FAQ 21: “How to Interpret Prophetic Passages”

FAQ 21: “How to Interpret Prophetic Passages”

How to Interpret Prophetic Passages.

Brochure # 21 Revised 5-07-2004. (Frequent terms Christians use.)

There are few topics that are as controversial today as the subject of prophecy. Some say it is too difficult and therefore no one can really know how the end will come. Others say it is too controversial and divisive therefore to preserve unity, we should avoid the topic altogether. And still others believe it is irrelevant to everyday life, therefore it is not worthy of our time and effort. Although the above beliefs are prevalent today, the vast amount of Biblical data seems to suggest otherwise. In fact nearly one-fifth of the Bible is directly related to prophecy.  That means that if we ignore prophecy, we are ignoring a large portions of the Scriptures. 

We believe that we cannot afford to be apathetic or skeptical toward the end times. According to Luke 12:40 NASB (New American Standard Bible) Jesus expects us to discern the times, to be watchful, and be ready. He told his disciples, “You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” Jesus even rebuked the Pharisees for not being prepared in Matthew 16:3 NASB “3And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? So we are encouraged to read and study the book of Revelation because it will bring us blessing. So even though a study of the end times may be taxing and it may not be popular, we cannot afford to back away from this important subject.  

One of the unfortunate realities today is that there are so many different views. Some believe that Jesus is not coming back physically and bodily to earth (Amillennialism). Others believe that Jesus will return after the church successfully evangelizes the world (Postmillennialism), and there are some, who believe that Jesus will return to reign on earth for a thousand years. This is what we at EastPointe Bible Church believe. 

So here’s the million dollar question: which position is right? How can scholars of the same caliber agree on so much of the Bible but when it comes to prophecy, they arrive at completely different conclusions? We will never understand why they have different views by debating isolated passages. The answer comes when we understand that there are different philosophies of interpreting the Bible. More specifically, there is a difference in how scholars see the Old and New Testaments relating to each other in the area of promise and fulfillment.

The purpose of this pamphlet brochure is to explain how we at EastPointe Bible Church interpret prophetic passages.  

1. We believe that Scripture progresses from the Old Testament (OT) into the New Testament (NT). 

We believe that the New Testament is newer and more complete than the OT. The OT promises are fulfilled by the NT in ways that enlarge, clarify, and expand the original OT promises. Although we believe the original promises in the OT can be altered, they cannot be changed to the degree that their meaning becomes unrecognizable or that the original form is no longer applicable to the original audience. 

For example, a promise in the OT “A” can be modified in the NT to become “a.” As illustrated in the diagram below, the fulfillment may look slightly different but the essence of the original promise does not change.  

FAQ 21 Figure 1.1
EBC-FAQ 21 Figure 1.1 Brochure 21 Revised 5-07-2004

We also believe that the NT can add new referents (participants) to the original promises. As Scripture progresses from the OT into the NT the original promise may be enlarged to include other people such as the Church being grafted into Israel’s covenants and promises.  This does not invalidate the OT promises but expands and broadens the promise to whom it was originally given.  

FAQ 21 Figure 1.2
EBC-FAQ 21 Figure 1.2 Brochure 21 Revised 5-07-2004

The only exception to the above two rules is found when the NT explicitly cancels and therefore nullifies the OT promise. Such examples include the food laws in Mark 7:19 NASB where Jesus declared all foods clean. Also, we find that the Sabbatical system was set aside according to Colossians 2:16-17 NASB and Romans 14:5 NASB. 

FAQ 21 Figure 1.3
EBC-FAQ 21 Figure 1.3 Brochure 21 Revised 5-07-2004

2. The preferred way of interpreting the Bible is through the plain and normal sense of the words. 

Although we believe that Scripture does use symbolic language, we also believe that we can generally take the Scriptures at face value. God used words in their normal and plain sense to communicate His truths. So, we believe that the Bible should be interpreted literally when it can, through the normal sense of human language. This keeps us faithful to the intended meaning of Scripture and away from seeking some hidden mystical meaning that is not obvious in the passage. 

3. Careful exegesis (to extract meaning from the text) should inform our theology, rather than letting our theology rule our interpretation.           

