Doomsday prophets, fortune tellers, and more purport to offer secret revelations or hidden wisdom about the future. In some cases, whole communities of people have been led to their deaths by following the speakers of such claims.
We know that God knows the future, but can God show you the future? And if He does, how does He decide what to show and who to show it to?
God can reveal the future if it suits His purposes to do so. It was rare for Him to show the future in Biblical times, and it is even rarer today. Instead, God chooses to speak primarily through His word but may use a prophetic warning or encouragement to illuminate His word and help us apply it.
In an earlier article, we introduced Spiritual gifts and itemized the gifts defined in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. If you’re familiar with these lists, you may have noticed that one Spiritual gift has the distinction of being referenced in all three passages: prophecy.
In order to understand the importance of prophecy, we must have a good grasp of all that prophecy entails. If we reduce prophecy to the mere act of predicting the future, we are left with a very incomplete—and often incorrect—application.
Our modern understanding of the word “prophecy” has supplanted the rich Biblical nuance of the word. Consider the lead entries from a mainstream dictionary and from a Bible dictionary:
- Modern English Dictionary: the foretelling or prediction of what is to come.
- Dictionary of Biblical Usage: a discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving and admonishing the wicked, or comforting the afflicted, or revealing things hidden; esp. by foretelling future events
While foretelling future events is included in the Biblical usage of the word “prophecy,” it is not the primary definition. In fact, we see that foretelling is subordinate to the other uses of prophecy and only manifests in light of those purposes.
The Purpose of Prophecy
Biblically, a prophet is a person who speaks for God—usually through direct divine inspiration. This important point is stressed by Peter in his writings:
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1:20-21
When we review the ways in which a prophet speaks for God, we find examples of each in scripture:
- Declaring the purposes of God: Moses, John the Baptist
- Reproving or admonishing the wicked: Elijah, Jonah
- Comforting the Afflicted: Zechariah
- Revealing things hidden: Daniel, John
Some of these purposes may involve foretelling future events, but must not necessarily include a future-looking application.
When God Reveals the Future
Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke warnings that predicted consequences for those who failed to heed them. In Revelation, John spoke of spiritual realities in the past, present, and future. And throughout the prophets and psalms, God sprinkled details about the coming messiah.
These foretellings served a purpose that was usually revealed in hindsight. The fall of Israel, and later Judah, would validate the warnings of the prophets. The messianic prophecies would confirm Jesus’ identity. Revelation offers great hope and encouragement to us today with its promise of ultimate and lasting victory.
Future-looking prophecies are often broad and symbolic. Even when scripture shows specific instances of future revelation, it does so with symbols.
Joseph: a Case Study
In our piece about God speaking through dreams, we touched on Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation. Let’s examine it more closely:
- The wheat sheaves: In Genesis 37, Joseph tells his brothers that in a dream, they were bundling wheat sheaves when all of the sheaves gathered around Joseph’s bundle and bowed down. This revelation is fulfilled in chapter 50 when Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt and appear before Joseph, who would then be governor.
- The cupbearer and the baker: Genesis 40 recounts the cupbearer’s dream of grapes on a vine and the baker’s dream about baskets of bread. Both dreams, Joseph told them, indicated which of them would live or die when their fates were decided.
- Pharaoh’s dreams: Pharaoh dreamed of seven skinny cows that rose up from the Nile and devoured seven fat cows. Joseph interpreted this dream to mean that Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.
It was wisdom from God that allowed Joseph to understand the meaning of the symbols in order that he may achieve God’s purposes. But there is plenty that God did not tell Joseph ahead of time. God didn’t reveal to Joseph that:
- His brothers would betray him
- He would be sold to slavery
- He would be falsely accused
- He would be wrongfully imprisoned
Why did God hold this information back? Perhaps because He knew that Joseph would try to prevent such outcomes. After all, it is human nature to seek to avoid misfortune.
Similarly, it wasn’t until after Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem that God told him that he would be His witness in Rome (Acts 23:11).
Does God Use Prophets Today?
There is debate among Christians today as to whether or not the gift of prophecy has ceased. Our position is that prophecy continues, but that it seldom involves predicting the future.
The written word of God conveys all truth that we as Christians need in order to fulfill our purpose in God’s kingdom. Any purported future revelation that supplants or replaces God’s word is a false prophecy, and not from God.
Still, God has a use for prophets today and most often uses them to point others to the truths already revealed in scripture for encouragement, admonishment, and instruction. A prophet of God will never contradict scripture, and will never prophecy for self-serving or worldly purposes.
God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and God can show us the future. But His purposes seldom require us to know the future ourselves. Instead, He invites us to walk with Him by faith and trust the future to His hands:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”James 4:13-15