Son of man, behold, the house of Israel is saying, The vision that he sees is for many years from now, and he prophesies of times far off. [Eze 12:27]
How do we interpret the Bible?
Literally? Yes, Jesus Christ was bodily resurrected. He did not vaporize, or rise a spirit creature. Figuratively? Yes, when Jesus said to pluck out your eye to keep from sinning (Mk 9:47), He was reciting a Jewish idiom much like a parent telling their child to wash their mouth out with soap. The Lord does not want you to mutilate yourself! Symbolically? Yes, the bread and juice we partake of at Communion are symbols of the body and blood of Christ (Mt 26:26-28). Allegorically? Yes, the parables of Jesus are perfect examples of allegory. To point, the sower of seed represents one who spreads the Gospel (Mt 13:23). Where we get into difficulty is when we don’t properly apply the correct interpretive method.
Hermeneutics is the method by which we study the Bible. Exegesis is the explanation, or interpretation of Biblical text. Many people interpret the Bible literally from Genesis to Revelation. In our examples above that would mean that Jesus is suggesting that you literally pluck out your eye, or cut off your hand to keep from sinning; or (as our Catholic friends believe) the sacramental bread and juice are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
Interpretation of prophecy presents even greater challenges. A reader asked, “Don’t you believe in the double-fulfillment of prophecy?” We essentially believe in the literal fulfillment of prophecy. With due credit to Pastor David Jeremiah (in his essay on this topic) we quote from Milton S. Terry’s book Biblical Hermeneutics:
…the moment we admit the principle that portions of Scripture contain a double sense, we introduce an element of uncertainty in the Sacred Volume, and unsettle all (hermeneutic) interpretation. If Scripture has more than one meaning, it has no meaning at all. I hold that the words of Scripture were intended to have one definite sense and that our first objective should be to discover that sense, and adhere to it rigidly.
Prophecy is literally fulfilled, or not at all. Where people get confused is in the typology of the Bible. The Tanakh (Old Testament) is a type, or shadow of that which was to come. Moses was a type of Christ. Passover was a shadow of the unblemished Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. Sabbath days, as well, pointed to our eternal rest in the Lord. What does it mean when Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law and Prophets (Mt 5:17)?
The Old Covenant is a contract between God and man. Jesus Christ fulfilled, or completed that contract. That is why our Lord spoke from the cross, It is finished (Jn 19:30). The statutes, prophecies, Feast Days, Sabbaths and priesthood were all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. At that point, the LORD executed a new contract (Covenant) that whosoever believes on the Son will be saved.
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. [Jn 5:24]
Jesus Christ was the literal fulfillment of the Old Covenant, but what about the types and shadows? The Jewish people expected the prophet Elijah to precede the appearance of Messiah according to the prophecy of Malachi:
I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. [Mal 4:5-6]
Recall that it was believed that Elijah did not die, but was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven (2Ki 2:11). [Editor: Elijah could not have been translated to the Third Heaven, or Throne of God.] It is a Jewish tradition to leave an empty chair at the Seder table for Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) who is expected to return at Passover and announce the coming of Messiah. When John the Baptist appeared the people wondered if he was Elijah. Please examine the following passages of scripture regarding John the Baptist:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness. Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [Mk 1: 2-3]
“…and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” [Lk 1:17]
The Pharisees and Sadducees were very interested in John the Baptist because they knew quite well the prophetic writings concerning the appearance of Elijah. They even went down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John (whose response to them reveals the Bible’s sense of humor):
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [Mt 3:7]
The scribes had every reason to believe that Elijah had returned. John the Baptist was described as a man who wore camel’s hair, a leather belt and ate a diet of locusts and honey (Mk 1:6). [Editor: The honey probably helped the locusts go down!] We read in the Tanakh that Elijah was a hairy man with a leather girdle about his loins (2Ki 1:8).
Here is where we want to focus on the typology of John the Baptist. Was he the literal fulfillment of Elijah’s prophetic appearance, or simply a shadow of one of the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation (Rev 11:3) who will prophesy before the Second Coming of Christ?
The disciples wondered these things after having seen Elijah and Moses standing with Christ atop the Mount of Transfiguration:
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist (Mt 17:9-13).
So Jesus was saying that Elijah is coming, and has already come in the person of John the Baptist. We are left to consider that a type can be the shadow, not the literal fulfillment, of prophecy.
One other example to study is the prophetic sign of the abomination of desolation (Dan 11:31). When Jesus made future reference to this prophecy from the Book of Daniel it was understood by the Jews of His day that this event had at once been fulfilled during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC. From the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia:
A royal decree proclaimed the abolition of the Jewish mode of worship; Sabbaths and festivals were not to be observed; circumcision was not to be performed; the sacred books were to be surrendered and the Jews were compelled to offer sacrifices to the idols that had been erected. The officers charged with carrying out these commands did so with great rigor; a veritable inquisition was established with monthly sessions for investigation. The possession of a sacred book or the performance of the rite of circumcision was punished with death. On Kislew (Nov.-Dec.) 25, 168 BC, the “abomination of desolation” was set up on the altar of burnt offering in the Temple, and the Jews required to make obeisance to it.
Jesus, who knew Jewish history, said: So when you see (future tense) the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand) (Mt 24:15).
To confuse matters even more, Dispensationalists apply this verse to the time of the Great Tribulation though this specific prophecy was certainly fulfilled in 168 BC, and 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. Might these events have been only shadows of an event that is yet to be fulfilled literally?
It becomes clearer from this study why we believe that Christ literally finished His work save for His Second Coming. He was born of a virgin (literal); He died for our sins (literal); He was raised from the dead (literal); He ascended into Heaven (literal); He eternally sits on the throne of David at the right hand of the Father (literal); and He executed His wrath and judgement upon Israel for their rejection of Him (literal). In this age of grace, or New Covenant, He is calling men (both Jew and Greek) unto Himself before He returns on the last day to resurrect the body of believers, and pass final judgement upon the world.
A profitable study would be to examine the phrase Day of the Lord, or Last Day. Jesus mentions four times in the Gospels that He will raise up believers on the last day (Jn 6:39, Jn 6:40, Jn 6:44, Jn 6:54). Is He talking about the Rapture, or a literal last day? If believers are not raptured until the last day then they must be destined to endure the Great Tribulation; but Paul wrote that we who have obtained salvation through Jesus Christ are not destined for the wrath that is to come (1Thess 5:9). Well, that would be a very good argument for the pre-trib rapture.
One final verse to ponder from Isaiah (Is 13:6): Wail, for the Day of the Lord is near! How do we interpret this? There are many references in the Tanakh to the Day of the Lord. They are always a reference to Israel, and a coming day of judgement which was executed in 722 BC when Assyria invaded Israel, 586 BC when Babylon invaded Judah and 70 AD when Rome destroyed the city of God; but there is yet one final judgement, according to Paul, in the day of Jesus Christ (1Co 5:5).
If we interpret Paul literally, the children of God will not have to face that day.
[Editor’s Note: According to the Book of Revelation there is a first (Rev 20:5-6) and second (Rev 20:14-15) resurrection, or what John calls a resurrection of life, and resurrection of judgement (Jn 5:29). There is (literally?) a thousand years separation between the two. A Preterist would say that the thousand years is figurative, or symbolic of a very long time, but that should not be a point of contention amongst those who seek life.]
Suggested Reading: Times of the Gentiles
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