The gift of Prophecy

What is the New Testament gift of prophecy? Since the birth of the charismatic movement, this question has been the catalyst for a great deal of debate among evangelicals, likely because our answers have such tangible practical implications. In his work “The Gift of Prophecy in The New Testament and Today”, Wayne Grudem argues for the existence of a prophetic gift which he defines as: “Speaking merely human words to report something that God brings to mind”. Practically, these prophecies are based on revelation from God and are given spontaneously as the church is gathered. Although based on divine revelation, the prophecies are muddied by the subjective experience and fallible reporting of the prophet. God does not provide erroneous promptings, but humans do report their revelations in earthly terms that may be in error. As such, prophecies should be weighed in order to sift the good from the bad.

This view comes from his sincere attempt to bring all the relevant biblical texts into theological harmony. I have great respect for many of his arguments and I am sympathetic towards many of his points, indeed my conclusions are somewhat like his. In this article, I will present a slightly different view of the relevant texts and draw some practical conclusions. The arguments surrounding this debate are quite complex, so I have kept things as short as possible and only addressed the issues that I find necessary.

Some Context

The book of Acts

In Acts, there are three ‘outpouring’ events. Many scholars observe that these events are not just incidental accounts that Luke throws in. Rather, they serve a purpose: To indicate that the commission of Jesus is being accomplished.

At the start of Acts, Jesus calls the disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The narrative of Acts goes on to tell us how this was accomplished. At each critical geographical turning point, there is a ‘Pentecost’ event. First, the disciples in Jerusalem receive the Spirit. Then, Peter witnesses the same phenomenon in the region of Samaria, and finally, Paul witnesses the phenomenon again in Ephesus.

These three key events are not arbitrary. They are big turning points of history as the Gospel breaks into a new sphere of humanity. As Carson states, each of these events is best understood as “a critical salvation-historical turning point, not a paradigm [for conversion]”.[1] With that in mind, let’s examine the specific cases.

Acts 2

In this passage, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and they “speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. This brings amazement to many, but some accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter, in response, points to a prophecy from the book of Joel. “They are not drunk”, he says, “but this is what was spoken of by Joel”. The text he refers to is from Joel 2, where God promises that he will “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh”. As a consequence, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

So the outpouring of the Spirit will lead to prophecy. But I have one question: who prophesied? Search the text and you will not find anyone prophesying (depending on your assumptions). This has led some commentators to conclude that tongues must be a form of prophecy[2]. But there is another, more likely, possibility. They did prophesy; and they did it when they “declared the wonders of God”.

As Grudem points out, the word prophetes had a wide range of meanings in the first century. It could indeed refer to supernaturally endowed knowledge, or could simply mean “spokesperson” or “proclaimer”. Paul himself uses the word in this way (Titus 1:12).[3] Thus, we must take great caution in our approach and be wary to give to the word more weight than is due.

In my view, the very act of declaring God’s wonders constituted prophecy. The disciples “proclaimed” God’s work. Piper says: “Prophecy, as it is used here… is primarily verbalising the great things you have seen of God”[4]. I couldn’t agree more. But is this consistent with the rest of the book of Acts?

Acts 10

In the second ‘outpouring’ event, Peter preaches the gospel to the household of Cornelius. As he speaks, the Holy Spirit “falls” on all who hear. Peter later describes this event: “the Holy Spirit came on them just as he had come on us”. This should give us a clue. What happened at the house of Cornelius is the same as what happened at Pentecost.

So then, note how it is that those present knew that the house of Cornelius had received the Spirit: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” Now if this is the same thing as Pentecost, I am led to believe that “Praising God” is also very closely related to (if not synonymous with) prophecy.

So to help us define prophecy, we now have two separate phrases in our repertoire: “Declaring the wonders of God” and “Praising God”. Perhaps the third and final ‘outpouring’ event will help us further.

Acts 19

Here, Paul finds some believing proselytes who have been baptized by John the Baptist, but have not heard the message of Christ. Paul gives them the good news and when he had laid hands on them, “The Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. This does not give us another phrase which to define prophecy, but it does serve to reinforce our earlier point: To declare God’s works and to Praise God is to prophecy. The reason prophetes is used here seems simple: we have already been told what those people who received the Spirit proceeded to do. Luke decides to be brief and just use one word. I think Luke uses these three expressions almost synonymously. They spoke in tongues and proclaimed, just like before.

