In the context of a world coronavirus pandemic, fragile economy, high unemployment, civil unrest, and rising hostilities among nations, it is not surprising that interest in Biblical prophecy has increased. False prophets have appeared who prey on doubt, hatred, fear, and injustice. False interpretations of Biblical prophecy misrepresent Holy Scripture and proliferate spiritual lies.
Inaccurate understanding of prophecies pose risks to one’s faith. There are basically two types of people more likely to have their faith weakened when attempting to interpret Biblical prophecies: Those who ascribe too much to prophecy and those who ascribe too little. The first type unknowingly misinterprets, misrepresents, or misapplies prophecy; then, when events do not unfold as they expect, becomes disillusioned, angry, or lose faith. This occurred in the mid-1800s when William Miller, a farmer, interpreted Scripture to prophesize that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in 1843. Many people found Miller’s reasoning compelling. Ordinary people. Intelligent people. By all accounts, Miller was a good man and had read the Bible. However, when 1843 passed without the Second Coming, Miller concluded he had erred and recalculated the date. When the revised date also passed without incident, Miller and his supporters despaired in a highly publicized account. For some, their faith was shattered. For others, their faith became the target of ridicule.
The second type neglects or ignores prophecy; when events unfold that have been foretold in the Bible, they fail to recognize that prophecies have been fulfilled. The Bible warns that ungodly forces are at work to prevent people from understanding Biblical prophecies and recognizing their fulfillment. God’s promise of a Messiah is an example of prophecy fulfillment that has been unrecognized by many people for more than 2,000 years. Old Testament prophecies had foretold the coming of a Messiah. They had foretold the Messiah’s genealogical background; His birthplace; the general timeframe in which He would appear; and, other identifying characteristics. Even though Jesus fulfilled those prophecies and identified Himself as the Messiah (John 4: 26), many people failed to understand and recognize Him as such.
But there is a third type of person whose faith is likely to be strengthened by attempting to understand Biblical prophecies: Those who properly interpret and apply them, and who use that knowledge to strengthen their relationship with God. Those who recognize that some prophecies are warnings of things to come — warnings given for our spiritual protection. This third group includes some religious scholars who devote their lives to the study of prophetic Scripture and who offer interpretive guidance to those of us who do not. Among these scholars is Arnold G Fruchtenbaum, Th.M, Ph.D. – a Jewish scholar who recognizes that Jesus is the promised Messiah and who has dedicated his life to the discipleship of Jewish and Gentile believers.
Although prophetic scholars do not always reach the same conclusions, they generally interpret Scripture according to four basic rules (the same rules apply to Biblical prophecy that appliy to Holy Scripture). In his book, “The Footsteps of the Messiah: A Study of the Sequence of Prophetic Events,” Fruchtenbaum describes the four basic rules that should be followed when studying Biblical prophecies. A fifth rule has been added to warn against the dangers of “date setting.” The five rules are summarized, below.
First, Biblical prophecy texts should be interpreted as fact, unless there is something in the text indicating that it should not be taken literally. When Scriptural language is clear and it makes sense on its own, no other interpretation is necessary. The Bible, though sometimes confusing, is not too complex to be understood. For the most part, the Bible is to be taken literally, with recognition that people’s understanding may change as their familiarity with Holy Scripture grows.
Second, prophecies may be missed or misunderstood if Holy Scripture is not read and understood in its entirety. Old Testament and New Testament are interwoven, and references to one lie within the other. Sometimes a single, prophetic Biblical passage or segment refers to two people or two events that are distinctly different and separated by time, even though no time gap is specifically mentioned. Prophetic references to people or events separated by time can sometimes only be ascertained in the context of other Scripture. An example is Zechariah 9:9-10. It believed by most Biblical scholars that Verse 9 (“Rejoice greatly, O my people! Shout with joy! For look – your King is coming! He is the Righteous One, the Victor! Yet he is lowly, riding on a donkey’s colt!”) refers to the First Coming of Christ. However, it is followed by verse 10 (“I will disarm all peoples of the earth, including my people in Israel, and he shall bring peace among the nations. His realm shall stretch from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.”), which most scholars believe refers to Christ’s Second Coming — not His First. Although the two verses appear together in the same chapter, they reference two separate events entirely — divided by a lengthy gap of time that is not mentioned.
