David Reagan — The Interpretation of Bible Prophecy
Have you ever wondered why there are so many different interpretations of end time Bible prophecy? How in the world can Christians read the same Scriptures and come to such different conclusions as to what they mean? Is someone taking the wrong approach? And if so, what is the right approach to the understanding of God’s prophetic word?
Greetings in the name of Jesus our blessed hope and welcome to Christ in Prophecy. This is the fourth in a series of programs on the fundamentals of Bible prophecy. In our first program we took a look at the way Bible prophecy has been ignored and the many ways in which it has been abused. The Scripture that comes to mind in reference to that program is 1 Thessalonians 5:20 which says, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt.”
In our second program, we examined the importance of prophecy and we concluded that there are many reasons why every Christian should be interested in studying God’s prophetic Word. The Scripture that I think of in reference to that program is 2 Peter 1:19 which encourages us to pay attention to prophecy because it is like a light shining in a dark place.
Our third program focused on the variety of Bible prophecy. We saw that God used a very diverse group of people to serve as His prophets, young and old, rich and poor, sophisticated and uneducated. He then communicated with these people in diverse ways, through dreams, visions, angels, and words of knowledge. And the prophets themselves proclaimed their messages in diverse ways.
We have written prophecy and oral prophecy, active prophecy and symbolic prophecy. And the theme verse for that program was Hebrews 1:1 where it says that, “Long ago at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” This week we’re going to take a look at the interpretation of Bible prophecy and hopefully you will come away from this program absolutely convinced that God’s prophetic Word is not impossible to understand. My topic for this session is the interpretation of Bible prophecy.
I grew up in a church that really didn’t believe in end time Bible prophecy. It’s amazing that I’m a Bible prophecy teacher it’s a miracle of God. Because I grew up in a church where the only sermon I ever heard about Bible prophecy was one that stated that there is not one, not one verse in the Bible that even implies that Jesus will ever put His feet on this earth again. I heard that statement over and over and over.
Well, when I was about 12 years old I was flipping through the Bible one day, this really happened, I was just flipping through. And we didn’t ever study the Old Testament. But I had a whole Bible and I was flipping through it and I just happened to open it to Zechariah 14, and I started reading it. And I was absolutely amazed at what I read.
I was only 12 years old but I could understand what it said. You see, Zechariah 14 not only implies that Jesus Christ is going to come back and put His foot on this earth, it says so point blank. Let me give you a summary of what Zechariah 14 says. Behold a day is coming for the Lord when I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle.
Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations and in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives and the Lord will become king over all the earth. I read that and read that and I shook my head and I just could not believe what I was reading because every sermon I had ever heard about the end times said He was never coming back, never gonna put His foot on this earth again. And certainly was never going to reign in a rule of majesty over this earth. And here it was Zechariah 14, seeming to say exactly the opposite.
So I began to ask myself, “What in the world does Zechariah 14:1-9, mean?” Does it mean what it says or does it mean something else? And finally, after several weeks of wondering I made an appointment to see my pastor. I went to him in fear and trembling. I sat down and I said, “Pastor, you know you always say there’s not one verse in the Bible that even implies Jesus will ever put His foot on the earth again.”
He said, “That’s right son.” I said, “Well what about this?” And I handed it to him. And I’ll never forget, he sat there and he read it and he read it and he read it. I thought he was never going to say anything. I don’t think he had ever seen that passage before. And he kept reading it and reading it and finally he looked up and he put his finger in my face and he said, “Son I wanna tell you something.
I don’t know what this passage means, but I’ll guarantee you one thing, it does not mean what it says.” Well, it didn’t mean what it said because it didn’t agree with his preconceived idea. And for me that was unacceptable. Because I had been taught since the time I was born that the Bible was the Word of God and the Bible says what it means and means what it says.
That preacher… in fact, our church had a very unusual position. Our church took the position that the Bible means exactly what it says from beginning to end unless it’s talking about the Second Coming of Jesus in which case it never means what it says. Well that just didn’t make any sense to me. Every time after that we would have a visiting evangelist come and he would get up and say, “There’s not one verse in the Bible that even implies Jesus would ever put His foot on the earth again.”