Were these events ‘ecstatic’?

The answer depends on what you mean by ecstatic. But I do think there was a certain miraculous spontaneity that accompanied these ‘outpourings’. At Pentecost, over a hundred people spoke in languages they had never learned, and they probably spoke all at once. They were euphorically declaring great wonders and mysteries of God at the same time. If you call this ecstatic, I wouldn’t disagree. There had to be some reason why the surrounding people thought they were drunk.

Of course, because these events were special pivotal events in history, it would be unwise to attempt to emulate them. I will soon show that this was in fact the error of the Corinthians.

Corinthian Chaos

So we begin our examination of the critical text. First, some context. As Carson writes: “From chapter 7 on, Paul appears to be answering a series of questions put to him in a letter from the Corinthians”. This is integral to our understanding of the passage. Paul is not presenting some teaching by his own choice. Rather, he is responding to the Corinthians and dealing with their questions using their own terms. In fact, it appears that this discussion of tongues and prophecy was never a part of Paul’s original message to the churches. He never addresses it of his own accord; indeed no New Testament author does. That should give us some caution as we read the passage before us.

So what was happening in Corinth? We can learn something of their situation by inverting Paul’s rebukes. In each of Paul’s exhortations, it is safe to say that the Corinthians were doing the opposite. At the very least, then, we know that the Corinthians were all shouting in “unintelligible” speech, saying to each other “I have no need of you”, they were “thinking like children”, worshipping “without using the mind”, inciting outsiders to say they were “out of their minds”, failing to speak “one at a time”, stirring “disorder” and so on.

I take this to mean that the members of the church were obsessed with spiritual experiences. Surely this is what Paul means when he says that they are (literally) “zealots for spirits” (verse 12). They were trying to re-create what they thought were spiritual experiences, but were really ecstatic frenzies. They claimed that the Spirit was taking hold of them and that they couldn’t control themselves (which Paul dismantles in verses 31-32). They claimed that they were ‘in the Spirit’ and not in the mind (which Paul chides in verses 15-17). They were speaking in unintelligible language that would make it look like they were mad (which Paul rebukes in verses 9-11). They were shouting ‘prophecies’ all at once, so that no one could hear or learn (which Paul corrects in verses 29-30), and so on. This led them to disqualify their fellow brothers (which Paul exposes in chapter 12).

This conclusion is not new. MacArthur writes: “the Corinthians started to confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with the former ecstasies, frenzies, and bizarre practices they had known in the pagan religions from which they had been saved”[5]. But of particular interest is that the Corinthians seemed to be asking Paul specifically about tongues and prophecy[6]. Carson makes this observation: “That Paul should restrict the focus of discussion… to two [gifts], prophecy and tongues, strongly suggests that there was some dispute or uncertainty about these two in the Corinthians Church”[7]. Powers writes: “In these verses the one who speaks in a tongue and the one who prophesies are compared and contrasted”[8]. This is true for a large chuck of the text. Why were the Corinthians so interested in these two gifts?

I propose a reason: they had heard of the events of Pentecost and probably also the events at the house of Cornelius. They had been told of the outpouring of the Spirit and were trying to replicate the scenes they had heard about.

If this is the case, then the terms “praising God” and “declaring wonders of God” become directly relevant. So too the suggestion that “prophecy” could mean “heralder” or “proclaimer” in the first century. It seems to me that, as part of their disordered worship, the Corinthians were shouting praises and encouragements in a frantic, frenzied, chaotic way. The Spirit was revealing great truths to them, but they were more interested in boasting of their spirituality than in edifying others. I do not know exactly what words they used, but it may have been something as simple as “Jesus is Lord” (see chapter 12). This makes much more sense than any of Grudem’s examples. I don’t think the Corinthians were shouting “The Lord has put on my mind a tremendous concern for the believers in the Philippines”. Although I don’t deny that it is possible that the Spirit will give such a leading, this is not the kind of practical application I would make for a church setting. It doesn’t fit the text.

On the whole, it seems more appropriate to me to define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need”. I see this as primarily based on scripture. For example, “Hey everyone, I think the words of Peter might be applicable to this situation…”

Anomalous Agabus

Grudem points to the somewhat obscure character of Agabus (Acts 11 and 21) to support his position. He claims that two small mistakes (as he calls them) in the second prophecy of Agabus serve to back up his definition of prophecy as a fallible report of divine revelation. Agabus saw something from God, but said it wrong. He misinterpreted his vision. Thus prophecies need weighing.

