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Interpretation

Understanding Prophecy  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  51:58
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Our current series is Understanding Prophecy. A number of people have asked me over the past few months how we can know what scripture says about ‘things to come.’
So, we will be doing a few week study on Understanding Prophecy.
Last week, we started laying a foundation for understanding prophecy by defining ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’.
We defined a prophet as:

A Prophet is a person given a revelation to pass on / proclaim to others.

Then, we defined a prophecy as:

Prophecy is a message from God meant to edify, comfort, encourage, or exhort.

Too often, we tend to use the word prophecy for those things in the Bible which are yet to be fulfilled. That is, we tend to use the word prophecy for what God has told us about the future.
However, as we saw last week,

All scripture is prophecy — God’s revelation

As we looked into the scriptures, we found that all scripture is prophecy. It is all ‘revealed’ by God.
Some prophecy is a reminder, a revealing of the past, and how He provided.
Some prophecy reveals the present, how God cares for us, and how God expects us to live and relate to Him.
And, yes, some prophecy reveals the future, what is to come.
It is really important to recognize that all scripture is prophecy. It is all revelation.
There are some verses in Revelation that relates to this:
Revelation 1:1–3 NIV
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Notice that this is a revelation, and it is a prophecy. Prophecy is what God reveals.
And if we go to verse 19,
Revelation 1:19 NIV
“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.
It is all prophecy. Past, present and future, it is all being revealed; and John is record what he has seen, what is now going on, and what will take place later.
Prophecy is not just the future, and all prophecy is ‘revealed’.
And, prophecy is not meant to be just for a certain group of intellectuals, or higher up church people. It is a blessing for everyone who reads and heeds.
This information is important for our topic today, which is:

Interpretation

There are great Christians who come to different conclusions when it come to what the Bible says about what is to come in the future.
Why do different people, using the same source, the Bible, come to different conclusions? Because of interpretation. It isn’t really a difference in views of what is to come. The differences between Christians in regard to their views of what is to come is due to differences in interpretation.
So, a foundation for understanding prophecy must include establishing how we go about interpreting what we will be reading.

What is interpretation?

To interpret means to explain, or to make understandable.
One of the clear examples is from the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 8:1–3 NIV
all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
But as we read on in the chapter we find something interesting happening.
Nehemiah 8:7–8 NIV
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
The Book of the Law was written in Hebrew. Many of these people, who just returned to the land after being in captivity for 70 years, did not know Hebrew. Many of them grew up in Babylon and spoke Aramaic.
So the Levites had to read the text in Hebrew, and then explain it clearly to all the people. They were interpreting it, making it understandable.
When I was a missionary, in our training we talked a lot about communication theory. Going to another people group with a language and culture that is foreign to our own requires us to consider how we will interpret what we see and hear.
But, interpretation is not just something that happens when going to another language and culture. How many discussions happen in our daily lives where we have failed to properly interpret what someone else was saying? Even in our own homes?
We all interpret every day. Interpretation is a key component of all communication.
Communication can be broken down like this:
The one who wants to communicate has a message. They then consider the audience, and what they know or understand: their language, grammar, vocabulary, and their culture. Then, the speaker encodes the intended message in a way they expect will convey the intended meaning to that audience. The message is sent. The message is received, and decoded by the audience in accord with what they already know or understand: their vocabulary, grammar and culture. They interpret the message.
Interpretation is just making the message understandable. We do it everyday.
Prophecy is God communicating
God has a message
God considers his audience (the ones getting the message)
God encodes the message in their language (grammar and vocabulary) and culture
God gives the message to a prophet who passes it along
The audience decodes the message with their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and culture.
When it comes to understanding prophecy, we will want to consider, “How would the original audience have interpreted this,” since God was encoding the message for them to hear and understand.
Thankfully, the bible has been translated into our language. So we can read it with our own vocabulary and grammar. But, it will be important to keep in mind it was written to another culture. Thankfully, there are also a lot of clues in the Bible as to how people understood the message God sent, as well as helps from those who have studied the culture of the people to whom the scriptures were written.
Now, why is this important? I think we need to keep certain things in mind when it comes to interpreting prophecy:

1. God revealed things to be accepted and understood.

God gave prophecy so that we would learn and know. He did not give a book of puzzles to keep us from understanding. Yes, there are some things that will take time and study to understand. Yes, there are some things God reveals that we cannot truly fathom to their fullest extent, like how the Trinity is one God and three persons who are all equally, fully God. He reveals it, and we need to accept it, but we may not fully grasp it.