Every Bible student struggles with approaching the Scriptures without bias. We believe that starting with the OT and carefully working our way into the NT is the best way to formulate an accurate theology.  If we are careful to let the Scriptures shape what we believe about the end times rather than forcing our personal  presuppositions into the passage, we believe that a natural, fully synthesized theology on the end times will naturally emerge. As Scripture progresses it expands like a telescope. This way the NT will never disagree with the OT. With this approach, no OT promises have to be jettisoned or reconstituted in order to have synthesis. They will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

4. We believe there are at least seven byproducts to the above three rules for interpreting prophetic promises.  

A. Our approach to interpreting prophetic passages preserves the integrity of the Old Testament.

We believe that a healthy approach to interpreting prophetic passages gives full weight to both the NT and the OT. To see the NT as having total authority over the OT promises tends to make the OT promises seem inferior, outdated, and have little validity for today or the future. We believe the Bible is one book where Scripture unfolds as it progresses in time. Although we see some distinction between the two testaments, we see continuity. So we believe that starting with the OT and working our way to the NT both acknowledges the priority of the NT (newer and more complete) but does not weaken the integrity of the OT. We believe this approach gives full and proper respect to the entire Bible. 

B. Our approach to interpreting prophetic passages maintains God’s character. 

By starting with the OT and carefully working our way into the NT we avoid NT interpretations that are so different than the OT promises that they call God’s faithfulness into question. In other words, a proper approach to God’s promises and their fulfillment will not lead to the erroneous belief that God’s character is somehow compromised. The Bible is one message from the same God from Genesis to Revelation. 

C. Our approach to interpreting prophetic passages preserves the authorial  intent of the OT writers. 

 We believe that the NT promises will never be so drastically different that they seriously modify the intent of the OT prophets nor discredit their authority as inspired men of God. Just because the writers of the NT are newer and their writings are more complete does not make their writings superior to the OT prophets. Otherwise, we would have to ask if the inspired OT prophets made claims to the Jews that were not clear or ultimately untrue. 

David L. Turner, a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, writes, “If the New Testament reinterprets the Old Testament or seriously modifies its promises and covenants, then we have to ask in what sense were the original Old Testament revelations actual revelations to the original readers?”  

 D. Our approach to interpreting prophetic passages maintains our primary mission responsibility to the Jews. 

Romans 11:11-12 NASB “11I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!”

Some say that since the NT is superior the church replaces Israel. If that is the case, then our purpose in evangelizing the Jews with the goal of bringing about their fulfillment is irrelevant. If God mentions them seventy-three times in the NT and many of those references are after the church started, it is hard to believe they do not have a distinctive future purpose. 

E. Our approach to interpreting prophetic promises maintains all the future promises to Israel in Romans 9-11 NASB.

1. It maintains Israel as God’s adopted son.   

Romans 9:4 NASB “4who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises;”

Isaiah 45:4 NASB “4“For the sake of Jacob My servant, And Israel My chosen one.”

This poses a rather serious question. If Israel can lose her elect status, then can we not lose ours? 

2. It keeps God’s word from failing them. (Romans 9:6 NASB) 

3. It maintains Paul’s passion for the Jews. (Romans 10:1 NASB) 

4. It keeps God’s promise not to reject His people. (Romans 11:1, 2 NASB) 

5. It preserves the truth that God did not let them stumble so as to completely fall. (Romans 11:11 NASB) 

6. It preserves the promise by God that all of Israel will be saved after their partial hardening and after … the fullness of the Gentiles have come in. (Romans 11:25 NASB) 

7. It keeps the promise God made to their forefathers. (Romans 11:28 NASB) 

8. It preserves God’s promise to make their gifts and their calling irrevocable. (Romans 11:29 NASB) 

Romans 11:26-29 NASB “26and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. 27This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins. 28From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29for (because) the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

F. Our approach to interpreting prophetic texts keeps our hearts in line with the Apostle Paul’s heart and God’s heart.  

Zechariah 2:8 NASB “8For thus says the Lord of hosts, “After glory He has sent Me against the nations which plunder you, for he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye.”

If our eschatology (interpretation of the end times) does not lead us to line up with God’s love for the Jews we should rethink our eschatology.  

G. Our approach to interpreting prophetic passages allows God to prove He is God by accurately predicting the future. 

In Isaiah 41 NASB, God is drawing Israel back from idolatry by proving He is the only true God. He defends His superiority to other so called “gods” by His ability to predict the future with exact precision. He proved himself to be truly God by fulfilling approximately 300 promises regarding Jesus’ first coming, it is hard to imagine why He would not be a clear and precise about His return.  
The main point of Isaiah chapter 41 NASB is that God stakes His integrity and His right to be worshiped on the fact that He alone knows the future because He alone determines it. Since this is the case, precision and accuracy and the literalness of Scripture is essential. 

We believe that although we should not divide with other Christians who believe differently about the end times, it is not an irrelevant subject. We must realize that we are dealing with more than differences of opinion, we are dealing with the integrity of Scripture and the character of God. That puts this discussion in proper perspective.