Many Christians believe the subject of the end-times to be an insurmountable mountain far too high and complicated to climb. As a result, many simply entrust their beliefs regarding the end-times to their pastor or various “prophecy experts”.
Certainly, the Lord has given some to function as teachers within the Body of Christ to help guide fellow believers into a proper understanding of the more complicated aspects of God’s Word. However, it in no way does this excuse any believer from his or her own personal responsibility to search these things out in the Bible for themselves.
The following seven principles represent the approach to understanding Biblical prophecy.
Rule #1: First things First
When one builds a house, it is necessary to begin by laying a proper and solid foundation. How and where, one begins always affects the end result. This is true whether we are dealing with a house or theology. A bad or weak foundation will cause the end result to be unstable, faulty or potentially even dangerous. In home building, if one were to begin by building the roof and then worked backwards to the foundation, they would most likely end up with some serious problems. Yet this is precisely what some actually do when they are trying to build a solid Biblical eschatology; they decide that they want to understand what the Bible says about the end-times and then they turn right to the Book of Revelation, the very last book of the Bible!
The Book of Revelation is a crucial book to understand when studying God’s plan for the ages. But the Book of Revelation is not where we start. The Book of Revelation is predicated and founded on a wealth of previously revealed prophetic knowledge and information found in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps more than almost any other book in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation is jam-packed with direct citations, quotes, allusions and even more subtle echoes of dozens upon dozens of passages found throughout the Old Testament. Imagine going to a symphony. During the performance, you hear stringed instruments, drums, wind instruments, but it is not until the grand finale that all of these instruments come to one amazing crescendo. This is what the Book of Revelation is; it is the grand prophetic-symphonic crescendo composed of many other prophecies found throughout the Bible. But as beautiful as grand crescendos may be, they do come last for a reason. Before we can expect to understand what the Book of Revelation is trying to tell us, we must first understand what the passages that it is built upon are saying. The Bible is an unfolding story. If we seek to properly understand the story the Bible is telling, we must begin at the beginning of the book approaching the story as it was written, as it unfolds and expands.
So the first rule that needs to be followed when we desire to understand what the Bible says about the end-times, is to start with what comes first. We begin with the foundation. We begin at the beginning. This couldn’t be much simpler. In terms of Bible study, this means that we begin with the Torah, the first five books of Moses and move forward from there.
Rule #2: Keep It Simple
Besides being the last book in the Bible, there are other reasons not to begin with the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is perhaps the most highly symbolic, allegorical and apocalyptic book in the whole Bible. When we begin trying to understand what the Bible says about the end-times, we do not begin with the most allegorical or symbolic passages. We do not start with passages that are tricky, hard to interpret or confusing. Instead, we should begin with what is clear, literal, direct and easy to understand.
So not only do we not start with the Book of Revelation, but we also do not start with the Book of Daniel or Ezekiel. While both of these books come far before the Book of Revelation, they are also both very symbolic books filled with dreams, visions and much symbolism. So while Daniel and Ezekiel are essential books to understand if we are to accurately grasp the Bible’s message concerning the end-times, like Revelation, these are not the books we should begin with. There are numerous other essential passages that must be examined first. There are many essential prophetic passages that are not only older than Daniel and Ezekiel, but also clearer, more literal, direct and easy to understand.
So our second rule is that we should begin with that which contains the least measure of confusing, questionable, debatable or hard-to-understand elements.
Rule #3: The Full Counsel of Scripture
Many cults have been founded on 1 or 2 scriptures and not on all the scripture. We need to remind ourselves not to develop theories, positions or doctrines based on select, limited or isolated passages, while ignoring the wealth of other passages that speak to any particular issue. Whatever position we arrive at, it must conform to the full counsel of Scripture! Our position must be able to bring together all of the numerous and relevant passages throughout the Bible, revealing a consistent story. It is both dangerous and irresponsible to base any doctrine or idea on one or even a few isolated passages. But when we see a theme or motif that is repeated numerous times throughout the Bible, over and over—then we know that we are building on a foundation of consistency.