But Grudem runs into a roadblock. Agabus’ use of the phrase “Thus says the Holy Spirit” gives him strong ties to the Old Testament Prophets (as this was a regularly repeated phrase in their infallible oracles). This is problematic for Grudem, and he struggles to find a solution, even suggesting that his words may be due to a “misunderstanding of his role”[9] as a prophet. That is, the gift had not been around long enough for Agabus to fully understand the lesser, fallible nature of New Testament prophecy.

I find this argument unconvincing. Much more likely is the notion that Agabus was a true Prophet in the Old Covenant sense. John MacArthur has described the book of Acts as an “incredible period of transition as the church was born”[10]. Luke records miraculous event and powerful demonstrations of the power of the gospel. I hardly think he would interrupt his miraculous narrative in order to detail a (partly) failed prophecy. If indeed the narrative describes a transition from “a body of Jewish believers to the body of the church”[11], then perhaps we may expect that some remnants of the old covenant would still exist. Even the symbolic mode of delivery (the use of the belt in 21:11) resonates with the sound of prophetic oracles of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

But there is an elephant in the room: The Agabus example is far divorced from Paul’s practical, ecclesiological guidelines to the Corinthians. Should the Corinthians sit down and predict who is going to die next, but do it “two or three at a time”? And if someone were to stand up and say “Beware, there is a famine coming!”, would this qualify as “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” for the whole church? Would we respond “gee, brother, I have really learned and been encouraged”? I think not. Grudem tries to squeeze Agabus into Corinthian categories, but he doesn’t fit. Agabus does not belong in Corinth.[12]

In fact, all of Grudem’s examples suffer from this same ecclesiological chasm. He refers to a prediction by John Knox (1514 – 1572) about the death of William Kirkaldy, and cites several other puritan and reformed writers that tell stories of “extraordinary men… receiving extraordinary revelations… foretelling diverse, strange and remarkable things”[13]. But these extraordinary examples are just that; extraordinary! None of them occurs in a church setting, let alone in an ordered and disciplined worship service, as part of the gathering. I don’t think this is what Paul has in mind when he says “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said”. The examples break down when applied to the church. Indeed, God can and does give revelations like these in extraordinary settings, but none of these examples actually helps Grudem’s point. I conclude that the Agabus events were unique. He was like an Old Testament prophet, and this form of prophecy did not continue in the church. Perhaps this is why Luke begins each Agabus narrative with “In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem…”

Any conclusions we make about New Testament prophecy, and any examples we use to support our position, must be consistent with the practices of the regular gathering of faithful believers. Grudem has not shown this.

Prophecy as teaching

Grudem insists that prophecy is different from teaching. He says that “teaching” or “teachers” generally refer to the regular, planned, expounding of the scripture in the church, whereas prophecy isn’t based primarily on scripture, but on spontaneous revelation[14]. You can see the false dichotomy here. I would say that prophecy can contain scripture, or be based on scripture, without being the same as planned, expository bible teaching. An unplanned encouragement based on God’s promises in Romans 8, for example, would not be called ‘Bible teaching’, but is still inextricably linked with God’s word. In my view, it would certainly be prophecy.

It seems to me that a person who prophecies is quite different from a teacher, but a prophecy will contain teaching. In the church, the teacher/preacher for the day will be appointed ahead of time. He will prepare his message and study the scripture intently. He will then address the church in a formal way from a pulpit for a set amount of time.

Someone who gives a prophecy, however, brings an encouragement that he felt was needed. It was an unplanned, spontaneous application of God’s truth. Prophecies contain teaching, after all, they are given so that “we can all learn”.

Prophecy as prediction

But doesn’t Paul refer to prophecy as a more predictive phenomenon in other letters? Perhaps. But we must remember, once again, that he is responding to the Corinthian practice, not describing his own. This famous passage is not a doctrinal treatise of Pauline theology; it is a response to Corinthian heresy using Corinthian terminology.

Now, Grudem rightly shows from the use of diakrino in verse 29 that prophecies are to be sifted for truth that may be mixed with error[15]. I submit to you that teaching can be weighed. Prediction can’t. Most of Grudem’s examples are un-weigh-able because they are un-test-able. There is nothing to test them against. But if prophecy is at least similar to teaching, then this exhortation to weigh prophecies makes sense. Remember, Paul places prophecy in the same category as teaching and knowledge (verse 6).

