1. Approximately one-fourth of the Bible was prophetic when it was written. Some of it has been fulfilled already. (Daniel foretold the kingdoms of Persia, Greece and Rome. David , Isaiah, Micah and others predicted the birth, life and death of Christ, etc.) But prophecy is obviously a major portion of scripture. Much of it remains unfulfilled as yet.
2. This brief study attempts to lay out the ground rules of interpreting Bible prophecy and to deal with some of the major passages and events.
3. This study will be aided by the use of the following chart.
I. Key principles for understanding Bible prophecy
A. Interpret prophecy in a normal, literal way.
1. Incorrect – The Allegorical Method
The alternative to a literal interpretation of prophecy is “allegorizing.” This view holds that often the real fulfillment of prophecy is not literal but rather some deeper “spiritual” meaning. For example, this view would say that the Millennium (Revelation 20:2,4,6,7) is not a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth in the future but rather it is the “spiritual” rule of Christ on earth now.
2. Correct – The Literal Method
If God’s Word says something about the future, it will literally happen. There may be symbols in the prophecy, but the symbols are predicting literal truth (see below).
B. Understand some basic ground rules
1. Symbols – Symbols represent a literal truth. For example, God gave Daniel a symbolic vision of 4 beasts (a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a “dreadful” beast – Daniel 7). An angel told him they represented 4 kingdoms. It’s clear now they referred to the consecutive kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.
2. Compare a prophecy with other prophecies – By comparing similar prophecies the meanings become more clear. For example, by comparing Daniel 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:3,4 and Matthew 24:15, we know that the “Abomination of Desolation” is when the Anti-Christ will break a peace promise to the Jews in the middle of the 7-year Tribulation and will demand to be worshipped. One passage alone doesn’t always tell the whole story.
3. Varied time element – Future events are not always in the future tense. For example, “Unto us a Son is born, etc.” (Isaiah 9:6). Isaiah spoke in the present tense but we know it refers to the birth of Christ which was then in the future. Another caution is that sometimes a prophecy may run together several events without specifying that time gaps will divide them (see Isaiah 11:1-4 – Christ’s 1st and 2nd comings).
4. Double fulfillment – Some prophecies have 2 distinct fulfillments. For example, Isaiah 7:14 is fulfilled by the birth of a child in 744 B.C. as a sign to King Ahaz as well as by the birth of Christ in 5 B.C. (Matthew 1:23).
C. Distinguish between Israel and the church
1. God made some remarkable promises to Israel about their future.
Davidic Covenant – God promised a “new covenant” time when Israel would have a changed heart of devotion to God and their sin would be forgiven (Jeremiah 31:31).
2. Some believe that these promises will not be fulfilled literally to the nation of Israel. They believe that because of Israel’s repeated disobedience God has now somehow “spiritually” transferred these promises to church age believers. But each of the key covenants (promises) were unconditional in nature. They were God’s promise and they had no strings attached.
3. A person’s view of whether God’s many promises will actually be fulfilled to the nation of Israel leads to several very different views of the future.
a. The literal view – Premillennialism
The Millennium (Revelation 20:1-9) is when Christ will reign over Israel on earth and the Old Testament promises will be literally fulfilled. This view (diagrammed below) is “pre-millennial” because Christ returns before the millennium begins.
b. The non-literal views
This view deals with the many unfulfilled promises to Israel in different ways. The millennium is not interpreted literally. Two major views of the millennium have arisen.
By following the normal literal interpretation of scripture (which is basic to understanding all of the Bible), we arrive at a premillennial view of the future. Therefore, we have a basic timeline sketch:
God began something special with Israel in the Old Testament (Genesis 12). He will complete His plan for them (Romans 9-11 is the key New Testament passage teaching this truth). We today live in the interval between God’s special dealings with Israel (Romans 11:1,25).
God said Israel would return to the land (Isaiah 11:11,12). The “Zionist” movement of Jews returning to Israel since 1897 seems to be significant preparation for the “end times” scenario. In 1947 Israel became a recognized state. In 1967, in the 6-day war, Israel gained 4 times as much land as before including Jerusalem. The continued conflict in the Middle East seems to be the mere beginning of the key role that the Bible says Israel will have during the coming Tribulation and Millennium. Before the 20th century, postmillennialists and amillennialists could scoff at the idea of a literal Israel receiving its Old Testament promises. Today those promises look more and more realistic. (Note: We should be careful not to say, however, that Israel is actually fulfilling Old Testament prophecy yet. It’s still the church age. Israel is coming back in unbelief and not in recognition of the Messiah. That’s later. But God is “putting the props in place.”)
