By Samuel Clough
…For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. – Revelation 19:10b (ESV)
I’ll admit up front that this post is long, but the topic is critical and the full consideration of it is has profound implications for how we interpret Scripture and therefore how we live.
Revelation 19:10 is an absolutely critical passage containing a massive, hidden gem. I’ll admit up front that we all know that Scripture repeatedly provides us with multiple meanings from a single passage. However, what follows is a critical, and I might argue the primary, meaning that is often lost on readers and has significant repercussions for the way you interpret Scripture. In short, Revelation 19:10 unlocks all prophecy by providing the key that is necessary to rightly interpret the prophetic Scriptures. Now let’s examine that key.
Given just how much of the Bible is dedicated to the writings of the prophets and how much of our theology is based on the proclamation of the prophets, understanding this key rightly has massive implications for how we read and understand the Bible. Once you grasp the key of Rev 19:10, you can better navigate the entire Scriptures and especially the Old Testament prophets. The lack of the application of this key has caused many to be confused as they read the Old Testament and also caused the development of faulty hermeneutics that allegorize passages that are intended to be literal. Let’s break down Revelation 19:10 then and find the critical key contained within it.
I want to focus on the final sentence of the verse. The verse says, depending on your version, that the testimony (or witness) of Jesus is the spirit (or essence) of prophecy. So we have the spirit, or essence, of all prophecy being connected to the witness of testimony of Jesus. So then at the root of prophecy you will find the declaration of Jesus and a testimony of Jesus. Prophecy, by nature, is a forward looking gift. We also know from I Corinthians 13 that prophecy will cease at the end of the age when Jesus comes. Therefore, the witness of Jesus given by the spirit of prophecy is forward looking but only necessary before the end of the age. In other words, it exists only to give testimony of Jesus in this age.
Therefore so long as prophecy exists, there must be a testimony of Jesus still to be given. Implied in that is that for prophecy to cease, the testimony of Jesus contained within prophecy, must no longer be necessary. In other words, in our current age which is filled with darkness, we have need of prophecy to point us forwards to a testimony of Jesus that is yet future, but when we enter an age of light we will no longer need prophecy as a testimony to Jesus. Now we know that the majesty and mystery of Jesus will be proclaimed for all eternity. Therefore prophecy is aiming at a specific testimony of Jesus that is desperately needed in this age, but not in the age to come.
The one thing that marks the age to come above all else is that Jesus will physically reign in Jerusalem. The present age and the age to come are separated by many things, but the one primary thing is that presently we await Jesus’ return from the heavens whereas in the age to come He will be openly reigning over the whole earth from a throne in Jerusalem. So then prophecy gives a needed witness of Jesus until Jesus Himself is reigning on the earth bringing “that which is perfect” and eliminating the need for prophecy as we know it.
From that we can clearly say that the spirit of prophecy is aiming towards the installation of Jesus as King over the Earth at the end of the age. After that event occurs, prophecy is no longer needed. But why is the spirit of prophecy necessary in this age? It is because men’s hearts and minds are blind to the judgment to come and to the reality of Jesus’ rule. They are as mockers in Noah’s day (Matthew 24:37-38) and it requires the spirit of prophecy to confront the cloud of deception on the earth with the bold declaration that Messiah is coming.
Understanding this, we could now re-write Revelation 19:10 in the following way: the Spirit of prophecy, or the root life and essence of it, is the full revelation of the Messiah ruling over the whole earth. Implied in that definition is the declaration of the events that will lead to the installation of the Messiah on the earth at the end of the age. Therefore, prophecy’s life consists, not merely in its present accuracy with regard to current events, but rather in whether or not it contains the essence of the eternal mystery of God’s glorious day of judgment whereby God installs the Messiah over the earth, judges all wickedness, and restores creation by the Messiah.