2. God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us understand.

God does not want us to just rely on our own logic. Rather, He wants us to read and accept what He has revealed, and trust the Holy Spirit to make it clear to us.
John 16:13 NIV
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

3. God wants us to handle His word correctly.

As we went over last week, God has given us the prophecy in the Bible. He spoke it. It is literally His word, down to the very words. No prophet wrote on their own. God was specific in the words, the grammar and the cultural expressions. And, he expects us to handle His word correcltly.
2 Timothy 2:15 NIV
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
So, how do we do that?
Two interpretation methods
Literal / Normal / Historical-Grammatical
Allegorical / Figurative / Spiritualization
The early church used a literal, or normal interpretation method. They looked for Jesus’ return for the church as something imminent. It could happen at any time.
They were looking for Jesus to establish the earthly kingdom as foretold in the Old Testament, as seen in the last question the apostles asked Jesus before He ascended in a cloud.
They fully expected the Lord to work with Israel, the descendents of Abraham again, as Paul wrote in Romans 9-11, and as Jeremiah 31 and so many other passages record for us.
The Church fathers and apologist of the first and second centuries revealed this same interpretation in their writings.
However, something happened during the second century. Origen who was from Alexandria started using what was called Allegorism in relation to Christianity and interpreting the scriptures.
The Greeks saw a tension between the logic of their philosophers, and the stories of their gods. They wanted to hold onto both. So, they used allegorism to say that the stories of their gods were not literal, but taught lessons allegorically.
Philo adopted this. Alexandria was a very Greek oriented city. Philo was a Jew. The Jewish scriptures with all of the sacrifices were very offensive to the Greeks. So, Philo started using Allegorism to show how the Jewish scriptures were actually the foundation for Greek philosophy and logic.
Origen, who lived from 185 to 245, was influenced by this kind of thinking. He did not believe all of the scriptures were historical, and did not hold to a normal, literal interpretation. Instead he sought “to discover in every expression the hidden splendour of the doctrines veiled in common and unattractive phraseology.”
For example, Origen did not take the account of Adam and Eve literally. “No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.”
He also did not believe the account of the temptation of Christ was to be taken literally. Instead, he said these were allegories, things which had another meaning altogether.
There were many other things Origen taught that were heresies, such as universal salvation, Jesus not being fully equal with God, denial of the resurrection, and more. Another teaching of Origen’s that we need to note is that the church had replaced Israel, and all the covenants God made with Israel were to be interpreted allegorically for the church.
Though his teachings were rejected as false, his interpretive method of allegorizing scripture had influence that grew in the church, and some of his teachings, like the church replacing Israel, spread among some of the church leaders after him.
St. Augustine really made this allegorical method of interpretation a hallmark of the church for the coming centuries. He, like Philo and Origen, claimed that anything which appeared to be unorthodox or immoral must be interpreted mystically. In other words, God would not have revealed that, so it must not be taken literally, but rather interpreted to another meaning by use of allegorism.
Now, the danger of allegorism is that it is up to the interpreter to come up with the meaning. The meaning is not coming from the Bible, it is coming from the mind of the interpreter. To guard against that, Augustine and others enforced the teaching that the church gives the meaning. No one can interpret scripture for themselves. They need to be taught by the church leaders. Augustine was very strong in pushing the authority of the church.
Augustine did many great things for the church, and taught many wonderful things. I believe he was a man of God. However, no one is perfect. Unfortunately, his use of allegorism, and teaching about the church led to the growth of the Catholic church’s authority, and the regular people not having true access to the Word of God for a very long time. It led to the martydom of those who would seek to get the scriptures into the hands of every believer, and the martyrdom of many who would not come in line with the church’s teachings because they held to the normal interpretation of the scriptures.
With the reformation, there was a return to a normal interpretation of the scriptures. Some of my favorite quotes of Martin Luther have to do with how disgusted he was with allegorism. He had grown up with, and had been trained in, and practiced allegorism until he became a believer. Then he did not want to use it any longer.
“When I was a monk, I was an expert in allegories. I allegorized everything. But after lecturing on the epistle of Romans I came to have knowledge of Christ. For therein I saw that Christ is no allegory and I learned to know what Christ is.”
“Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.”
“Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.”
“To allegorize is to juggle the Scriptures.”
“Allegorizing may degenerate into a mere monkey game.”
“Allegories are awkward, absurd, inventive, obsolete, loose rags.”
“When I was a monk, I was an expert at allegorizing Scripture, but now my best skill is only to give the literal, simple sense of Scripture, from which comes power, life, comfort, and instruction.”
“Only the historical sense gives the true and sound doctrine.”
Unfortunately, Luther, and other reformers, still used allegorical interpretation when it came to interpreting what the Bible foretells as still yet to come allegorically.
Why, if they hated allegorical interpretation, did they keep using it for future things?
I believe it was because of two main things. First, Israel was no more, and there was no way they would ever exist again in their minds!
Secondly, they were, sadly, VERY anti-semitic. They hated the Jews who had killed our Lord.
Therefore, they held onto Augustine’s allegorical interpretations for what was still yet to come.
Those are the two ways of interpreting.
Literal, or normal, interprets it for what it says.
Allegorical, or figurative, or spiritualization says the literal is not the meaning, rather we need to find another deeper meaning.