Rule #4: Context, Context, Context
Ask any realtor what the key to home sales is, and they will say, “location, location, location”. Likewise, anyone who has spent three days in Bible school or seminary will tell you that the cardinal rule of responsibly interpreting Scripture is context, context, context. Perhaps one of the easiest mistakes to make when trying to understand Bible prophecy is failing to take into consideration the larger context of the Bible.
Today, the Church in the United States, and the West in general, is contending with various issues such as moral and cultural relativism, secular humanism, Darwinism, religious pluralism or intellectual atheism. The list could go on and on. All of these anti-Christian ideas and world-views seem to be increasing their hold on Western culture and society. And so the Western Church lives in an atmosphere where the television shows, movies, and media we are exposed to continually send us messages that conflict with a Biblical worldview. Likewise, if our children attend public school or a secular university, the teachers and students alike aggressively espouse one or all of these anti-Christian worldviews. The result is that Western believers tend to imagine that the same spirit of the age we are contending with here is also being contended with in every other part of the world.
As we rightly discern the demonic powers behind many of these ideas that are daily assaulting our families and our faith, many assume that this prevailing spirit is in fact the premiere spirit of the Antichrist. Many imagine the Antichrist to be a leader of a global world religion that welcomes everyone, except true Christians of course.
Because Western culture is the only world that most Westerners know, as we turn to the Bible and read the end-time prophetic passages, many make the mistake of reading their own worldview and personal experiences into its pages. The problem with this of course is that the Bible is and always has been, a thoroughly Jerusalem, Israel and Middle Eastern-centric book. As we will see, Biblical prophecy tells a very Jerusalem centred story. Jerusalem is the city that the entire story of the return of Jesus revolves around. This is the city from which Jesus will literally rule the earth after His return. This fact must not be missed.
So as we approach the Bible to understand what it is saying with regard to the end-times, the fourth rule is that we must take into consideration its proper context. We must be cautious not to insert our foreign context, our own personal experience into the pages of the Bible. We must not read a Western worldview into the pages of this Eastern book called the Bible. We must always remember, we must never forget, the Middle-Eastern / Israel-centric context of the Bible. The Bible was not written primarily for Americans or Westerners. The Bible is a Jewish book with a Middle Eastern emphasis and worldview.
Rule #5: Do Not Read Prophetic Literature as if it is a Technical Manual
This rule piggy-backs on the previous rule. It says that Westerners must acknowledge that most prophecies in the Bible are written as ancient Hebrew prophetic poetry or apocalyptic literature. Western students of the Bible should familiarize themselves with the characteristics of these types of literature and many literary devices they utilize. This includes things such as Hebrew idioms, hyperbole and the dual fulfillment of so many prophetic passages. Because much of the West’s cultural and intellectual roots are found in the Enlightenment, we have particular ways of thinking, reasoning and viewing things that are often in conflict with the manner in which the Bible is written.
I was once speaking at a conference and explained that reading the Bible literally sometimes means that we do not take things in a hyper-literal fashion. Sometimes reading poetry in a hyper-literal or technically literal fashion can lead to all sorts of problems and misinterpretations. Sure enough, after I spoke, a somewhat confrontational man met me at the front of the church. “I read the Bible literally, period,” he said, inferring of course, that I was encouraging a non-literal or slightly liberal interpretive method. Feeling a bit feisty, I opened my Bible to Isaiah 60, a passage that speaks of the blessings that will come to the Jewish people during the Messianic Kingdom. “So you take the Bible literally, no matter what?” I asked as I handed him my Bible, pointed to verse 19, and asked him to read it aloud:
You shall drink the milk of the Gentiles, and milk the breast of kings; you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob. —Isaiah 60: 16
Not wanting to admit that reading this verse literally would have some rather embarrassing implications, he said that he would need to study “this one” a bit further. But I believe he understood my point. I hold to a literal interpretive method, but I read prophetic poetry as prophetic poetry, historical narrative as historical narrative, and proverbs as proverbs, etc. These things all speak of very literal realities, but they use various types of literature and expressions to convey these realities, each one with its own rules and characteristics. So when we are reading Hebrew apocalyptic literature or prophetic poetry, we do not read this material as if we are reading an owner’s manual for a Toyota Tundra.