Furthermore, I struggle to see how predictions can comfort and edify. Paul says that the purpose of prophecy is “so we can all learn and be encouraged”. I believe that my definition of prophecy, as “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need” seems more appropriate.

Supporting Scripture

Acts 15:22 supports my view. Here we are told that “Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them”. Here, it seems, Luke makes a direct link between the fact that these two men were prophets and the fact that they exhorted and encouraged their brothers. If anything, this is further evidence for the wide semantic range of the word prophetes in the first century, for here surely it means “proclaimer” or perhaps even “encourager”.

Conclusion

Based on these reflections in scripture, I define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to believers in a time of need”.

Some Pastoral Reflections

What then shall we do? Carson, Grudem and MacArthur give some good pastoral reflections that we should all chew on. I won’t reinvent the wheel but I will make a few points alongside these great men.

1: While they may be sincere, people or churches that try to create spiritual experiences are not mature. Perhaps the clearest lesson from our passage is that emotional experiences are not a reliable indicator of mature spirituality or even true faith. Those who want to grow and exhibit true out workings of the Spirit should be seeking to “strengthen, encourage and comfort”. They should use their minds.

By extension, this means that order is a mark of the true church. In a mature gathering, all words and deeds will be done in good order, with a view to help encourage and exhort others. It is important to remember that Paul accused the church at Corinth of “remarkable childishness”[16]. They were babies as far as Paul was concerned. Their practices, then, were not those of mature Christians. Mature Christians are sober and use their minds. “Edification demands intelligible content”[17]

2: Excessive deliberation over the exact form of prophecies is actually contrary to Paul. In 1 Corinthians, Paul takes the focus off the form of the gifts and onto the content of the gifts.

Whatever you are doing, if it doesn’t encourage and extort others, it isn’t biblical prophecy. Likewise, whatever you are doing, if it does encourage and exhort others, you are fulfilling Paul’s directives. Indeed, you have discovered the heart of Paul in this passage. We might say, “encourage and console your fellow believers, and so fulfill the heart of prophecy”.

So what is prophecy? That’s the wrong question. The right question, which will be seen as such by the mature, is “What can I do to edify and help my brothers and sisters in this situation?”.  In other words, Paul doesn’t tell them to seek to prophesy without a purpose. He encouraged it for a reason. That reason? Edification and consolation. I submit that we should be pursuing the reason, not the phenomenon. This was the error of the Corinthians. Let us learn from their mistake.

Brothers and sisters, when we stand before the throne of judgement, there will be many who had prophesied that will hear those chilling words: “I never knew you”. But there will be no one who “consoled”, “encouraged”,” edified” who will hear those words. Christ also is not looking for a phenomenon, he is looking for the reason behind it. In both Paul and Jesus, that reason is love.

3: Nobody denies that the Holy Spirit is able to give impressions and guidance for believers today, especially with regards to illuminating the scriptures. God can do what he wants. Grudem’s historical examples show this.

There is a difference, however, between accepting what God can do and expecting what God ‘should do’. Setting up yourself and your church to expect the extraordinary is unwise. Christ has told us how to live. His word contains “all we need” for life and godliness. It is our calling to seek to follow God in the ordinary. If he gives the miraculous, rejoice! But be wary of trying to conjure it. Walk according to his word, and it will be well with you. MacArthur says it right: “[True] spirituality is simply receiving the living word daily from God, and then living out that word in a moment by moment walk in the Spirit”[18].


[1] [Source 2], pp. 112. See also [Source 3] pp.150 “Acts provides not a paradigm for individual Christian experience, but the account of the gospel’s outward movement geographically, racially and above all, theologically”.

[2] See [Source 2] pp. 141 “Prophecy is an expression that embraces tongues”

[3] [Source 1] pp. 39

[4] [Source 4]

[5] [Source 4] pp. 108

[6] See [Source 2] pp. 22 “Is it really true that spiritual manifestations constitute unfailing evidence of spiritual people?”