The prophets collectively refer to this event as the “Day of the Lord.” The spirit of prophecy then always contains, not just direction concerning the situation at hand, but a witness to the ultimate “Day of the Lord.” This is quickly illustrated by a brief examination of the prophetic Scriptures. Not only is this found in the prophets, but a careful reading of the New Testament will point out continual references to the day of the Lord showing its preeminence in the minds of the apostles.
Here is how the lack of this key has caused confusion among many in reading the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, the prophets may address a particular situation, leader, or dilemma but as you read the prophetic words you begin to notice that prophecies almost always include elements of language that seem to supersede or go beyond the issue at hand. The prophetic will address an event but then add climatic language, usually in the first person for God, describing an ultimate victory or destruction always accompanied by a Divine claim of personally visiting the planet and extreme events that accompany that appearing. The problem that some face is that the specific event being addressed is clearly understood, but the climatic language almost seems to be hyperbole when it is only considered in relation to the actual events that unfolded.
The language of the prophets then becomes confusing for many and, not understanding the spirit of prophecy, is interpreted as allegorical by others. The reality is that these prophecies are merely operating according to the spirit of prophecy which means that, at their core, they are always aiming at the ultimate revelation of the Messiah on the Day of the Lord. The exaggerated language or visual language that supersedes the issue at hand is not allegorical, but rather it is the prophet seeing that the moment at hand is merely a picture or a parable of actual events and an actual day to come.
In a moment or crisis, the prophet is also seeing the ultimate crisis of the end of the age. In a period of judgment, the prophet may erupt in terrifying language which is not out of character with the prophecy but rather is connecting the present prophecy with the ultimate judgment at the end of the age. The description of rulers and characters in the prophets accompanied by unusual language is serving to illustrate something concerning the Messiah or something that is anti-Messiah.
The reality is that the ultimate events of the end of the age which are the full revelation of Messiah, the ultimate judgment of all evil, and the permanent installment of the Messiah as the supreme ruler and representation of God on the earth, are intricately interwoven with every period of history. In the age to come we are going to see that all of history was an exact parable illustrating the human predicament and constantly foretelling the ultimate conclusion of the age. We are going to find that God was so kind and loving that virtually all the events of human history are illustrations of some facet of the drama concluding in the restoration of all things.
Once we understand this paradigm, we will see that the correct hermeneutic when interpreting the Scripture is far more literal than we thought it was. We read over the prophets thinking that their predictions refer only to events past and pass over the extreme language where the prophet sees a glimpse of the judgment at the end of the age in the midst of the present judgment. In reality, we were meant to consider the tragedy the prophet was confronting as a picture and then carefully consider the prophet’s language and prepare our hearts with trembling for the yet future day that the prophet was seeing.
Jesus Himself obviously communicated a literal hermeneutic to the apostles when He opened the Scriptures for them because when you read the New Testament you see the writers interpreting Old Testament passages that perhaps could be seen as allegorical or figurative before the appearance of Jesus, as literal. If you sift through the Old Testament references used by the apostles you will find them connecting all sorts of verses that we would not naturally consider to be literal and using them as literal prophecies of elements of Jesus and His life.
Amazingly you will find a tremendous amount of the apostles theology came from the Psalms, a book which we look at primarily as emotional and figurative. That alone should give us pause because the Psalms have far more to say about the ultimate events of the age and the installation of Messiah as a global ruler than they do of His first appearance as a redeemer.
Since we are approaching so many of these passages in hindsight after the Lord’s first appearing, we don’t seem to notice that, absent the knowledge of the first coming, we would not naturally interpret these passages as literal. This becomes especially terrifying when we consider the events of the second coming because most of our interpretation of the Day of the Lord and the ultimate events of the age is not literal.
We seem constantly in search of a code to explain the Scripture rather than wrestling with the Scriptures as a literal record of the events and issues of the age. The Angel’s declaration to John in Revelation 19:10 clearly directs us that the prophecy and events recorded in the Scriptures is critical for us since all true prophecy contains a witness to a great and terrible day that is yet future. It should radically affect the way we live when we realize with clarity that these prophecies are not hyperbole, nor merely symbolic, but literal declarations of a day to come.