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Practical Rules for Interpretation: Rule 10

Rule 10  – Be Careful with Predictive Prophecy

The handling of predictive prophecy is one of the most abused forms of biblical interpretation.  Interpretations range from the skeptical, naturalistic method which eliminates predictive prophecy to the wild, bizarre method that sees in every event a “clear fulfillment” of a biblical prophecy.

Higher criticism has often worked on the assumption that anything that resembles future prediction and fulfillment of prophecy was written into the text after the events actually occurred.  The basic assumption is that future prediction with accurate results is impossible.  Thus, because it cannot occur (according to them), any examples of fulfilled prophecy were written after they occurred.

On the other hand, some conservative thinkers insist that every detail of biblical prophecy must be fulfilled to the letter and leave no room for symbolic predictions or predictions that have a broader meaning.

In the New Testament sometimes prophecy is fulfilled to the letter (the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem) and some is fulfilled in a broader sense (Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah).

Consider Mal 4:5-6

With this prophecy the prophetic voice in the OT ends for four hundred years.  Then, suddenly, John the Baptist appears on the scene.  Speculation runs rampant among the people and the leaders send a delegation to John to ask him who he is (John 1:19-28).  First, they ask him if he is the Messiah (No) and then ask him if he is Elijah to which he also says:  “I am not.”

BUT,  Consider Jesus in Mark 9:12-13 and Matt 11:13-15

Thus, John says he isn’t Elijah and Jesus says he is.

But if you look at how Jesus says it you see the difference.  The answer is found in the birth announcement of John:  “And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17)

John was not actually Elijah come back down to Earth but, in a sense, he was Elijah; he came in the Spirit and power of Elijah.

Of all the prophetic forms, the apocalyptic is the most difficult to handle.  This type has a lot of symbolic imagery that is sometimes explained to us and sometimes left uninterpreted.  The three most prominent books in this category are Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.

People let their imaginations run wild in these books (to their own destruction at times).  An important key to interpreting the imagery is to look for the general meaning of images in the rest of Scripture.  For example, most of the images in Revelations are found elsewhere in the Bible, especially the Old Testament.

The student of Scripture, once again, should make a special study of the category of literature he is dealing with in a particular text.  The general emphasis, especially in this form, must be great care.  We are not permitted to let our imagination form the building block upon which we can build imagination upon imagination to form a complex story of predictive prophecy.  If it’s not clear then we ought not worry to spend time trying to build up more clarity than the Scriptures reveal.

Most of “End Times” doctrine these days (especially in novels about them) is wildly imaginative and has no basis in Scripture.  God is not honored when we do not handle His Word with great care.

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