How should we interpret?

Well, what method do we see used in the scriptures? How did the prophets of old handle the scriptures?
When Noah was told it was going to rain (something he had never seen) how did he take it? Literally.
When Abraham was told the future, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, how did he take it? Literally.
When Abraham was told his descendants would inherit the land after 400 years of slavery to another nation, how did he take it? Literally.
When Joseph was told he would be king, how did he take it? Literally.
When Moses was told that he would lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, how did he take it? Literally.
When Moses was told each plague, how did he take it? Literally.
When David was told he would have an heir on the throne for an everlasting kingdom, how did he take it? Literally.
When it was foretold that Israel would be taken by the Assyrians, how did they take it? Literally.
When Jeremiah foretold they would be taken by the Babylonians, how did he take it? Literally.
When Jeremiah foretold that they would be in captivity for 70 years, how did he and others like Daniel, Nehemiah and Ezra take it? Literally.
When Zechariah was told his wife would have a child, the forerunner of the Messiah, how did he take it? Literally.
And what about Mary? Literally.
How did Jesus use the Old Testament? Literally.
How did the Apostles take the promises of God? Literally.
When they asked Jesus,
Acts 1:6 NIV
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
they showed that they still took the old testament prophecies literally.
Did Jesus rebuke or correct their interpretation?
Acts 1:7 NIV
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.
No. He just told them to not concern themselves with the timing. They were taking the promises literally.
As we mentioned last week, up to 28% of the scriptures were revelations of things to come when they were given. Many of those prophecies have already been fulfilled. How has every single prophesy of future things that has been fulfilled already been fulfilled? Literally.
As we saw last week when we went through Daniel 11, God revealed things. Some things He revealed very specifically. Everytime God has revealed something yet to come, when it was fulfilled, it was fulfilled completely, and literally. Every prediction for time has been accurate, and literally fulfilled.
So, how should we interpret prophecy?

We interpret all prophecy in the normal sense.

I like the word normal instead of literal. Normal means that we take it for what it says. As one person put it, “When the literal sense makes sense, make it make no other sense!”
We should read the Bible and interpret it like we would anything else.

Look at the words and phrases God used.

God chose the words He wanted for a reason. So, we need to be sure to understand the words, even the specific prepositions He used. We will see examples of this later.
The first step is to understand the words, and how God tied them together using the grammar. Pay attention to how the words and phrases fit together, and link to give the full message.

Look for the meaning of figurative language.

