism. We can prove what others only theorize, meditatively conjure, or feel. It is also Christianity’s greatest vulnerability, because if one could disprove Jesus and his resurrection, one would disprove Christianity itself. If Buddha never lived, the moral principles of Buddhism would survive. If Krishna was not a manifestation of God, the philosophical ideas of Hinduism would still be entertained. But if Jesus did not live, die, and rise again immortal in his physical body, then the very basis of Christianity is destroyed. Judicial and Islamic expert Sir Norman Anderson remarked, Christianity is, truly, “the witness of history” – its original followers died not for a system of rituals or a list of behaviors, but for the empirically verified and historically preserved fact of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul said, “if Christ is not raised, our faith is vain and we are of all people most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Doubting Thomas

Although this subject could be explored from a variety of perspectives, we will look at only one aspect: the standards of proof God insisted his people should follow when they tested the religious claims of anyone. In the contemporary world we have become accustomed to rampant, naive pluralism – any and all religious propositions are given equal weight and value even if they are irrational, meaningless, contradictory, or otherwise unbelievable. This is not the culture of the people of the Bible, the Jews who looked forward to the coming of God’s Messiah (in the Old Testament) and the Jews who witnessed that coming (in the New Testament). Indeed, the Bible instructs everyone to withhold judgment unless there is sufficient corroborative evidence. Over the years we have observed this biblical principle in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We have come to call this the principle of “the testimony of two or more witnesses.”

Multiple Witnesses

In Deuteronomy 13:1-5, God tells the Jews that they are not to believe someone who claims to be a prophet unless he comes with the correct knowledge of God as God had been revealed to them through the Prophet Moses, whose claim to represent God was affirmed by the miracles he performed before them and the Egyptians. (See, for example, Exodus 4:1-9.) Deuteronomy goes on to say that someone who claims to be a prophet must be right 100% of the time he prophesies – if anything he says is going to come to pass does not come to pass, he is not to be believed (Deut. 18:18-22). If this principle were applied today, no one would believe a newspaper’s horoscope column, a psychic hotline “friend,” a fortune teller, Nostradamus, or anyone else whose track record is not 100%. The biblical prophet, then, should not be believed merely because he proclaims his prophetic gift, but only if that claim is substantiated by at least two witnesses: its correspondence to what God told Moses and its 100% track record.

In the very next chapter of Deuteronomy, a general principle is given affirming the two witness idea that is to govern all the civil and criminal courts of the Jews. We read,

One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother (Deut. 19:15-19).

Nuremberg

The same principle is mentioned or given by example in a number of other Old Testament passages. The principle says that one should not believe something without corroborating evidence, and that one who deliberately promotes falsehood is guilty of sin.

The New Testament affirms this same principle. Jesus himself used it in Matthew 18:15-20, where he instructed the disciples on how to settle a dispute in the church. The unrepentant sinning brother must be confronted with witnesses so that the judgment against him is assured to be just: “so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (v. 16). The church can have such confidence in judgment with corroborating evidence, Jesus says, that the church’s judgment is equivalent to the judgment of God himself (vv. 18-20).

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Jesus Christ claimed to come from God and to be God’s Messiah. He did not expect people to believe him merely because he made a claim. In fact, in John 5:31, Jesus makes what at first appears to be a self-deprecating statement: “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid.” Jesus goes on in John 5 to describe that he does not testify merely about himself: his claims are verified by the prophet John the Baptist, by the miracles he did, by God the Father’s voice from heaven at his baptism, and by the whole testimony of the Old Testament, beginning with Moses. Jesus has more than met the principle of “the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

It should not surprise us, then, that in John 8 Jesus boldly claims, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid” (v. 14) because it is not alone. Jesus spends the rest of John 8 providing the verification for his testimony: God the Father, Jesus’s miracles, Jesus’s teachings, his coming crucifixion, death, and resurrection, and even the eventual resurrection of all believers.

Evidence

We find the principle of “the testimony of two or three witnesses” affirmed by Christ in his resurrection appearances as well. He did not merely appear alive in some sort of a spiritual vision or religious ecstasy on the part of his followers. He appeared in the flesh to multiple witnesses, men as well as women, believers as well as non-believers, inside a room, outside, in Jerusalem, and in the countryside of Galilee. In fact, Jesus appeared after his resurrection for a period of forty days – the traditional Jewish period between conviction and sentencing, set aside by the judges to allow ample opportunity for exculpatory evidence such as mentioned in Deuteronomy 19:16-19. When Jesus appeared to the apostles in the room he declared, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost [spirit] does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). After so many appearances and proofs, Peter could preach confidently on the day of Pentecost, “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22) and “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (v. 32). Paul recited for the Corinthian Christians a confession of faith that had been repeated by Christians from the time of the resurrection:

Now,brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and one which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor. 15:1-8).

Even thirty some years later the apostle Peter did not waver in his conviction that Jesus’s identity was verified by corroborating evidence: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).

