Prophecy 201

How To Study Biblical Prophecy



John Hoole - September 25, October 2




Note: Click on charts, photos for larger versions



Theologians use a word to define the principles Bible students use to interpret biblical texts.  That word is "Hermeneutics.Bible teachers and interpreters generally approach Bible study in one of two ways,  namely, Literal or Allegorical.  These two methods are most pronounced in the study of End Times Prophecy.


Today's lesson is called "Prophecy 201 - How to Study Biblical Prophecy."  Like college studies, the beginning of the next level class often require a review of the lower level.  Earlier, there was a lesson titled "Prophecy 101."  As we enter "Prophecy 201," we need to review a few things presented in the earlier session.


The study of prophecy is known as eschatology, the study of last things.  This is not simply another branch of theology that is an optional study for mature Christians.  In one earlier lesson, we noted that 27% of the entire Bible is predictive prophecy.


This provides a powerful and compelling indication of the importance of prophecy.  We are to understand the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27)If 27% of the entire Bible is prophecy, it seems it would be unwise to disregard it.  And of all the prophetic predictions in the Bible, about 30% are yet unfulfilled.


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.


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.  Fulfilled prophecy gives us confidence of those yet to be fulfilled.  Our faith in the prophecies of God is based on past fulfilled prophecies.


The apostle Paul thought it was important to teach the early Christians about the endtimes.  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.


To those who were with us on this trip, I mentioned that every chapter in Paul's first letter 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 in a symbolic manner.  This creates a dilemma.  How are we to decipher symbols in the Bible?  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? 


This is where there is a divergence of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).  A moment ago I made a statement with which the non-literalist would disagree.  I said that by examining the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, we can know without a doubt that Jesus was that Messiah.          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.


A large segment of Christianity would strongly disagree with that conclusion.  They do not believe there are prophecies in the Bible about a future time when Jesus will reign on earth for 1,000 years.  These people are known as Amillennialists - meaning, "no millennium."  The Roman Catholic Church makes up a large segment of those holding this view.  Additionally, to the amillennialist, there is no rapture of the church.  Also, they teach that modern day Israel has no relationship to biblical prophecy.  More about that later in our lesson.


Today, most evangelical Christians hold to a position called "Premillenialism."  They take a more literal approach to biblical interpretation and believe in both a "Rapture" and a literal "Millennium" with Christ reigning 1,000 years.  This group does not discount that some prophetic Scriptures use symbols and picture, but believe even when symbolism is used, a “literal” fact or truth is being portrayed.


As an example of this view, I could make the following statements.  "John died yesterday."  That is a straightforward sentence that is understood very easily in a literal sense.  But I could also have said, "Yesterday, John kicked the bucket."  And everyone of you would understand that the three words, "kicked the bucket" is understood in a figurative manner.  But even when allegorical or figurative language is used, it still means John literally died yesterday.


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.


Literal interpretation is the normal way in which we interpret any piece of literature.  It seeks to discover the obvious and plain sense of the text.  Consider an article  taken from a newspaper a while back.


Text Box:      How should we understand this information?  We understand it literally, according to the normal meaning of the words that are used.


Consider this newspaper article.  The woman is 76, not 34.  She was found alive, not dead.  She was found in the mountains, not in a desert.  She was found nearly two weeks, not two years, after she disappeared.  She was on a hunting trip, not a fishing trip.  Her husband was with her on this trip, not her brother.  And the report was given by local officials, not a neighbor boy. 


The words of this article are understood in their normal and natural sense.  Whether or not this article is true and accurate is an entirely different issue.  Many newspaper articles are later found to be inaccurate, and the newspaper sometimes either retracts or changes the report.  But we do not have that problem with Biblical interpretation.  When it comes to the Bible, we know that whatever we read is true and accurate, because we believe that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2).  And our Lord said, "Thy Word is truth" (John 17:17).  God means what He says and He always says the truth.  We can trust Him and take Him at His Word.


One of the best guidelines for biblical interpretation is a statement made by Dr. David L. Cooper.


"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.


