Tips for Reading Bible Prophecy

Exiled GraphicThis summer at Lincroft Bible Church,  we’re walking through the book of Daniel chapter-by-chapter in a series called “Exiled: Faith in a Faithless World.” Like Daniel, God’s church is living within a foreign culture as an ambassador to His kingdom. The book of Daniel teaches us how to live faithfully amidst the temptations, pressures, and challenges of a hostile culture.

One of the particular challenges of living in our culture is having a proper understanding of the future. Our culture can present two distinct possibilities for the future. The first is a bleak one based upon naturalistic science, which says that our future is mass extinction when the sun eventually burns out. Your personal future is merely death, nothing more. On the other hand, another narrative is put forth in media and pop political writing:  if you just work hard enough, you can achieve utopia for your future (whatever that looks like for you).

 Both of these narratives of the future have a fatal flaw: God and His grace are out of the equation. Which is why it is so important that the Bible gives us a picture of the future. Rather than being depressingly nihilistic, or naively optimistic, the Bible speaks of a time of both salvation and judgment. The vindication of God’s people and the setting of all things right. In fact, about 25% of the Bible is considered prophecy. Now some of these prophecies have already been fulfilled in history, but some do actually refer to a future which extends past our present time.

Unfortunately, much confusion surrounds reading Biblical prophecy and thus nonsense can be promoted within the church. Therefore, it is important to become good readers, especially when approaching Biblical prophecy. 

Pitfalls to Avoid

I think that there are two major pitfalls to avoid when reading Bible prophecy: ignoring it and speculation.

 Ignoring It: It can be very tempting to ignore the harder parts of the Bible, parts like prophesy. Prophecy is difficult not only because of a lot it contains symbolic language, but also because of its content: it regularly speaks of God coming in judgment against people and often uses graphic language to express the reality of God’s judgment.

So readers can become confused and outraged when they read biblical prophecy. But I would submit to you that this can actually be a good thing sometimes. God’s plan is so much bigger than anything we can ever conceive of; God’s ways are not like our ways. So what makes us think that we will be able to fully comprehend God’s plan? Sometimes, we can study the Bible for as long and as hard as we can and still not come up with a conclusive answer. And that’s ok. At that point, we should be lead to worship, because we recognize the greatness of God’s wisdom.

 Tim Keller also makes the point that sometimes it’s also ok to be outraged by what you read in the Bible. Because in order to have a personal relationship with someone, they need to be able to contradict you. For example, a wife who can never contradict her husband doesn’t have a healthy relationship, but lives in a dictatorship. So the Bible must be able to contradict you and offend your own personal sensibilities. Because if every time you read the Bible, you are never offended, then you probably are worshipping a god formed in your own image. You can try to manipulate God to affirm your pre-conceived ideas. But in actuality, to have a personal relationship with God, we must get to know Him on His terms. And sometimes, His terms might strike us as offensive. But in humility we must not seek to change or manipulate God.

 But the confusion and difficulty in understand biblical prophecy can lead us to ignore it. But God gave us prophecy in the Bible so that we can come to know Him more. So it is good for us to read, even if we don’t fully understand it.

 Speculation: But another pitfall to reading prophecy is speculation. In one of his letters, the apostle Paul, who was an early church leader, warned a church “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). In other words: don’t speculate! The Bible is abundantly clear about the major points of the future: Jesus wins! That’s where the whole story of the Bible is going. Jesus will return, bring His rule and reign with all its glory for the joy of God’s people.

 And that’s where I place my stake. I want to stick to what can clearly be demonstrated from Scripture: Jesus is coming again. In all the other details, solid, Bible-believing Christians have charitably disagreed for centuries. We need to allow for other points of view. When we begin speculating about the details, it can bring reproach upon Christ. It hinders our witness in the world, because we end up looking foolish by making pronouncements of things which will come to pass and they don’t.

 Principles to Apply

If we can avoid the pitfalls when approaching prophecy, we can begin to apply some principles which can help us become better Bible readers.

1) Try your best to understand the ancient world on its own terms

 The world of the Bible can be a strange place. It regularly speaks of priests, temples, sacrifices, and other things which no longer exist in our contemporary American culture. Therefore, it’s important to try to understand the world of the time. For example, ancient cultures often had a different conception of time than we do. When we hear the phrase “the last days,” we typically think of the world ending tomorrow. But Hebrews 1:1-2 says this, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” So the “last days” according to Hebrews has been going for over 2000 years! The phrase “last days” doesn’t refer to the literal last few days before the end of the world, but refers to the last stage of God’s plan before the end. And how long that last stage will be? No one knows. In sum, we need to understand the ancient world on its own terms, and not impose a modern, Western view on the text.

2) Listen with your heart, not only your head (From Plowshares and Pruning Hooks)

Prophecy is often given in symbolic language. Symbolic language is given to provoke your emotions and imagination, not only your intellect. These prophecies often give us grand pictures of the joy that God will give to His people and also terrify pictures of the horror of the judgment that God will rain down on His enemies. This striking language is to cause to yearn for heaven, long to be with the Lord, and also to motivate us toward mission—because when Christ returns it is too late to switch sides and all the nations found outside of Christ will mourn.

3) Be humble in your conclusions

As I mentioned before, Christians for thousands of years have differed on the details of the future. We need to be humble in our conclusions. I think that God has allowed for a variety to opinions on the details to help us grow in maturity. Spiritual maturity means having the ability to know what are the right hills to die on. Spiritual maturity also means being able to hold your own personal convictions on the details without imposing them on others. It might be surprising to you, but with three of us on pastoral staff at the church, we have disagreements on different points of what we think the Bible teaches. We have lively discussions and possibly even debates, but we are ironclad solid, of one-mind, on the essentials. We are united on the gospel!

 4) Connect it Jesus

One thing we have tried to do is show consistently on Sunday mornings is how every story connects to Jesus. The whole Bible is ultimately about Jesus and what He has done for us. And prophecy is no different. Propehcy speaks of a time when God will return as King and vindicate His people. And He will judge the wicked. As you read into the New Testament, you will find that Jesus is that King. He will come and vindicate His people and they will live with Him forever. And Jesus is the conquering King who will judge the wicked. The function of prophecy, then, is to drive you to Jesus. If you already belong to Him, it should cause you to long to be with Him forever in glory. And if you do not know Jesus yet, it should cause you long to get to know Him in a saving way.

 5) Live what you have learned

 Finally, when you read prophecy, you need to live what you have learned. Too often, we can get consumed with figuring out the details of prophecy and forget that prophecy is meant to change our lives by showing us Jesus. You can claim that you understand prophecy. You can claim that you understand that God is in control of history and Jesus will return for His people. But if you still live a life racked with anxiety and worry, then you don’t really understand prophecy and God’s control! Living the truth demonstrates that you have adequately grasped the truth.

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