Prophecy 101

How To Study Biblical Prophecy



John Hoole - January 16,2011



Link to Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum's list of "Old Testament References in the Book of Revelation 



In an earlier lesson, we noted that 27% of the entire Bible is predictive prophecy.  Just that piece of information should indicate to us that God wants us to study Bible Prophecy.  And yet, as we have noted earlier, many people never or rarely read these parts of the Bible.  They know about Bible prophecies, and prophetic books in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation.  But some are reluctant to pursue understanding them because of their symbolic language.


Even pastors sometime avoid teaching on the topic of Eschatology.  It could be because there is so much debate about the end-times.  Or it might be that they haven't taken the time to really understand it.  I know of a pastor, - not in our church, - when asked how he deals with the controversial prophetic subject, he responded, "I don't deal with it."


This is unfortunate, both for an individual Christian as well as a pastor of a congregation.  How can we rationalize the avoidance of 27% of the Bible?  How do we relate these actions to 2 Timothy 3:16, which tells us "All Scripture is... ...profitable...?"


There are many benefits to studying End-Time Prophecy.  Not only does a study of prophecy help us understand what God is going to do in the Future, it also assures us that God keeps His word and His promises.


For instance, the Old Testament features more than 300 prophecies about the coming of the Messiah to earth.  These prophecies of Christ (the Messiah) are overwhelming evidence of the divine origin of Scripture, the Messiahship of Jesus and the truth of Christianity.  By examining these prophecies carefully, we can know that Jesus was truly that Messiah.  We know this because He fulfilled all of these Messianic predictions.  Because of that, each of us believers can be very confident that He will also come a second time to set up His kingdom on earth.  He promised He would, and we can take Him at His word.


And, by the way, there are five times as many Scriptures telling us of His second coming than His first.  Since His first coming is a fact of history, we can be a least five times as certain that He will come the second time.  Our faith in these prophecies is not based on some misplaced pious hope.  It is based on the reality of past fulfilled prophecies of the Bible.  These alone give us great confidence in the literal fulfillment of those future prophecies which must yet come to pass.


The apostle Paul thought it was important to teach the early Christians about the end-times. One of the earliest New Testament books was that written by Paul to the Thessalonians.  I remember standing next to a part of the ancient wall in Thessaloniki (in 2005).  To our travelers on that trip I said that General MacArthur wasn't the first to say, "I will return."  Jesus said it more than 1,900 years earlier.  I mentioned to them that every chapter in this letter by the apostle Paul contains a reference to the second coming of Jesus Christ.  The apostle did not waste any time letting them know about God's future plans.


When it comes to end time prophecy, the Bible presents some of it with pictures or images seemingly intended to portray truth symbolically.  This creates a dilemma.  What is the starting point for properly understanding and interpreting prophecy?  What is to be taken literally in the Scriptures and what is mere symbolism.  Maybe my use of the word “mere” symbolism is inaccurate.  For even when symbolism is used, a “literal” fact or truth is being portrayed.


Those of you who have been in our class for some time know that I espouse a more literal interpretation of Scripture.  This is true not only for studies in end-time prophecy, but all of Scripture.  I affirm both the inerrancy of the Scriptures as well as its ability to be understood when interpreted plainly and consistently.  The Bible is authoritative, and the meanings expressed in the text are true and have reference to what is real unless the context indicates otherwise.


I lived most of my childhood within 50 miles of Eugene, Oregon.  My mother and father pastored churches near there.  My mother graduated from college in Eugene, and she pastored a church near there when she was a single 18-year-old.  Over the years, my father struck up a friendship with the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Eugene.  When I was a teen-ager, my father gave me a commentary of the book of Revelation compiled by pastor Jack MacArthur.  Jack’s son also went into the ministry and is now a pastor and a radio evangelist.  His name is John MacArthur.


Back to this commentary written by the Father.  In its introduction, he makes this statement, which I remember underlining: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”  I never forgot that statement.


I later learned that this statement is attributed to Dr. David L. Cooper, who included those words in a yet longer statement.


"When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."


