Enjoy these entries - we hope they make you think.
In the teen class, we are studying the Apocalypse (Revelation) of John. We noticed in the book’s introduction some helpful pointers as to how we should interpret the contents.
The Time Is Near
Christ showed John “things that must soon take place” (1.1) and that “the time is near” (1.3). The original recipients of the letter were seven churches in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1.4, 11). John was to send Jesus’ messages to each church. How do you think they heard “things that must soon take place”? Do you think they thought, “Well, to God one day is like 1,000 years and 1,000 years is like a day, so when God said ‘soon’ and ‘the time is near,’ He probably means a couple of thousand years in the future”? No, God does not confuse His people. The first century Christians would have naturally understood that their generation would see the things revealed in the book.
Jesus used similar language in Matthew 24.34, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
It is funny how every successive generation seems to think they are the target time in which the prophecies of Revelation will be finally realized. Perhaps it speaks to our narcissism.
Revealed in Visions
John bore witness to “what he saw” (1.2). What follows is a series of visions Christ gave to John. The beloved apostle was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” when he heard a loud voice behind him saying, “Write what you see in a book” (1.10–11).
Anyone familiar with Old Testament prophecy (such as Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc.) understands visions can be pretty weird, and they often demand explanation. For instance, Daniel saw a series of beasts in Daniel 7. The fourth beast had 10 horns, and another little horn popped up and uprooted three other horns. Daniel didn’t know what to make of it, so God explained what the beasts and the horns represented. They were not to be taken literally, but each detail was a sign or symbol of something real. The beasts represented kingdoms, and the horns represented individual kings.
To rightly interpret the visions of Revelation, you should study Old Testament visions. Listen closely to God’s explanations in the texts, and it will greatly aid you in understanding the signs and symbols of John’s Revelation.
Meant to Be Practical
“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (1.3).
The Christians were not to hide this book or keep it a secret. They were to read it aloud so all their people could hear it and keep what it commanded.
Many today overlook the practical nature of Revelation, as they misinterpret the visions to fit various historical periods, and they bog themselves down with theories on what political power or person is the beast and what the mark of the beast is going to look like.
But Jesus intended Christians to hear the things in these visions and repent and be faithful!
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do thing works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (2.5)
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, I and I will give you a crown of life.” (2.10)
“I have a few things against you…therefore, repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.” (2.14, 16)
“Hold fast what you have until I come.” (2.25)
“Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (3.3)
“Because you have kept My word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (3.10–11)
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (3.19)
Is It for Us Today?
Is it practical for modern readers? If most of what was prophesied has already taken place, why should we worry about it?
- We study Old Testament prophecies even though they have mostly been fulfilled. We study them because they build our faith and teach us of God’s unwavering faithfulness and about how He thinks and works.
- John’s visions have mostly been fulfilled, but the principles endure. Revelation concerned a specific judgment upon Jerusalem, but the lasting principle is that God judges individuals and nations. The call to repentance is just as important to hear today as it was to the early Christians.
- We might ask why those Christians in Asia should have been worried about God judging Jerusalem. What did it matter to them? The Jewish nation serves as an object lesson to all of God’s people—if Israel failed to receive God’s blessing because of their faithlessness, how much more shall we expect judgment for our unbelief and rejection of the Lord Jesus?
- Christians still wait expectantly for the visions in Revelation 20–22 to be fulfilled. There is still the final judgment of Satan and his forces and all who are on his side (not written in the Book of Life). There is still the New Heaven and New Earth in which God will make all things new.
So, yes, God’s people should continually read aloud, hear, and obey this great book!
In yesterday’s sermon (April 30, 2023), we reviewed Dispensationalism. The dispensationalist claims and tries with all his might to read the Bible literally. Notice what dispensationalist Ken Blue wrote:
B. Dispensationalists hold to the literal principles of interpretation of Scripture. Someone has said that men spiritualize because they have no 'spiritual eyes.' The most dangerous method of Bible interpretation is that of spiritualizing a text or making everything a type.