Language uses idioms, hyperbole, rhetorical devices, figurative language to get messages across.
The normal interpretation recognizes that language operates with these grammatical and cultural devices. However, each one of these devices has a literal, normal interpretation.
“He cut the cheese.” What is that? It is figurative speech. It is an idiom. What does it mean? He flatulated. It does not mean anything else, in our culture. In Mexico, “the one who cuts the cheese” is figurative language for “the boss.”
Figurative language in a particular culture has a meaning. It is a colorful way to get the message across to the audience.
God used figurative language that He knew would get the message across to the audience. So, the normal or literal interpretation looks for the normal interpretation, the literal meaning, behind the figurative language.

What are the signs, or types?

God uses signs and types in the scripture. A sign or type is something that had a literal meaning or significance, which we see resembling something even greater!
John 1:29 NIV
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Is Jesus a literal lamb? No. But the sacrifice of the lamb was a literal occurrence that had meaning, especially to the Jews who did the sacrifices of the lambs regularly. We need to understand what how they thought of the lamb.
The lamb died in their place because they sinned against God. This goes back to Adam and Eve, Abel, Abraham, Isaac...
There is a literal interpretation for this. Just like the lamb died in the place of a sinner, so too, Jesus is the one who would die in our place, but not just for the individual sinner, but for all the world!

Study the context, and compare scripture with scripture.

Often, the context will explain the meaning behind figurative language, parables, or other teachings.
Look at the immediate context of a passage. Look at the whole chapter. Look at the book. Then look at how this fits in with other teachings in the scripture.
Always allow the clearest passages to help you understand the ones you find harder to understand.

Know that there may be time intervals between events.

In Luke 4:16-21, we have Jesus reading a passage in Isaiah 61:1-2. After Jesus reads the passage, He proclaims that this passage is fulfilled. When you go back to Isaiah, you will find that Jesus stopped reading mid-sentence. Why?
Because the “day of vengeance” was not yet fulfilled. The One Messiah would do all the things in Isaiah 61:1-2. However, some was done when Jesus was already here on Earth, and some will be done later. He will do them all. However there is a time interval between them.
These are the basic rules for interpreting scripture. All scripture.
There are a great many Christians who agree with all of these principles, but when it comes to the unfulfilled prophecies concerning Israel and the future, they abandon these principles. I greatly respect many of these believers, who have written many great works!
However, they still hold to figurative or allegorical interpretations for ‘prophecy’.
Why? Because of the church traditions which have come down even from the reformers who did not abandon this method for things to come.
One argument that is used today is that we need to consider the genre, or the type of literature.
Those who use this argument call scriptures like Revelation “apocalyptic” literature, based upon Revelation 1, and the verses we looked at earlier.
Wow. Apocalyptic literature. That sounds different than anything else, doesn’t it? But is it?
What does apocalyptic mean? It means “revealed.” Is Revelation different because much of it is yet to come? No. It is just as apocalyptic as all of scripture! All scripture is apocalyptic. All scripture is revealed by God. All scripture is prophecy.
And, as we have already seen, just because some prophecy is foretelling, does not make it different than other scripture, aka prophecy. All prophecy that has been fulfilled has been fulfilled literally. So, if that is the case, then even foretelling prophecy should be interpreted literally, not allegorically.
Let’s be handling God’s word correctly, and not give in this kind of thinking.

How will we be able to understand prophecy?

Understand that prophecy is God’s revealed message.
Understand that God used language, He used vocabulary, grammar, figures of speech, and culture to clearly communicate, to specifically communicate what He meant.
Then, use the normal means of interpretation:
Look for the literal meaning and understanding of Words, phrases, figurative language, grammar, and culture.
Look at the context, and compare scripture with scripture.
Look at any signs or types.
Look if there are time intervals.
Do these things, like you do for any other passage of scripture, and you will be accurately handling the word of God.
Then, we will find how
2 Timothy 3:16–17 NIV
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Homework: Make a list of prophecies in the bible about future events that have been fulfilled already. For example: God told Abraham he would have a son through Sarah. Genesis 15, 17 &18. Or, Jeremiah 25:11 & 2 Chronicles 36:21, Or, Isaiah 44:28 & 2 Chronicles 36:22. See how many you can come up with. Read Matthew if you want some help. How were they all fulfilled? Literally?
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