The Book of revelation presents some pretty interesting options within orthodox Christianity. There are four radically different views competing for prominence today (not counting millennial and rapture views!), namely:
- Futurism: most of Revelation’s prophecy concerns our future.
- Preterism: most of Revelation’s prophecy concerns the first century.
- Historicism: most of Revelation’s prophecy concerns the entire Church Age.
- Idealism: most of Revelation is communicating principles, not prophecy.
Without many hours of study, the positives and negatives of these views can be difficult to appreciate. But what emerges for many who take the time to really understand these positions is the feeling that there is a legitimacy to all of them, and that even the views with which one disagrees may not be as ridiculous as first thought. How can this be the case, when the various views are about as disparate as can be?
One possible answer lies in a typological approach to prophetic fulfillment. The idea here is that while prophecies often have an immediate, obvious, and simple fulfillment (especially when time limits are involved), that the FULL-fillment of them may come later in a very different (yet grammatically, hermeneutically, and theologically legitimate) manner than might have been expected from the “plain, literal” reading.
While this may seem sketchy to some, the Bible actually indicates that this is the case.
OT PROPHECY EXAMPLES
Isa. 7:14 / Mt. 1:23 – The Virgin Birth
According to Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14 refers to the birth of Jesus Christ. But when we turn to the passage in Isaiah, we discover a prophecy that seems limited to the time of the prophet. It is difficult to see how the “plain meaning” of Isaiah 7:15 (“before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste”) can mean anything other than that Isaiah believed the child he had just described (v. 14) will be born within his lifetime, as a harbinger of the destruction of kings Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Remaliah (cf. 7:1). [Both kings were deposed by the Assyrians and their lands subjugated in 732 B.C.]
Further, the ‘almah‘ of 7:14 simply refers to “a young woman of marriageable age” without settling the question of her virginity. And, even if the woman referenced was a virgin at the time of the prophecy, Isaiah does not indicate that she would still be a virgin after becoming pregnant (i.e., in the usual way). This child may be the child of 7:14 is Isaiah’s son, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (cf. Isa.8:3-4). Thus, it seems unlikely that Isaiah 7 would have been taken as messianic in the first place.
Despite all this, according to Matthew 1:23, the birth of Jesus Christ – which occurred centuries after Isaiah’s prophecy would have had to occur (and, indeed, did) – fulfilled Isaiah 7:14. Before dealing with this issue, two more difficult examples will be observed.
Jer. 31:15 / Mt. 18 – Rachel Crying for Her Children
Like the example above, Matthew claims an Old Testamant passage is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. But here we seem to have a present-tense statement handled as an future-tensed prophecy! Three times in Scripture, Rachel’s tears are mentioned (Genesis, Jeremiah, and here in Matthew). Rachel was the wife of Jacob and the mother of two sons—Joseph and Benjamin, and in Jeremiah 31:15 we have “a voice in Ramah; a lamentation; a very bitter cry; Rachel is weeping over her children; she refuses to be comforted about her children because they are not.” Ramah was the point at which Nebuchadnezzar assembled the people of Judah to take them into captivity in Babylon (cf. Jeremiah 40:1).
How can the death of the infants demanded by Herod in Jerusalem hundreds of years later function as a fulfillment of Israel centuries earlier? And why call it a “fulfillment” in the first place since its use in the Old Testament is not even prophetic? One last example will show that Matthew does not even require present-tensed statements to apply them to the future.
Hos. 11:1 / Mt. 2:14-15 – Out of Egypt I Called My Son
Here we lack not only a future prophecy, but even a future- or present-tensed statement! It sounds as if Matthew turned the historical statement of Hosea 11:1 into a prophecy. When Hosea mentioned this event, he was referring to the exodus of Israel out of Egypt – which transpired centuries before Hosea wrote. Yet once again, Matthew takes a first century event as this statement’s fulfillment.
There are a few possible solutions to these difficulties: one is grammatical, another is hermeneutical, and the last is theological.
