In the last week of our Lord’s life upon the earth it became increasingly important to warn the disciples of the dangers and trials which lay ahead. “These things have I spoken unto you”, he said, “that ye should not be offended” (skandalizo— to stumble over a stumbling block, John 16:1). Warning them beforehand was designed to increase their trust in the wonder of God’s care rather than let them stumble in bewilderment at all the difficulties they would face (v4). The Lord understood one of the great principles of prophecy and prediction—to be forewarned is to be fore-armed.

Convicting the World in the First Century

In the same chapter he spoke to them of the continued work of God after his ascension through the Comforter, which would convict the Jewish world “of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (v8). Hence when the Lord commissioned the disciples to preach the Gospel he said this: “Go ye therefore and teach [matheteuo—to make or train disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them [didasko—to give instruction] to observe [tereo— attend carefully, guard] all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19,20). There were two parts to this teaching commission. The first related to “repentance and remission of sins” (Luke 24:47); the second related to a careful observation of his commandments. The Master’s commands covered many areas and one significant area dealt with what the believers should do in the face of Rome’s imminent invasion of Judea.

Whilst it could be said that the Lord’s teachings in relation to prophecy were not part of the Gospel message, it is not accurate to argue that the prophecies he uttered were unimportant. They were a significant ancillary to the Gospel, so much so that they formed part of the “all things” that he commanded the disciples to teach.

We find, then, that the whole preaching and teaching effort of the disciples embraced a wider sphere of activity than just preaching the Gospel. The Gospel formed the core essentials for salvation but we discover that the Lord’s predictions about coming judgment often became an important part of the message, inducing listeners to see the devastation which lay ahead of them if they didn’t repent. The Lord’s specific prophecies about forthcoming events in Judea could never form part of the saving Gospel because the details would no longer retain any relevance for future generations after AD 70. What we do find, however, is that prophecy became a significant adjunct to first century preaching and conviction—a pattern that ought to be continued in our preaching today.

Preaching in the First Century

To illustrate this, let us examine the early chapters of Acts. Peter’s first speech contained the essential elements for salvation (Acts 2:38). But that speech also contained an exposition of coming judgment based on the prophecy of Joel (v19–21). Peter skilfully blended prophecy, logic and exposition to induce a remarkable response: “they were pricked in their hearts” (v37).

His second speech spoke of the second coming of Christ (Acts 3:19–21). We find that Stephen regularly spoke about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the removal of the temple and Mosaic system (Acts 6:13–15). When Paul was in Judea he preached a similar theme. He spoke to Felix “concerning the faith in Christ” (Acts 24:24) and this included a prophetic exposition, because “as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come, Felix trembled” (v25). Faith in Christ was incomplete if it did not include warning people of judgment to come.

How specific were the predictions of the apostles? Were they just generalised and vague? Did they expect the early ecclesias to know the intricacies of prophetic symbols and concepts?

Peter’s interest in prophetic warnings continued throughout his life because in his second epistle he had a great deal to say about what lay ahead for the ecclesial world. In both the second and third chapters he warned them of the appearance of evil men and spelt out the coming conflagration of the Jewish state. Some of his words were couched in the terminology of prophetic symbol. He spoke of the burning up of the heavens and the earth and expected his readers to understand the allusions he was making. He made no apology about Paul’s writings either. Paul spoke of these things in his epistles, “in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). This is a significant statement to make. To remain unlearned or unstable is to invite the potential for self-destruction.

Whilst the details were sometimes concealed, the exhortation was clear: “Be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless… Ye therefore beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness” (2 Pet 3:14, 17). Some were deferring the Lord’s coming, others were refusing to believe that God meant what He said. Peter was very insistent: diligence in developing godliness is to be commended; complacency is to be strongly condemned.

The Whole Counsel of God

Whilst Peter’s message was primarily for a Jewish audience, Paul’s message to the Gentiles took on a different perspective, but no less significant. His predictive warnings were equally blunt and specific. He warned the Ephesian elders of imminent apostasy and this prophetic message was an integral part of “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27–31). Part of his teaching to the new converts in Greece included explanations of the signs of the times, something he fully expected them to appreciate (1 Thess 4:13–5:4). When he wrote his second epistle to the Thessalonians he felt constrained to reiterate his teaching on the coming apostasy saying, “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you I told you these things?” (2 Thess 2:5). When he preached the Gospel he constantly instructed believers about what to expect in the future. Iniquity was already afoot, he explained, and it would mushroom into such a force that it would not be removed until Christ’s second coming (v7–12).

The spawning of an apostate religious system took many by surprise and looking at the ecclesial world at the end of the first century from the viewpoint of the Spirit in the Apocalypse we see a mixed reaction to all this evil. Some ecclesias responded to the warnings, others didn’t and like individual believers, were reaping what they had sown. There is great warning in this for us. To down-play the warnings of the Prophetic Word is fraught with danger.

The roots of the apostasy flourished in the soil of Judaism. Legalism, mixed with popular ritual and overbearing self-righteousness, provided the catalyst for growth. Once the apostles had passed off the scene the stage was set for the elevation of grasping bishops who sought to dominate the flock. This was the great enemy of the brethren and sisters in the first century and its iniquity is still with us today. Paul’s predictions allow us to look at today’s religious world through the eyes of God. How do we view Catholicism and the churches around us? A right interpretation of prophecy puts this into the correct perspective.

Take for example the prophetic pictures found in Revelation 17. Is the enemy of Christ in this chapter Jewish, or Islamic, or Christian? Whatever it is, our interpretation will shape our attitude towards this system. Furthermore if we are found worthy we will execute judgment upon this system. This chapter outlines God’s view of a powerful latter day enemy and we need to get the interpretation right because we want to develop thinking that is in harmony with the mind of the Spirit. Is it therefore a matter of indifference to remain unconcerned about this prophecy? The Lord said in Revelation 17:9: “Here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads [of the beast] are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth”. In verse 18 the woman is said to represent a great city which was ruling many nations when John wrote. This can only fit one city in the world—Rome. Rome’s influence is said to last until it is destroyed by Christ; hence the latter day manifestation of the enemy in this chapter is none other than Roman Catholicism and its besotted European supporters. There is nothing complex about this interpretation. It is straight forward and easy to grasp. It is completely consistent with Paul’s earlier predictions and its development as a persecuting and blaspheming power can easily be verified from history.

Prophecy was seen as a significantly important accessory to the preaching of the first century Gospel. It is a pity that controversy over prophetic interpretation is causing some to down-play its role in ecclesial life today. Let us “be mindful of the words spoken before by the holy prophets” and let us enthuse others with the wonder and power of the prophetic word.