[7] [Source 2] pp. 100

[8] [Source 5] pp. 309

[9] [Source 1] pp. 83

[10] [Source 3] pp. 102

[11] [Source 3] pp. 85

[12] I don’t mean to deride Grudem here. He himself admits that the case of Agabus is “difficult to classify” [Source 1] pp. 83

[13] [Source 1] pp. 352

[14] [Source 1] pp. 118-120

[15] [Source 1] pp. 58

[16] [Source 3] pp. 108

[17] [Source 2] p. 103

[18] [Source 3] pp. 183


Sources

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, The gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (2000)

[2] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (1988)

[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (1978)

[4] John Piper, This is What Was Spoken by the Prophet Joel (1981) https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/this-is-what-was-spoken-by-the-prophet-joel

[5] B. Ward Powers, First Corinthians: An Exegetical And Explanatory Commentary (2008)

Isaiah 53: Is it about the Messiah?

One of the most convincing prophecy arguments is that from Isaiah 53, where we have clear, specific prophecies of the Messiah centuries before He could come. And when He did, He clearly fulfilled. This would be one of the stronger arguments for the supernatural origin of the bible, stronger probably than the one that we’ve already examined from Daniel 9.

However, the atheist (and indeed the Jew) seem to have a strong counter-argument. Isaiah 53 is not a Messianic prophecy, but it is intended to be an allegory for Israel, not Jesus. And that the Christians of the first century (including the Apostles) desperately searched through the Jewish scriptures looking for things they could fit Jesus into. And under that view, the prophecy argument is weaker. So here, we will examine whether Isaiah 53 really is a Messianic prophecy.

 

References in the Old Testament

Of course, the best source for how ancient Jewish readers interpreted Isaiah 53 is the Old Testament itself. If elsewhere in the pre-Christ Jewish scriptures, we have references to Isaiah 53 that indicate it is Messianic, that is very strong evidence that it was understood by the original hearers and readers as messianic.

Martin Hengel argues in his paper The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period that there is a connection between Isaiah 53 and passages in Zechariah and Daniel which indicate that the Isaiah text is intended to be a Messianic prophecy. The argument is detailed and I won’t go into it here, but it is worth considering.

Consider just Isaiah though, consider in Isaiah 11:10 where the Messiah (and pretty much everyone agrees this one is Messianic) is the “Root of Jesse”. But now in the very start of the song in 53, right in verse 2, the Suffering Servant is the Root who springs up.

The Davidic references are not finished, however. Remember that David reveals that the Messiah will be a priest of the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110. And now in Isaiah 52:13, we are told that the Messiah will act as a priest, “sprinkling” many nations as the blood of sacrifices was sprinkled on the people.

Early Jewish interpretations

Unfortunately, our sources on early Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53 are pretty sparse. But we do have some, and many of those are indeed messianic interpretations. The most famous one is probably from the Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin 98b, where the author uses Isaiah 53 as a source about the Messiah in order to try and determine what the Messiah’s name will be:

“The Messiah –what is his name?…The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…'”

There are some other examples of Messianic interpretations of the Suffering Servant. Consider the Targum Jonathan’s translation of Isaiah 52:13, which clearly indicates that the interpretation of the passage is Messianic:

“Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high and increase and be exceedingly strong…”

In the Zohar (a non-mainstream Kaballah text, but an early one which indicates some interpretation trends) we have this passage:

“`He was wounded for our transgressions,’ etc….There is in the Garden of Eden a palace called the Palace of the Sons of Sickness; this palace the Messiah then enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel; they all come and rest upon him. And were it not that he had thus lightened them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgression of the law: and this is that which is written, `Surely our sicknesses he hath carried.‘”

Or Rabbi Moses Maimonides:

“What is the manner of Messiah’s advent….there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty, where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, `Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place’ (Zech. 6:12). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he shall appear, without father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of dry earth, etc.…in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which kings will harken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.” (From the Letter to the South (Yemen), quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 374-5)

These are just a sample of the many examples of Messianic interpretations.

Now, these quotes are not the only early interpretations of the Suffering Servant. It was also interpreted by early Jews to perhaps refer to Moses, and sometimes even to Israel as modern Jews claim. But these interpretations are not universal, and in fact that corporate interpretation of the Servant being Israel only became dominant in the post-Christ era, where Jews began using it as an apologetic against Jesus as the Messiah. But before this, it was a valid and not uncommon interpretation that this text was about the Messiah.

