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The conclusions 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 as possible.

(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.

Biblical words 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 sense.

Martin Luther 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.

This principle 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.

Prophecy that 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.

This particular 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 whole—in other words, a prediction which, in applying to the whole of a complex event, also applies to some of its parts. [fn. 2]

D. L. Bock, in referring to this same matter, uses typological prophetic fulfillment to describe this phenomenon. He states that typological prophetic fulfillment

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.

Several general 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 in operation.

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 same event.

Our understanding 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 history.

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 event occurred.

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, 1975), 130.

fn. 3 - D.L. Bock, Proclamation from Prophecy and Pattern (awaiting publisher information), 49-50.


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