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When we go beyond the biblical fact that Christ will return, almost everything else seems unclear (I have already mentioned the frequently repeated error in regard to dates). Should we then study prophecy at all? Yes, because prophecy is part, indeed a large part, of God's written word throughout the Bible; and "all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). Prophecy surely is included in "all scripture" and therefore needs careful study. If nothing else, such study will help to distinguish the balanced from the one-sided, perhaps even the true from the false. If there is little or no study of prophecy, the Christian may easily become prey to whatever interpreter and interpretation happens to be around.
Jesus Himself by no means discouraged concern about prophecy. In Matthew 24:3, for example, Jesus' disciples asked Him, "Tell us, when will this be [referring to the destruction of the temple, see vv. 1-2], and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" Jesus did not reply something like, "You should not ask such a question." Rather He proceeded to give a number of signs and events that must first take place (vv. 4-35). Many other statements in the Gospels and the Epistles (particularly by Peter and Paul) similarly afford information. Finally in the Book of Revelation, which is largely prophecy, the opening chapter declares: "Blessed is he who reads the words of the prophecy" (v. 3). A proper reading of prophecy can make for rich blessing.
Because there is much uncertainty and confusion about prophecy, let me suggest a few matters by way of procedure.
1. Use various translations of the Bible. The King James Version is a good basic text, but there is need as well for modern translations such as the New International Version (niv), the New American Standard Bible (nasb), the Revised Standard Version (rsv), and the Living Bible (The Book). Few people know enough Hebrew or Greek to read Scripture in its original languages (although, of course, this is ideal). A parallel Bible with several columns containing various translations is quite helpful. Do not depend too much on editions of the Bible that incorporate comments at the bottom of the page or in the margin. Incidentally, I will be quoting usually from the Revised Standard Version in what follows, but now and then will shift to other translations.
2. Begin with the New Testament. The Bible is an unfolding revelation of truth (progressive revelation) so that the fullest disclosure, including prophecy, is to be found in the New Testament. Jesus' own words about prophecy are basic: especially as they are found in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21—often called "little apocalypses" ("apocalypses" = "revelations" of things to come). Compare the three. For extended study, I also suggest such passages as Romans 9-11 (the future of Israel); 1 Corinthians 15 (the resurrection of the body); 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 (the coming of the Lord), and 2 Thessalonians 1 and 2 (Christ's return in judgment); 2 Peter 3 (the end of the world); and the whole Book of Revelation. Then compare one passage with another. For a general rule: lay what seems less clear alongside the clearer and see if you have fuller understanding. In regard to the Old Testament you may then be more prepared to read some of the prophecies therein. (I won't try to list these: there are too many.) For fuller interpretation it is usually best to read these passages in the light and understanding of the New Testament.
3. Observe closely the language of prophecy. The Book of Revelation, for example, is laden with imagery—such as, a two-edged sword in Christ's mouth (1:16), horses with heads like lions and fire and smoke and sulphur issuing from their mouths (9:17), a woman clothed with the sun (12:1), a beast with seven heads and ten horns (13:1), and so on. Surely this language cannot be literal; it must be figurative or symbolic or something else. How does one proceed? Although the literal may be the normal method of interpreting the Bible, there are many instances, including these examples in Revelation, where one must go beyond the literal to understand the true meaning. For example, today, if you were to see an elephant or a donkey depicted at a political convention, you would assume that you were at a gathering of the Republican or Democratic party not of a herd of elephants or donkeys! So it is with prophetic language. Similarly, the beast with many heads and horns must represent something other than a ghastly zoological entity.
To be aware of figure and symbol is often the key to understanding apocalyptic language. When people fail in this regard, confusion only deepens. Some will even expect to see Christ returning with a literal sword in his mouth (as depicted in Rev. 19:15). For the verse reads: "From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations." To be literal in such a case totally misses the true meaning.