Listen to the comment by a second century Church father - Irenaeus.  Irenaeus is a respected Church leader who wrote a book to combat Gnostic heresies.  The Gnostics were corrupting the Church's hope of the Second Coming.  So, late in the second century, he wrote, ADVERSUS HAREISIS - translated "Against Heresies."  He held to a strict literal, common-sense interpretation of the prophecies of both the Old and New Testaments.


In this 5-volume document, he writes: "If, however, any shall endeavor to allegorize (prophecies) of this kind, they shall not be found consistent with themselves in all points, and shall be confuted (proven to be wrong) by the teaching of the very expressions."


Allegorical interpretation produces confusion because each teacher will supply his own interpretation according to his preconceptions, imagination and personal feelings, rather than the normal sense of language.


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 figurative language.


The literal approach to interpretation of Scripture assumes that the biblical writer wrote his prophecy with the expectation that he would be understood in a natural manner exactly as any other portion of his writing.  The literal method naturally acknowledges that prophetic language often contains figures of speech and prophetic symbols.  However, these prophetic symbols always point toward something that is itself literal.  This natural method avoids subjective interpretation and wild speculation.


Those evangelicals who holds a premillennial view of the end times, are known for their consistent literal interpretation of Scripture.  The word "consistent" is the key.  Non-premillennialists do interpret the Bible literally in many places, but they do not do it consistently.  Let me give you some examples.


Earlier, I mentioned that we whole-heartedly hold that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of in the Old Testament.




         It is because we believe He fulfilled some Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.




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.


Think of all the prophecies that were literally fulfilled at Christ's first coming.  He would be born in the city of Bethlehem - Micah 5:2.  The Messiah would be from the tribe of Judah - Genesis 49:10.  He would be born of a virgin girl - Psalm 22:18.  He would be hailed as king - Zechariah 9:9.  He would be silent before His executioners - Isaiah 53:7.  Men would gamble for His robe - Psalm 22:18.  His hands and feet would be pierced - Psalm 22:16.  Most people in all hermeneutic camps take these passages at face value and believe that they were literally fulfilled at Christ's first coming.  Being fulfilled literally is the only reason we can know without doubt Jesus is the Messiah.  With that in mind, then, we should expect prophecies yet unfulfilled will come to pass just like the previous one did.]


Consider the following Passage which speak of our Lord's two comings.


Zechariah 9:9 (NKJV) was literally fulfilled at the triumphant entry of Christ.


9       Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.


Jesus literally rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The prophecy was fulfilled, as confirmed by Matthew 21:4-5.  And we know it was fulfilled only because it was fulfilled literally.  Fulfilled any other way and we probably would not be able to say with full assurance that Jesus met the conditions of this prophecy when he first came to earth.  All Premillennialists and Amillennialists agree this prophecy was literally fulfilled at our Lord's first coming, at the time of the triumphal entry.


Now, let's read the very next verse: Zechariah 9:10 (NKJV).


10     I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; The battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be 'from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.'


This verse, taken at face value, teaches us that a day is coming when the instruments of war will be cut off.  It will be a time of total disarmament.  The Prince of Peace will speak peace, and will have dominion from sea to shining sea!


The problem is, those not holding to a Premillennial view will deny that Zechariah 9:10 will ever be fulfilled literally on this earth.  They do not believe in a kingdom age as minutely described in detail by all the prophets.  They deny that the Messiah will ever rule this earth in a prolonged era of worldwide peace.  The Amillennialist hold to a theology that believes there will never be a future kingdom on earth.  They deny that Christ the Messiah will rule from Jerusalem, even though this is the clear teaching of all the prophets of the Old Testament.


There are many biblical passages where the Amillennialist is not consistent in their interpretation.  Let's look at just one more.  I think it also will show the need to hold to a consistent literal hermeneutics.


In Luke 1:31-33, we read:


31     And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.

32     He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.

33     And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end."


Virtually all Christians accept the literal reality of the first verse of this great prophecy.  The consistent principles of interpretation demand that we interpret the last two verses with equal authority.  Would it not be illogical and certainly inconsistent to accept the first verse as literal, in this passage of the first coming of Christ, and then to reject the literal truth of the final verses describing His second coming.  I don't believe there is any other way to interpret these verses, but to teach that Jesus Christ will ultimately rule over the "house of Jacob" forever.


