Does Prophecy Demand Literal Fulfillment?



Don K. Preston D. Div.

The following objection is lodged against Covenant Eschatology:

“All of the prophecies that Christ fulfilled in His first coming were fulfilled in a literal, physical manner; therefore, we should expect Him to fulfill prophecies regarding His Second Coming in a literal, physical manner.”

This objection is common among dispensationalists especially. Grant Jeffrey goes so far as to say: “There is not one example in the Bible of a prophecy that was fulfilled in an allegorical, non-historical manner.” (Triumphant Return, (Toronto, Frontier Research Publications, 2001, 100).

Like some other objections against preterism, this objection has the initial semblance of credibility, until one takes a closer look. In fact, it is easily demonstrated that Jeffrey’s claim is brash and specious.

Hebrews 2:9-14 tells us that Jesus was made a little lower than the angels, and, “as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself took part of the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.”

This passage establishes the necessity for Jesus’ physical appearance and work: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among men” (John 1:14). In His own ministry, Jesus spoke often of the necessity of giving Israel the sufficient signs that she needed to know that He was truly Messiah. His physical resurrection is distinctly given as a sign of the greater spiritual reality of his Sonship (Matt 16). The physical bore witness to the spiritual.

In fact, John’s Gospel chronicles seven signs—all physical events—each of which pointed not to greater physical events, but to spiritual realities. Notice that, in chapter 20:30-31, John ends his Gospel with the chronicle of Jesus’ physical resurrection. He then says, “Many other signs did Jesus in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book, but, these are written that you might believe.” Again, Jesus’ physical resurrection pointed to a greater spiritual reality, not another physical reality. Thus, the need for initial physical, visible realities to point to the greater spiritual realities. Let us now revisit Jeffrey’s rather bold statement.

Consider John the Immerser

John the Baptizer was indisputably “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the Way of the Lord’” (Mark 1:1-3). Consider the details of the voice’s ministry:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the LORD;

Make straight in the desert

A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill brought low;

The crooked places shall be made straight

And the rough places smooth;

The glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

And all flesh shall see it together’” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

So, according to Isaiah, the voice, i.e. John the Baptizer, would be a master road builder, the ultimate landscaper! Do you see the problem here for our objection?

John was unequivocally the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. As such, he was supposed to fill the valleys, lower the hills, and straighten out the crooked highways! Jeffrey, and the objection under consideration, states no Old Testament prophecy was ever fulfilled spiritually. The objection is clearly proven false, however, when one considers John the Baptizer. John was totally unconcerned with physical highways, lowering literal hills, and filling up the valleys with dirt. The Old Covenant prophecy of the voice was patently fulfilled spiritually.

Consider Jesus’ Ministry as Well

The Old Covenant contains many prophecies of the building of the Messianic Temple. In fact, this is a hugely important topic.

Our dispensational friends insist on a yet future building of a physical temple located in the city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, they tell us that the Old Covenant never predicted the establishment of the Church as the Messianic Temple. With this in mind, consider Jesus and the Messianic Temple.

“The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:22-24)

This prophecy foretold the rejection of the chief cornerstone of the foundation of the Messianic Temple. It would be rejected by the builders but, after being rejected would become the chief cornerstone.

Are we dealing with a literal massive stone that at some point in the future will be initially rejected by the builders of the millennial temple but, after closer inspection, will then become the literal, physical master cornerstone? Let’s allow the New Testament writers to answer that.

“Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10-12)

Consider these critical issues:

1.) Peter stated that the Old Testament prophets did not know either the time or the manner of the fulfillment of their prophecies (1 Peter 1:10-12). Now, if the Old Testament prophets did not know the time or the manner (nature) of the fulfillment of their prophecies, this falsifies the claim that we must interpret the Old Testament in a woodenly literal way. After all, the Old Testament prophets knew what a stone was, did they not? They knew, from a literalistic perspective, what the Temple of the Lord was, did they not? So, according to the objection under consideration, when Psalm 118 foretold the rejection of the chief cornerstone becoming the foundation of the Messianic Temple, then the Psalmist knew precisely what he was predicting, right? Not according to Peter!

2.) Consider how Peter, inspired by the Spirit, interpreted the prophecy of the rejected Stone becoming the foundation of the Messianic Temple. (For an in-depth study of the Rejected Stone motif see my book The Elements Shall Melt With Fervent Heat, available from my website: Peter stated that the rejected Stone was none other than the living Christ, rejected by “you the builders!” (cf. Matt 21:42, where Jesus likewise applied the Psalm to himself).

Consider also Isaiah 28:16: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; Whoever believes will not act hastily.”

This is patently a prediction of the Messianic Temple which, our premillennial friends tell us, can be nothing but a literal temple made of physical stone. And remember that they also tell us that the Church cannot be the Temple of Messiah predicted in the Old Covenant. But how do the New Testament writers interpret this prophecy? Just as in Psalm 118:22, they say that Jesus is the living foundation stone of the Messianic Temple.

In Romans 9:33 Paul cites Isaiah 28 (and Isaiah 8:14, another prediction of the Messianic Temple) and applies the prophecy to Jesus’ rejection by the Jews and the fact that Jesus was the sure foundation stone that would save those who trust in him.

