How many times is a prophecy fulfilled?

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I have just come across an old and decidedly skimpy review by Kyle McDanell of The Coming of the Son of Man. Judging by the list of his favourite blogs I wouldn’t have expected Kyle to agree with the thesis of the book, but he is decent enough to recognize the thoroughness and integrity of the argument while disagreeing somewhat vaguely with the conclusions. There was not the level of ‘speculation, conversation, or ambiguity’ that he had expected to find in a book purporting to offer a ‘New Testament eschatology for an emerging church’. Much appreciated, Kyle.

The skimpiness of the review is a little frustrating because the issue is too a large extent in the details of interpretation (there is also a broad hermeneutical issue of perspective), even if the ‘argument has been repeatedly made for two thousand years’. Otherwise, the broad structure of my reading of New Testament eschatology and Kyle’s appear remarkably similar, differing probably only in degree: a good part of the prophecies are fulfilled in the early period, but some texts refer to as yet future ‘events’ (if you can call the end of this creation an ‘event’).

What I do want to challenge, however, is the statement: ‘There is oftentimes an immediate fulfillment and a future fulfillment.’ This is a common exegetical tactic by which modern theologians endeavour to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they want to acknowledge the historical-critical reading of the text that interprets Daniel 7-12, say, in relation to Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault on Judaism in the second century BC. On the other, they want to affirm Jesus’ use of the imagery of a human figure coming on the clouds of heaven to speak about events or circumstances somewhere in his own future – and preferably still in our future.

This is, of course, a good – though rather complex – case in point. My argument is that Jesus would have understood perfectly well the original historical frame of reference but intentionally re-uses the symbolism to interpret an analogous state of affairs – one having to do, essentially, with the eventual vindication of his followers against apostate Judaism and potentially against hostile pagan Rome. Jesus, therefore, does what prophets often do: they retell biblical stories and arguments in a new context in order to give faithful but troubled Israel understanding and hope.

The important point to get hold of here is that Jesus as a prophet took responsibility for the re-application of the symbolism. He saw the historical relevance of the analogy and creatively retold Israel’s story, centred on himself, in light of it. That cannot be understood to mean that Daniel 7-12 intrinsically has two fulfilments. Nor does it mean that we can take any prophecy willy-nilly and claim that whatever relevance it may have had under the particular historical conditions of the first three centuries, it still has relevance for the church today. That cannot be ruled out, but it must be done with prophetic and scriptural discrimination.

Otherwise, it seems to me that there is no good hermeneutical or exegetical warrant for the face-saving assumption that biblical prophecy must have a secondary reference beyond its obvious historical context. There is no reason why a parable about judgment on Israel, for example, should also be a parable about judgment on the whole world at the end of time. Jesus doesn’t make that claim; it is not theologically necessary. It has been one of the means by which the church has expressed its continuing participation in the biblical narrative, and I understand the need to do that. But I think that there are much better – much more honest – ways of doing it.

Andrew -

I still think that, along with single prophetic fulfilment, that double fulfilment is a viable understanding. So, the whole Isa 7:14 Immanuel passage probably had a double fulfilment through the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz and then with Christ.

But an interesting term I have used with regards to prophetic fulfilment is that of cumulative fulfilment. This might no be as common a term, but when we speak of something being cumulatively fulfilled, it means the prophecy will be fulfilled progressively, or increasingly throughout time. I think this is a reality in the age we live, seeing the new creation become more and more a reality, seeing the glory of God cover the earth as the waters cover the sea more and more, etc.

Any thoughts?

Scott, I’m with you in spirit at least. Clearly Matthew believed that it made sense to interpret Jesus’ birth in the light of Isaiah 7:14. Perhaps we could call that a second or secondary level of fulfilment of the original prophecy. But I still think it is unhelpful exegetically (and historically) to claim that Isaiah prophesied not only the birth of a son in the royal court of his day but also the birth of Israel’s messiah hundreds of years later. I also think that the more interesting question is what Matthew understood the congruence between these two births to mean – see my comment on the text.

But the other thing to say is that we have explicit biblical justification for the reapplication of the original prophecy to a new context. It is part of the authoritative witness of the New Testament, if you like; and there are numerous examples of this practice. But not every Old Testament prophecy is given a secondary application. As I said before, there has to be a judgment – literary, theological, exegetical, historical, prophetic – as to whether it is appropriate to see some present circumstance in the light of an Old Testament precedent.

