Prophecy by The Book: Chapter 5
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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The Fulfillment of Prophecy
All of our study thus far has contributed to a realization that the critical
center of biblical faith is the spiritual realm. Moreover, this spiritual reality
consists of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Recall the
climactic scene in Revelation 11:15 where "loud voices in heaven"
cry: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of
his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever"! Accordingly, the whole
of history, as recorded in Old and New Testaments, is a movement from and to
that great day of spiritual victory over spiritual darkness. The Bible is a
progressive revelation of how that will be accomplished.
Since the New Testament deals more specifically than the Old Testament with
this spiritual fulfillment, the New Testament is the final source of our understanding
of biblical prophecy. However, this by no means rules out the Old Testament
as long as we see it from a Christian perspective, and recognize that the prophecies
therein are to be ultimately fulfilled in the spiritual realm.
Let us turn again to Israel in the Old Testament. The people of Israel were
God's people; however, although ethnic Israel continues (as previously discussed),
Christians (whether Gentile or Jew) became and are now God's people (recall
Paul's words in Romans 9:25 quoting Hosea, "Those who were not my people
I will call 'my people'"), not as a political or national entity but a
spiritual reality, the church of Jesus Christ. Thus many Old Testament prophecies
that outwardly speak of Israel, or Israel and Judah, refer to the future "Israel
of God." For example, in Jeremiah 31 there is the prophecy: "Behold,
the days are coming...when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah...I will put my law within them, and I will write it
upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people"
(vv. 31, 33). Outwardly this sounds like a prophecy to be fulfilled some day
when a united Israel and Judah will become a new covenant people. A literal
interpretation might suggest such, even that it will occur after a future return
of Jews to their native land. However, according to the New Testament, this
prophecy is fulfilled not in ethnic Israel but in Christ and the church. Jesus,
as the Book of Hebrews says, became "the mediator of a new covenant"
(9:15), and chapter 8:8-12, which is largely a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34,
shows that, although the language still refers to the house of Israel and the
house of Judah, it actually applies to what Christ has accomplished through
His mediatorial sacrifice and death, thereby bringing a new people into existence.
It would, therefore, be a serious error to seek to apply the prophecy to Israel
as a nation perhaps sometime in the future.
This is the danger, I might add (as earlier), of seeking invariably to apply
a literal method of interpretation throughout the Bible. Many passages call
for a spiritual interpretation, including the one we have just considered. The
reason: the New Testament itself often spiritualizes what was said in the Old
Testament so that, as just observed, "the house of Israel" and "the
house of Judah" are no longer literally the recipients of the promises,
but those who believe in Christ, hence the church, the new Israel of God. Without
a spiritual interpretation we are still back in the Old Testament and fail to
recognize the wonder of spiritual fulfillment in Christ and those who belong
To resume: the nation of Israel, God's Old Testament people, was, therefore,
a foreshadowing of the new Israel to come. For instance, even the hallowed Passover
feast, about which Israel was commanded by God: "You shall observe this
rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever" (Exod. 12:24),
was only a preparation for the passover of Christ"Christ our
Passover also has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7 nasb). The Old Testament
sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were declared to be a perpetual statute"And
this shall be an everlasting statute for you, that atonement may be made for
the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins" (Lev.
16:34). However, as Christians, we know that this statute has been fulfilled
by the once for all (not once a year) offering up of Christ as the Lamb of God
for the sins of the whole world. Again there is a spiritual fulfillment (not
an abrogation but a fulfillment), and no longer are priests and sacrificial
Incidentally, some people today believe that many of these sacrifices will
be reinstituted because in Ezekiel 40-48 (which see) the visionary temple to
come depicts animal sacrifices being offered (43:18-27). This is a highly regrettable
misunderstanding of an Old Testament prophecy which, despite some difficulties
in interpretation, is to be fulfilled in a new and spiritual manner. The Old
Testament sacrificial system has forever been done awaybecome "obsolete"
just like the covenant (Heb. 8:13)and will never be reinstituted
on this earth, or in a millennium to come (as some people advocate).
In this matter of a rebuilt temple, many Jews today are determined to accomplish
a rebuilding on the mount where the temple stood and now stands the Moslem Dome
of the Rock. Even some Christians view this as essential to the fulfillment
of Old Testament prophecy.
Here then is a good test of reading prophecy by the Book. How, in this particular
case, are we to deal prophetically with Ezekiel 40-48? The best answer is once
again to turn to the New Testament and see what it has to say about such a temple.
An aphorism states: "What is latent in the Old is patent in the New"or,
better, what is less clear in the Old Testament is more clearly shown in the
New Testament. Hence, we look again to the New Testament for help and guidance.
However, when we turn there, nothing is to be found about the rebuilding of
a material temple.
For example, Jesus has much to say about the destruction of the templerebuilt
after Ezekiel's time (significantly, however, rebuilt not according to the specifications
in Ezekiel)but nothing about a new temple to rise some day in its
place (again see Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). In fact, it would seem contrary
to Jesus' whole spirit even to imagine such a temple. In John's Gospel, Jesus
declared to the woman at the well that "neither on this mountain [in Samaria]
nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father...God is spirit, and those who
worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (4:21, 24). No earthly temple
any place, including Solomon's temple, Herod's temple, or Ezekiel's visionary
temple can possibly suffice.