Illustration: God promised Adam and Eve that the Seed of the woman would come. He did. Noah was warned of a flood. It came. Abraham's seed were promised a land. They received it. Moses was promised victory in leading Israel from Egypt; he did it. Rebellious Israel was warned of their coming dispersion; it came. The prophets promised Israel that God would return them to their home-land. He is doing it as we write. The virgin birth was foretold. It came to pass. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was prophesied. It took place. The destruction of the temple and of the nation was prophesied. It happened.
If these and hundreds of prophecies like them were literal and proved to be so, why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church? One opens himself to serious error when the literal approach to the Bible is rejected. A study of dispensations demands a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Have you ever heard of the logical fallacy of equivocation? It’s when someone uses a definition for something one way (usually a way in which most everyone agrees), and then he subtly switches the definition a bit later in his argument. Equivocation is “calling two different things by the same name.”
For example, “Dairy is good for me, so I eat a gallon of ice cream a day.” The argument equates dairy and ice cream. Ice cream has milk in it, but it also has a bunch of other stuff that, unfortunately, makes it unhealthy in great quantities.
Often, we omit important information to get our equivocation argument to go through. My child might say, “Can I go over to my friend’s house for a little while? He’s having a couple of friends over to play some games.” I might ask my child to further clarify because those statements are quite general. I’m picturing four or five guys sitting around a table playing Risk, when the real plan is for half the school to come over and have a pool party with illicit refreshments freely flowing. If I confronted him later about his deception, he would say, “We didn’t say how long and who can say how many ‘a couple’ of friends is?”
Dispensationalists often (though not necessarily on purpose) equivocate with this idea of reading the Bible literally. You see what Ken Blue wrote above. Read through all his illustrations of how the Bible literally says something and that thing literally happened. There is practically nothing you would argue with, right? He seals his argument up at the end with a question: “Why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church?”
Well, he didn’t give us any examples of some of the other prophecies he takes literally. Neither does he explain what “spiritualizing” means to him. If we take the land promise and nation promise of Genesis 12.1–3 and apply those now to the church age, is that spiritualizing, or is that seeing how God is literally carrying out His promise in the way He had determined before time began? The dispensationalist waits today for God to fulfill the land promise to the nation of Israel. We read Jesus in Matthew 5.5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and we realize this is connected directly back to Old Covenant language such as Psalm 25.13; 37.9, 11, 22, 29, 34. Jesus applies that language to citizens of His Kingdom under the New Covenant, so why should we not connect the land promise to ourselves who are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
There’s a reason why we interpret all those things Ken Blue listed as literally true. Almost all of them come from historical narratives in the Old Testament. When we read history, of course we interpret it literally. We believe it happened just as it is written.
However, other genres exist among the books of the Bible. Not everything is historical narrative. Prophecy in scripture is often proclaimed through poetry, and sometimes a certain type of prophetic language which we call “apocalyptic” is used.
For example, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in Daniel 2 about a statue which had different body parts composed of different metals: a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. A huge rock was cut out without man’s hands and was hurled at the feet of the statue, breaking it to pieces. Daniel interpreted the dream, and we understand each part of the statue stood for a kingdom in present or future history (future to Daniel). Was the statue literal? It was a literal dream of a statue, but Nebuchadnezzar would not be looking for a literal statue like that because he discovered that it was merely symbolic of historical realities to come.
We could also look at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great tree in Daniel 4. Again, the tree symbolized Nebuchadnezzar himself and what God had planned for him in his near future.
The last six chapters of Daniel are full of prophetic imagery. Daniel 7 reveals a dream Daniel had of four great beasts: one like a lion and had eagles’ wings which had the voice of a man given to it; one like a bear raised up on one side with three ribs in his mouth; one like a leopard with four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and one with ten horns and great iron teeth which it used to devour and break in pieces. Are we to take Daniel’s dream literally? In what sense do we take it literally? We believe he literally had a dream, but we also understand that those four beasts were not literal freaks of nature that God brought or will bring to earth. They stood, again, for four kingdoms which would come. We know that because Daniel received an interpretation at the end of the chapter (“As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth…” Dan. 7.23).
