These are a loaded three verses. To my knowledge, there’s nothing quite like them in the New Testament, informing us that prophets and angels did their work without understanding the big picture.
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,
“Trying to find out the time and circumstances in which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.
“It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from Heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
One of the bedrock principles of a great segment of Bible scholars states that in order to understand a prophecy, a student should go back and try to learn what the prophet who announced it understood it to mean.
As if he was the ultimate authority on his prophecy.
This principle–clearly erroneous, according to this passage from the Apostle Peter–has given rise to the undermining of some of the great doctrines of the Christian faith.
The plain fact is, Peter says, the prophets said more than they knew. They were the instruments of “The Spirit of Christ within them.”
God knew what He was doing; the prophets often didn’t.
Nor did the angels. That one may be the greatest surprise of all.
We are immensely in the debt of the prophets, in the same way we owe an obligation to the godly men who came later, risking, and in some cases, sacrificing, their lives to get the Holy Scriptures into our hands and in our own tongues.
The prophets, beginning with Moses and going through Malachi, received the revelation from the Lord and after preaching it, either wrote it down or caused it to be written. Many paid a severe price for their faithfulness.
The process, according to Peter, was in this manner:
–the Spirit of Christ was in them. This reminds us of Paul’s statement that if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, “he is none of His” (Romans 8:9). And that New Testament doctrine–which is the great surprise of the Christian life, according to Colossians 1:27–was not a universally experienced fact in Old Testament days.
–the Spirit of Christ revealed to the prophets (and they wrote about) the sufferings of the Messiah and the resulting glory.
–they labored hard and long trying to nail down the chronology and circumstances of the events they were talking about.
–they were not successful.
–the Lord revealed to them that this was not for them but for a generation to come. (We’re not told how frustrating that must have been to the prophets, but I’m betting it was considerable.)
Imagine: the prophets preached things they only partially understood to an audience whose distant descendants would realize their fulfillment.
Clearly, God does not see time the way we do. This seems bizarre to us, as though a pastor today would stand at his pulpit and call for an audience 200 years in the future to repent and turn to the Lord. What’s the point in this, we wonder with the full force of our pragmatic minds.
The point is that God was making sure the preachings of those prophets were recorded and that future generations would hear (and read) them. And when they did, the fact that this was revealed centuries earlier would furnish major proofs of its genuineness.
The Lord wants His people to know the solidness of this gospel. It is historical, it is authentic, it is dependable. As Paul would say, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of full acceptance….” (I Timothy 1:15 and 4:9)
I write this on Saturday night, January 30, 2010, eight days before our local NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, goes up against the Indianapolis Colts in the 44th Super Bowl in Miami. The town is all abuzz with excitement as we anticipate the February 7 contest.
Part of the discussion on today’s call-in shows concerns whether schools and businesses should step out on faith and declare a holiday for the day after the big game. Various callers thought it would be a good idea, although more than one suggested this would not be faith, but presumption.
One caller, wanting to establish how early she believed in this team, said she told her boss back in August 2009 that she wanted Monday, February 8, as her off-day. The boss said, “You’re expecting big things, aren’t you?”
This week, the caller said, she asked the boss for a copy of that written request. She now has tangible proof of her faith that the team would go to the Super Bowl, dated over five months ago.
That’s the way prophecy works. It’s given, a considerable time elapses, then when the event is fulfilled, the beneficiary receives tangible confirmation of his faith.
One such prophecy in particular stands out in my mind.
During the lifetime of Isaiah–the 8th century B.C.–God’s people existed in two small nations, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom called Judah. Without exception, during its entire existence, Israel was rebellious toward God and chose only wicked kings. Judah’s record was spotty, some good kings and some not good.
God had determined to put Israel out of business while preserving Judah.
Now, Judah is being threatened by Israel who has allied herself with Syria. Judah’s king, Ahaz, not at all a spiritual man, was frightened out of his wits.
Isaiah was sent to steady the king’s nerves. “Be careful, be calm, don’t be afraid.” He assured Ahaz that God was not going to let Judah fall into the hands of Israel and Syria. Ahaz was not so sure.
Clearly, the king needed reassuring.
“Go ahead and ask God for a sign,” Isaiah suggested.
“Oh, no,” he said, “I couldn’t do that.”
Isaiah insisted, “Make it as high as the heavens or as deep as possible. Ask for a big sign.”
Ahaz refused. “I can’t put God to the test,” he said.
He was so carnal he did not understand that it’s not testing God when you obey His invitations and claim His promises.
Isaiah lost patience with the man’s lack of faith. We can almost see the fire in his eyes as he calls out loudly,
“All right then! The Lord Himself will give you a sign: A virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” (The account is found in Isaiah 7.)
Countless Bible scholars have concluded the obvious thing here: how could it have been a sign for His people in that day if the fulfilment of it was not to come for another 700 years? Therefore, they insist, it must have referred to some immediate (or soon to come) virgin who would bear a son called Immanuel.
Come on, man.
My favorite Old Testament and Hebrew professor, George Harrison, reminded us frequently that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself.
And the Scriptures–that’s what I Peter is–says the prophets did not always have a clue who the fulfillment of their prophecies would affect or when.
And why was this?
“God having planned some better thing for us.” (Hebrews 11:40)
God planned it that way. He was assembling the components of the Gospel message, using numerous prophets and preachers, in various countries, over several centuries. Then, one day, Jesus called out, “It is finished!” and it was complete.
“You are complete in Him.” (Colossians 2:10) No further prophecies needed. The gospel is complete. We have the message of God.
No one was watching the cosmic drama unfold more closely than the angels.
Sometimes they were spectators, sometimes participants. They watched as Gabriel visited the young maid of Nazareth and interrupted the sleep of Joseph with his announcements. They were all given speaking parts the night Jesus was born, by singing to the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the angels must have said, “Oooh. So that’s it!”
When they ministered to Jesus after His temptation (Matthew 4:11), did they wonder what this was about?
When Jesus died on Calvary, did they worry?
And when He arose from the grave, did they celebrate? I love the image of the angel who has rolled the stone from the empty tomb, not to let Christ out but to let the seekers in. “An angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and going to the tomb, rolled back the stone, and sat on it.” (Matthew 28:2)
He sat on the stone.
Finally, the angels are at peace about this. Everything has fallen into place, Jesus is alive forevermore.
This wonderful old song has blessed generations of Christians.
“There is singing up in heaven such as we have never known,
Where the angels sing the praises of the Lamb upon the throne.
Their sweet harps are ever tuneful and their voices always clear;
O, that we might be more like them while we serve the Master here.”
“Holy, Holy–is what the angels sing.
And I expect to help them make
The courts of heaven ring.
But when I sing salvation’s story,
They will fold their wings;
For angels never felt the joy
That our salvation brings.”
Barclay relates the ancient tale of the lamplighter who, while blind himself, went out at dusk to light the lamps alongside the streets of the town. Tapping his way from lamp-post to lamp-post, he brought to others a light which he himself could never see.
Thank you, prophets. Thank you, angels.