Grammatical Solution: Initial vs. Complete Fulfillment
The Greek for “fulfill” has two chief meanings. One is to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full. Another is to render full, i.e. to complete, to render perfect, or to carry through to the end. Thus, a prophecy can be said to be fulfilled when it comes to pass, such as when a prophet predicts an event and it comes to pass. This is the sort of prediction that must come true literally and obviously to avoid apologetic problems (see Dt. 18:21-22; cf. Isa. 41:21-23).
But there is an additional sense to the term fulfillment that refers to a fuller expression of a given statement (prophetic or not). That is, the statement may point to something even bigger than its literal and obvious meaning – an additional sense in which the passage can be understood. Does this pose a problem for a literal (i.e., grammatical-historical) hermeneutic? Not necessarily.
Hermeneutical Solution: Meaning vs. Referent
When we speak or write a word we are taking the thing in our mind and putting it in someone else’s via some sign (usually written or spoken). When we encounter a given sign, we can speak of its meaning as well as its referent. Meaning is universal and singular, while a word’s referent is particular and can pick out many different things in reality. To put it another way, word meaning is abstract – it points to an idea, while word referent is a specific instance signified by the abstract meaning of the word.
For example, when I say, “dog” you probably know what I mean in general, although we may not be thinking of the same particular dog. The word “dog” might have a dictionary meaning of “a highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the gray wolf.” This general, universal definition covers all things that are dogs and allows anyone familiar with actual dogs to communicate to others who are familiar with actual dogs. But the word “Fred’s dog” only picks out a single, particular dog. Thus, “dog” in this case has a specific referent – Fred’s dog.
Given this distinction we can see that Matthew is not abusing the Old Testament statements because he is not changing the meaning so much as the referent. For the Isaiah prophecy to be fulfilled in Isaiah’s day only required that a few conditions be met, namely: “a young woman (probably currently a virgin) will give birth to a son named Emanuel within a short period of time.” That occurred in Isaiah’s time, and in Matthew the same thing happened: Mary (a young woman and a virgin) gave birth to a son who many called Emanuel (“God with us”). In fact, Matthew points out the additional features of this fulfillment: Mary remained a virgin, and many (“they”) called Jesus “God with us”.
The same sorts of re-referencing can be seen in the other examples. When Herod tried to kill all the children in Israel under the age of two, the nation (aka Rachel) wept. In this case we have two evil rulers coming against Israel’s children. In the first case, though, only the future of a nation was at risk – in the second case it was mankind itself. Further, while God did take Israel (“His son”) out of Egypt at the exodus, thus producing a covenanted nation made up of the Jewish people – in the New Testament He brings His only-begotten Son out of Egypt to produce a new-covenanted nation made up of all people.
Theological Solution: Double vs. Typological Fulfillment
The above pattern is exhibited in many other instances in Scripture (e.g., Mt. 27:46; Jn. 19:36; Acts 2; Gal. 4; etc.). The results of an ordinary exegesis of one text point to a referent within the time frame of the Old Testament, yet those same passages are later said to have a “fuller” dimension in subsequent events.
The expression “double fulfillment” is sometimes used for these examples. But this can be misleading. It is rarely the case that an initial (or primary) fulfillment simply recurs later in history. Further, even in cases where such a thing could be said to happen, in any case where a prophecy contains a specified time frame referent, a second “fulfillment” would not even count. For example, Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple predicted in the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24-25; Mark 13, Luke 21) has often been said to conflate first century and end-of-the-world events. But the discourse is specified in the text to pertain to the first century temple (e.g., Mat. 24:1-3). Any additional destructions of any temples in the future would not count as “double fulfillments” of this specific prophecy (if “fulfillment” is taken in the normal way).
The fact that several different instances of God’s actions can all be referenced by particular passages seems to be much more impressive than mere repetition. In addition, biblical writers often cite non-prophetic passages for “fulfillments” that had no short-term referents. This points more to typology than “double fulfillment.”
Gregory Beale defines biblical types as “analogical correspondences among revealed truths about persons, events, institutions, and other things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which, from a retrospective view, are of a prophetic nature and are escalated in meaning.” Typological fulfillments, in other words, are of the fully-filled variety. Thus, once a passage has had it’s meaning and referent made full (exhausted?), it is called a fulfillment.
