For a great many people, Bible prophecy is a complete bore, something to be studied by seminary students, their professors, and strange characters on Internet blogs. Sadly, many Christians feel that Bible prophecy holds little relevance in their daily walk with Christ.
I get it. God created all of us with different desires and interests. When someone begins discussing the intricacies of quilting or the latest art rave my eyes glaze over as I start thinking of something else we could possibly talk about. Basketball, the weather, anything but art (no offense).
For others, Bible prophecy is a fascinating example of God’s complete omnipotence over this world. God prophesied the destruction of mighty kingdoms in the book of Daniel. God used prophecies to warn the Jewish people of impending destruction at the hands of the Romans. He also provided readers with prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
In a recent radio interview with Christian Canadian radio host Drew Marshall (nice guy and witty too). I was asked some questions about the basics of Bible prophecy:
What do ancient Bible prophecies have to do with one's Christian life?
How can we know the Bible’s prophetic passages are going to occur in a literal, historical fashion?
If the United States sinks into the ocean will Canada pick up the pieces?
His show reaches a lot of people in the Great White North who are searching for answers about God, life, and hardship. I appreciated his honesty and candor, and his listeners didn't want to hear the typical "churchy" answers to difficult questions. Drew puts on a lively, relevant, and sometimes controversial broadcast that's bound to keep your interest. Click here to hear the full interview, as well as his previous shows and interviews.
After the interview, I realized a couple things. No, Canada will not be there to pick up the super-power slack if America crumbles.
Secondly, when it comes to this topic Christians differ far and wide in their beliefs. There are extremes on both ends with a large amount of us scattered somewhere in between. On one end are those who see prophecy fulfilling every day. They see omens and signs in their dreams, the clouds, or even in their morning coffee.
On the other end are those who feel prophecy bears no weight in our world today. For various reasons, portions of God's word have been dismissed as irrelevent to our daily lives.
Despite the extremes there is a happy medium. There is a correct way to interpret prophetic passages! It's no surprise that I live, eat, and breath Bible prophecy, but I've begun to understand why so many Christians neglect to read these passages. Here are three obstacles that prevent Christians from studying up on prophecy.
1. The Overwhelmed Christian
We are all overwhelmed in a sense. Most of us fall into this category as we can barely find the time to act Christ-like – love others, disciple one another, feed the poor, witness to the lost, etc. Amidst the chaos of life most Christians don’t have time to explore Bible prophecy and therefore miss out on these passages.
2. The Conspiracy Theory Christian
These folk will tend to see prophecy occurring everywhere around them. In order to make Bible prophecy fit the times, adherents to this approach oftentimes take prophetic passages out of context. The options are limitless with this approach to scripture.
One such example is found in the interpretation of Revelation 9:16. John described an army of 200 million demonic horsemen who will plague the earth during the Tribulation. Though the passage is referring to demonic hordes, some readers come away with a different reading – the 200 million horsemen aren’t demons, but the Chinese Red army! Only China can field 200 million soldiers, therefore John must’ve seen them coming.
Another example is to be found with the future rise of Babylon. Because there is no Babylonian superpower today, many have looked elsewhere for a giant persecuting power and have come away with new revelation – the United States is Babylon! America’s moral slide, combined with its superpower status has led many to conclude that we are the end-times Babylonian power.
How could a 21st century, North American, republic with a Christian majority represent the Babylonian Empire based along the Euphrates River? Although entertaining, these theories neglect the literal interpretation of scripture. They cannot be true.
3. The Dismissive Christian
There have been a number of doctrinally errant movements that dismiss prophetic passages entirely. One popular theory is the view that Revelation was fulfilled during the 1st century AD. John was writing about the Church’s struggle against Nero (the beast). The Jews went through their Great Tribulation when the Romans destroyed the city in 70 AD, and Christ established a Millennial kingdom through the Church (only in a spiritual/metaphysical sense).
This theory ignores the physical, one thousand year reign of Christ in the future, ignores the Rapture of the Church, and misinterprets the tumultuous Tribulation the world will endure.
Another such doctrine is known as Replacement Theology. It is the belief that the Church has “replaced” the Jews of the Old Testament to become God’s chosen people. After the Jews rejected Christ, they were in turn rejected as a people. Their promises from God were annulled, and the future prophecies about them were rendered meaningless.
