Why Some Prophetic Words (Seemingly) Go Unfulfilled
I have been getting questions about why some prophetic words (seemingly) go unfulfilled or are conspicuously delayed, especially when they (seemed) so accurate, bore such deep witness at the time of delivery, and/or were accompanied by spectacular confirmations. Thank you for asking. Your answer is below.
In Scripture, we learn God gives two different types of prophecy: unconditional and conditional. Christians tend to be more familiar with unconditional prophecy.
An unconditional prophecy is a word God speaks that He Himself will fulfill no matter what. Hence the self-evident term, "unconditional". For example, Pharaoh's dreams were unconditional prophecies. Joseph's language is wonderfully clear about this in Genesis 41:32 (NIV): The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.
Another example of an unconditional word is the one God gave Nebuchadnezzar. Once again, notice the angel's language in Daniel 4:17 (NIV): The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all...
Pharaoh's revelation was "firmly decided". Nebuchadnezzar's revelation was "the decision" and angels "declared the verdict". Unconditional words like these spotlight God's sovereignty, that He does as He pleases, when He pleases, how He pleases.
Many more examples in the Old and New Testament could be cited, like prophecies about the last days, the maturation of the church, the Millennium, the sifting and restoration of Peter and the others (Lk 22:31,32), the famine across Rome (Ac 11:27,28), Paul's tribulations in Jerusalem (20:22,23), etc. The driving concept here is that God intends to fulfill some revelations by Himself, no matter what, regardless of human or demonic variables. Yet this is precisely why some Christians become baffled and disillusioned in the realm of prophecy; they assume all prophecies are unconditional.
Christians tend to be less acquainted and comfortable with conditional prophecies--words that require human participation of some kind to be fulfilled. Hence the self-evident term, "conditional". Scripture shows us plenty of these too.
Moses prophesied to Israel's elders that God would extract them from Egypt and take them to a good and pleasant land (Ex 4:29-31). Fast-forward to Kadesh in the Desert of Paran (Num 13:26). Here God said Moses' prophecy would go unfulfilled to every individual who heard that original word because they stopped cooperating with Him, except for Caleb and Joshua (14:22-35). They disbelieved, disobeyed, and discontinued with the Lord (Heb 4:1-11). And so the prophetic promise bounced to their children, who fulfilled the conditions of the word and entered the promise land.
Probably the most direct Old Testament scripture about conditional prophecy is Jeremiah 18:7-10. Grab your Bible and read it. Here God describes conditional prophecy to Jeremiah in a super simple, if-then formula.
Probably the clearest, most direct New Testament scripture about conditional prophecy is 1Timothy 1:18,19. Read it. Here Paul explains to Timothy that, for his personal prophecies to be fulfilled, he would have to "wage a good warfare" and do other things (v19). They would not be fulfilled automatically. They were contingent on some type(s) of obedience, preparation, wise strategy, or participation God would require from Timothy.
The Importance of Correct Theology on Prophecy
Understanding correct theology about prophecy, specifically conditional messages, can make or break your life. It explains why some Christians have received accurate words, but they are not being fulfilled or are conspicuously delayed. Many words from the Lord require some type of participation from us, like the word spoken to Israel's elders (requirement: desert burnings and learnings), or the words spoken to Timothy (requirement: good warfare, developed faith, conscience cleansing, etc.).
How Do I Know What The Conditions Are?
"But," one disheartened saint asked me, "the prophecies came with no conditions. How could I have known what the conditions were?"
After a theological understanding of how prophecy works, this is the second zone many Christians need help with. Conditional words rarely come with the conditions openly stated. The conditions are generally a separate experience of their own. They must be ascertained through a daily meeting with God in unrushed prayer. You will not perceive the conditions, the conditions will not even be revealed, if you do not have a faithful, ever-developing daily meeting with God at the Tent of Meeting.
Moses' word to Israel was that God would extract them from Egypt and take them to a promise land. If you read the original prophecy carefully (Exodus chapters 3 and 4), you see the conditions are not stated. There is no mention of the requirement for Israel to persevere in trusting the Lord, to cooperate with Him in desert burnings and learnings, to change their attitudes, etc. As the journey unfolded from Egypt to Canaan the conditions were progressively revealed. Sadly, of all those who heard the original word, only Caleb and Joshua perceived the conditions, obeyed the conditions, and actualized the fulfillment.
In Hebrews 4:1-11, the writer draws upon this very story to tell us the exact same thing could happen to us, New Testament Christians, if we do not perceive and obey the Lord's conditions (v6,7) for reaching our personal promise lands of rest. Realize, then, conditional messages rarely come with the conditions openly stated. They are progressively revealed after the word has been spoken and must be perceived through a faithful daily meeting with the Lord.
"You Don't Know How Spectacular The Experiences Were!"
"But," one disheartened saint asked, "you don't know how spectacular and dramatic those experiences were! Surely face-to-face encounters with Jesus, multiple dreams, and multiple prophecies saying the same thing could not be conditional!"
Ignore your human feelings, opinions, and assumptions and go to God's Word for absolute truth. It does not matter how spectacular the experiences were, that does not change the conditional nature of a conditional prophecy if that is what God wants it to be. Consider the word Moses spoke to Israel in Egypt (that they would be extracted from Egypt and taken to a promise land). It came with unprecedented signs and wonders that have never been repeated to this day (Deu 4:32-34). None of your or others' revelatory experiences have been accompanied by such mind-boggling, empire-decimating supernatural phenomena as those that came with Moses' original word to Israel. Yet, as you now see, that word was conditional from beginning to end, and everyone who heard it did not reach its fulfillment but died off in the desert.