Paul, likewise, has nothing to say in any of his letters about Ezekiel's temple
or anything like it. In fact, the word "temple" is spiritualized (there's
that word again!) by Paul to refer to believers themselves, for example, "Do
you not know [he writes the Corinthians] that you are God's temple and that
God's Spirit dwells in you" (1 Cor. 3:16). Again, "We are the temple
of the living God" (2 Cor. 6:16). Once more, Paul speaks of believing Jews
and Gentiles being "members of the household of God" and that "the
whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord"
(Eph. 2:19 and 21). There simply is no place in Paul's teaching, any more than
in Jesus', for a future earthly temple.
But what then do we do with Ezekiel's visionary temple (it is in the Bible!)?
The best answer, I suggest, is to see it just like the earlier temple of Solomon
and the tabernacle of Moses: as a type or foreshadowing of the spiritual to
come. There is a far more glorious fulfillment than anything Ezekiel foresaw!
We no longer need a Holy of holies, as depicted in all the Old Testament descriptions
of tabernacle and temple, and in some detail in Ezekiel's temple, because Christ
has once for all entered in, and the curtain has been rent in two, so that now
we the church are God's dwelling place in the Spirit. And some day in the age
to comethe new heavens and new earthas depicted in
Revelation 21 and 22, there will be an even richer fulfillment of Ezekiel's
On this latter point, one of the most vivid scenes in Ezekiel's temple is that
showing water issuing "from below the threshold of the temple" (47:1),
becoming a river that brings life "wherever the river goes" (v. 9)
and "on the banks, on both sides of the river...all kinds of trees for
food" with "leaves for healing" (v. 12). In the Book of Revelation
there is no longer a temple, "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty
and the Lamb" (21:22), and from that throne flows "the river of the
water of life" (2:1), and "on either side of the river, the tree of
life with its twelve kinds of fruit...and the leaves of the tree were for the
healing of the nations" (v. 2). Thus memorably and beautifully is Ezekiel's
visionary earthly temple transcended and fulfilled in the glories of the world
Let us return again to the Old Testament and this time look back to Israel's
early days, particularly to the pilgrimage of Israel from Egypt to the Promised
land. Here again we behold a foreshadowing of spiritual things to come. As Christians
we recognize ourselves as being set free from bondage not to Egypt as a nation
but from bondage to sin and evil. We read the Old Testament account in Exodus
with thanksgiving, for we know a far greater fulfillmenta spiritual
onethan Israel did in Old Testament times. Israel after Egyptian
bondage fought many enemies along the way; and after settling in Canaan she
was almost endlessly involved in battle with her surrounding neighbors: Ammonites,
Edomites, Moabites, and later with the larger empires of Assyria, Babylon, and
Persia. These nations are again and again shown to be in warfare against Israel.
Now as Christians we see all this warfare in a more spiritual, even in a more
serious, perspective. For as Paul puts it, "our struggle is not against
flesh and blood [Moabites, Ammonites, Assyrians, etc.], but against the rulers,
against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the
spiritual forces ['hosts' rsv] of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12
niv). It is spiritually the kingdom of the world (the evil kingdom) against
the kingdom of God!
Let us take a specific Old Testament example: Babylonand then
see how it is understood in the New Testament. Babylon in Chaldea was the great
foe of Judah, and under Nebuchadnezzar Judah became a captive and exiled people.
But Babylon was doomed to fall. Isaiah had earlier prophesied its destruction:
"'I am stirring up the Medes against them...and Babylon...will be like
Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them'" (13:17 and 19). Later Isaiah
adds: "'I will rise up against them,' says the lord of hosts, 'and will
cut off from Babylon name and remnant, offspring and posterity...I will make
it a possession of the hedgehog, and pools of water, and I will sweep it with
the broom of destruction'" (14:22). Babylon thereafter was destroyed utterly,
as Isaiah prophesied: we do not have to wait for a future fulfillment.
Yet "Babylon" reappears in the New Testament in 1 Peter 5:13"She
who is in Babylon...sends you greetings," (probably signifying Rome)*
and in the Book of Revelation numerous times as "Babylon the great"
(14:8; 16:19;17:5;18:2, 10, 21). In Revelation, this name first undoubtedly
refers to Rome, the city of "seven hills" (17:9), but she is also
earlier called "mother of harlots and of earth's abominations...drunk with
the blood of the saints" (v. 6) and later "the great city which has
dominion over the kings of the earth" (v. 17). Hence the fall of Babylon,
announced earlier in Chapter 14: "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great,"
is the fall of the worldly powerproud, lascivious, vilethat
is totally opposed to all that Christ and Christian faith stand for. It is this
Babylon, no longer an earthly city, either in Chaldea or in Italy, that is the
enemy of all things Christian. It is this cityprincipality, power,
dominant in all the kingdoms of earththat we struggle against.
But, praise God, her doom is sure!
How then do we read prophecy today about Babylon? No longer as an earthly city
or powernot even as represented by Iraq despite its violent activitybut
as the city of the world, the city of darkness, that for all its domination
of the "kings of earth," worldly leaders, and its opposition to Christianity
is doomed to be destroyed. When the angel in Revelation by way of anticipation
announces the fall of Babylon, we can now appreciate what this means. It is
the kingdom of the worldin all its secularity, immorality, and
antichristian naturecollapsing before the inbreaking might of the
kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. We may say then that the destruction
of physical Babylon prophesied in the Old Testament is a type or foregleam of
the destruction of spiritual Babylon in the New Testament. It is not so muchif
at alla coming destruction of physical Babylon in our day but of the city
of the world, the kingdom of the world, by the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
* See various commentaries,
e.g., Peter H. Edwards, The First Epistle of Peter, NICNT, 202.
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Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams,
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