(a) What are charged as such may frequently be explained by remembering that much of prophecy is yet unfulfilled.
It is sometimes taken for granted that the book of Revelation, for example, refers entirely to events already past. Moses Stuart, in his Commentary, and Warren’s Parousia, represent this preterist interpretation. Thus judged, however, many of the predictions of the book might seem to have failed.
(b) The personal surmises of the prophets as to the meaning of the prophecies they recorded may have been incorrect, while yet the prophecies themselves are inspired.
In 1 Pet. 1:10, 11, the apostle declares that the prophets searched “what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow them.” So Paul, although he does not announce it as certain, seems to have had some hope that he might live to witness Christ’s second coming. See 2 Cor. 5:4—“not for that we would be unclothed, but that we would be clothed upon” (ἐπενδύσασθαι—put on the spiritual body, as over the present one, without the intervention of death); 1 Thess. 4:15, 17—“we that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord.” So Mat. 2:15 quotes from Hosea 11:1—“Out of Egypt did I call my son,” and applies the prophecy to Christ, although Hosea was doubtless thinking only of the exodus of the people of Israel.
(c) The prophet’s earlier utterances are not to be severed from the later utterances which elucidate them, nor from the whole revelation of which they form a part. It is unjust to forbid the prophet to explain his own meaning.
V 1, p 236 p 236 2 Thessalonians was written expressly to correct wrong inferences as to the apostle’s teaching drawn from his peculiar mode of speaking in the first epistle. In 2 Thess. 2:2–5 he removes the impression “that the day of the Lord is now present” or “just at hand”; declares that “it will not be, except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed”; reminds the Thessalonians: “when I was yet with you, I told you these things.” Yet still, in verse 1, he speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him.”
These passages, taken together, show: (1) that the two epistles are one in their teaching; (2) that in neither epistle is there any prediction of the immediate coming of the Lord; (3) that in the second epistle great events are foretold as intervening before that coming; (4) that while Paul never taught that Christ would come during his own lifetime, he hoped at least during the earlier part of his life that it might be so—a hope that seems to have been dissipated in his later years. (See 2 Tim. 4:6—“I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come.”) We must remember, however, that there was a “coming of the Lord” in the destruction of Jerusalem within three or four years of Paul’s death. Henry Van Dyke: “The point of Paul’s teaching in 1 and 2 Thess. is not that Christ is coming to-morrow, but that he is surely coming.” The absence of perspective in prophecy may explain Paul’s not at first defining the precise time of the end, and so leaving it to be misunderstood.
The second Epistle to the Thessalonians, therefore, only makes more plain the meaning of the first, and adds new items of prediction. It is important to recognize in Paul’s epistles a progress in prophecy, in doctrine, in church polity. The full statement of the truth was gradually drawn out, under the influence of the Spirit, upon occasion of successive outward demands and inward experiences. Much is to be learned by studying the chronological order of Paul’s epistles, as well as of the other N. T. books. For evidence of similar progress in the epistles of Peter, compare 1 Pet. 4:7 with 2 Pet. 3:4 sq.
(d) The character of prophecy as a rough general sketch of the future, in highly figurative language, and without historical perspective, renders it peculiarly probable that what at first sight seem to be errors are due to a misinterpretation on our part, which confounds the drapery with the substance, or applies its language to events to which it had no reference.
James 5:9 and Phil 4:5 are instances of that large prophetic speech which regards the distant future as near at hand, because so certain to the faith and hope of the church. Sanday, Inspiration, 376–378—“No doubt the Christians of the Apostolic age did live in immediate expectation of the Second Coming, and that expectation culminated at the crisis in which the Apocalypse was written. In the Apocalypse, as in every predictive prophecy, there is a double element, one part derived from the circumstances of the present and another pointing forwards to the future.… All these things, in an exact and literal sense have fallen through with the postponement of that great event in which they centre. From the first they were but meant as the imaginative pictorial and symbolical clothing of that event. What measure of real fulfilment the Apocalypse may yet be destined to receive we cannot tell. But in predictive prophecy, even when most closely verified, the essence lies less in the prediction than in the eternal laws of moral and religious truth which the fact predicted reveals or exemplifies.” Thus we recognize both the divinity and the freedom of prophecy, and reject the rationalistic theory which would relate the fall of the Beaconsfield government in Matthew’s way: “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Cromwell, saying: ‘Get you gone, and make room for honest men!’ ” See the more full statement of the nature of prophecy, on pages 132–141. Also Bernard, Progress of Doctrine in the N. T.
Strong, A. H. (1907). Systematic theology (pp. 235–236). Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.