II. The “70 weeks” of Daniel (Daniel 9:24-27)
Introduction – The prophecy of the “70 weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27 are significant because it can explain the existence of the church age as a “parenthesis” between the two parts of God’s plan for Israel. Sixty-nine weeks of Daniel’s prophecy were fulfilled literally. The 70th week will be also but it hasn’t been fulfilled yet. So we live in the gap between those fulfillments. The prophecy of the “70 weeks” also lays an Old Testament foundation for the major emphasis in Revelation on the 7-year Tribulation (see below).
A. Overview chart
B. Explanation of the “70 weeks” (Daniel 9:24-27)
a. Daniel was in captivity in Babylon.
b. The kingdom of Babylon had been taken over by the Medes (Daniel 5:30 cf. 9:1).
d. He fasted and prayed to find out what God would do next (Daniel 9:3-19).
e. An angel appeared with the answer (Daniel 9:20 ff).
2. Verse 24 - “70 weeks” = a period of time in which 6 things will take place
a. “finish transgression” – Israel will stop forsaking God
b. “end of sin” – Their sin will be judged (The end of Judah’s 70-year captivity accomplished these first 2.)
c. “atonement for iniquity” – Christ’s death on the cross
d. “bring in everlasting righteousness” – The righteous millennial kingdom begins
e. “seal up vision and prophecy” – Prophetic signs cease (Millennium)
f. “anoint holy place” – The holy place restored (Millennium)
What are the 70 weeks?
Literally the word “weeks” is “sevens.” But the question remains whether a “seven” is seven “days” or seven “years.” Seventy “sevens” of days would equal 15 months. That doesn’t fit the prophecy at all. But seventy “sevens” of years equals 490 years. That we will see fits the prophecy precisely.
How long are the years?
Daniel is figuring in terms of “prophetic years.” That means years which are 360 days long. The Jews did not use 365 day solar years. Actually they used 12 lunar months of about 29 days each (which required adding an extra month occasionally). Sometimes that was rounded off to 360 day years as in the flood chronology (150 days = 5 months – Genesis 7:11,24; 8:3,4). In Revelation it is clear that 360 day years are used because 1260 days = 42 months = 3 years (Revelation 13:4-7; 12:13,14; 12:6). Likewise Daniel uses 360 day years.
3. Verse 25
The starting point of this prophecy is “the decree to rebuild Jerusalem.” This refers to King Artaxerxes’ decree on March 5, 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:1-8). The ending point of the prophecy is “until Messiah the Prince.” This refers to Christ’s Triumphal Entry on March 30, A.D. 33. Daniel says that will take 69 (7 = 62) “weeks” of years. It comes out to the day (69 x 7 x 360 = 173,880 days)! The 483 “prophetic years” (or 476 solar years plus the 25 days between March 5 and March 30) is the exact time from Artaxerses’ decree until the Triumphal Entry.
4. Verse 26 - “after the 62 weeks” (after the 7 also)
a. “Messiah cut off” – Christ crucified
b. “people of the prince to come will destroy the city (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary (temple)”
“people” = Romans
“prince” = Antichrist – head of a revived Roman Empire (In A.D. 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem)
- The 70th week doesn’t follow immediately. Why? Because at least these 2 things happened after the 69th week (v.26) and before the 70th (v.27).
- There is a time gap between the 69th and the 70th week. (v.24-26 – History) (v.27 – Future)
- The rapture will end the time gap and God’s program for the Jew will continue in the seven-year Tribulation.
5. Verse 27
“he” – the prince that is to come – Antichrist
“covenant” – a treaty
“with the many” = the Jews; the 70 weeks prophecy has to do with the Jews.
“one week” = 7 years
“but in the middle” – Antichrist will break the treaty he made allowing Jews in the Tribulation religious freedom after 3 1/2 years.
“until a complete destruction” – The destruction of the Antichrist by Christ’s own judgments in the last half of the tribulation and at His coming in judgment at the end (cf. Matthew 24:27; Revelation 19:11-16).
The first 69 weeks were literally fulfilled.
We today live in a time gap between the 69th and 70th weeks. This is the church age.
