24 May 2024

Now that we’ve had a high-level overview of the major end-times positions, we should probably talk about some things we need to keep in mind when we are studying this topic, or any topic really. In Part 4, we looked at hermeneutics (the overall method we use to interpret scripture), and in this post, we are going to see how to apply some tactics and things to keep in mind when we begin to interpret the bible.

And lest you have said “I don’t interpret the bible, I just believe what it says”, I’m here to remind us all – if we come to any conclusions at all about anything we read, we are engaging in some form of interpretation. Hopefully these tactics will help us make the correct interpretation as much as it is possible.

Biblical interpretation is a science, and like any other science, the interpretation of Scripture comes with rules. When we break or ignore these rules, at best we can have trouble understanding a passage, and at worst we misinterpret a passage in such a way that leads to believing that the Bible says something it really doesn’t say.

Some guiding principles to remember are:

  • Context, context, context
  • There is only one original meaning for any given passage
  • There may be multiple applications for any given passage, but do not confuse the application with the interpretation
  • We should have a literal approach using the genre that the passage is written in. For example, when Jesus says “I am the vine”, the literal interpretation is that Jesus is using a metaphor to describe something about Himself, not that He is a literal vine.
  • Interpret unclear passages in light of clear passages

With those principles in mind, let’s look at and apply some foundational rules.

Rule 1: Let scripture interpret scripture

First and foremost is that we should, whenever possible, let Scripture interpret Scripture. Scripture is its own authority and there is no authority above it. We cannot prove the truth of scripture in any way other than by saying “it is the word of God, therefore, it is true.” Are there evidences that help us demonstrate that truth? Of course, there are! However, the evidence that we see is not the reason the bible is true – it is not the basis of the fact that scripture is true. Rather, the basis of the truth of scripture is that it is the word of God.

Based on that, we should use evidence to say something like “since scripture is true, therefore we should expect evidence to be found”, not “the scripture is true because this evidence exists.” This is what we are getting at when we say that scripture interprets scripture. We are using the truth to interpret the truth, not evidence to interpret the truth.

So, when we come to more difficult passages in scripture, like the study of the end times, we cannot interpret them in light of the things going on in this world, rather, we must interpret the things going on in this world in light of God’s word. And further, we must take those more difficult passages and apply clearer passages to them.

For example, when we see a passage like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1–2 ESV)

We are not free to interpret that however we wish. What is “the beginning”? What is “the Word”? How can something be both “with God” and God at the same time? If we aren’t careful, we’ll do what the Jehova’s Witnesses or Mormons do and claim that this is speaking about someone who is one of many gods. That’s certainly one interpretation.

It’s wrong.

How do we know?

Just keep reading…

All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:3–5 ESV)

Now we are learning more about this “Word”. The Word spoken of here is a “he”, and “he” is active in creation, “he” has life within himself, and that life is a light for all mankind that shines in the darkness.  But why? What’s the point? What does all this mean?

… read on …

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. (John 1:6 ESV)

Aha! John is the Word. John is the light! Got it!

Nope.

… read on …

He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:7–8 ESV)

Oh, so John isn’t the Word. John isn’t the light. But he bears witness to the light? Then who is the Word? Who is the light?

… read on …

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9–13 ESV)

Wow. This Word, this Light, He sounds amazing! He came into the world he created but the world did not receive him. But some people did because they were born by the will of God! And because of this Word, this light, this will, they became children of God!

SO.WHO.IS.HE? Who is this Word?

… read on …

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) 16For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14–18 ESV)

OK. That’s really clear. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the Word has a name.

Jesus the Christ.

So Jesus is the Word who became flesh. And the Word was with God in the beginning…the beginning before creation. And the Word was God who created all things.

Jesus is the Word.

Jesus is the light.

Jesus is life.

Jesus is God.

The clearer passages interpret the less clear passages, and John 1:1-18 demonstrates this.

Clearly.

Rule 2: Let the New Testament interpret the Old Testament

The next rule is like the first. While we are to let clearer passages interpret less clear passages, we are also to let later revelation interpret earlier revelation – the New Testament should interpret the Old Testament.

For example, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, when discussing salvation and what it takes to be in the family of God, rather than appealing to some external source to prove the truth of what he was saying, he appealed to special revelation – he remembered the Old Testament.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3 ESV)

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14–17 ESV)

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. 21“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” (Isaiah 59:20–21 ESV)

And when he remembered the promises that God gave to Abraham, it caused him to think about his Jewish brothers with great sorrow…

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:1–5 ESV)

Paul had “unceasing anguish in his heart” when he saw his fellow Jews rejecting their messiah. But Paul did not doubt God’s promise as perhaps some in Rome did. Rather, we see Paul do something under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that was quite unexpected. He writes…

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (Romans 9:6–8 ESV)

Paul has just taken an Old Testament promise of redemption made to Abraham and his descendants and given us the intended meaning and scope of that promise. While the Jewish people assume that the promise was for them because they were related by blood to Abraham, in reality, the promise was for the spiritual descendants of Abraham, not the physical descendants! Romans 9 gives us the interpretation of an Old Testament promise – the promise of redemption applies to Christians, whom Paul calls “the Israel of God”…

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. (Galatians 6:14–18 ESV)

Do you know what that means? It means that anyone, even the Jewish people, everyone who saw then (or sees now) that promise as applying to them because of their being descendants of Abraham, those people were wrong then and they are wrong now. Even for 2,000 years!