The third interpretative rule is that sometimes the Bible records an event in chronological sequence, later followed with a record of that same event in greater detail. An example is Ezekiel 38:1-39:16. A prophetic account of an invasion of Israel from the north, and subsequent destruction of the invading army, is given in Ezekiel 38:1-23. Ezekiel 39:1-16 then repeats some of that same prophetic information, but when it does so it also adds further detail.
The fourth rule is that Biblical Scripture only says what it means in its context and it must not be taken out of context. To interpret a Biblical passage out of context can change its meaning. When Biblical passages are taken out of context, they can also confuse and mislead, adversely affecting one’s faith. An example relates to Zechariah 13:6 (“And if someone asks, ‘Then what are these scars on your chest and your back?’ he will say, ‘I got into a brawl at the home of a friend.’”) Some scholars have concluded that verse 6 refers to the Messiah. However, when read in its context (Zechariah 13:2-6), most disagree. In context, it’s clear that verse 6 refers to false prophets – not Jesus. (Verses 2-6 state, “And the Lord Almighty declares, ‘In that day I will get rid of every vestige of idol worship throughout the land, so that even the names of the idols will be forgotten. All false prophets and fortune-tellers will be wiped out, and if anyone begins false prophecy again, his own father and mother will slay him! ‘You must die,’ they will tell him, ‘for you are prophesizing lies in the name of the Lord.’ ‘No one will be boasting then of his prophetic gift! No one will wear prophet’s clothes to try to fool the people then. ‘No,’ he will say. ‘I am not a prophet; I am a farmer. The soil has been my livelihood from my earliest youth.’”
The fifth rule of prophecy interpretation is a warning against date setting. In Matthew 25:13, Jesus warns that no one can predict the date of His return: “So stay awake and be prepared, for you do not know the date or moment of my return.” God has chosen to keep secret exact dates and times. Only a fool or liar would claim to know the exact date or time of the Second Coming, for example, or when the world will end. “No one knows the date and hour when the end will be – not even the angels. No, nor even God’s Son. Only the Father knows.” (Matthew 24:36) Films, books, speakers, blog posts, or other media that predict a date for the world’s end or Jesus’ return should not be believed.
Finally, biblical prophecies are from God and they serve God’s purpose. They are signs or warnings that God discloses to help us in our spiritual journeys. Their origins are not of our world, so it makes sense we might have trouble interpreting them correctly. But when by God’s grace they are interpreted correctly, Biblical prophecies are consistent with other Holy Scripture. We should not fear Biblical prophecies nor seek to avoid them. There is even a special blessing for those who read the prophetic book of Revelation aloud to the church, and those who listen to it being read and do what it says will also be blessed. (Revelation 1:3) However, we need to take care that we do not listen to false prophets, encourage false prophecies, nor misrepresent the Biblical prophecies we study. Jesus warns in Revelation, “…and I solemnly declare to everyone who reads this book: If anyone adds to what I have written here, God shall add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone subtracts any part of these prophecies, God shall take away his share in the Tree of Life, and in the Holy City just described.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
Although I am not a religious scholar nor prophet, I believe that by God’s grace a better understanding of God and Biblical prophecies are within our reach. However, in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, we cannot be motivated by fear, hate, insecurity, or desire for knowledge that God has reserved to Himself. Nor should we trust to be led by those whose character we do not know. We must dig deep, observing others’ actions as well as words. Jesus warns us to “Beware of false teachers who come disguised as harmless sheep, but are wolves and will tear you apart. You can detect them by the way they act, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit. You need never confuse grapevines with thorn bushes or figs with thistles… Yes, the way to identify a tree or a person is by the kind of fruit produced.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
The fact that we won’t always comprehend Biblical prophecy should not prevent us from having a meaningful relationship with God. If we supplement our prayers with worship and Bible study, then by God’s grace our spiritual journeys will be facilitated. With greater understanding, we will grow in our love of God and of each other. As our love for God grows, so will our faith. If it is God’s will, our worldly fears will then subside, our faith will nourish others, and God’s Word will be lifted by the winds of change. Winds that will scatter God’s Words on our hearts and the hearts of others like seeds to fertile ground.
Photo Credit: The Vintage News, Photo of 1,200-year-old Bible reclaimed from antique smuggling network in Turkey during 2019, probably from Damascus or Antioch. 34 leather pages containing gold-encrusted religious motifs. On the front side it has a golden Crucifix and on the reverse side it has a Star of David.
Reference: Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. “The Footsteps of the Messiah: A Study of the Sequence of Prophetic Events” (Revised Edition), Ariel Ministries, San Antonio, TX, 2004.