Aesop's Fables

The apostles who followed Jesus and took his message of redemption and eternal life to the world were not to be believed without corroborating evidence, either. Jesus prophesied that they would do the same kinds of miracles he had done as a validation of their divine commission (Mark 16:17-18) and miracles accompanied their preaching from the beginning. Peter and John healed a lame man (Acts 3:1-10), Paul raised a young man from the dead (Acts 20:9-12), and many other miracles were performed by Jesus’s emissaries. Those miracles were tested by those who witnessed them. They were not magic tricks (Peter rebuked and refused a magician who thought he could “buy” the power of the Holy Spirit – Acts 8:18-22). They were not sorcery (Paul exposed a sorcerer in Acts 13:6-13 and cast a demon out of a girl who was used for divination in Acts 16:16-24).

Sorcerer

God manifested himself in Christ by his resurrection to those who were unbelievers or doubters who did not expect him to rise from the dead, over a period of forty days, in a variety of circumstances, to a variety of people, in a culture and historical period where the eyewitness testimony could be challenged. He came to a culture where accurate memory was trained into people and tested repeatedly as a normal form of preserving facts and events. He was followed by associates who performed the same kinds of miracles he had performed.

God gave us the best proof by appearing at a point in history as Jesus Christ, providing both followers and unbelievers with many infallible proofs, no only during his natural lifetime but after his resurrection. Jesus Christ provided a witness that launched a true and life-giving religion and gave us evidence for all time to believe in and trust God. The principle of “the testimony of two or three witnesses” is a principle by which a religion will stand or fall, and Christianity is the only religion that can stand. It is the only religion that gives an objective test for its own truth claims.

The_Risen_Christ

There and Then, Here and Now, Where and When? A Few Keys to Understanding Prophecy

Moses© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino

Articles, essays, chapters, books – even commentaries have been written about biblical prophecy. Amidst the plethora of “stuff” about prophecy, some basic characteristics of prophecy have become unknown to most Bible readers. Consequently, most of prophetic scripture is at best a puzzle, at worst an excuse for sensational speculation that discredits not only the speculator, but, sadly and unfairly, the Bible itself. When fictions like the Left Behind series sell 50 million and the few contemporary commentaries stay in print only a few short years, it is no wonder. Here are a few foundational keys to understanding biblical prophecy.

Two basic mis-assumptions plague most people’s unsuccessful attempts to understand prophecy. First, many people think prophecy is the same thing as fortune telling or divination. They think of the ancient Greek customs such as the Oracle of Delphi when they think of prophecy. The Oracle of Delphi was a young “chosen” woman who sat above a smoking fissure in the rock at the Delphi temple, chewed bay leaves, and experienced an ecstatic state that manifested in incomprehensible speech in response to an individual’s specific inquiry of the gods. Then a priest in the temple “interpreted” the message and gave it to the inquirer. The questions and answers were always specific to the individual and the time.[1] For example, an inquirer might ask whether the gods would bless a particular business deal, or whether a particular courtship would be successful. Many people who experience a false “gift of prophecy” misunderstand prophecy in this way. Instead, the bible gives us a picture of prophecy that is rationally received and delivered, is one hundred percent accurate, and involves God’s eternal righteousness, judgment, and mercy.

Oracle of Delphi

Second, many people think prophecy is only or at least primarily about future events regarding God’s interventions in human history. This misunderstanding fuels most of the sensationalistic fiction and non-fiction(?) literature glutting the shelves of most Christian bookstores. This misunderstanding lies behind many Christians’ fears that we are living in the “terminal generation,” the “last days,” that will see worldwide, cataclysmic events in which millions – even billions – of people will suffer and die immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming. Instead, the biblical examples give us a picture of prophecy that focuses on the eternal covenant between God and man, ratified and fulfilled in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. While at first glance biblical prophecy may seem to cover thousands of events and principles, at its core biblical prophecy is simply concerned with God’s eternal salvation plan in his Son.

End of the World

After we lay aside these two common misunderstandings, we can look at what the Bible says about prophecy and understand much more than we once did. There are many books that we recommend on this subject, including Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics, and William Biederwolf’s The Millennium Bible.

The biblical prophet is one who is called by God to give inspired teaching and preaching. He (or she) is primarily a forth-teller and only secondarily a fore-teller.[2] In fact, when one actually analyzes the prophetic passages and books of the Bible, it is evident that fore-telling is a minor part of the prophet’s burden from the Lord. When we understand this important distinction, much of the Bible becomes suddenly more easily understood. It makes sense, then, that Moses is called the greatest of prophets except for Jesus (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Acts 3:22; 7:37), even though we think of him primarily as the liberator and law giver of Israel. It makes sense that Jesus linked Moses with the prophets who spoke of him, God’s Son (Luke 16:29-31; 24:27, 44). We can understand the words of Philip, who told Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

TRANSFIGURATION

This emphasis on forth-telling is verified by analysis of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. There are five “Major Prophets,” books representing four authors (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations – also written by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). They are called the major prophets not because they are the most important, but because they are the largest in size. There are twelve “Minor Prophets,” so named not for any lack in importance, but for their relatively smaller sizes.

