Simply put, prophecy is history foretold before it happens. God uses it to reveal events to occur in the future and to warn humans to repent and change his ways. The Bible is the only book ever written that can demonstrate its supernatural inspiration through prophecy. Our Creator not only can predict the future, he also has the power to cause his predictions to occur in every detail!
Fulfilled Biblical prophecy is a major proof of God's existence. They attest to his authority and power to influence the course of events on planet earth.
Originally, one of the three main sections of the Old Testament was called the Prophets (see Luke 24:44). This division had six books total representing the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, plus the twelve Minor Prophets (so-called because they were shorter). Manuscripts written by Joshua and Samuel are also in this section.
Many prophecies are dual in nature. Duality consists of pronouncements that have both a smaller and much larger fulfillment (known also as type and anti-type).
One of the greatest examples of duality in prophecy is the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. In his teachings he also discusses false saviors and false prophets, wars and rumors of wars, global conflict, famines, pestilences, etc. culminating with the beginning of the Great Tribulation period (Matthew 24:21).
All of the above events lead to the resurrection from the dead of all the saints and the second coming of Christ. Jesus, after given his prophetic outline, states that "this generation" will not die until after all things take place (Matthew 24:34).
How are we to understand Jesus' statement in Matthew 24:34? Did the generation who heard him utter his prophecies experience what he predicted? The concept of duality helps explain his predictions.
The generation who heard Jesus speak did experience a type or smaller fulfillment of the events yet to occur in the End Time. Forty years after Jesus' death, in 70 A.D., the total destruction of Jerusalem and its temple took place.
The Jewish historian Josephus writes that the city suffered a protracted siege by the Romans (known as the First Jewish-Roman War). During the siege, the Empire cut off access to Jerusalem, causing it to endure severe famine and starvation. The Romans crucified anyone found escaping, with the victims of such torture put on a hill and made to face the city as they suffered.
When Jerusalem's walls were finally breached in 70 A.D., the city was sacked then burned to the ground. Survivors of the war became Roman slaves. According to Josephus, the war cost the Jews the loss of more than one million people.
The Bible often uses symbols to express thoughts and ideas. For example, water (John 3:5, Ephesians 5:26, 1John 5:6, etc.), fire (Acts 2:3, 1Peter 1:7), and wind (John 3:8, Acts 2:2) are used to represent God's Holy Spirit.
Sometimes the explanation of a symbol, especially when it comes to prophecy, is found verse close to where it appears. For example, in Revelation 1 Jesus tells us that the 7 stars in his hand represent 7 angels and 7 golden lampstands symbolize 7 churches (Revelation 1:19 - 20). Many other symbols are also in the Bible.
The Bible sometimes gives us certain keys for understanding the time sequence of prophecy, such as a day can equal a year in prophetic time.
You will suffer the consequences of your sin for forty years, one year for each of the forty days you spent exploring the land (Numbers 14:34).
Another example is God telling Ezekiel to portray Jerusalem on a tile. He was to depict, like a child, a walled city with armies going against it, etc. He was then told to lie on his side for a certain number of days, with each day representing a year of punishment.
Lie also on your left side . . . According to the number of the days that you lie on (your side) it, you shall bear their iniquity. For I have laid on you the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days (Ezekiel 4:4 - 5).
An additional example of time sequence or duration of a prophecy can be found in Revelation 13. Here we find the duration of the persecution of the beast and false prophet is "forty and two months" (Revelation 13:5). Yet, in Revelation 12, the same period is referred to by a number of days (Revelation 12:6).
Using the prophetic key that a day stands for a year in fulfillment, we can come to understand that there was a period of 1,260 years during the Middle Ages when true believers experienced persecution. Is also tells us a prophetic year consists of three hundred and sixty days of thirty-day months!
Placing prophecy in proper categories can help minimize confusion when studying the Bible. Some of the major and minor prophetic categories are below.
Those concerning Israel as a united nation.
Those about the House of Israel (sometimes referred to as the lost tribes of Israel) or Judah.
Those involving Individual Israelite tribes (e.g. the tribe of Dan).
Those involving Individual nations or peoples.
Prophecies regarding individuals, their descendants or both.
Prophecy involving God's elect.
Punishment, protection, and rewards foretold (e.g. Jonah telling Nineveh it will fall due to its sins).
Those revolving around the End Time.
Those predicting the return of Jesus, his rule and upcoming Kingdom.
The resurrections of the dead.
The tribes of Israel
The context of a given prophecy is important, especially how it relates to Israel. The Israelites are at the center of God's plan to redeem all man. It is important that, especially in passages that discuss the End Time, that references to Judah or its house primarily refers to the Jewish nation of Israel composed mostly of those from the tribes of Levi, Judah and Benjamin.
Balance is key
Prophecy is important because it is a major proof of God existence and shows that his plan of salvation is on schedule. An obsession with trying to understand it, however, such as trying to pin down a date for Jesus' return, can easily lead a person into doctrinal error or to following false prophets (Ephesians 4:14). True Christianity is far more than the knowledge of what will happen in the future.
In the end, if we do have love, no matter how much we understand the intricacies of Bible prophecy, we have gained nothing (see 1Corinthians 13)!