Rule #6 Recognize the Ultimate Emphasis, the Big Story of
Understanding the general nature of Biblical prophecy is not nearly as difficult as many Western interpreters have sometimes made it. While nearly every prophecy has immediate application in either the immediate or near future of the prophets, the ultimate burden of all Biblical prophecy is the coming of the Messiah, the Day of the LORD and the Messianic Kingdom to follow.
While each prophet was most often speaking to the circumstances of his day and age, or to events that were in the near future, the primary burden of the entire Bible, of every prophet and apostle is the coming of Jesus and the establishment of His kingdom rule over the earth. As such one can rightly say that Biblical prophecy is first and foremost Messiah-centric. It is ultimately about Jesus.
Of course, in highlighting the Messiah-centricity of Scripture, one must acknowledge both the first and the second coming of Jesus. Modern Christians most often major in the prophecies that point to the first coming of Jesus, and minor in the prophecies that speak of His second coming. The fact of the mater however is that the primary emphasis of Scripture is the second coming. Far more prophecies address the second coming than the first. So the three primary emphases of Biblical prophecy are the following:
- Immediate Historical Context of the Prophets’ era
- The First Coming of Jesus
- The Second Coming of Jesus / The Day of the LORD.
One of the characteristics of Western thought is that we like to organize and classify things into neat categories. Westerners like to systematize everything including our theology. We may even attempt to dissect the living Word of God as if it is a frog in a high school science lab. As such, when attempting to interpret and understand the Bible, we often attempt to define each verse or passage as if it is speaking of either the historical or the future fulfillment, as if it must be one or the other. But we need to understand that the Bible is an Eastern book and is not necessarily written with a Western mindset. And so, almost as if to drive Westerners crazy, we frequently find in the Scriptures passages which simply intermingle the historical and the future into one seamless passage. Consider for example the following classic passage:
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this. —Isaiah 9:6-7
This passage speaks as if the primary purpose of this child, this son, is to vindicate Israel over and against her enemies. Consider what the child brings about: Israel’s boundaries will be expanded, the yoke that burdens the Jewish people will be shattered, warriors’ boots and blood will be a thing of the past. This child will bring in everlasting Peace. Yet the child has come, but the remainder of the prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. Israel is still oppressed. Wars continue. Within this passage there is a two thousand year pause or gap. Yet a face value reading of this passage gives no real indication of this. In one seamless passage, we have both the historical (the child was born) and the future fulfillment (He will rule, and shatter the rod of oppression and bring in everlasting peace).
As much as we in the West like to approach a passage and divide it up into neat categories of historical or future, oftentimes, both elements are intertwined. Sometimes a passage may be partially historical with shadows of futuristic prophecies. Other times a prophet may be speaking almost entirely of the future with only a slight shade of historical emphasis. Other times yet, a passage may be entirely futuristic or historical. How then are we to understand such passages? The answer lies in understanding the big story that all of the prophets are telling and identifying the commonly repeated themes which make up this big story.
Most have heard the saying “don’t miss the forest for the trees”. The point of the saying is to warn against becoming so caught up in the many intricacies or details (trees) of any subject that you miss the bigger picture (the forest). Perhaps nowhere is this warning more appropriate than with regard to the study of Biblical prophecy. When studying the many end-time passages of the Bible, it’s very easy to become so engrossed in one particular passage that the larger story is missed. I’ve watched both students and teachers make this mistake dozens upon dozens of times. But this error is easy to avoid. Before running with any one particular passage, we must first solidly grasp the larger overarching ultimate story being conveyed throughout the many prophecies of the Bible.
