Section: Structure of the Book of Revelation
SIMPLE, FACE VALUE UNDERSTANDING OF PROPHETIC SCRIPTURES
one reaches when studying the Word of God are based on the type of interpretive
process employed. Because this study of Revelation uses a particular
and consistent interpretive process, the following explanation of the
method of Bible study is presented for the reader to consider.
To have validity,
our method of interpretation (i.e., our hermeneutic) must be consistent
and without contradiction, and it must never be governed by a preconceived
theological school of thought. In other words, if our hermeneutic is
controlled by our preconceived theology, then the Bible can be twisted
to say whatever our theology would have it say - which, of course, is
what often happens in the study of the end times.
One's method of
interpretation will have a far-reaching effect on his theological conclusions.
Thus, it is axiomatic that those who use differing methods of interpretation
(i.e., a different hermeneutic) will end up with different theological
conclusions. How important it is, then, that we be very clear about
what our hermeneutic is and, even more importantly, that we are in fact
using the right principles of interpretation in order to properly extract
the truth of God's Word.
Before one attempts
to apply the principles of biblical interpretation to the biblical text,
he or she must decide his/her convictions about two important issues.
First, one must form a conviction about scriptural contradictions. The
very nature of Scripture precludes contradictions. The writers of Scripture
declared it to be inspired of God (II Tim. 3:16, II Pet. 1:20), and
to be true (Ps. 119:160). Therefore, contradictory conclusions must
be pursued until a common denominator is found.
The second conviction
the interpreter must have concerns the use of an English translation.
In our discussion of biblical interpretation, we are limiting our discussion
to the English translation of the Old and New Testament. In the New
American Standard Translation, the translators worked very hard to give
the reader a reliable translation of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.
We understand that each translation reflects the interpretive skills
of the translators. The translators have already made all-important
interpretive decisions. Therefore, we who are not able to work with
the original languages must trust the translation. This also demands
care when interpreting the Bible using an English text only. However,
while having the skills necessary to work with the original Greek or
Hebrew will give the interpreter depth in understanding the original
meaning, much can be gained from using a good translation. We simply
ask that you exercise caution and compare Scripture with Scripture to
avoid careless error.
One last issue
must be touched upon before we look at some of the actual principles
of interpretation. A face value hermeneutic seeks the intended meaning
of the text, not the simple sense. We must recognize that certain verses
taken in a simple sense may convey a meaning foreign to the author's
intended meaning. An excellent example of this is John 6:53 which states,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son
of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves." It is clear
that Jesus' audience thought they must literally eat of His flesh. That's
the simple sense. In reality, Jesus intended his audience to understand
their need for faith (John 6:47).
To help the interpreter
achieve success in the process of interpreting the Bible, we offer the
following overview. The following principles of interpretation, none
of them unique to us, but all of them held by careful students of Scripture
throughout history, have been and will be followed as honestly and consistently
(1) The first
principle is that the interpreter must seek to discover the original
author's intended meaning. We understand that Paul, Peter, James and
John as well as other writers of Scripture determined the meaning
of the text at the time it was written. Therefore, our job as modern
interpreters is to discover that original meaning. To discover the
original meaning, all Scripture must be understood in its most normal,
natural, and customary (i.e., literal or face value) sense.
and phrases had a particular meaning during biblical times. Thus,
we must discover what those words and phrases meant and how they combine
to communicate specific meanings. This allows, of course, for obvious
figures of speech (which are frequently explained further in the same
passage or elsewhere in Scripture, i.e., Gen. 3:1, cf. Rev. 12:9).
Chances are that if the plain sense makes sense, you have the right
called this principle of literal interpretation, sensus literalis.