Let me give one more example from the many that exist, where the Amillennialist is not consistent.  Bible believers of all stripes, whether literalist or allegorist are in agreement when discussing the plagues that came upon the land of Egypt.  All believe they happened exactly and literally as described in the Bible.


One of the plagues was about frogs and is described in Exodus 8.  Let's read a portion of that chapter.


Exodus 8:1-5 NKJV


1       And the Lord spoke to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'Thus says the Lord: "Let My people go, that they may serve Me.

2       But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all your territory with frogs.

3       So the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into your house, into your bedroom, on your bed, into the houses of your servants, on your people, into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls.

4       And the frogs shall come up on you, on your people, and on all your servants."'"

5       Then the Lord spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, 'Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams, over the rivers, and over the ponds, and cause frogs to come up on the land of Egypt.'"


This is an event that all accept as having happened just prior to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.  The Egyptians were plagued by frogs in enormous numbers.  These amphibians were found in their bedrooms, in their ovens, in their mixing bowls.  Why do we all believe this?  Because the text of the Bible says so!  The text of Scripture is very clear and we take these statements literally.


The Book of Exodus is not the only place in the Word of God where divine judgment is graphically described.  In the book of Revelation we find three series of plagues which will affect not just Egypt, but the entire world.  We know them better as the "Seal" plagues or judgments, the "Trumpet" plagues and the "Bowl" or "Vial" plagues.  These end-time plagues are described in much the same way as those in the book of Exodus.


For instance, Revelation 8:8-9 read:


8       Then the second angel sounded: And something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood.

9       And a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.


The premillennialist, like myself, who take a more literal interpretation of the Bible, believe that one-third of the sea will become blood, one-third of the sea-creatures will die and one-third of the ships will be destroyed.  We believe this because the text says so.  That is the normal reading of this portion of Scripture.


Another example of a plague in Revelation is the fourth bowl plague in Revelation 16:


Revelation 16:8-9 NKJV


8       Then the fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and power was given to him to scorch men with fire.

9       And men were scorched with great heat, and they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory.


Here we have a horrifying description of global warming.  This worldwide warming will not be caused by man, and will not be caused by carbon emissions.  This plague will come from the hand of God.  Those who accept a more literal interpretation of Bible believe this will take place exactly as described.  We believe that because we take the text at face value.  We take God at His word.


The Amillennialist and others who allegorize end-times prophecy do not believe that the plagues describe in the book of Revelation will be literally fulfilled.  For example, preterists believe and teach that these plagues have already been fulfilled in or around 70A.D.  They believe the great tribulation has already taken place.  We know that there has never been a time when one-third of the sea became blood.  There has never been a time that one-third sea creatures were killed.


Why do the Amillennialist or the Preterist, neither of whom believe in a literal future Tribulation not accept these Passages at face value?  For sure, not taking these as events that will literally happen in the future is, to my way of thinking, not consistent in their hermeneutics.  To press my point a little further, four of the ten plagues that were experienced by Egypt are mentioned among the 7 bowl judgments in Revelation 16.  Those four are:


         Boils                  Rev. 16:2

         Blood                Rev. 16:3

         Darkness           Rev. 16:10

         Hail                   Rev. 16:21


What kind of method of interpretation is it that believes the one and denies the other?  Back then, it was a visitation of judgment in a single land.  Here, in Revelation 16, it is the whole earth.


Consider for a moment, admissions by some non-literalists.  Loraine Boettner, a postmillennialist writes:


"It is generally agreed that if these prophecies are taken literally, they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations."


And yet, in Boettner's book, The Millennium, she writes:


"It may seem harsh to say that “God is done with the Jews.” But the fact of the matter is that He is through with them as a unified national group

having anything more to do with the evangelization of the world. That mission has been taken from them and given to the Christian Church"


Amillennialist, Floyd Hamilton, writes:


"Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialists picture."

        And yet, Hamilton rejects such an idea of a future millennial reign of the Lord.