We must not only let Scripture interpret Scripture, but we must also let the New Testament (newer revelation) interpret the Old Testament (older revelation), not the other way around. When it comes to the end times, many people interpret Revelation by Daniel, but that is not the correct way to approach either book. We have seen one example of a New Testament author interpreting an Old Testament promise for us, but what about something like the end times? For example, if a New Testament author spiritualizes an Old Testament prophecy, shouldn’t we consider that as the proper interpretation of that prophecy?

“The Old Testament prophets and writers spoke of the glories of the coming messianic age in terms of their own premessianic age. They referred to the nation of Israel, the temple, the Davidic throne, and so on. These all reflect the language, history, and experience of the people to whom the prophecies were originally given. But eschatological [end times] themes are reinterpreted in the New Testament, where we are told these Old Testament images are types and shadows of the glorious realities that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ…This means that Jesus Christ is the true Israel. Jesus Christ is the true temple. Jesus Christ is the heir to David’s throne, and so on.” [1]

Acts 15 records a disputation regarding circumcision that was large enough that a meeting with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem was necessary.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. (Acts 15:1–2 ESV)

Paul and Barnabas report about all of the things that God is doing among the Gentiles. Peter testifies that God has given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles and that they are saved through the grace of Christ. James appeals to an Old Testament prophecy, that being…

“In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, 12that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the Lord who does this. (Amos 9:11–12 ESV)

…when he says…

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16“ ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18known from of old.’ 19Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:13–20 ESV)

What did James mean to accomplish by appealing to an Old Testament prophecy? Was he meaning to call that prophecy fulfilled then and there because during that dispute there were both Jewish and Gentile believers present as one body thus signifying the rebuilt temple? Or is James referring to the re-establishment of David’s throne thousands of years in the future during the millennium based on the Old Testament prophecy?

It is also important to remember the context – Paul and Barnabas were seeking an answer to an immediately pressing issue. What interpretation would make the most sense in light of that – one that answers the question because of a prophecy that has just been fulfilled or one that answers the question with a prophecy not to be fulfilled for thousands of years? Does it matter?

I say “yes, it matters.”

Rule 3: Interpret genres and literary devices properly

As if there weren’t already many things to consider, remember that Scripture contains many different genres and literary devices.

A passage might be legal, narrative, polemic, poetry, wisdom, gospel, logical discourse, or prophetic literature, each having specific guidelines for proper interpretation. [2]

Not only that, but there is also simile, metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, and so forth used within the various genres. We must interpret these passages in the proper context. In other words, we should not interpret allegory as history, history as allegory, and so forth. We must be careful not to read into a passage what is not there because we are confusing the genre. A perfect example is all of the imagery in Revelation.

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. 2He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. 7In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; 9they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. 10They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. 11They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. (Revelation 9:1–11 ESV)

Are the locusts really locusts? Do Christians have a visible mark on their foreheads? The locusts have a king – Abbadon/Apollyon – do locusts have kings? What is this imagery supposed to mean? Some people say that the tails here are really John’s vision of missiles since missiles leave trails that sort of look like a scorpion’s tail. They say that these missiles are obviously chemical or biological since they “hurt people for 5 months.” They also say that these missiles are shot from helicopters or some other modern war machine since “they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle” which could be the rotors of helicopters.

And these are the people who say that they interpret scripture literally!

There are many more principles that help us interpret scripture, but if you start with these, you’ll be starting on the right foot!

What can happen if we ignore principles like this? What pitfalls could we get stuck in?

Several years ago, I was exposed to a group of people who will remain nameless. They believed then (and believe now) that the King James Bible (the one published in 1611) is the only true English bible and that all others are from the devil. As such, every so often, they have a real book-burning party where members of their church and other invited guests bring “corrupt” bibles and burn them. As proof of their belief, one man posted a video on YouTube where he “clearly” showed how, when burning an NIV bible, the flames revealed a “Molech-like false idol” rising from the book. He actually went through the video frame by frame and found images that looked like demons, thus “proving” his case.

That’s a pretty blatantly absurd example – of course, we must be careful when trying to find images in the clouds (or flames of a bible burning) – many times, those clouds are just clouds.