Many of the greatest advances in biblical scholarship during the Reformation
resulted from the application of this single principle. In its simplest
meaning and application, this principle means that we read and interpret
Scripture with the same normal understanding of words that we read
any other serious book or carry on any serious conversation.
has special relevance in the study of prophecy, and in fact, finds
strong confirmation in the way Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled
in the life of Christ. For example, the Old Testament contains several
hundred prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ. Although
many of those prophecies are virtual duplicates, at least fifty distinct
facets of Christ's life and ministry were predicted, and without exception,
were literally fulfilled, at face value. It is not only a matter of
faith but of biblical principle to expect the many prophecies of Christ's
Second Coming to be fulfilled with equal literalness and completeness.
is not fulfilled literally is not true prophecy at all, and it proves
itself to be simply misguided human speculation. A biblical argument
that speaks directly to how prophecy should be understood is found
in Deuteronomy 18:20-22. Here the Israelites were told how to determine
if what a prophet was telling them was truly prophecy from God or
mere human speculation. The conclusion of this passage is that "when
a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come
about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken."
Earlier in verse
20, God told His people that when this man's prophecy does not come
true, "that prophet shall die." Only a literal, face-value understanding
of what is being prophesied could ever be put to that test, and the
prophecies concerning Christ's first coming bear witness to this.
When we use this
principle of taking Scripture at face value, the Bible suddenly comes
alive in a new way. We have a renewed confidence in the reliability
of God's Word - that it is literally true, that it is something anyone
can understand. The events described in its pages really will happen
according to God's sovereign time and plan. No longer do we approach
the Bible looking for an obscure spiritualized meaning, but rather
for the literal understanding of events that have actually occurred
or will happen sometime in the future.
(2) The second
principle has to do with the context in which a word, phrase, or larger
passage is being presented. Sometimes that involves careful understanding
of the complete biblical book being studied, meticulously interpreting
a given idea or principle in light of the overall thrust and nature
of the book as well as in light of its immediate context. The context
involves the persons being addressed in the passage, the historical
setting, and the situation in which the passage is given. A simple
dictum is: "A text taken out of context is no more than a pretext."
(3) The third
principle, equally important as the first two, is that of comparing
Scripture with Scripture. A word, phrase, or concept should first
be studied in the context of the passage under consideration and then
in light of its use in other passages of Scripture. When a given text
is not explicit about a truth, no conclusion should be drawn about
that truth until all relevant passages have been studied.
Of course, some
passages are not as clear as others and some truths are more implicit
than explicit. When this is the case, those truths that are more implicit
always need to be understood in light of those that are more explicit,
never the reverse. Likewise, the more important a truth is, the more
carefully related truths should be compared and examined. Because
Scripture is always its own best interpreter, careful comparison always
adds depth and clarity to our understanding.
(4) The fourth
principle concerns figures of speech. The importance of this principle
cannot be overstated. Prophetic and apocalyptic literature utilizes
figures of speech to a great degree. A student of Scripture must be
thoroughly familiar with this special category of hermeneutics. Figures
of speech employ language that is highly suggestive, but have a literal
reference. The interpreter must determine the literal reference. A
figure of speech is "any deviation either in thought or expression,
from the ordinary and simple method of speaking
form of speech
artfully varied from common usage." [fn. 1] A figure of speech
will normally employ a comparison, a substitution, or amplification
as a means of "artfully varying" from what we think of as common use,
to better clarify the passage.
The Lord declared,
"I am the good shepherd
" (John 10:11). This is obviously a figure
of speech. The Lord never dealt with literal sheep. Left without clarification,
the Lord would intend for the reader to understand that everything
a shepherd is to sheep, He is to those who follow Him. However, in
John 10:11, the Lord adds the following sentence, "the good shepherd
lays down His life for the sheep." Now we understand the literal reference.
Jesus is the good shepherd because He "la[id] down His life for" people.
This is the meaning of the figure of speech. Each time a figure of
speech is encountered, it must be dealt with in this fashion. First,
determine what type of figure of speech is used. Second, determine
the significance of such usage. Third, identify the intended meaning
for the particular passage under study.