I will admit, this kind of reasoning eludes me.  Those who allegorize Scripture believe the secondary meaning - that which is non-literal, is the most important meaning we can gain of Scripture.  For them, the greatest truth being taught by a passage of Scripture is something other than the literal or historical meaning.  This, I believe opens the way for the interpreter to read into the words of Scripture whatever fanciful meaning might seem to him/her to be appropriate.  If anyone is going to be a student of eschatology, they must determine early on whether prophecy should be understood by its literal meaning or in another way.


This past week, I once again reviewed the writings of some of the Amillennialist and Postmillennialists.  I also looked at some of the more recent writings of the Preterists, which I consider to be cousins of the amillennialists.


Here are some of the positions held by Preterists.


•  All prophecy, except maybe the last two chapters of Revelation have all bee fulfilled.  They were fulfilled by 70 A.D. when Jerusalem was destroyed.


•  The whole world has already seen the Son of God come in the clouds.


•  Nero was the "beast" and the "man of sin."


•  Jesus, not the antichrist, is the "prince that shall come" mentioned by Daniel.


•  The "end" of the world (age) refers to the end of the Jewish world in 70 AD when the temple was destroyed and Israel was scattered.  In other words, it was the end of the "old system."


•  The fall of Babylon refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.


•  God replaced Old Testament Israel with the Church.  All the promises to Israel now belong to the church.


•  Satan is already bound in the abyss unable to hinder the spread of the Gospel.


•  The Spirit being poured out on all flesh already took place.


•  The end of the age harvest has already took place.


•  The fullness of the Gentiles has already come in.


•  Revelation 20 and the reign of Christ has already been fulfilled.


If you think on the implications of believing the "prophecies" as past events, it can change nearly everything you have ever learned from the Bible.  Additionally, since the Preterist believe all this took place prior to 70 AD, they must build a scenario to date John's writing of Revelation prior to 70 AD.


For the Postmillennialist and Amillennialist, here are some of their views of the end times.


•  The Old Testament prophecies of a glorious earthly kingdom for the nation of Israel are considered allegorical pictures of the existing church age.


•  Words like "Zion" is taken to mean the church instead of the city of Jerusalem.


•  The desert blossoming like a rose is taken as a picture of the present fruitfulness of the gospel instead of a literal future condition on earth.


•  The temple described by Ezekiel in chapter 40 through 48 is taken as a symbolic representation of the church rather than a literal future temple.


•  Some hold that the two beasts mentioned in Revelation 13, are "the Roman Empire and emperor-worship."


•  The 144,000 in Rev. 7 is said to be "a perfect number (12 X 12 X 1000) representing the church of all ages."


•  The two witnesses in Rev. 11 are "not individuals but represent the whole church."


•  The death of the two witnesses "symbolizes the church silenced by persecution."


•  The 42 months in Rev. 13:5 "represents the entire gospel age."


•  The binding of Satan in Rev. 20 "took place at the birth of Jesus."


To interpret Bible prophecy allegorically, it seems to me, destroys the absolute sense of God's Word.  If prophecy does not mean exactly what it says, there is no way to discern exactly what it does mean.  Once literality is sacrificed, it is like starting down an incline.  Momentum speedily gathers as one succumbs to the temptation to spiritualize Scripture.  Also, under the method of spiritualizing Scripture, how, or by what method, and we use to test the validity of what is taught.  Allegorical interpretation makes the Bible student a slave to the "enlightened teachers" who have the "key" of understanding.  This certainly was not the method on interpretation used by Jewish leaders.


Down through their history, Jewish orthodoxy generally interpreted their Bible, the Old Testament, literally.  The Pharisees at the time of Christ also maintained that the prophecies about the Messiah and the kingdom would come to pass in history.  Some Amillennialist would claim the Pharisees acceptance of literalism is a good reason for us to reject it.  But Christ never chided the Pharisees for their literal interpretation of prophecy.  Rather, He criticized their legalism and pride.


To the Jew, "Zion" meant Zion, and "Canaan" meant Canaan.  The first rule of the interpretation of prophecy should be to establish the literal meaning by understanding the normal meaning of the words used by the prophet.