This I believe is a very good rule of thumb for studying any part of the Bible.  Follow this maxim and your will find the Bible understandable.  Ignore it, and the tendency to be in error is increased greatly.  That is true of all Scripture, but particularly true of the prophetic sections of the Bible.


For me, personally, I decided that I would rather assume that the Bible is literally true and then be proven wrong in that assumption, than to assume it is symbolism and be wrong.  I prefer to meet the Lord one day and say, “I took You at Your Word” than to meet Him and have to admit that I didn’t think He meant exactly what He said.


It seemed best to take the Scriptures literally unless the context of the Scriptures themselves suggested otherwise.  By that, I am saying that while literalism is assumed, it does not mean we throw out all symbolism.  There are times when Jesus would expressly say, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  That is figuratively language.


Even in the book of Revelation, the apostle John often speaks of a “sign” appearing in the heavens (Revelation 12:1) while at other times he speaks of seeing an actual new heaven and a new earth, or seeing a Holy City coming down from God out of heaven (Revelation 21:1,2).  Additionally, when the context of a Passage shows it to be figurative, in many cases, an interpretation of the symbols are given to us immediately.  This is the case of the parable of the sower and the four soils, in Luke 8.  In this Passage, Jesus immediately gives the disciples the meaning of the four soil.


Examine what is probably one of the key prophetic passages in the Bible - Matthew 24.  In this passage, our Lord gives us some important information.  This information will help us understand how to interpret prophecy.


In Matthew 24:1-2 (NIV) we read:


1       Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings.

2       "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."


In the first verse, it looks like the disciples are showing off the Temple buildings to their Master.  Did they expect Him to be impressed?  It is obvious that the disciples were impressed.  But how did Jesus respond?  To say He was unimpressed with what He saw is something of an understatement.  Probably pointing to the gleaming structures around them, He asked His disciples, " you see all these things?  I assure you that not one stone will be left here upon another, every stone will be thrown down."


Note carefully this important test for how we should interpret what is being said by Jesus.  In these verses Jesus Himself prophesied not only that the temple would be destroyed, but that its ruin would be so complete that not even one stone would be left standing upon another.


History records that our Lord's words were fulfilled to the letter in 70 A.D..  In that year the Roman army under the command of Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  And this included the gleaming Temple.  Fire rages throughout the city and in the temple area itself.


After the flames burned themselves out, the soldiers saw that large amounts of gold had melted and flowed into the crevices of the blocks of the temple.  In order to recover the precious metal, the Romans had to take the building apart, stone by stone.  And so Jesus' prophecy was fulfilled literally.  Not one stone was left upon another.


All of you probably want to rightly divide the Word of God.  And we are instructed to study God's Word in that manner.


2 Timothy 2:15 KJV


15     Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.






I think most of us recognize that the Book of Revelation is written using many symbolic images.  The existence of these symbols has led to two extremes.  One extreme sites that the existence of these symbols shows that this book cannot be understood, and must simply be interpreted in terms of a general conflict between good and evil.  In other words, it is to be seen as representing a conflict between God and Satan.  Beyond this, they say the book is not to be understood in any great detail.


In the second extreme, the symbols are used for unchecked speculation, even sensationalism, as to what each of the symbols represent.  And this is one of the major drawbacks of choosing to interpret Scripture allegorically.  The interpretation becomes primarily human speculation as to the prophecy's meaning.  And quite often, the interpretation is based on what the reader sees in current events in the world.  The Bible should never be interpreted by current events.  The opposite is the case - current events are to be interpreted by Bible prophecy.


There is no need to resort to guesswork when it comes to interpreting biblical eschatology.  This is especially true of the Book of Revelation.  All the symbols in the Book of Revelation are found elsewhere in the Bible.  You have heard me say before, "The Bible is the best commentary on the Bible."  Comparing Scripture with Scripture will allow the student to understand God's Word.


Let me give some overall characteristics of the Book of Revelation.  Did you know that out of the 404 verses in Revelation, 278 of them are found nearly word for word elsewhere in the Bible.  This emphasizes the need for us to use the entire Bible when examining a topic.  Truly, the Bible is the best commentary on the Bible.