Likewise, in 1 Peter 2:6f the apostle cites almost every Old Testament prophecy of the foundation stone and applies them directly to Jesus, His rejection, and ensuing exaltation. Peter likewise stated that his audience consisted of “living stones,” and were “being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offe
r spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ” (2:5).

So Christ was the precious chosen foundation stone, and the living people were living stones built on that spiritual living foundation stone of Jesus the Messiah, and they were offering up spiritual sacrifices in that spiritual house!

How then did Peter, inspired by the Spirit, interpret the Old Covenant promises and prophecies of the Messianic Temple? He interpreted them as spiritually fulfilled in Christ the living foundation stone!

It is undeniably true therefore, that we have here the spiritual fulfillment of Old Covenant prophecies, and they were fulfilled in Christ’s body, the Church. On this point alone the objection is falsified, but of course, there is much more.

The Son of Man Shall Come In the Glory of the Father

For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matt 16:27-28 NKJV)

The emphatic time element of the text demands that we re-examine our concepts of the nature of the parousia. Jesus said He was coming in judgment in the lifetime of His audience. And, He said He was coming “in the glory of the Father.” This highly significant term is commonly overlooked, but is vital to a proper understanding of the nature of Christ’s coming.

Jesus was saying that He was coming in the same way the Father had come! In John 5:19f Jesus basically reiterates this claim by saying that the Father had given Him the judgment prerogative and that He would judge as He had seen the Father judge.

The question of course, is how had the Father come before—how had Jesus seen the Father act in judgment? The answer is that the Father had come many times in the past, and, He had never come literally, visibly, or bodily. Let’s take a look at just one verse that has a direct bearing on our understanding of the nature of Christ’s parousia, and His promise to come as the Father had come.

Oh, that You would rend the heavens!

That You would come down!

That the mountains might shake at Your presence—

As fire burns brushwood,

As fire causes water to boil—

To make Your name known to Your adversaries,

That the nations may tremble at Your presence!

When You did awesome things for which we did not look,

You came down, The mountains shook at Your presence (Isaiah 64:1-3).

For brevity I will make the following observations:

Isaiah (Israel) prays for YHVH to come, to come down out of heaven.

The coming of the Lord here is the coming of the Lord to bring in the New Heaven and Earth of 65:17f.

Isaiah asks for God to rend the heaven and earth, to essentially destroy creation. He wants God to make His presence (LXX, prosopon) known to the nations.

Now, notice the key to understanding the text

Isaiah is asking YHVH to come, as He had come in the past: “When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, The mountains shook at Your presence.”

So, God had come in the past. He had come down out of heaven. He had shaken the earth. He had manifested His name to the nations. And, this is the kind of coming that would take place in order to bring in the New Heaven and Earth!

What Isaiah is describing is a historical Day of the Lord. It had been, and it would be, a time in which YHVH exercised His sovereignty by utilizing one nation to judge another. Clearly, the language is challenging to anyone unwilling to allow the biblical writers to express themselves metaphorically and spiritually. However, the fact that Isaiah says that God had come in the past, that He had shaken the earth in the past, demands that we submit to this metaphoric use of language.

So, what we have here is clear-cut, undeniable biblical teaching that the coming of the Lord to bring in the New Creation—the New Creation of 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21—was not to be a literal physical coming of Jesus out of heaven to physically shake the earth and destroy the cosmos.

Now, were there to be physical events accompanying that coming of the Lord? Undoubtedly! This is not the issue. What we are affirming, however, is that the physical events of the Day symbolized and signified a greater spiritual reality. The physical events appeared to be normal events of human experience, i.e. war! But on the spiritual level, since the prophets had foretold it, and since YHVH was directing the matter, it is called the Day of the Lord.

This is what Jesus said of His coming in Matthew 24:29-31, when He said that the first-century generation would see the sign of the Son of Man in the heavens and they would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven in power and great glory.

It is often claimed that AD 70 could not have been the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, because all the tribes of the earth did not see him, every eye did not see him. However, this misconstrues the linguistic meaning of the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. As Gibbs, and a host of Greek commentators, demonstrates “‘the sign of the Son of Man in heaven’ is not a sign in the sky, but, that the fall of Jerusalem was the sign of Christ’s enthronement in the heavens” (Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Jerusalem and Parousia, St. Louis, MO, Concordia Academic Press, 2000, 198f). This is precisely what Isaiah 64 foretold! So, what have we seen?

We have demonstrated the claim that all of the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ ministry were fulfilled in a literalistic, physical, literal manner is false. John the Baptist was not a literal road-builder. Jesus was not a literal, physical foundation stone of a material temple.

We have shown that the Old Testament foretold that the coming of the Lord to establish the New Creation would be of the same nature as God’s previous Old Testament comings. Yet God had never come literally, visibly, bodily. Thus, the coming of the Lord to bring in the New Creation would not be literally, visibly, or bodily.

In perfect harmony with this, we have shown that Jesus defined his parousia as a coming like the Father had come in the past, and that the Father had never come literally, visibly or bodily.

We have, in other words, shown that the objection is based on faulty claims, and conflicts with the express statements of Scripture about the nature of the parousia. The claim also directly conflicts with the very emphatic statements as to when Christ was coming—the first century. The objection is, therefore, Overruled!

For a more in-depth analysis of this entire issue see my book Like Father Like Son, On Clouds of Glory. This book, available on my websites, has been called one of the most comprehensive and definitive works on the nature of the parousia that has been produced.