I’d go up and I’d say, “What about Zechariah 14?” And they’d look and they’d look and they’d say, “Doesn’t mean what it says.” Well, this went on until I was about nineteen. When I was about nineteen we had a guy come who had a seminary education. Now back in those days that was very unusual, particularly in the church I grew up in. You just didn’t have anybody that went to seminary.
This guy had a seminary education, he was highly educated and he got up and made that same statement. “There is not one verse in the Bible that even implies Jesus will ever put His feet on his earth again.” I went up to him afterwards scared to death, I said, “Sir, what about Zechariah 14?” He didn’t even have to read it, he knew it. He said, “Let me tell you about Zechariah 14 son, it doesn’t mean what it says.”
I said “Why?” he said, “Because it is apocalyptic!” Well I tell you the truth, it just scared me to death, scared me to death. I didn’t know if that was a disease or if that was a philosophy or a theology or what it was but he was seminary educated therefore he knew what he was talking about and so guess what? When I started preaching, I would get up and I would say, “There is not one verse in the Bible that even implies Jesus will ever put his feet on the earth again.” And when some little old lady in tennis shoes would come up and say, “What about Zechariah 14?”
I would yell, “Apocalyptic!” And she’d run for the door and I’d grin and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t know what I was talking about, but all God’s children were happy. And that was the way I handled it for a long time, until one day I did something that I hadn’t done before in my life. I sat down one day and I read the entire book of Zechariah, it only took a few minutes, it’s a very short book, one of those so-called “minor” prophets.
And as I was reading that book, I noticed something very, very interesting. This book, this apocalyptic book, contains many First Coming prophecies. And every one of them meant what they said. Here I was so… because the book’s apocalyptic, never means what it says, yet it has all these first coming prophecies and they all meant what they said. For example, it says the Messiah will come on a donkey.
It says He will be hailed as a king. It says He will be betrayed, that He will be betrayed by a friend. That He will be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver. It even goes on to say that the thirty pieces of silver will be used to buy a potter’s field. It says that he will be lifted up. It says He will be pierced. Now folks you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if the First Coming prophecies meant what they said, the Second Coming prophecies in the same book must mean what they say.
Regardless of whether you’re gonna call it apocalyptic or not. They mean what they say. That day I stopped playing games with the Word of God. That day was a revolutionary day in my life. I started accepting the Bible for its plain sense meaning from the beginning to the end. I accepted what I call the golden rule of interpretation, that if the plain sense makes sense, don’t look for any other sense or you will end up with nonsense. Just accept it for its plain sense meaning. That does not always mean the literal meaning but the plain sense meaning, even when you’re talking about symbols.
Let me give you a classic example of the nonsense way of interpreting Scripture. It is found in this book by Loraine Boettner called the Millennium. Loraine Boettner is dead now but this book was a book that he wrote early in the 20th century. It was a book in which he tried to spiritualize everything that the Bible says about the end times, and when he got to Zechariah 14 I could hardly believe my eyes.
Now this is a classic example of spiritualization and here’s what he said, “Zechariah 14 says that in the end times that when the city of Jerusalem is about to fall, the Antichrist is about to conquer, that the Lord will come back to the Mount of Olives. His feet will touch the mountain, it will split in half He will speak a supernatural word, the Antichrist’s forces will be destroyed, and on that day He’ll become king over all the earth.” But he said, “It doesn’t mean that.” He said, “What it really means is this: the Mount of Olives stands for the human heart.
The enemy forces around Jerusalem stand for the attack of Satan on the human heart. When you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior He comes into your life, He stands on your Mount of Olives, your heart breaks in contrition and repentance and on that day the enemy forces are defeated and Jesus becomes king of your heart.” Can you believe that?
This is what I mean by spiritualization. This is the kind of freedom that people take with the Word of God, particularly with regard to Bible prophecy as they try to spiritualize it away and say it doesn’t mean what it says.
Let me tell you something, I want to tell you why spiritualizing is so popular, I want to tell you why people love it. The reason people love to spiritualize scripture is because spiritualizing makes you God. You see, when you start spiritualizing, then Scripture means anything you want it to mean. You become God instead of the God who wrote the Scriptures. Well let me tell you something, I believe God knows how to communicate. I believe He knows how to say things, I think He means what He says, I think He says what he means.