(5) A fifth and
final principle, which relates to prophetic and apocalyptic literature
specifically is to recognize that many prophetic predictions, in both
Testaments, have a unique characteristic--both near and far implications
and applications. In other words, prophecy can operate on multiple
levels of fulfillment. On one level, there is a divinely revealed
"near" prediction relating to a soon-coming event. However, there
can be corresponding "far" aspects that will be fulfilled later, or
in the events of the end times.
characteristic of the prophetic Scriptures has been called by several
names. W. J. Beecher calls it generic fulfillment. He writes,
A generic prediction
is one which regards an event as occurring in a series of parts,
separated by intervals, and expresses itself in language that may
apply indifferently to the nearest part, or to the remoter parts
or to the wholein other words, a prediction which, in applying
to the whole of a complex event, also applies to some of its parts.
D. L. Bock, in
referring to this same matter, uses typological prophetic fulfillment
to describe this phenomenon. He states that typological prophetic
refers to a
pattern and promise present in an Old Testament text so that a short-term
event pictures and mirrors an ultimate and unique fulfillment in
the New Testament. [fn. 3]
The failure to
recognize and apply this principle has caused immeasurable confusion
among even the most godly and scholarly students of Scripture. Obviously,
misuse of this principle, as with any other, will also cause confusion
and misunderstanding. For a near/far interpretation to be valid, it
must clearly be allowed by the context and by the specific wording
of the text itself, as well as be consistent with the rest of Scripture
speaking to the same issue. Whenever such prophecies are dealt with
in this commentary, their near/far aspects will be established as
carefully and as fully as possible.
comments on the basic issue of hermeneutics need to be made. In relation
to a given prophetic event or issue, careful study of various texts
in the Old and New Testaments will reveal that the different terminology
and styles of the writers will describe the same event or issue with
equal and consistent truthfulness, though often not in the same detail
or from the same perspective as the other. Many examples will be seen
in our study of end-time events as Scripture is compared with Scripture.
One needs only to look at the first coming of Christ to see the principle
Psalm 22, written
by David, gives the reader one perspective of the crucifixion of Christ;
Isaiah 53 gives another perspective of exactly the same event; while
Daniel 9:26 simply says, "Messiah will be cut off and have nothing."
Either the context
or the similarity of the events described must be present for the
student of prophecy to make the connection between the passages in
question. But where a genuine connection exists, the different perspectives
found in various passages bring a more complete understanding of the
of the end times will increase as history continues to unfold and
verify biblical prophecy. Many of the prophetic passages of the Old
Testament were unclear to those who first heard or read them. God's
people were not certain whether a given prophetic message related
to their own times or to the future. As with near/far prophecies,
the biblical language clarified some of the uncertainties. In regard
to many passages, the modern student of prophecy has the great advantage
of looking back and learning from the fulfillment of Old Testament
prophecy, as revealed in the New Testament or as recognized in subsequent
Daniel was told
to "conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time
. . . for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time"
(Dan. 12:4, 9). When the end times actually do come, the church will
have had a long historical base from which to gain understanding of
the many prophetic passages that hitherto were a mystery. History
has been, and will continue to be, a source of prophetic insight for
those who carefully study God's Word. Since Israel gained possession
and control of her homeland in 1948, for instance, we have a perspective
on prophecy that could only have been understood after that momentous
In summary, when
clear biblical truth is found, as A.W. Tozer would say, "never do we
dare to stand in judgment of that truth; rather, that truth always stands
in judgment of us!" There can be no exceptions, no spiritualizing, no
allegorizing, and no rationalizing. God says what He means and means
what He says! Our only response should be to bow in acceptance of His
truth, however reassuring or unsettling we may find it to be.
fn. 1 - Instit.
Orat. IX, I. 11, cited by Edward P.J. Corbett, Classical Rhetoric
for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford Press, 1971), 640.
fn. 2 - W.J. Beecher,
The Prophets and the Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
fn. 3 - D.L. Bock,
Proclamation from Prophecy and Pattern (awaiting publisher information),
Section: Chapter One - Prologue