 

Characteristics of the suffering servant that do not fit Israel

  • The Suffering Servant is innocent and has no guilt. (9)
  • It pleased the Lord to bruise the Suffering Servant (10)
  • The Suffering Servant is a sin offering: a slain sacrifice (10)
  • The Suffering Servant suffers both willingly and silently (7)
  • The Suffering Servant is a prophet, who declares how God saves His people (1)
  • The Suffering Servant suffers in the place of Israel (8)
  • The Suffering Servant dies and is buried (9)
  • The Suffering Servant has no descendants (9)

 

I think that given these, it’s clear that the text is intended to be Messianic and the corporate interpretation of the Suffering Servant as Israel fails. And then the Christian can go on to easily argue that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of here.

The Prophecy of Daniel 9

A strong argument for the truth of the Bible is biblical prophecy. That is, if the Bible contains accurate, specific information about the future, the claims it makes about God are more likely to be true. Whether or not the prophecy actually means God exists may be debatable (maybe it was just time travelling aliens) and that’s a bit beyond what I want to do here. I want to examine one such interesting prophecy, and determine whether it was specific and whether it was fulfilled.

This is a strange kind of argument for me, I spend most of my time on cosmological or teleological or moral arguments. Even historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. However I do think that this is valuable, so bear with me as I give it a go.

This kind of argument often makes people nervous because of the stereotype about prophecy arguments, especially ones that contain the dreaded numbers and dates like this one will. I understand and agree that normally this stereotype is deserved. However, I will make every attempt to perform responsible exegesis and make a rational argument. I ask that you don’t write the argument off immediately, and instead actually evaluate it on its own merits.

The text we will be examining is this one from Daniel 9, starting at verse 24. It is a message that the angel Gabriel brings to Daniel, who is lamenting the state of Israel. Please do read the context yourself. Here is the NASB:

24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. 25 So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.27 And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”

I summarize the prophecy in this way:

Timeline

  • The command to restore Jerusalem is given.
  • Seven sevens pass.
  • Sixty-two sevens pass. The anointed one comes. The city will be rebuilt. Sometime after the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and have nothing.
  • The people of “the prince to come” will destroy the city and the temple, and desolation will continue until the end.
  • Durin the seventieth seven: “He” will confirm a covenant with many.
  • Halfway through the seventieth seven: “He” will put an end to sacrifice and offering.
  • After (or perhaps at) the seventieth seven: On the wing of abominations, one comes who makes desolate, and he will be destroyed. This probably refers to the people of the “prince to come”.
  • After seventy sevens: Transgression is finished, sin comes to an end, wickedness is atoned for, everlasting righteousness is brought in, prophecy and vision are sealed up, the “Most Holy” is anointed.

 

The “sevens” are groups of seven years, not weeks

We note that the passage literally only says “seven sevens” and “seventy sevens” and “sixty-two sevens”, at no point does it indicate that these are weeks. Now the word for “sevens” and “weeks” in Hebrew is the same, for obvious reasons. Some translators have chosen in this passage to render it as “weeks” instead of “sevens”, but there is no indication in the text that it refers to days.

Similar extra-biblical prophecies also use the “week of years” concept, for example with the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q390 fragment 2.

In light of the 70 years in v2, it seems reasonable that this also refers to a period of years. The context indicates that we should be thinking in years, not in weeks.

 

This prophecy was written far before Jesus came

While I am a Christian and I hold to the traditional position that the entire book was written by Daniel at around 600 BCE, I will deliberately make my argument weaker here. I will assume that it was written far later than that. I will assume that the most critical and the most sceptical scholars are right. Again, I don’t actually think they are, but I will assume this because I don’t want to bother refuting them here, I don’t need to. The latest date they give for the book is 164 BCE[1]. This is still over a century earlier than Jesus would come.

 

The starting date of the seven and sixty-two sevens is 457 BCE

This is when the order goes out from Artaxerxes 1. This is a decree given to Ezra, this is also recorded in scripture that was written before Christ. The exact date of the decree is given in the book of Ezra, but we will just consider the year (rather than month and date) because I don’t want to mess around with complicated Jewish leap year rules, and because there is probably some measure of approximation going on anyway.

 

The seven and sixty-two sevens come to an end at 27 CE

We start with -457, and we add (69)x(7) years, and then we add one because there is no year 0. It’s not obvious what is supposed to happen after the first set of sevens, that is, after 49 years. It may be divided for reasons of numerology (7 is of course a very symbolic number in Hebrew thought) or it may indicate when the completion of the restoration of Jerusalem will occur. Or perhaps something else that I haven’t thought of, or that history in general is unaware of.