For this theory to be true, all unfulfilled prophecies about Israel one day becoming the glory of the nations (Isaiah 60), receiving the promised land of Israel (Ezekiel 47:13-23), and experiencing the Tribulation, also known as the “Day of the Lord" and “Time of Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer. 30:5-7, Dan. 9, Zeph. 1:14-15, etc,) are now assigned to the Church, not to the Jews. As you may have gathered, this theory creates immeasurable difficulties with prophetic passages.
Proponents of these doctrines forget a key component of prophecy – without a physical, obvious fulfillment what good is Bible prophecy? If we cannot see prophetic events occurring, why did God bother writing them? Bible prophecy predicts future events in order to illustrate the power of God’s word. It provides even skeptics with clear evidence of the Bible’s divine nature. It makes no sense for God to make a prediction for none to see.
Christ openly fulfilled all the prophecies in plain view for all to see. He made a concerted effort to show people He was the prophesied Messiah of the Old Testament. He was not clothed in mystery.
In order to avoid common pitfalls of both dismissive doctrines and conspiracy theories, here are some basic rules to follow when reading prophetic passages.
1. All unfulfilled prophecy will be fulfilled one day.
If the Bible is the word of God, its prophecies must come to fruition. There are dozens of prophecies that have not yet occurred, here are just a few.
Christ will rapture His church (II Thessalonians 4:13-18).
The enemies of Israel will attempt to invade her (Ezekiel 38-39).
The antichrist will attack Israel (Daniel 11).
Jesus will defeat the antichrist in battle (Revelation 19:11-21).
The Jews will embrace Christ as Messiah (Isaiah 60).
Jesus Christ will rule the earth from Jerusalem for a thousand years (Revelation 20, Isaiah 16:5).
As you can see, the majority of these predictions involve the nation of Israel. Is it just a coincidence that the nation of Israel has reappeared on the historical radar after almost 2,000 years? God has big plans for the Jews. The fact that the Jewish people have survived the last 2 millennia is a miracle in and of itself.
2. The Bible means what it says and says what it means.
Imagine picking up a historical nonfiction book about the Roman Empire. When reading about Julius Caesar, you would naturally associate him with the Roman world, ancient military tactics, you may possibly think about your own receding hairline and such.
Unless otherwise instructed by the author, you wouldn’t begin looking for hidden symbolism in the text. Caesar doesn’t represent Barack Obama. The city of Rome doesn’t represent Washington DC. It’s just a historical narrative, not a Dan Brown novel. Why then do we assign so much figurative symbolism to scripture where none is needed?
God never intended His word to be difficult, mysterious, or confusing. Salvation is simple – faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. Why do we make Bible prophecy so difficult?
Granted there are difficult passages that do contain symbolism, most notably the book of Revelation. Yet even in these symbolic passages their meaning is explained either in the same passage or elsewhere in Scripture.
3. Context, context, context.
As Ezekiel was writing along the banks of the Euphrates River, he wasn’t musing about the fall of the New York Stock Exchange or the rise of the Chinese military. His writings on the restoration of Israel pertained to the Jews of Israel, not Gentile Church age Christians.
Jeremiah and Isaiah foresaw the destruction of Babylon, a Middle Eastern-based city that will have tremendous power in the future. They did not see the collapse of the United States.
Old Testament prophets had no concept of the Church. They knew of a coming Messiah, but all of their prophecies focused on Israel. Contextually, it is impossible to interject Gentile Christians into the writings of Old Testament Jewish prophets.
Importance of Prophecy
Those who dismiss Bible prophecy ignore almost forty percent of scripture. Fulfilled Bible prophecy is one of the ultimate evidences for the validity of scripture. Just as God used prophecy to tell His people of the coming Messiah 2,000 years ago, He continues to use prophecy giving us hope of Christ’s return once more.
The Bible is an amazing book, not only because of its message of redemption for mankind but also because of its miraculous prediction of future events. This New Year as you sign up for that gym membership or quit those destructive habits for good, add “studying Bible prophecy” to your New Year’s resolution list!
Jeremy Stevens is a historian, author, and teacher. His latest book, "So What Happens Next? Exploring Biblical Prophecies to Make Sense of Today's Chaos" is available at all participating bookstores.