Sometimes the symbols are interpreted for us right in the Book of Revelation itself.  For instance, take Revelation 1:16.  In the verses leading up to this verse, we find the apostle John in the Spirit on the Lord's Day (verse 10).  He hears a voice behind him, and turns to see the voice (verse 12).  He sees Christ and John describes how he sees Jesus.  He sees Him walking among 7 golden lampstands (verse 12).  He proceeds to describe our Lord's clothes, hair, feet and eyes (verses 13-15).


In Revelation 1:16 NKJV, John writes:


16     He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.


For this illustration, I want you to take note of the seven stars.  I said at the beginning of this example that there are times when the symbol is interpreted for us.  In this case, it is done for us four verses later.


Revelation 1:20 NKJV


20     The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.


Earlier I mentioned that I believe all the symbols mentioned in the book of Revelation are alluded to elsewhere in the Bible.  I hold in my hand before you a list of all the Old Testament references alluded to in the book of Revelation.  (Click this link to see Fruchtenbaum's list of reference)  On the screen is a portion of the first page.  I also mentioned that out of the 404 verses in this Book, 278 of them are found nearly word for word in the Old Testament.


Now I want to add that many of those 278 allude to multiple O.T. passages.  And this list I have contains over 500 Old Testament references or allusions found in the Book of Revelation.  As an example, let's stay for a moment in Revelation 1.


Revelation 1:15 (NKJV)reads:


15     His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters;


Now compare this to the words found in at least three Old Testament passages.


At the beginning of the prophetic book written by Ezekiel (chapter 1), we find the prophet describing a vision he is having .  In verse 1, he writes: "the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God."  Then he describes a whirlwind of raging fire (verse 4).  Out of it comes an image like that of a man (verse 5).  In verse 7, he describes the feet, writing, "they sparked like the color of burnished bronze."  This is very much like what we read in Revelation 1:15


Now, let's look at another of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel.


Ezekiel 43:2 NKJV


2       And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory.


The phrase, "His voice was like the sound of many waters," is almost word-for-word like the symbolic description we read in Revelation 1:15.


Before leaving this illustration, take a look at Daniel 10:6.  Chapters 10 through 12 of Daniel's prophecy contain the final of four visions Daniel writes about.  He had fasted for 21 days.


He describes that he was next to the Tigris river.  He also mentions there were other men with him.  Then Daniel looks and sees a man (verse 5).  Let's read verses 5 & 6.


Daniel 10:5-6 NKJV


5       I lifted my eyes and looked, and behold, a certain man clothed in linen, whose waist was girded with gold of Uphaz!

6       His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like torches of fire, his arms and feet like burnished bronze in color, and the sound of his words like the voice of a multitude.


Most theologians believe this man in Daniel's vision is Christ.  Notice again the reference to "feel like burnished bronze."


I have taken you through this example for a couple reasons.  First, if shows that the symbols used in this one verse in Revelation can be found elsewhere in the Bible.  And these references can aid in helping us understand the meaning of the symbol when used in the book of Revelation .


Secondly, I wanted to show you how it is possible to have over 500 references in the Old Testament alluded to in the verses of Revelation.  There doesn't need to be unchecked speculation made with regard to the symbols in Revelation.


Again, Revelation is one of the more difficult-to-understand books in the Bible.  But, the book of Revelation is not written in such a way as to hide its meaning.  The very first Greek word written by the apostle John is “Apokalupsis.”  This Greek word “apokalupsis,” is translated “revelation.”  It is from this word that we get the English word “Apocalypse”.  And when we think of this word, we usually have in mind some total destruction or devastation of something.  It speak of a catastrophe.


But that is not at all what the original meaning was.  When the Greek word “Apokalupsis” is translated into Latin, it become “Revelatio.”  And in English it becomes “Revelation.”  The word “Apokalupsis” literally means:


                   •  an “unveiling,” a “disclosure” of what had previously been concealed.


                   •  to make the meaning plain, not to hide it.


                   •  to unravel the mystery, not to make it mysterious.


I believe the words in the Bible are meant to be understood in the normal and matter-of-fact sense.  And all fulfillments of predictive prophecy, whether past or future, is only understood as having been fulfilled when it is fulfilled literally.