4. Bear in mind that much prophecy in the Bible has already been fulfilled. Not everything is future. To some degree this is obvious. For example, in the Old Testament is Isaiah's well-known prophecy: "A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (7:14 kjv). Clearly that has already happened in the birth of Jesus Christ by the Virgin Mary. We are not still looking for this prophecy to be fulfilled. Micah has a similar prophecy: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old" (5:2 niv). That also has surely happened: Christ was born in Bethlehem, hence the prophecy has been fulfilled in totality. Perhaps less obviously, this is true about many Old Testament prophecies concerning judgment on nations. For instance, note the words in Amos 1 about Damascus, Gaza (Philistia), Tyre, Edom, and Ammon: all are prophecies of punishment near at hand for Israel's neighbors. Read them closely. These prophecies have been fulfilled and should not therefore be read as referring to today (except that God does not change in His ways of dealing with men and nations). Certainly other prophecies about nations may refer to our contemporary scene; but we must be careful not to jump some twenty-five hundred years and invariably seek a contemporary fulfillment.
A New Testament illustration of this relates to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In Luke 21:6 Jesus says about the temple: "The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." That literally happened in 70 a.d. within forty years of Jesus' prophecy, when the Romans came in to Jerusalem (see v. 20) and totally destroyed the temple, leaving not one stone standing. We do not need to look for a future destruction of the temple (although the temple may also represent and symbolize something in the future).
Going back to the Old Testament again, I would mention that there are many prophecies of exiled Israel returning to their land which point not to some far distant future date but to the return that occurred after their seventy years of captivity. For example, note Isaiah 44:26-28. This might seem to refer to some far future inhabitation of "the cities of Judah" (as in the nation of Israel today) except for the fact that Cyrus, the ancient Persian king, is said to be the one who will bring all this to fulfillment!
5. Give due regard to historical context. For example, in the prophecy of Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of the "abomination of desolation...standing in the holy place" (v. 15 nasb). What is that all about? His fuller statement is "which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet," and then Matthew adds parenthetically, "(let the reader understand)." Obviously this calls for historical background. What did Daniel mean? How are we as modern readers to understand? I will not try to answer all these questions except to say that one must go back to Daniel 11:31 and 12:11 (cf. 9:27) and seek to understand first the historical context of Daniel's own day. Just a note in passing: it is now generally recognized that the first fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy relates to the second century b.c. when the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, desecrated the temple by abominable pagan sacrifices. Incidentally, Jews to this day observe Hanukkah each December, a celebration that goes back to the recovery and purification of the temple after the abomination had occurred. Awareness of this historical background helps much in understanding Jesus' words about a future abomination.
Another case in point is the Book of Revelation. Proper understanding calls for some knowledge of the Roman empire at that time, of the seven churches in Asia Minor (Turkey today) to whom the book is addressed, and of John the writer's own situation of exile on the island of Patmos. To be sure, the prophecy also relates to our own time, but we can only properly understand it by first being familiar with the situation in John's day.
6. Finally, read the Bible with spiritual discernment. One cannot truly understand any part of it, including prophecy, without the mind of the Spirit. "All Scripture is inspired" = God-breathed, God-Spirited. The Holy Spirit is the author—through human vessels, of course—and He must guide in the true interpretation. According to the Book of Revelation, John was "in the Spirit" (1:10) when he had his first vision of Christ (out of His mouth the two-edged sword, holding in His right hand seven stars, etc. vv. 11-16). To begin to comprehend this vision requires more than mere historical knowledge of seven churches, or even literary knowledge of symbolism: it calls for spiritual (in the Spirit) perception. John was again "in the Spirit" when he saw the throne room in heaven (4:2-11). This scene can be understood in depth only by those likewise "in the Spirit." Therefore one cannot, indeed must not, read Revelation in any other way than under the anointed guidance of the Holy Spirit. Hence pray earnestly that the Holy Spirit may so anoint you that you will be better able to perceive the deeper meaning of any prophecy being considered. I do not mean by this getting some unusual or different meaning (some kind of private interpretation), but simply asking for the Holy Spirit who originally inspired the words to illuminate your own understanding of what is written. Come, Holy Spirit, lead into all the truth!
| 1. Introduction: The Return of Christ | 2. Procedure in Studying Prophecy |
Content Copyright ©1996 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D