The Practical Effects of Prophetic Interpretation
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
Is the study of prophecy purely academic and impractical?
First of all, there is a very limited sense in which this is partly true. We cannot be sure exactly how some prophetic passages in scripture will be fulfilled. For example, we cannot be quite sure of the nationality of the first beast of Revelation chapter 13 before he appears on the world stage. Nor can we be sure about the precise meaning of all the symbols used in apocalyptic passages, although some are explained in scripture. Dogmatism on points of interpretation such as these is unwise and can lead to acrimonious arguments between brethren, which is wrong, and discredits the legitimate study of prophecy. We need to exercise gracious tolerance of one another’s personal views in such matters, and to have a teachable and humble spirit, for there are some uncertainties in the very detailed interpretation of prophecy. But the main aim of this article is to point out that, with regard to the major predictions of Bible prophecy, the practical effects of our views concerning their interpretation are, indeed, very real, serious, and more far-reaching than is supposed by many sincere Christians today. Doctrine affects behaviour in this area of interpretation, just as it does in all others.
How literally should we interpret prophetic predictions?
Since prophetic predictions are an integral part of all scripture, it follows that they should be interpreted according to the principle which we use in interpreting scripture in general. And the rule which Christians should follow in interpreting scriptures concerning salvation and the Christian life is, ‘where the literal sense makes perfectly good sense, seek no other sense’, or, ‘literal wherever possible’.1 As in all literary works, there is often some figurative language, but we usually understand what is meant by this. As a general rule, it is true to say that the Bible means what it says, and says what it means. And although some predictions include various symbols, still these represent literal people, objects, and events, not vague abstract ideas. Many predictions are written in lucidly clear language, and simply need to be accepted in simple faith. For example, the prediction of the second coming of Christ in glory to the Mount of Olives in Zechariah chapter 14 is quite clear, as is the description of the architecture and worship of the Millennial Temple in Ezekiel chapters 40-48.
How serious are the errors of amillennialism?
Ever since Augustine in the fourth century AD introduced the idea that prophetic scripture should be interpreted in a way different from other scripture, namely, in a spiritualized way only, the majority of Christendom has adopted a faulty, dual principle of interpretation, which persists today. See, for example, the widely-read writings of John Calvin, Louis Berkhof,2 and John Stott. These writers did not believe in a literal, future millennial kingdom of Christ on earth, and denied that there would ever be a literal future kingdom. Likewise, amillennialists spiritualize the predic-tions concerning the Tribulation, and interpret it to mean the sufferings of this present age. This deprives these scriptures of all real meaning, and is an error in interpretation.
Most practical errors to which this view leads, however, are caused by its confusion of the New Testament church, God’s heavenly people, with God’s Old Testament earthly people, Israel. Many sincere Christians today believe that the church has replaced Israel in God’s purposes, and that Israel has no future. This is contradicted by Romans chapters 9-11, and the existence of the state of Israel in their Promised Land today. Scripture concerning the future of Israel is beginning to be fulfilled before our eyes.
But this confusion of the church with Israel has led to a confusion of the present age of grace, ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’, with the age of law which preceded it. Consequently, the medieval Catholic Church thought that they had jurisdiction over the secular state, and ought to implement all the principles and punishments of the Mosaic Law in the present age. The results of this error were horrendous: the Inquisitions; the burning of witches and so-called ‘heretics’, some of whom were true believers, while others were unfortunate Jews; and the attempts to establish the earthly kingdom of God in Palestine by force of arms in the misguided Crusades with all their atrocities. A similar, though not identical, well-meaning error, namely Fifth Monarchism,3 led Oliver Cromwell to suppose that God wanted him to prepare the world for the beginning of the millennial kingdom by force of arms, regicide, and establishing the Puritan Commonwealth.
Another consequence of confusing the church with Israel has been that the professing church has reverted to Old Testament Judaistic practices, vest-ments, and architecture, with all their elaborate rituals and separation between clergy and laity, which copies the distinction between the Jewish priesthood and the common people.
Furthermore, amillennialism4 leads Christians to suppose that it is our duty to enter the institutions of the secular world, as William Wilberforce did with some good effect, in order to reform them for God, and to make this present world a better place to live in. Whilst Christians are meant to act as salt and light in the world to slow down its corruption, it is a mistake to think that the church will be able to reform the world radically. The world will not become a completely better place until Christ intervenes supernaturally, at His coming in glory to establish His millennial kingdom. Then, but not before, Christians will reign with Him.
What are the effects of other mistaken views?
