Interpreting Bible Prophecy
“Rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
By David Brandt Berg
Nothing about God’s overall plan for the world, as revealed through Bible prophecy, is going to change. The major events of the Endtime, the major participants, and the final outcome—those are all settled. “Forever, O Lord, Your Word is settled in Heaven” (Psalm 119:89). “I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). God doesn’t change, His Word doesn’t change, and His prophetic plans for the world are not going to change.
There are certain specifics that we can be sure of: We know that…
(1) Jesus is coming back,
(2) that following His return all those who have received Jesus as their Savior are going to
(3) receive their eternal bodies,
(4) be transported to Heaven (the Rapture) where they will
(5) enjoy the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in that gorgeous Heavenly City, while
(6) there’s hell on Earth and the Wrath of God is being poured out below on the defiant, rebellious, and wicked followers of the Antichrist. We know that is going to be followed by
(7) the Battle of Armageddon (the total defeat of the Antichrist and his regime), which will be followed by
(8) the Millennium (the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth). We also know
(9) the Millennium will end with the Battle of Gog and Magog (another war between the godly and the ungodly), and will be followed by
(10) a total restoration of the earth’s surface (the New Heaven and New Earth).
All this is very clear and very definite. They cannot be doubted or denied, because it’s all very clear right there in the Bible.
These are events we know, and the closer we get to these things, the more specific and exact our knowledge of these and related events will be. Many of the details regarding future events are not yet clear, but we are told what things to watch for, key points on the future timeline, from which we will then be able to accurately determine the sequence and timing of other major events yet to come.
So what we need to know first as we study the Word of God are the things that are unchangeable—the established facts that are clearly stated in the Scriptures. These make up the foundation for further interpretation of Bible prophecy. You have to know these fundamentals of Bible prophecy before you can attempt to understand what might happen, and how and when. [Editor’s note: Most of these foundation facts of Bible prophecy are explained in the booklet The Future Foretold, also from Aurora Production.]
Blessed Are Those Who Understand
Bible scholars are in general agreement on the interpretation of prophecies concerning past events. There can be little question about these because the events have already happened. Empires have come and gone and other events have happened, just like God said they would, sometimes hundreds of years beforehand. It’s not hard to understand or teach fulfilled Bible prophecy; it’s already happened, so the interpretation is obvious. But prophecies become a lot less obvious when they deal with events in the future. This is where most differences in doctrines and interpretations come up.
But just because some points are unclear or controversial is no reason to not try to figure them out. God’s Word says of those reading the book of Revelation, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it” (Revelation 1:3 NIV)—and the same goes for any other prophetic messages found in the Bible. It takes effort to try to understand Bible prophecy, to compare Scripture with Scripture till you arrive at the most plausible interpretations, but God says you will be blessed if you do.
You don’t have to know all the prophetic details of the future; they’ll happen whether you know them or not, don’t worry! But it’s good to try to know as much as you can so you’ll know what’s going on and will be able to warn and instruct others.
There are a few basic rules to interpreting God’s Word. The first is: Interpret it literally, if possible. If it can mean exactly what it says, then it probably doesn’t even have to be interpreted. Don’t try to read into it some unusual, undercover significance or meaning. If a Bible verse or passage makes sense literally, take it literally.
But if it doesn’t sound reasonable or logical, or it just seems like it’s virtually impossible to interpret it literally, it may be symbolic. Study its context thoroughly to see if and how the symbolism is explained. Take the image and the beasts in the book of Daniel, for example: They are all interpreted by the angel or the man that appeared to Daniel, or by Daniel himself. We’re told what each of these things represent, so those passages are obviously symbolic and we’re given the interpretations.
If you can’t find the explanation of a passage in its context, then try looking elsewhere in the Bible for where the same terms are used. See how they’re used and what they mean in other places.
Most important, when you come across mysteries in the Word, let the Author Himself explain them to you. “Call to Me,” He tells us in Jeremiah 33:3, “and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” Ask God to lead you step by step to the right interpretation. Of course there will be some things that God won’t reveal to you just yet, because they’re not close enough that you need to know them. But keep asking and seeking and knocking, and when the time is right, He will help you understand.
God loves a mystery!
The prophets looked into the future and saw coming events like series of mountain ranges, one after the other. Only the mountaintops were clearly visible. The valleys in between were mostly hidden, and the prophets couldn’t always distinguish between events, just like two or three mountain ranges lined up one after the other can look like one from a distance. At the time, the order and timing of future events usually weren’t clear to the prophets, but they became clear to others as they came to pass—or they will yet.
God has many mysteries that He keeps from us until the appointed time. Many of the prophets who received the revelations now recorded in the Bible never even attempted to explain them, often because they didn’t understand the prophecies or revelations themselves. For example, the prophet Daniel was so baffled one time about what the Lord had prophesied through him that he said thinking about it troubled him greatly (Daniel 7:28). He was really puzzled!
God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). How could we possibly comprehend with our finite minds all the mysteries of God about the future?
But, little by little, He does shed a little more light on Endtime events. The sun doesn’t just pop up in the morning and—boom!—it’s broad daylight. First there’s a long period of dawn as it gets a little lighter and a little lighter, until finally the sun itself begins to show. Then it still takes a while longer before the entire sun is visible. That’s the way God reveals interpretations of Bible prophecies to us: little by little.
Is it wise to theorize?
It doesn’t pay to try to be too specific or to try to nail down all the whos, whens, wheres, and hows of things to come, but you should at least be familiar with the basic events of the Endtime. You should also put some thought and prayer into trying to figure out how and when they might come to pass, so you’ll recognize them when they do.
