Prophecy by The Book: Chapter 2
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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Procedure in Studying Prophecy
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 21often
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 imagerysuch 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
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
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 authorthrough human vessels, of courseand 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!
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Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams,
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