 

This indicates that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the passage

One of the things the prophecy predicts is the anointing of the “Most Holy”. The translators add the word “place” as they argue that it is implied since the “most holy” normally refers to the temple. (But this isn’t actually true, it refers to the temple sometimes but not even the majority of the time). But given that Jesus is the most holy, and that Jesus compares His body to the temple in several places, I think we can reasonably say that this is actually fulfilled in Jesus.

Historians think Jesus’ baptism occurred between 27 and 29. We are certainly in that range. Jesus’ baptism is an extremely significant event recorded in all Gospels, marking the start of His public ministry. This is when Jesus appeared in history.

Then halfway through the last week, there is desolation, and the Messiah is cut ofg. This puts Jesus’ death 3.5 years (probably approximate, but we will use this figure) after 27, which is 30.5.

Historians believe Jesus was crucified between 30 and 36 CE. We are again in that range.

And of course, Christians claim that Jesus’ death brings an end to sin and wickedness by atoning for it, and marks the end of the age of prophecy as Jesus gives God’s fullest and final revelation. See Hebrews 1. We also believe that Jesus instituted the New Covenant through His death and resurrection and that in doing so Jesus put a stop to the offerings and sacrifices at the temple. All of these things are specifically mentioned in the prophecy.

The events in Jesus’ life occur at the correct time, and they do the correct things. The most holy is anointed, sin is atoned for, the Messiah is cut off, a covenant is affirmed, sacrifice is brought to an end, and prophecy is brought to an end.

 

Who is the prince who is to come?

There are several options here. It seems clear that what he does is destroy the temple (see the similar language in chapter 11). This occurred in 70 AD, some time after the full 70 sevens of the prophecy are complete.

So the “prince” may refer to a particular Roman leader, perhaps the emperor at the time Vespatian. More likely is Titus who was the Roman commander at the siege of Jerusalem who would later become emperor. Or it may indeed be Satan. I leave this undetermined. I don’t know if we have enough information to determine who it is. There is evidence elsewhere in Daniel, but I will refrain from discussing it here. It doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.

 

The critical/skeptical interpretation fails

Many, many possible interpretations of this passage have been given by sceptical scholars. I won’t go through all of them in depth, but I will give some broad criticism. The most likely one is that the Messiah spoken of isn’t the Jewish Messiah spoken of elsewhere, but an anointed leader of the Jewish people. Most commonly, Onias III. He died outside Jerusalem in 171/0 BCE. If we take the latest possible date for Daniel, it was written around 164, around 6 years after his death, and so the skeptic argues that the author knew about this, and backdated a prophecy referring to it.

This doesn’t seem to work, however, as the timing doesn’t match up. There is no “word” that goes out 483 or 490 years before Onias’ death. So the skeptic arbitrarily picks a date earlier than this (often 606 BCE, when Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy comes to an end), and says that the author of Daniel intended to use this as a starting point made a miscalculation in his dates. You can find examples of this in Montgomery (p393) and Porteous (p134). Alternatively, they try to fit it by allowing the sevens to overlap or have gaps between them. They’ve got a theory, and they want to fit the evidence to it, rather than letting the evidence inform their theory.

Apart from this, it is not clear how Onias III is supposed to have accomplished the goals set out at the start of the prophecy. He did not bring an end to wickedness and institute eternal righteousness.

Further, there was no destruction of the temple or of Jerusalem here. Yes, they were besieged and damaged, but not destroyed.

This methodology fails. The skeptic here rules out genuine prophecy a priori, and so has to look for a figure that fits this assumption. But no good candidates exist. And if we don’t rule out prophecy a priori, and we allow it to be possible (without even assuming that it happens), then we find a figure that clearly fits: Christ. We should start where the prophecy starts: at the word going out. We should look for that as the indication of the person that the passage is intending to talk about.

 

This prophecy is evidence for the supernatural origin of the Bible

I think that we can reasonably confidently say that if Daniel could accurately know precise details of the far future, this indicates that something supernatural was going on. I would be interested to see how the skeptic could agree that Daniel knew this, centuries before it happened, but didn’t do so supernaturally.

 

Further Reading