Postmillennialists5 believe that Christ will return only after the whole world has been converted by the preaching of the gospel, and has enjoyed a millennium of peace. Sadly, this is a delusion unsupported by scripture, which asserts that conditions in the world will get progressively worse towards the end of the age, and that only a minority of mankind will believe the gospel and be saved from the judgements to come. Christ will intervene to rectify the situation when He comes again in glory to reign.6
Other errors involve a mistaken view of the timing of the rapture of the church to heaven. Post-tribulationists believe that the church will go through the whole of the tribulation, and be raptured at the same time as Christ comes in glory to reign. If this were true, then the rapture could hardly be the comforting hope which it is presented in scripture as being; rather, this view would cause Christians great anxiety, if not despair and terror, just like the world around us.7
The mid-tribulation rapture view,8 which believes that the rapture of the church will occur after the first half of the tribulation, suffers from similar drawbacks, including the loss of imminence.
The partial rapture view, which believes that only faithful believers will be raptured before the tribulation starts, makes participation in the rapture a reward for good works, rather than a promise of grace. 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, and 1 Corinthians chapter 15, indicate that all church believers will be raptured at the same time.9
What are the positive practical benefits of the premillennial, pre-tribulational, dispensational view of prophetic predictions?
First, it best accords with a simple, believing acceptance of the literal truth of all the relevant scriptures, and throws a flood of light on the meaning and inter-relationship of all scripture from Genesis to Revelation that no other view does so satisfactorily.
Secondly, the truth of the constant imminence of the rapture of the church leads to sober, vigilant living every day, and thus promotes practical holiness.
Thirdly, in this way Christians can act as salt and light in the world, not from a position of close involvement in its corrupt institutions, but from a position of healthy separation from, yet loving concern for, individuals ensnared in them.
Fourthly, this view has encouraged continuous, vigorous, world-wide evangelism to the lost to save them from suffering the coming wrath of God, rather than attempting to reform the institutions of the present world from within.
Fifthly, this view has encouraged more diligent study of Bible prophecy than other views.10
Sixthly, by distinguishing the New Testament church, the heavenly people of God, from His parallel earthly people Israel, this view supports the application of New Testament church principles, and rejects all attempts to revert to Old Testament Judaistic practices and rituals.
Finally, this view is the only one which gives Christians the sure and certain hope of imminent rapture to heaven that scripture seems to hold before us for our encouragement in the difficulties of our pilgrim pathway.
We must conclude, therefore, that our understanding of Bible prophecy as a whole, and its prophetic predictions in particular, are very practical in their effects upon our daily lives, and outlook on the world around us. It remains to say that we appreciate that many sincere Christians today may be living very holy and useful lives for our Lord without, perhaps, understanding much, if anything, of the issues involved in the interpretation of prophetic scripture, either because they have never been taught them, or because they have never studied them closely. Many simple believers are just waiting for their Lord to come for them at some time, without understanding at all how and when this could be. To such we wish to say that if they were to consider the issues raised in this article, and to study and accept the premillennial view of prophetic scripture advocated above, their service would be better directed and informed, and they would be given a more encouraging and imminent hope than they have so far enjoyed. Maranatha! The Lord is coming soon! Amen!
- ‘There could be no more decisive reason for giving a literal interpretation to the prophecies of the second advent than is set up by the fact that the prophecies of the first advent were thus fulfilled’, Chafer, L. S., Systematic Theology, Vol. 5, Kregel Publications, 1976, pg. 281. For further development of this argument, see Bonar, H., Prophetic Landmarks, Nisbet, 1876, pp. 246-7.
- Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology.
- See, for example, the Wikipedia article Fifth Monarchists and studies of their history under Fifth Monarchism.
- It should be pointed out that there are other Christians who believe they should become involved in the institutions of the secular world, but they do not subscribe to amillennialist eschatology. [Editor]
- Although an advocate of Replacement Theology, see, for example, Boettner, L., The Millennium, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958. Earlier instances of this doctrine might be found in À Brakel, W., The Christian’s Reasonable Service, and Gribben, C., The Puritan Millennium.
- See Matt. 13 and 24; 2 Thess. 2; 2 Tim. 3; and Rev. 6-20.
- The post-tribulation view also fails to take due account of the scriptures, which state that the church is exempt from the coming wrath of God altogether, and of the many differences between Christ’s coming to the air, and His later coming to the earth. Furthermore, in Revelation chapters 6-18, the church, or churches, do not appear on earth during the tribulation visions, only before and afterwards. Finally, Paul presents the rapture as an ever-imminent hope, able to happen at any moment. The post-tribulation view means that it cannot be imminent at all, but at least seven years away. This fact could cause either despair, or careless living. Aspects of the post-tribulation view are expressed in Davis, J. J., Christ’s Victorious Kingdom, Baker, 1986.
- See, for example, Archer, Gleason, The Case for the Mid-Seventieth-Week Rapture Position.
- Further information is available at: https://bible.org/seriespage/premillennialism-and-tribulation-%E2%80%94-part-v-partial-rapture-theory.
- See, for example, Horner, Barry E., Future Israel, B&H Publishing, 2007, pp. 152-3.