Though the prophet may use symbols, readers should take literally the plain meaning of the passage.  Most who use the allegorical method of interpretation, along with not believing in the Rapture, or a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ, also believe the Church has replaced the physical nation of Israel.  These would take terms like "Zion" and "Jerusalem," when used in prophecy, is actually speaking of the Church of Christ.  Those interpreting Scripture in a more literal sense, believe the Church and Israel are distinct and separate groups of people.


Reasons for employing a literal method of interpretation


We have already mentioned one of the more important reasons for interpreting Scripture literally.  Only a literal interpretation of the predictions of the first coming of Messiah ensure to us the knowledge that Christ fulfilled them all. 


Equally true is the fact that later biblical texts take earlier ones as literalFor example, the creation events of Genesis 1 - 2 are taken literally by later books.  When God gave the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, He refers, in Exodus 20:11, one reason for establishing a Sabbath, was because God created the world in 6 days, then rested the 7th.


Matthew 19:6 and 1 Timothy 2:13 take literally the creation of Adam and Eve.  The fall of Adam and Eve, resulting in their death, is taken literally in Romans 5:12, 14.  Noah's flood is believed to have literally happened in Matthew 24:38.  The account of Jonah is taken literally by Christ in Matthew 12:40-42.  These are but a few of the many time later texts consider prior text as literal.






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.


Let me repeat 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 made in the book of Revelation.  On the screen is a portion of the first page.


The Bible as a body of literature exists because human beings need to know certain spiritual truths to which they cannot attain by themselves.  Thus these truths must come to them from without - that is, via objective, special revelation from God (Deuteronomy 29:29).  And this revelation can only be understood if one interprets the words of Scripture according to God's original design for language - that is, according to the ordinary, plain, literal sense of each word.


Seeking the Author's Intended Meaning


One must recognize that what a passage means is fixed by the author and is not subject to alteration by readers.  Meaning is determined by the author; it is discovered by readers.  Our goal must be exegesis (drawing the meaning out of the text) and not eisogesis (superimposing a meaning onto the text).


Cultists have done the same type of thing with Holy Scripture.  They so skew the meaning of the biblical text that it comes out saying something entirely different than what was intended by the author.  Only by objective methodology can we bridge the gap between our minds and the minds of the biblical writers.

Indeed, our method of interpreting Scripture is valid or invalid to the extent that it really unfolds the meaning a statement had for the author and the first hearers or readers.


The Importance of Context


A woman entered the Democratic primary for governor of the state of Texas.  She was convinced that the Bible had told her she would win the nomination.  When she received the official list of names from the primary she saw her name printed last.  Then she read in her Bible, "Many that are first will be last, and the last first" (Matt 19:30).   On the basis of that verse she thought God was telling her she would win. But she lost. This amusing story illustrates the need for interpreting Scripture in its proper context.  Taken out of context, the Scriptures can be twisted to say just about anything.

Seeking the biblical author's intended meaning necessitates interpreting Bible verses in context.  Every word in the Bible is part of a verse, and every verse is part of a paragraph, and every paragraph is part of a book, and every book is part of the whole of Scripture.

No verse of Scripture can be divorced from the verses around it.  Interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze a Rembrandt painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting.  Or it is like trying to analyze Handel's "Messiah" by listening to a few short notes.

The context is absolutely critical to properly interpreting Bible verses.  In interpreting Scripture, there is both an immediate context and a broader context.  The immediate context of a verse is the paragraph (or paragraphs) of the biblical book in question.  The immediate context should always be consulted in interpreting Bible verses.

The broader context is the whole of Scripture.
 The entire Holy Scripture is the context and guide for understanding the particular passages of Scripture.


We must keep in mind that the interpretation of a specific passage must not contradict the total teaching of Scripture on a point.  Individual verses do not exist as isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole.  The exposition of these verses, therefore, must involve exhibiting them in right relation both to the whole and to each other.  Scripture interprets Scripture.  As J. I. Packer puts it, "if we would understand the parts, our wisest course is to get to know the whole."


The Importance of Historical Considerations


Historical considerations are especially important in properly interpreting the Word of God.  The Christian faith is based on historical fact.  Indeed, Christianity rests on the foundation of the historical Jesus whose earthly life represents God's full and objective self-communication to humankind (John 1:18).