Rev. C. Lattey calls this compenetration “a form of prophetic idealisation wherein the more immediate present fades away, as it were, into the mightier fulfilment of the same divine counsel, which gradually glows through till it takes full possession of the screen.” He points out that this sort of understanding is reflected in both Jerome and Aquinas.
In Aquinas’s preface to his commentary on the Psalms, he says:
“Prophecies are sometimes uttered about things which existed at the time in question, but are not uttered primarily with reference to them, but in so far as they are a figure of things to come; and therefore the Holy Ghost has provided that when such prophecies are uttered, some details should be inserted which go beyond the actual thing done, in order that the mind may be raised to the thing signified. Thus in Daniel many things are said of Antiochus as a figure of Antichrist; wherefore some things are therein read which were not accomplished in the case of Antiochus, but will be fulfilled in Antichrist. Thus, too, some things are read about the kingdom of David and Solomon, which were not to find fulfilment in the kingdom of these men, but they have been fulfilled in the kingdom of Christ, in figure of whom they were said. Such is Psalm Ixxi., . . . expounded of the kingdom of Solomon, in so far as it is a figure of the kingdom of Christ, in whom all things there said shall be fulfilled.”
Revelation and Typological Fulfillment
This typological/analogical view of much of Old Testament prophecy may be a clue as to the difficulty in Revelation. Prophecy has worked like this in the past – why not the future? As an analogy, it is easy to see that acorns, saplings, and oak trees do not seem very similar, yet are all just stages of a single thing. Further, knowing about any one of these gives almost no information about the others. Worse, their descriptions are virtually contradictory! Our knowledge of them comes from what we see after the stage has arrived.
Perhaps the prophecies of Christ’s Second Coming work in a similar way to those of His first coming. Revelation might very well have an initial (primary?) fulfillment in the first century (as indicated by its “soon-coming” language, identification of the beast as a present reality to John, OT parallels that identify the Harlot as Jerusalem, etc.). But could these not also signal the historical reality of the Church Age (as shown by Revelation’s obvious connections to Daniel, the fact of the beast’s ongoing activity after the first century, and more than one accurate prediction based on the day-for-a-year principle, etc.)? And, if this be allowed, why not an ultimate prediction of the final fulfillment of Revelation in the far future (given that the Church has always taught a future Antichrist and Tribulation period, the world-encompassing tenor of much of Revelation’s language, and the fact that Revelation ends with the final judgment and entrance into eternal life, etc.)?
Perhaps it is in the nature of Revelation’s prophecies to retain this typological feature of God’s predictive power. Even many who claim to eschew such a process do so in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 (seeing them as both first-century churches and periods of time during the Church Age). If this is a legitimate process for the “things that are” (i.e., not prophetical) potion of Revelation, then it would seem to be even more appropriate for the prophetic section (4-22)!
It is clear that God esteems predictive prophecy as a means for determining true deity as well as identifying true prophets of God (again see Dt. 18:21-22; cf. Isa. 41:21-23). Thus, when a prophet of God makes a prediction, it must take place in a clear way. That shows the awesomeness of God’s knowledge and sovereignty. But how much MORE awesome is a God that can not only predict the future – but one who can fulfill those predictions in multiple, legitimate ways!
This possibility should give us pause when (but not necessarily stop us from) speculating about the future. Like the acorn analogy above, knowing what we know about the past does not give us a simple formula for figuring out the future. We especially should be careful that we do not ruin our witness with failed speculations.
This further indicates that all interpreters must be careful not to impose artificial limits to past or future fulfillments. (Imagine a debate between “preterists” and “futurists” over Isaiah’s prophecy – the former might deny Jesus’ virgin birth, while the latter might make Isaiah a false prophet!). Both parties may be right in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny.
What we know for sure is that both the reader and hearer of the Book of Revelation will be blessed (Rev. 1:3). Every generation can find blessing in Revelation.