In any case, it is wrong to interpret the bible through the glasses of our experiences and lives. Why? Because there is only one valid interpretation of any given text, and if it were correct to interpret the bible through the lens of our current context, it would have been correct for any Christian down through the ages. In fact, many Christians through the ages have done just that. For example, John Gill in his commentary written in 1747, in the notes for this passage…

Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:16–18 ESV)

… writes this …

and his number is six hundred threescore and six: which some think refers to the time of the rise of antichrist, in the year 666; but that seems rather to be in the year 859, when the bishop of Rome obtained the name of universal bishop; others have been of opinion that it refers to the expiration of the beast, which they thought would have been in the year 1666, the number of the thousand being dropped, as it is in our common way of speaking; as when we say the Spanish invasion was in 88, meaning 1588, and the civil wars began in 41, that is, 1641; but time has shown that this was a mistaken sense; the more prevailing opinion is that of Mr. Potter, who has wrote a peculiar and learned treatise upon this passage, who makes the counting of this number to be no other than the extracting of its root, which is the number 25, which when multiplied into itself, and the fraction in working it 41 is added, makes up the square number 666; and now 25 being added to A. D. 33, make 58, which was the time of the beast’s conception, to which if 666 is added, it brings us to the year 724, when he arrived to his age of manhood, and when the war about the worshipping of images broke out: but others think that the numeral letters in some man’s name which amount to this date, and which agrees with antichrist, are intended; and here various conjectures are made; some have observed, that in genealogical arithmetic the number of Adonikam’s posterity is 666, Ezr_2:13; whose name signifies “a lord rising up”, or “risen”; and suits very well with antichrist, who is risen up, and assumes a lordly domination over the kings of the earth; and it is further observed, that the Hebrew word רומיית, which signifies “Roman”, and, having the word beast or kingdom joined to it, designs the Roman beast, or kingdom, consists of numeral letters, which make up this sum; and so the Hebrew word סתור, “Sethut”, which is the name of a man, Num_13:13, and signifies “mystery”, in its numeral letters comes just to this number, and one of the names of the whore of Babylon is “mystery”, Rev_17:5; but the name “Lateinos” bids as fair as any, which is mentioned by so ancient a writer as Irenaeus, who was a hearer of Polycarp, a disciple of John, the writer of this book; now the numeral value of the letters of this word makes up exactly 666, thus; λ 30. α 1. τ 300. ε 5. ι 10. ν 50. ο 70. ς 200. in all 666; and it is well known that the church of Rome is called the Latin Church and the pope of Rome the head of the Latin church, and his seat is in the Latin empire, and the service of the beast is in the Latin tongue, and the Bible is kept in that language, from the reading of the common people: it has been observed that the numeral letters in Ludovicus, or Lewis, which is a common name of the French kings, and is the name of the present French king, make up this same number; and may denote the destruction of antichrist, which will quickly follow the downfall of the kingdom of France, under a king of this name; and the rather, since this was the last of the ten kingdoms that was set up, and in which the primitive beast subsists, and the only one that has not yet been conquered, or in which a revolution has not been; and since this is the tenth part of the city which shall fall a little before the third woe comes on: and that it may fall under Ludovicus, or Lewis, the present French king (a), may be hoped for, and is desirable.

I love John Gill.

I don’t love this.

He seemed to have a preconceived notion that the pope was the antichrist and he came up with a way to “prove” that. He basically read his preconceptions into the text to get the result he wanted. That said, that particular pope may have well been an antichrist, but history has proven that he wasn’t the antichrist. 

If I use that same methodology today to prove that something or someone was the antichrist, I might use the ASCII values for capital letters (“A”=65, “B”=66, “C”=67 … “Z”=90), and use Microsoft Excel and a formula that adds those codes together. If I do that (don’t ask me how I know), it is pretty easy to come up with words and phrases whose letter sum is 666. Examples are: “Son of Sin”, “Mark of Beast”, and “Satanic Kill” – good so far. But guess what else shows up? Phrases like “Book of John”, “One Christ”, “God of Israel”, “Biblical Church”, and “Mercy of God”. Yup, those also add up to 666. Are we then to assume that the book of John is satanic because of this? Or maybe since we worship the God of Israel, we are actually worshipping the antichrist! Hardly. It just so happens that a popular prophecy teacher named Jack Van Impe (who died in 2020) used a similar code to prove certain things. So, I tried the phrase “JVIM Bible Code” (JVIM is the abbreviation for his own ministry – Jack Van Impe Ministries), and guess what? Yes, it too adds up to 666.

We should not read prophecy through the lens of CNN, the New York Times, COVID, microchips, or the Middle East. 

There have been and always will be wars and rumors of wars.

Rather, we should approach this topic through Scripture first, then events of the times. We should not ignore what God is doing in this world, which is why it takes dedication and care to do this because it is all too easy to look at Scripture through our context instead of looking at our context through Scripture. As we have seen in this lesson, we can find anything if we look hard enough – and that’s not always a good thing.


[1] Kim Riddelbarger, A Case For Amillennialism (Baker Books, 2003), page 37

[2] Theopedia (www.theopedia.com), Hermeneutics, “Regard for Genre”

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