We can be certain that the 70th week – the 7-year Tribulation – will be literally fulfilled as well.
III. The Rapture
The rapture is Christ’s return to take believers to heaven with Him. Pretribulationalism is the view that this event may occur at any moment (imminent). Thus it is before (pre) the 7-year Tribulation. The key passages teaching about the rapture are John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
The word “rapture” is not in the Bible except that it comes from that Latin word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 translated in English as “caught up.” So the “rapture” describes well the event of Christ returning to catch up living and dead church age believers to take them to heaven.
A. John 14:1-3 - The expectation of the rapture is based on the explicit promise of Christ. “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and receive you to Myself.”
1. The rapture is for all church age believers, dead or living.
“We shall not all sleep (die) but we shall all be changed (transformed bodies at the rapture – see below), (15:51).
2. The rapture will bring an instantaneous change.
“The dead will be raised imperishable” – a glorified body (15:52).
“and we (living believers) will be changed” – a glorified body (15:52).
1. Christ will personally return. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven” (4:16).
2. Church age believers who have died will be raised. “The dead in Christ shall rise first” (4:16).
3. Church age believers who have not died will be “raptured” – physically taken to heaven. “We who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them (resurrected believers) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17).
4. We will be together with the Lord and with believing loved ones. “And then we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:17,18; cf. 4:13).
1. The rapture is the next prophetic event to take place. We do not know when it will happen. The expectation of Paul was that it could happen at any time.
2. Some premillenialists disagree. They say that the rapture will not be before the tribulation but some other time. A supplement, “The Rapture Debate” (by the present author) is available for a discussion of the issue and support for the “Pretribulational rapture” position.
IV. The Tribulation
The Tribulation is the 7-year period time in which God brings intense judgment upon the world. But at the same time God is bringing unbelieving Jews to turn to Christ as Savior. Both the judgment and salvation aspects occur throughout the 7-year span but both aspects culminate in the return of Christ at the end. He will destroy unbelievers in judgment (Revelation 19:11-21) but will rescue the many Jews who turn to Him (Zechariah 12:1-10).
B. The Beginning of the Tribulation
The Tribulation period officially begins when the Antichrist (also called the “man of sin” or the “beast” – the leader of a 10-nation confederation – Daniel 7:23-25) makes a treaty with Israel (Daniel 9:27). The treaty is evidently a peace treaty in which the 10-nation confederation and Israel become allies and Israel is promised protection to reestablish the rituals of Judaism (Daniel 9:27).
The rapture will have occurred just before this – closing the church age. The “gap” between Daniel’s 69th & 70th week must be complete before the “70th week” begins.
C. The First 3 years of the Tribulation
1. Israel in the first 3 years
a. Israel will have relative peace in the first 3 years (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
b. During those years 144,000 Jews will be “sealed” (Revelation 7:1-8). Perhaps this means they will be saved and “protected” by God to serve as evangelists.
2. The World in the first 3 years
a. God will bring terrible judgment upon the world through natural and personal means (The six seal judgments – Revelation 6).
b. God will judge the king of the North.
c. Key passage – Ezekiel 38,39
Ezekiel 37 – Israel is restored as a nation and prospers.
Ezekiel 38 & 39 – Gog and Magog (= Russia geographically 38:2) and other allies (Turkey, Iran, North Sudan, Libya geographically – 38:5) plan to plunder Israel’s wealth (38:8-13). But God plans to glorify Himself (38:14-16). He does that by destroying the northern power (38:17-39:8).
D. The Midpoint of the Tribulation
2. Two “witnesses” serve the Lord with a unique ministry of prophecy and miraculous judgments (Revelation 11:3-6). After 3 years their ministry is complete and they are killed by the antichrist (11:3,7-10). They are then raised by God and ascend to heaven in full view of the world (11:11-13).
E. The Last 3 years of the Tribulation
1. Israel in the last 3 years
b. The effect of the ministry of the 144,000 is that there are a multitude of tribulation martyrs (believers) from every racial and geographic group (Revelation 7:9-17).
c. The World in the last 3 years
e. Politically the major world powers are in turmoil. The tribulation period climaxes with a series of battles which are called the “campaign” of Armageddon (Revelation 16:14). The movements are traced on the supplemental Tribulation Chart.