Similarly, Timothy had numerous prophecies spoken to him, all accurate, all saying the same thing (1Ti 1:18). As a confirming sign and wonder, the gift of teaching was instantly given to him in the very middle of one of those prophetic experiences! See 1Timothy 4:14 (context v11-16). Yet, Paul said, there were still conditions attached: a good warfare (1:18), developed faith and conscience cleansing (v19), and possibly others.
Do not confuse the spectacular nature of some prophetic or revelatory experiences with their conditionality or unconditionality.
A conditional word will go unfulfilled indefinitely if the conditions are not perceived and satisfied. There are, however, other possible reasons a prophetic message is seemingly not being fulfilled.
The timing of the word's fulfillment has not yet come.
What Jesus said to His brothers is often relevant to us too. John 7:36 (NIV): Therefore Jesus told them, "My time is not yet here; for you any time will do."
We may not want to admit it, but we tend to feel like any time is right, like we are always ready for the fulfillment of God's personal words to us. Some words, however, have a set time of fulfillment. Even as we faithfully seek God first thing every day, perceive the conditions from Him, and fully satisfy the conditions, some words still cannot be accelerated. Their set time is set.
The word God revealed to Habakkuk is one such example. Habakkuk 2:3 (NIV): For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.
Acts 1:6,7 is another such example (NIV): Then they gathered around him and asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority."
The word does not mean what you think it means.
Another possible reason for the seeming unfulfillment of the word is this: the word did not mean what you thought it meant. Revelation and interpretation are two different categories, and sometimes Christians assume a prophetic word means this or that, when in fact that is the wrong interpretation of the message.
A well-known example of this is how most of Israel, in the first century, expected a political Messiah, not a spiritual Messiah. Israel, led by the priestly class, teachers of the Law, Pharisees, and Sadducees, knew the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Yet, they interpreted them to mean the Messiah's coming would be a political and military coming, in the same mold as King David when he came to power in Israel.
This interpretation was 50% right, 50% wrong. It was correct that the Messiah would come politically and militarily, however, those aspects of the prophecies pertained to the Second Coming and Millennium. Most of them were blinded to see and understand the First Coming aspects of the messianic prophecies, the aspects that pertained to His incarnation, virgin birth, sinless life, suffering, substitutionary atonement, satisfaction of the Law, death, resurrection, ascension. In other words, the Old Testament messianic words did not mean exactly what most of first-century Israel thought they meant.
The same interpretive errors can happen to us too. If we are not deeply prayerful, patient, careful, and truly open to whatever a prophetic word truly means--even if it is not exactly what we wish for or want--we can assume interpretations that are either partially or entirely wrong. God is not obligated to fulfill, and will not fulfill, what we think or assume a word means. He will only fulfill what a word actually means.
The word was inaccurate, partially or entirely.
In my personal and ministerial opinion, prophesiers are the most prideful group in the church. Not every single one, of course, but generally speaking. They tend to be pushy, need excessive attention, act like they own the Holy Spirit, do not understand subtlety, and generally are not humble, Christlike individuals easy to get along with. If that papercuts your feelings and you suddenly want to defend yourself...guess what?
I say that because you will rarely hear a prophesier acknowledge a prophetic mistake. Over the nearly thirty years of my ministry I have heard many, many prophecies that were inaccurate, that rose from emotions, personal wishes, a need to be accepted, a need to look awesome, an overactive imagination, social dynamics, even sexual tension. And how many apologies have I heard? Two. I can only think of two times I personally witnessed or read or watched a prophesier humbly acknowledge a prophetic error, and take steps to make it right.
You have to face the reality that what was prophesied to you might be inaccurate, partially or completely. Agabus, a recognized New Testament prophet (11:27,28), prophesied partially inaccurately in 21:10,11. Read his message versus what actually happened.
Paul was arrested as Agabus prophesied--this part was accurate ("will bind the man who owns this belt"). But, he was not arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles/Romans by them--this part was inaccurate. Paul had to be physically rescued by the Roman soldiers from the frenzied Jewish mob tearing his body to shreds, 21:32,33 and 23:27 say. Paul was not arrested by the Jews and not peacefully handed over to the Romans by them. He himself says he was "seized" (NKJV) or "caught" (YLT) or "grabbed" (CEV) by the Jews in the temple and they tried to murder him, 26:21 says.
Agabus was a true, recognized New Testament prophet, but on this specific occasion (21:10,11), he prophesied partly accurate, partly inaccurate.
In his letters, Paul reiterates New Testament prophecy's potential inaccuracies. In 1Corinthians 14:29, he tells Christians to "judge" (NKJV)--evaluate carefully and thoroughly sift--prophecies that are spoken. The Greek word here for "judge" is diakrino, which literally means to "to sift and separate (krino) through and through (dia)". It is the same Greek word for "discerning" in 12:10. Paul’s point is, some prophetic words might have inaccurate or human elements that need to be discerned and sifted and separated out.
In 1Thessalonians 5:19-22, Paul says the same, telling the baby congregation to separate the good from the bad in prophecy, while remaining open and positive towards prophetic ministry in general.
Christians who embrace and welcome prophetic ministry sometimes do not want to face these truths. Some prophecies will be partially or completely inaccurate. Some (many) prophesiers are nauseatingly prideful and will not acknowledge a prophetic mistake. God is not obligated to fulfill, and will not fulfill, a partially or completely inaccurate word. He will only fulfill authentic, accurate words from Him.