When Jesus spoke in parables, He interpreted a few of them (Matthew 13) but not all of them. His interpretations of the few instructs us on how to interpret the rest of them. He teaches us how to listen to parables, to find a deeper meaning behind the simple stories. Likewise, God gives us interpretations for some apocalyptic language (such as in Daniel 7), which helps us understand how to read other apocalyptic literature, even when God does not supply the interpretation. We understand how to read this kind of literature. We are not supposed to read it literally but as it is given in symbols and signs.
Take Revelation 14.1–5. The premillennial dispensationalist believes in a literal 144,000 who have the literal name of the Father written on their literal foreheads. I assume they also believe these 144,000 will be literal viren men who never lie.
In Revelation 20.1–6, John five times mentions a 1,000-year period. The dispensationalist believes in a literal 1,000 years, and they believe it has not yet begun. They believe Jesus will come to earth to reign for this 1,000 years. You will notice, as you read those verses, that they do not say that Christ will reign on earth during those 1,000 years. That is read into the passage by bringing in other passages and ideas.
Are we to understand those numbers as literal? If we take them as figurative or symbolic, are we guilty of “spiritualizing” the text? Or are we reading it the way God intended us to read that genre of literature?
Reading the Bible is not always cut-and-dry easy, and that’s one reason it is so thrilling! We have much to learn, many mysteries to investigate, and wonders to behold of which we probably have no clue. As the Jews under the Old Covenant completely failed to understand the exact nature of God’s plan, even though it was revealed throughout the prophecies, so I expect we completely fail to understand the exact nature of what God is planning for us. Two things should be true: (1) we should investigate what God has revealed, asking questions and digging deep; and (2) we should be comfortable with not knowing all the details and waiting for the reality to come upon us.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3.5). Walk in humility. Love those who think they have it figured out, and encourage them to walk with God in faithfulness whether or not history works out exactly like they think it will.
God has the plan, and He’s working it!
What methods should you follow when examining God’s word? How should you read it to get the most out of it, and how should you read it to truly understand what God’s actual intent is?
Much has been said and written on this subject, but I’d like to share some simple, practical pointers. Perhaps the following suggestions will ring true with you and help you in your discovery of the most blessed of all Books.
Read the Bible as You Would Other Books
The Bible is different from all other books because it comprises words not only written by men but also directed by the Holy Spirit. Thus, we understand it to be God-breathed: “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3.16). “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1.20-21).
However, God communicates to us through men and uses methods of communication which are common to man. There is nothing mystical about reading His word; anyone may understand it. As Jesus told the Father, “You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10.21).
God has always communicated to man in the common language of man, so we do not need special university training before we can understand it.
Seek to Understand What the Author Was Saying to His Audience
If you started to read something by Aristotle or Shakespeare, you would know the man had written in a completely different time and culture. He uses words in a different way than you are used to. How will you understand him? You will need to study the man’s writings and perhaps other literature from his era to get a good feel for how he thinks and communicates.
It’s also helpful to understand the author’s audience. Was he writing to a friend, a foe, the public? Was he attempting to persuade, reprimand, instruct? Who received his work, and how would they have read it? This takes work, but it helps greatly to understand the whole communication.
Every author writes to be understood. Despite current trends in how to read books, the message of the book is not up to the reader. If you misunderstand what an author has to say, you have not rightly interpreted the book. No, everyone cannot have his own valid interpretation. We do the author a disservice and treat his work with contempt and ingratitude if we do not really attempt to pick up what he’s put down. That’s how I hope you are reading my article right now.
Find Instruction for Your Present Walk with God
The last step of solid study is application. The author is teaching something or relaying some message to his original audience. How does it connect and apply to me? Is there anything useful? When dealing with the word of God, there is always something useful because God’s word is living and active and deep beyond measure. For instance, once we understand what Paul was saying to the Colossian brethren, we can then ask, “Does God intend for me to follow this rule or this principle today? If so, how should this be worked out in my day?” It was addressed to specific Christians, but God preserved it for the future church to own and in some way follow.
Follow these three main steps in your Bible study:
- Observe: Read the Bible as you would other books
- Interpret: Seek to understand what the author was saying to his audience
- Apply: Find instruction for your present walk with God
God bless you as you plumb the depths of His sweet and powerful Book.