Studying Bible prophecy is a bit like doing scientific experiments in a laboratory: You begin by asking questions. (If you don’t have the questions in mind, how are you going to find the answers?) Then you try various possibilities in order to come to the right conclusions—or probable right conclusions—by the process of elimination. You can form theories regarding what various Bible prophecies mean by the processes of deduction and elimination. You may not get all the answers right, but you’ll almost certainly be better off than if you never ask any questions or try to figure anything out.
How specific should you try to be?
I’m very leery about getting too specific, because too many preachers and Bible teachers have been called false prophets when their revelations or interpretations regarding specific events didn’t prove true.
The only details that you can be absolutely sure of are the things that God has expressly said in the Word, such as the Great Tribulation lasting roughly three and a half years—or 42 months or 1260 days (Daniel 7:25; 9:27; 12:7; Revelation 11:2-3; 12:6; 13:5).
At this moment we don’t know the exact time or place that most Endtime events will happen. We know generally, and when they begin to happen we’ll know more specifically.
Some Bible prophecy buffs try to figure out the minute details—the days and hours and minutes—when it’s too early for that. If you get bogged down with too many details of Bible prophecy, you’re likely to make mistakes and waste a lot of time. You’ll know soon enough, when the time comes. Time will tell! Be patient, but be on the lookout for indications, hints, and signs.
How to know your interpretation is right
There’s one thing about prophecy: When it happens, you’ll know what it meant! Jesus said, “I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe” (John 14:29).
The Lord put each of those prophecies in the Bible for our edification. Some give us understanding of His plan for the future, so we can prepare accordingly. “Others—those that we don’t completely understand now—are to encourage our faith and instruct us later, when we see and recognize their fulfillments. When they come to pass, we’ll be encouraged that everything is under the Lord’s control and is happening just the way He said it would, and we’ll know where we are on the Endtime timeline.
When I used to travel a lot by train, I tried to carry a train schedule so I could tell where I was at any time en route. The train wasn’t always on time, of course, but whenever it came to a station I could tell if we were running late. The signs on the station platforms confirmed where we were, and I could adjust the schedule accordingly.
So if you become familiar with the main “stops” on the Lord’s Endtime timeline, when you get to each one you’ll know where you are and how much further you have to go. You’ll see the “signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3), remember the Scriptures, and be encouraged.
Leave yourself open!
Some people have taken my interpretations of Bible prophecy as gospel fact—incontrovertible and unchangeable—instead of the theories I intended them to be. That’s why I try not to be dogmatic and say it has to be this way or that way, because my interpretations could be wrong.
When I teach classes on Bible prophecy, I often suggest possible interpretations other than the ones I believe to be right; then I say, “But I believe such and such.” Presenting more than one interpretation helps people be better informed and causes them to think for themselves. Also, that way their faith will be less likely to be shaken if the interpretation I favored and taught turns out to be wrong.
Even if you think you can support your view by Scriptures that deal explicitly with a certain Endtime event, and even if you’ve had a direct revelation from the Lord, you’d better always give Him room to clarify things as time goes on.
Don’t get so dogmatic or so set on your interpretations that you can’t change when the Lord shows you something different! You may later find out that your interpretation was wrong, as I have at times. If you don’t leave yourself open for other interpretations—especially when the ones you hold to be right are merely somebody else’s guess or theory, or your own—you are going to be stuck in a rut and resistant to any new idea or thought that God tries to give to you, and He’ll have a mighty hard time getting through to you. Leave yourself open!
What if your interpretation turns out to be wrong?
When Jesus was telling His original disciples about the signs of His second coming, He said, “This generation”—meaning the people who would see the signs He had just finished telling them about come to pass, us who are seeing these things happen today—“this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34). Jesus’ original disciples apparently thought He was talking about them, which shows how wrong people can be if they don’t interpret things right! If they so easily got the wrong interpretation, it can happen to anyone.
So don’t be discouraged if some interpretation you held to be true turns out to be wrong, and don’t throw away your Bible or everything you’ve learned about Bible prophecy. When you find a brown spot on a piece of fruit, you don’t throw away the whole thing; you just cut out the little bad spot and keep the rest that’s good.
I’d much rather change when God shows me something than, through pride or fear of embarrassment, refuse to change my stance on some point of prophetic interpretation. I would rather suffer a blow to my ego and be right, than to refuse to admit I was wrong and stay wrong! A wise man is wiser tomorrow than he was yesterday!
Is Bible prophecy the most important thing?
It is not absolutely necessary that Christians see eye to eye on every detail of Bible prophecy. It is only important that we agree on salvation through Jesus, the basic authority of God’s Word, and our obligation to witness His truth to others so they, too, may experience His love and receive His gift of salvation.
A lot of people have gone astray when they got more interested in splitting hairs over interpretations of Bible prophecy than they were in evangelizing the world. Don’t be led away from the simplicity of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 11:3). “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Children don’t waste most of their time arguing over theological details!
Few people are won to the Lord through esoteric interpretations of Bible prophecy, and those who are stand a much greater risk of losing faith if the interpretations they’ve been taught prove to be wrong. “Whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). You may have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but without love it’s nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).
What is the greatest commandment?—To understand every detail of Bible prophecy?—No! The greatest commandment is to love God, and the next greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). Bible prophecy is important, but if you don’t have love, it’s just cold, dead facts and figures. Bible prophecy is important, but love is the most important thing!
So don’t ever get your eyes so much on the details, doctrines, and dogmas of Bible prophecy that you lose sight of the real goal: to reach the world with the message of God’s love in Jesus!
Jesus Himself knew all about the future, but His main mission was to love the world and His main message was the Good News of God’s love and salvation. And what was His last message to His disciples, just before He was arrested, beaten, and crucified?—He spoke to them all about love, that love was the most important thing (John 13:3-17, 34-35; 15:9-13, 17).
May God bless you and make you a blessing to others by helping you spread the Good News—and He will if you will.
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