When we analyze these 17 books, we find that the vast majority of the texts do not refer to the future at all. Instead, we find the same exact theme often repeated in each book: the story of redemption. This simple story includes that God created us perfect and provided us with everything we needed for perfect life in him. We rebelled against him and earned his righteous judgment and condemnation. Because of his infinite love for us, his mercy and grace, he did not leave us in our sin but provided reconciliation for us in his Son, so that by responding in faith to the power of his gospel, we can repent, be reconciled to God, and enjoy the presence and power of God in this life and for the future (John 3:16-21).

king-jesus

What do we notice about this timeless story of redemption? Comparatively little of it has to do with the future: it is primarily concerned with the past (God’s creation, our fall), the present (God’s judgment delayed by his mercy through Christ), and the immediate future (will we respond in faith believing or continue in unrepentant rebellion?). The far or final future (enjoying God’s presence and power into eternity) is merely the culmination of the first three “time” elements in the story. In fact, every prophet in most of his (or her – Miriam, Deborah, for example) prophecies includes these four time referents: past, present, immediate or near future, and far or final future. This is what we would expect.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 gives us the first test of a true prophet of God: even if what he says comes to pass, if he encourages us to worship a false God, or to worship God falsely, he is not to be believed. He is a false prophet.

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Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the second test of a true prophet. (This immediately follows Moses’ declaration of a coming “prophet” who would be greater than him – 15-18 – we know him as Jesus Christ cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37.) In this test we are told that if what the prophet says is going to come to pass does not, then he is a false prophet. While Miss Cleo and her band of dollars-by-the-minute psychics repeatedly fail this test, in the Old Testament, to have even one prophecy not come to pass disqualified one from being a true prophet of God. If it were the case that a substantial part of a prophet’s message was concerned with the far or final future (events hundreds, even thousands of years after the lifetime of the prophet), how could the trustworthiness of a prophet be established? For this test to have any reliability, it must have been the case that an overwhelming portion of the prophet’s messages had to have been about times his hearers could test – the past, present, and near future.

When we analyze the Old Testament prophets, that is exactly what we find. Isaiah, for example, spends most of his time talking about the past. He talks about how Israel had a covenant with God but repeatedly broke that covenant, both while united and by Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) after the monarchy divided. He talks about many other nations that practiced idolatry and ignored the Lord God Almighty. He talks about how God had already brought judgment against these other nations. All the nations failed to repent and thus deserved God’s judgment.

Isaiah
Isaiah spends the second greatest amount of material talking about the present. He points out all the areas of sinfulness, rebellion, unrighteousness, idolatry, and social injustice in Israel and Judah. He points out all of the examples of God’s patience and mercy, withholding judgment even though it would be just because of Israel and Judah’s rebellion.

Isaiah talks at length about the near future: if Israel and Judah do not repent, God will bring well deserved punishment, judgment, and condemnation on the nations for their continued rebellion. If, however, Israel and Judah repent, God will withhold his judgment and restore the kingdoms to the power and blessings of God. In fact, Isaiah says, both Israel and Judah will refuse to repent. First God will allow Israel to be destroyed as a nation and its leaders taken into captivity because of its greater sinfulness and as a final example to Judah. This all happened during the course of Isaiah’s ministry. Everything Isaiah said about these time periods (past, present, and near future) was tested by his contemporaries (using Deut. 13 and 18), and Isaiah was proved to be a reliable prophet of God.

Once Isaiah had been proven a reliable prophet of God, his listeners were willing to suspend judgment on the comparatively little he says that would occur after the end of their own generation. Isaiah spends comparably less time speaking about the far future. In that time, Judah will fall to foreign destruction just as Israel had already. This judgment of God will last seventy years. Judah will finally repent and beg God for forgiveness. God will extend his mercy and grace to Judah through the pagan king, Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to their land, rebuild the temple, and restore their kingdom. This happened within less than two hundred years of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Finally, Isaiah spent the least amount of time speaking about the final future – the time when the entire earth, all of humanity, will be affected eternally by God’s redemption plan in his Son, the Messiah: those who believe and repent will be resurrected to eternal life; those who continue to rebel will be resurrected to judgment and condemnation. This final future time began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and will conclude with Christ’s Second Coming for final judgment and the reconciliation of all things (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The redeemed inherit eternal life, the unrepentant inherit eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).

The next time you stumble across prophetic portions of Scripture, don’t despair or throw up your hands in confusion. It’s not as mysterious or cryptic as contemporary sensationalists make it. Remember that the prophet always talks mostly about the past, the present, and the near future. Certainly he talks the least (and sometimes not at all) about the far future (after his own generation) or final future (the completion of the redemptive story).

[1] See Colin Brown, gen.ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Volume 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, 75ff.
[2] Colin Brown, Dictionary Volume 3, 74-92.

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