The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it tells the same story over and over again in numerous ways. Whenever a theme is important, it will be repeated multiple times throughout the Bible. When something is important from a prophetic perspective, the Bible will make that point abundantly clear by reiterating it dozens of times in numerous different passages. It is through taking note of the commonly repeated themes that one is able to grasp the “big-story” of Biblical prophecy.
While every prophet was speaking to the immediate circumstances of his day, or the near future of his day, the ultimate burden of all Biblical prophecy is the coming of the Messiah, the Day of the LORD and the Messianic Kingdom to follow. The coming of Jesus and the establishment of His Kingdom is the big story that all of the prophets are telling. This is the emphasis of the entire Bible.
Rule #7 Must Understand that When God Almighty is Portrayed as Being Physically Present on the Earth. This is God the Son (Jesus).
This final rule is more of an observation. But it is an essential observation to grasp if we are to properly understand numerous passages throughout the prophets that speak of the return of the Messiah and the Day of the LORD. The observation is simply this: When God is portrayed or presented as being physically on the earth, this is nearly always one of two things: It is either a historical pre-incarnate appearance of God the Son, or it is a prophetic portrayal of Jesus the Messiah at the time of His return. Many Christians miss this fact, because they are often confused regarding the nature of the Trinity. Often, when the individual being described is referenced as God, or with the sacred name Yahweh, most often translated as LORD, many simply assume this is God the Father. But throughout the Bible, God the Father does not come down to the earth until the very end (Revelation 21,22). Throughout the Bible, God has appeared to men and women at various times. Consider just a couple examples below:
Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?” — Genesis 16:13
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” —Genesis 32:30
But despite the numerous appearances of God throughout the Old Testament, the Apostle John makes it clear that no one has ever seen God the Father, except God the Son:
“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared [Him].” —John 1:18 NKJV
…everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. —John 6:45-46
The Apostle Paul also makes it clear that God the Father has never been seen:
I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things… He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen. —1 Timothy 6:13-16
Yet throughout the prophets, there are numerous passages that speak of God being present on the earth. While several passages could be cited, consider the following:
Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank. —Exodus 24:9-11
While numerous individuals and people saw God historically throughout the Bible, all of these passages must be understood as pre-incarnate appearances of God the Son. So also when we see God physically present in the context of future prophecy, should we understand these references to “God” or “LORD” as references to Jesus after His return. Consider for example the passage in Zechariah:
For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem; The city shall be taken, the houses rifled, and the women ravished. Half of the city shall go into captivity, but the remnant of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives. — Zechariah 14:2-4
Here we have a passage where Yahweh, the LORD is seen to physically stand on the Mount of Olives. He is described as fighting against the armies of gentile nations. This is clearly a Messianic prophecy concerning the day when Jesus the Messiah will stand on the Mount of Olives as He executes judgment against those nations that come against Jerusalem.
In conclusion, let’s summarize the various rules of interpretation. By following and applying these simple rules, the subject of Biblical prophecy will become far more approachable and easy to understand for everyone:
Rule #1: Begin with what comes first. Do not begin with that which comes last.
Rule #2: Begin with that which is clear, direct and easy to understand. Do not begin with that which is highly symbolic, allegorical or difficult to interpret.
Rule #3: Build on themes that are consistent and occur repeatedly throughout Scripture.
Rule #4: Context, Context Context.
Rule #5: Do not approach the Bible as if it is a technical manual. Understand the Eastern nature of the Bible.
Rule #6 Recognize the Ultimate Emphasis of Biblical Prophecy, Know The Big Story
Rule # 7 Recognize that when God Almighty is portrayed as being physically present on the earth, this is God the Son, either historically as the pre-incarnate Son of God, or as Jesus at the time of His return.
Extracted from Joel Richardson’s Book MidEast Beast – Chapter 1 “End Times Simplified”