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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 3, by Craig S. Keener

Those who have been grafted into the biblical heritage and hope by faith share in those future promises.

When a prophecy was not fulfilled but deals with God’s unconditional promises, how much of it remains future? For example, the Israelites’ return from Babylon was a clear miracle, although Cyrus needed less miraculous persuasion to let his captives return home than Pharaoh had needed when the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. (Indeed, he sent home other captive peoples as well.) But Isaiah’s exalted prophecies of the deserts blossoming with lilies were not fulfilled; Israel remained a very small kingdom. (This disappointment seemed no less severe than the generation that wandered in the wilderness after a miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt.) Some aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy were fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry, both physically and spiritually (e.g., Is 35:5-6; 61:1-2; Matt 11:5; Lk 4:18-19). But history also suggests that God is preserving Israel for a purpose. Israel was scattered again a generation after Jesus’ crucifixion, as he warned would happen in judgment (Lk 21:20-24). Yet the Jewish people never disappeared, in contrast to the Hittites, Edomites, Philistines and other nations that were assimilated into other peoples.

Jesus’ coming may appear at first sight a less dramatic deliverance than the first exodus or the return from Babylon, but within a few centuries Judea’s oppressors were converted to belief in Israel’s God—something more dramatic than happened with Pharaoh or Cyrus. Today perhaps half the world’s population acknowledges that there is one God; much of this faith may be inadequate in many respects, but from the standpoint of Jeremiah’s or Jesus’ day it would appear an amazing miracle. All this leads us to expect the fulfillment of future promises of restoration, though we cannot get past the prophets’ symbolic language to fathom all the details. Those who have been grafted into the biblical heritage and hope by faith (Rom 2:26-29; 11:17-24) share in those future promises.

We must be careful, however, in speaking of “double fulfillments.” Many of the “secondary fulfillments” of Scripture we see in the New Testament are actually applications or analogies with the Old Testament, not claims to primary fulfillment. Thus, for example, when Hosea said, “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” the context makes clear that he speaks of Israel in the exodus (Hos 11:1). When Matthew applies this to Jesus, it is because he recognizes an analogy between Israel and Jesus, who repeats Israel’s history but overcomes: for instance, tested forty days in the wilderness (as Israel was for forty years), Jesus passes the very temptations Israel failed (note the context of the verses he quotes from Deuteronomy).

The whole Old Testament bears witness to Christ because it reveals God’s character, his way of saving by grace, his ways of using deliverers, his principles for atonement, covenant and promise, his purposes for his people, and so forth. This means that understanding it properly leads us to recognize in Christ the promised deliverer, and God had all this in mind when he inspired the Old Testament Scripture.

If we say, ‘The Bible says,’ we dare say only what it specifically says.

It does not mean, however, that we are free to come up with new “fulfillments” of Scripture randomly; the writers of the New Testament were guided by special inspiration, but we cannot make the same claim. That is not to deny that we should be led by the Spirit in understanding Scripture. It is rather to claim that if we say, “The Bible says,” we dare say only what it specifically says. If we read into the Bible what is not there, we should be honest and say, “This is my view, not the Bible’s,” or “I felt as if God were leading me this way.” The safest way to read Scripture is to look for its one meaning; with so much of the Bible yet to understand correctly, we have no reason to go looking for “hidden” meanings!


We should beware of “prophecy teachers” who claim that every detail of the biblical text is being fulfilled in our generation.

Through most of church history and especially in the past two centuries, many interpreters have reinterpreted biblical prophecies to apply them to their own generation. Every decade or two, as news events change, they have to revise their interpretation of Scripture. In such cases teachers are not reading Scripture on its own authority, but interpreting it in light of current news reports. This is problematic because they do it on two assumptions: first, that all prophecy applies to the final generation (which is not true, biblically); and second, that we must be the final generation. But most generations in history believed they were the final generation! God says that for all we know we might be—or we might not (Mk 13:32); we must always be ready (Mk 13:33-37). In the New Testament, the “last days” included the entire period between the first and second coming, including the first century (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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