What I object to is the uncritical assumption that New Testament prophecies, such as Jesus’ prophecies centred on the coming of the Son of man, necessarily have a secondary application. There appears to me to be nothing in the texts that requires that. They make excellent sense within the limited historical purview of the New Testament. So why, in the absence of any explicit biblical warrant, do we cling to the belief that they must also refer to something in our own future?

Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse is addressed to Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37), it develops his warning that the temple will be destroyed (24:2-3), it purports to describe events that will take place within a generation (23:36; 24:34), the coming of the Son of man is said to be a critical event in the immediate future of the city (23:39). Why can’t we leave it at that? Why can we not allow Jesus to determine the frame of reference?

The new creation motif seems to me rather different because there does appear to be a sense throughout the story of the people of God in which we are always straining for a renewal of the created order. But this is a unique kind of fulfilment that transcends the historical narrative.

Andrew -

What I object to is the uncritical assumption that New Testament prophecies, such as Jesus’ prophecies centred on the coming of the Son of man, necessarily have a secondary application. There appears to me to be nothing in the texts that requires that. They make excellent sense within the limited historical purview of the New Testament. So why, in the absence of any explicit biblical warrant, do we cling to the belief that they must also refer to something in our own future?

I did always see Jesus' words in Matt 24 as more prose than prophecy, though there is some scattering of Jewish apocalyptic language, more utilising some of Daniel's wordings as a kind of basis to describe what would soon happen with Jerusalem.

The point of my last comment was that, because it seems more prose than prophecy, we don't really need to consider if it has a 'double fulfilment'. Just to clarify why I commented what I did.

Not sure I follow you. What is the difference here between prose and prophecy? If Jesus is talking about future events, does that not make it prophecy?


Guess, I'll just have to buy the book. :)



Concerning double fulfillment.  Lk 21:20-22 reads:

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. 22 For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.

Jesus tells us that during the Rome destruction of Jerusalem, “all things” would be fulfilled.

Jesus also states in Mat 24:21

“21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.

Jesus is clear that they shall never be repeated.  It was a one time event, period.  And if you admit that Mat 24:21 is in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, this verse (21) is quote from Daniel 12:1.

1 “At that time Michael shall stand up,
 The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people;
And there shall be a time of trouble,
Such as never was since there was a nation,
Even to that time.
And at that time your people shall be delivered,
Every one who is found written in the book.
2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,
Some to everlasting life,
Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
 3 Those who are wise shall shine
 Like the brightness of the firmament,
And those who turn many to righteousness
Like the stars forever and ever.
4 “But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”

So, now you have the fulfillment of Dan 12:1.  Problem for (partial preterist) is the Daniel passage includes the Resurrection (see Dan 12:2).  Now we know the Resurrection was at the destruction of Jerusalem too.

Daniel also states in verse 4 to “seal the book until the time of the end”.  Interesting thing is in the Revelation John is told not to seal the words of his prophecy, because the “time is near” (Rev 22:10).  So, if the words given to Daniel were a few hundred years away from when Revelation was given, then the time from the revealing of the words of Revelation to their fulfillment must be less than the time between Daniel and Revelation.  That sure doesn’t allow for 2000+ years!

Daniel also continues in verse 7:

7 Then I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever, that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished.

Notice Daniel stated it would be a 3-1/2 period of time for it to happen.  It just so happens that it was a 3-1/2 year period of time from the start of Rome’s invasion until they destroyed Jerusalem.  In addition, Daniel stated it would be when the “power of the holy people has been completely shattered”.  When was the power of the “holy people” shattered?  Not hard to see AD 70 with the complete destruction of the Temple and all its associated system that held the people in slavery (Gal 4:21-26).

No matter how you look at it, it could not have a double fulfillment.  The fulfillment had to have been completed during Daniel’s 4th beast per Dan 7, which is clearly Rome.  That narrows it down to fulfillment before the Roman Empire fell.  Daniel also narrows it down to when the power of the holy people was shattered.  No other event will fit except AD 70.  All was completed, unless there are two Resurrections, two Judgements, two…

It’s just too easy to be a Preterist.