MISINTERPRETATION of prophecy has plagued the Christian church from its inception. John 21:20-23 mentions that Jesus revealed to Peter a glimmering of his fate. Peter, eager to know how John also would fare, asked, "What shall this man do?" Jesus replied, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?"
Peter reported the statement to the brethren and they, knowing that Jesus never spoke lightly, that His every statement was fraught with truth, immediately speculated on His saying.
If John was to tarry till Jesus came, they reasoned, then that would mean that he wouldn't die, for he would be translated with out seeing death. You can almost imagine the early evangelists hammering out the conclusion point by point from the evangelistic platform. Time lent force to their interpretation as one by one each of the apostles except John, lay down his life for the sake of the gospel. James was the first to fall by the sword, and the time came when, according to Christ's prediction, Peter died also. But John seemed to be immortal. Not even immersion in a cauldron of boiling oil could thwart the prediction's fulfillment.
If you had been living then, wouldn't you have been tempted to proclaim the imminence of Christ's second advent on the basis of these facts? I would. I would find it almost impossible to resist. "Yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?"
In the third year of the reign of the Emperor Trajan the church was perplexed and her critics rejoiced when the apostle John, at the grand old age of nearly 100 years, quietly passed to his rest. Did Christ's prophecy fail? Not one whit. What did fail was the interpretation placed upon it by the early church.
Sacred history reveals that John did tarry until Christ appeared. (See The Acts of the Apostles, p. 582. The prediction Jesus made of John should be considered in the same light as His prediction in Matthew 16:28.)
The Purpose of Prophecy
The primary purpose of prophecy is not to make us wise before the event but to give us confidence in God and His control of the event. Jesus said, I tell you these things now, that when they come to pass, you may believe (see John 14:29).
It is our duty, not to play the part of the prophet, but to store our minds with the facts of the prophecy so that when they are fulfilled by history our faith also will be fulfilled. The prophecies of the Bible are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and only history can piece them together accurately. If we try to fit the puzzle together prematurely we may get a distorted picture.
It is not harmful to speculate on prophecy, in fact it is to be com mended. But don't fall into the trap of setting forth your speculation as fact. We humans like to have all our information in concrete form with every detail pigeonholed in its correct compartment, but with unfulfilled prophecy we cannot do this. The details should be kept fluid until they are set by history. If we set them according to our preconceived opinions we may make some embarrassing errors as we have done in the past.
Remember the "Eastern question"? Some refused to acknowledge that it was a question and presented the Turkey-Russia conflict as the answer, much to their, and our, embarrassment.
James White's caution regarding the interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy given in 1877 is still good counsel today:
"In exposition of unfulfilled prophecy, where the history is not written, the student should put forth his propositions with not too much positiveness, lest he find himself straying in the field of fancy.
"There are those who think more of future truth than of present truth. They see but little light in the path in which they walk, but think they see great light ahead of them.
"Positions taken upon the Eastern question are based upon prophecies which have not yet met their fulfillment. Here we should tread lightly, and take positions carefully, lest we be found removing the landmarks fully established in the advent movement. It may be said that there is a general agreement upon this subject, and that all eyes are turned toward the war now in progress between Turkey and Russia as the fulfillment of that portion of prophecy which will give great confirmation of faith in the soon loud cry and close of our message. But what will be the result of this positiveness in unfulfilled prophecies should things not come out as very confidently expected, is an anxious question." Quoted in The SDA Bible Commentary, on Dan. 11:45.
A United Europe?
One prophecy that we have often used to "prove" that Europe will never be united is the dream image of Daniel 2. The Lord graciously preserved us from humiliation during World War II when He halted the unity of Eu rope at the Anglo-Saxon border, but He may not do it again. Note that the prophecy does not say that the nations of Europe will not come together. It says they will not cleave together. Our under standing of just what degree of international cooperation is precluded by this word is perhaps not complete. As we are now living on the eve of a possible united Europe let us be careful not to add to the words of the Lord. Revelation 17, which amplifies Daniel 2, does speak of ten kings who give their power to the beast for a short time. They may come together, but the prophecy concludes that they will not cleave together.
We must be very careful not to read into a prophecy that which is not there. When speaking or writing about unfulfilled prophecy we should use the words, "may," "might," and "perhaps," rather than "will," "shall," and "definitely." In these critical times dogmatic assertions founded on mere probability are entirely out of place.
If we feed God's people on one error, it means that on that point we are starving them of the truth. Be careful what you say and write concerning unfulfilled prophecy, because we can't afford to spend another hundred years sifting through the sensational speculations of this generation.
We can speak with greater certainty on those areas of prophecy that have been amplified by the writings of Ellen G. White, but as for the remainder, "patience is a virtue." Unfulfilled prophecy is like a field of immature grain. It's almost impossible to tell the wheat from the tares. What we may believe to be good wheat may turn out to be nothing but tares. Only when the harvest is ripe will we be able to see things as they really are.