Jesus was seen and heard by human beings as God's ultimate revelation (1 John 1:1-3).  This is why He could forcefully claim, "If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also" (John 14:7).


The apostle Paul, when speaking with the religious men of Athens, affirmed that the reality of the future judgment of all humanity rests on the objective, historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:16f.).

This evidence is recorded for us in the New Testament Gospels, documents that are based on eyewitness testimony and written very close in time to the events on which they report.

Based on how people respond to God's objective, historical revelation contained in Scripture, they will spend eternity in a real heaven or a real hell.


Interpret the Old Testament in Light of the New Testament


God gave revelation to humankind progressively throughout Old and New Testament times.  He didn't just give His entire revelation for all time to our first parents, Adam and Eve, or to Moses, the Lawgiver.  Rather, as time went on - as the centuries slowly passed, God provided more and more revelation that became progressively full so that by the time the New Testament was complete, God had told us everything He wanted us to know.


In view of this, a key interpretive principle is that one should always interpret the Old Testament in view of the greater light of the New Testament.  The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted.

The introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before.

The Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but only perfected, extended, and enlarged.  Again, then, the Old Testament should be interpreted according to the greater light of the New Testament.  The Old Testament is much clearer when approached through the lens of the New Testament.


Dependence on the Holy Spirit


Scripture tells us that we are to rely on the Holy Spirit's illumination to gain insights into the meaning and application of Scripture (John 16:12-15; 1 Cor. 2:9-11).  It is the Holy Spirit's work to throw light upon the Word of God so that the believer can assent to the meaning intended and act on it.


The Holy Spirit, as the "Spirit of truth" (John 16:13), guides us so that "we may understand what God has freely given us" (1 Corinthians 2:12).  This is quite logical: full comprehension of the Word of God is impossible without prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God, for He who inspired the Word (2 Peter 1:21) is also its supreme interpreter.  Illumination is necessary because man's mind has been darkened through sin (Romans 1:21), preventing him from properly understanding God's Word.  Human beings cannot understand God's Word apart from God's divine enablement (Eph. 4:18).

This aspect of the Holy Spirit's ministry operates within the sphere of man's rational capacity, which God Himself gave man (cf. Genesis 2-3).  Illumination comes to the 'minds' of God's people, not to some nonrational faculty like our 'emotions' or our 'feelings.'  To know God's revelation means to use our minds.  This makes knowledge something we can share with others, something we can talk about.

God's Word is in words with ordinary rational content.
  The ministry of the Holy Spirit in interpretation does not mean interpreters can ignore common sense and logic.  Since the Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of truth" (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), He does not teach concepts that fail to meet the tests of truth.

In other words, "the Holy Spirit does not guide into interpretations that contradict each other or fail to have logical, internal consistency."
  It must also be kept in mind that the function of the Holy Spirit is not to communicate to the minds of people any doctrine or meaning of Scripture that is not contained already in Scripture itself.  The Holy Spirit makes men "wise up to what is written, not beyond it."  Indeed, "the function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture."


The Example of Jesus Christ


Jesus consistently interpreted the Old Testament quite literally, including the Creation account of Adam and Eve (Matthew 13:35; 25:34; Mark 10:6),

         Noah's Ark and the flood (Matthew 24:38-39; Luke 17:26-27),

         Jonah and the great fish (Matthew 12:39-41),

         Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15), and

         And the account of Lot and his wife (Luke 17:28-29).


In his book The Savior and the Scriptures, theologian Robert P. Lightner notes - following an exhaustive study, that Jesus' interpretation of Scripture "was always in accord with the grammatical and historical meaning.  He understood and appreciated the meaning intended by the writers according to the laws of grammar and rhetoric."

Jesus affirmed the Bible's divine inspiration (Matthew 22:43), its indestructibility (Matthew 5:17-18),  its infallibility (John 10:35), its final authority (Matthew 4:4,7,10), its historicity (Matthew 12:40; 24:37),  its factual inerrancy (Matthew 22:29-32), and its spiritual clarity (Luke 24:25).


Moreover, He emphasized the importance of each word of Scripture (Luke 16:17).   Indeed, He sometimes based His argumentation on a single expression of the biblical text (Matthew 22:32,43-45; John 10:34).


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.