I don’t believe you have to have a PhD in hermeneutics or a PhD in imagination to understand the Word of God. You’ve got to have the Holy Spirit residing inside of you. That’s why there are renowned seminary professors who have degrees piled on top of degrees who simply play loose with the Word of God because they’ve never been born again. They don’t have the Holy Spirit inside of them. They can’t interpret the Scripture because they don’t have the Holy Spirit to help them interpret the Scriptures.
I want to give you some keys to understanding God’s word. To understanding God’s prophetic Word in particular. And here are the keys, number one, approach the scriptures with a child-like faith. And I mean this the Bible was given to us to read, to believe, and to apply to our lives. We are not supposed to approach the Bible as if it were Shakespeare for us to analyze and to criticize and dissect and to rip to pieces, which is what most seminary professors do as they play around with the Word of God.
The person that summed this up best for me was a dear friend who’s gone to be with the Lord, Dr. Henry Morris, the founder of the Institute for Creation Research. Look what he said about Revelation, “The book of Revelation is not difficult to understand, it is difficult to believe. If you will believe it, you will understand it.” It’s so simple. You talk about the two witnesses, the book of Revelation says there’re gonna be two witnesses of God who are gonna preach in Jerusalem for three and a half years before the Antichrist comes to kill them.
Well if you believe that you’ll understand the book of Revelation but if you look at most commentaries they say, “Well, no these are really not two witnesses. This is really just sort of a representative of evil in the world or good in the world.” And they just spiritualize it into meaninglessness. And of course the next one spiritualizes a different way and the next one spiritualizes a different way, and nobody therefore can agree upon what the book of Revelation says because everybody spiritualizes it to say whatever they want it to say.
An example of this is Revelation chapter 7. In Revelation chapter 7 it says that at the beginning of the Tribulation a God is going to seal 144,000 Jews on their forehead and they will be protected throughout the Tribulation and become great missionaries for the Lord Jesus Christ all over the world. Well, the interesting thing about that is that if you look at commentaries you will find that most commentaries say, “No they really aren’t Jews, this is the Church.”
They replace the Jewish people with the Church! If God had meant the Church surely He would have said the Church. He said Jews! He said 144,000. He named them by tribes. What would He have to do to convince us that He’s talking about 144,000 Jews? Approach the scriptures with child-like faith. Number two and that is to determine the meaning of symbols. People always say, “Well, you know, prophecy is full of so much symbolism.” There are a lot of symbols in prophecy, but let me remind you of something, symbols stand for something literal.
They don’t just stand for anything you want them to stand for. They don’t just stand for anything your imagination wants them to stand for. They stand for something literal. And you must be very careful in interpreting what symbols stand for, and you know what, the answer is usually very clear. Usually the Bible will tell you what the symbols stand for, point blank, just tell you.
And if not, then you can take that word and look in a concordance, the word or the phrase, and you will find that in some other setting it’s very clear and then it becomes clear in the setting where you’re trying to figure out what it’s all about. How should symbols be interpreted? They should be interpreted carefully and they should be interpreted Biblically.
Remember a symbol is something that stands for something literal. So actually you don’t really have to guess most of the time, you just look in the Bible and it will tell you. The Bible is its own best interpreter. That’s the rule I’ve found in regard to symbols. And I want to give you some examples. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel was taken and he was put into a valley of dry bones.
I’ve been there, I’ve had that happen. You know the “frozen chosen” that you’re speaking to sometimes. Well he was put in this valley of dry bones and he was told to preach to them and as he preached man those bones started rattling around, started coming together. And I want to see an instant video replay sometime of that to see how big his eyes got when all those bones started coming together. Now what was that all about? The Lord told me, I mean point blank. Right there in Ezekiel 27.
The Lord said, “Let me tell you what this is all about. People think the Jewish people are dead because they’re in captivity, that’s not true.” He said, “I’m gonna bring them back, they’re gonna become a people before me forever.” He said, “One day I’m gonna bring them back to the land reestablish them in their land. And I’m gonna bless them like they’ve never been blessed before and through them all the nations of the world are gonna be blessed.”
God tells him the meaning of the symbolism. And yet, I would say to you without hesitation that 75% of all the sermons preached today from pulpits about Ezekiel 37 will say, “No that’s not talking about the Jewish people at all, it’s talking about the Church and about a great end time revival that’s going to occur in the Church.” No, it’s talking about the Jewish people, it’s not talking about the Church, but that’s what happens when people start spiritualizing Scripture.