F. The End of the Tribulation – Christ’s Return
1. In the political aspect of Christ’s return at the end of the Tribulation He destroys and judges all of Israel’s enemies (actually all unbelievers) as He returns (Zechariah 12:1-9; 14:1-4; Revelation 19:11-18).
2. The spiritual aspect of Christ’s return concerns Israel, who will be in desperation physically (militarily). The “sign of the Son of Man” (Christ) will appear (Matthew 24:29-31). As Christ then fights for Israel, they will turn to Christ in mass and believe in Him. God will pour out a “spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:9-10a) and they will acknowledge Christ as their Savior/Messiah (Zechariah 12:10b cf. Ezekiel 37:14; 23-28). This begins the fulfillment of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Romans 11:26,27).
V. The Millennium
Revelation 20:1-6 tells us that the Millennium is a literal 1,000 year period of time in which Satan is bound (20:2,3) and Christ rules (20:4). This is a literal kingdom with Christ on the throne. It is the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant which promised such a king and kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16). It will also fulfill the spiritual promises of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33) and the physical promises of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:18).
B. Significant Issues
1. What is the purpose of the Millennium?
a. Like every other dispensation (Age of the Law, Age of Grace, etc.), God’s purpose is to test fallen humanity. The Millennium is the final dispensation. There will be ideal circumstances (see below). Christ will be visibly present and Satan will be bound (Revelation 20:1-6). Yet when Satan is released at the end of the 1,000 years, he will be able to quickly gather masses of people from all nations to fight Christ (Revelation 20:7-10). So man is proven a failure again.
b. The other major purpose of God is to fulfill His promises to Israel. They will be God’s privileged people in ideal circumstances (see below).
c. Who will live on earth in the Millennium?
The millennium, according to Old Testament prophecies, will be enjoyed by literal Jews in normal human bodies (Isaiah 65:23; Jeremiah 30:20; Zechariah 10:7,8). Who are these Jews? They are the same people who turn to Christ as Messiah at His return at the end of the Tribulation (Zechariah 14:1-11, 16-21). Jesus urged those future Jews who will live in the Tribulation to flee and hide so that they will survive (Matthew 24:13, 16-22). The people who are “left” after the judgment of Christ (Matthew 24:41) are those who begin the Millennium in the normal bodies and populate the earth.
2. Where will church age believers be?
Since the rapture and resurrection have occurred we will already have glorified resurrection bodies. In that new state we don’t need the testing of the Millennium. We’re already righteous (1 John 3:2). The Millennium on earth is designed for God to bless the Jews, not the church. We will be in “heaven” – specifically in the “New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:1-27:5; “The bride, the wife of the Lamb” – 21:9,10. A the supplemental chart, “How Eternity Begins” is available by the present author).
C. Government in the Millennium
3. Everyone on earth will know of the Lord (Isaiah 11:9). There will be no atheists even among the rebellious unbelievers.
4. Gentile nations will serve Israel. Christ the king will not tolerate any oppression of Israel (Isaiah 49:22-26).
D. Conditions in the Millennium
1. The land will “blossom like a rose” (Isaiah 35:1,2)
2. The animals will be at peace with each other (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25).
3. Sickness and deformity will be gone (Isaiah 33:24; 35:3-6).
5. Life spans will no longer be limited as they are now. Sin will be the reason why people die (Isaiah 65:19,20).
VI. The Eternal State
A. What is the eternal state?
In one sense the “eternal state” begins for a believer when he or she dies. A
church age believer is “with the Lord” immediately upon death (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). The next stage of our eternal state is when we are resurrected and receive glorified bodies. For church age saints this happens at the rapture (1 Corinthians 15:51-54). Old Testament saints and Tribulation martyrs are resurrected at Christ’s return (Daniel 12:2; Revelation 20:4-6). During the millennium on earth, resurrected saints are really in their eternal state already (“The New Jerusalem” – Revelation 21:1-22:5). Millennial believers evidently enter the eternal state after the millennium is over (Revelation 22:1-5,14).
In brief the eternal state is the condition that will apply to believers throughout eternity. It is “heaven.” The following section describes those conditions.
B. What is the eternal state like?
2. It’s a life of rest (Revelation 14:13).
4. It’s a life of serving God (Revelation 22:3).
5. It’s a life of joy (no pain, death or tears – Revelation 21:4).
6. It’s a life of satisfaction (“water of life” – Revelation 21:6; 22:17).
8. It’s a life of worship (Revelation 7:9-12; 19:1-6).