Interpreting Apocalyptic Prophecies
Introduction: When I first saw the topic for the next quarter I was annoyed. "When are we going to study the life of Jesus?" "When are we going to study a complete book of the Bible," I fumed? I'll bet half the population doesn't even know what the word "apocalyptic" means! How can I make this topic interesting?
Then, I started thinking about my own journey. Many years ago a member of my church asked me why I thought Christianity was true and Islam was not. Since I knew almost nothing about Islam, I could not give him a good answer. Since then I have been reading (studying) the teachings of Islam and Buddhism (the Dalai Lama version). To my astonishment, I found that there was substantial "overlap" between the three religions. Muslims share all of the Old Testament, and some of the New Testament with us. Many of the teachings of the Dalai Lama are identical to those of Jesus. While this tends to prove the truth of our common beliefs, it also makes us look for additional proof that we have "the truth" where the teachings differ. Bible prophecy tends to do just that. If we can show where the Bible accurately predicted the future, we can have confidence that the "True God" spoke through the Bible. Not only can we have confidence in the Bible, but we can have some assurance for the future. Let's dive into our study of end-time prophecy!
- Jesus and Prophecy
- Read Matthew 24:1-2. What do you understand Jesus to be saying to His disciples? (He was telling them that the most important center of worship for Jews was going to be totally destroyed.)
- Why would Jesus say this?
- If your home were going to be destroyed, would you want to know in advance?
- Would you like to know the future? (It would be very helpful for stock investments.)
- How could Jesus know the future of the temple? (This is one of the faith-building aspects of prophecy. God knows the future. He shares that future with us when He thinks it will be helpful. See Amos 3:7)
- Read Matthew 24:3. Does Jesus have the attention of the disciples?
- What do they want to know? (They want to know "when" in the future. They want to know dates, and they want to know what "signs" they will get as further warning.)
- What assumptions are the disciples making about the prophecy that are not warranted? (They assume that if the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, this will be the end of the world.)
- What lesson about interpreting prophecy do we learn from this unwarranted assumption? (Do not go beyond the prophecy. Do not "supplement" prophecy with our own assumptions.)
- Read Matthew 24:6, 10-13. What is Jesus prophesying about now? (The end of time. His Second Coming.)
- Now what do you think about the disciples "assumptions?" Did they had reason to put together the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the end of the world?
- Why did Jesus merge the two? (Technically, if you look at Matthew 24:3 the disciples "started it." They asked Jesus about both events.)
- Why didn't Jesus clearly separate the two for the disciples so that they would better understand? (I don't think we can say to God, "You should have been more clear." Instead, I think we need to learn an important lesson about "prophetic arrogance." We had Jesus, speaking to His disciples, and they still had some important details confused. Imagine the possibility for confusion in our interpretation!)
- Read Matthew 24:43-44. What important principle of apocalyptic (end-time) prophecy do we learn here? (Just in case we didn't "get it" before, Jesus tells us the bottom line on prophecy is to always be ready. "Prophetic arrogance," if it causes you to delay being ready, can get you killed eternally.)
- Read Matthew 24:32-33. What, then, is the point of end-time prophecy if we still have to be ready at all times? Is there any point to studying it? (I think end-time prophecy is more like answered prayer than like a map. As we see things happen, we can have confidence that God is with us. God knows the future and what is happening to us at any particular time is within His understanding, if not ours. Jesus' picture of seasons lets us know that we can have a general understanding of the end-time. But, no one would set up an office appointment based on "as soon as the twigs get tender.")
- Read Matthew 24:15-18. Whose prophecy is Jesus quoting? ( Daniel 9:27)
- Is this something in the future or something in the past? (Clearly Jesus is speaking of the future.)
- The Bible I carry to church is the NIV Study Bible. It has a footnote to Matthew 24:15 that indicates that the "abomination that causes desolation" is a reference to something that happened in 168 B.C. It says: "When Antiochus Epiphanes erected a pagan altar to Zeus on the sacred altar in the temple of Jerusalem."
- Do you see a problem here? (Yes! Jesus did not interpret Daniel to refer to something that happened 200 years before. He interpreted Daniel's prophecy to refer to the future. Unless this is a "multiple interpretation" prophecy, then the NIV's comments are clearly contrary to Jesus' teaching.)
- Was the temple in Jerusalem destroyed as Jesus had predicted? (Yes, it was destroyed by Rome in the year 70 A.D. If we accept that Matthew, one of the twelve apostles, was the author of the gospel of Matthew (and the early church fathers all agreed he was), then this record of Jesus' prophecy would have been written before Jerusalem was destroyed.)
- How do you think the people felt to actually see Jesus' prophecy fulfilled? (It no doubt gave them greater confidence that He was the Messiah.)
- Paul and Prophecy
- Read 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2. What is the problem about which Paul is writing? (The people had become upset about some prophecy that said Jesus had already come a second time.)
- Read 2 Thessalonians 2:3. What positive thing does Paul say about end-time prophecy? (First, to calm the people down, Paul recites a prophecy about the end time. This is an important aspect of prophecy - to help us divide the truth from falsehood, and to give us peace as we see and hear troubling things that relate to the end of time.)
- Lets re-read 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and add verse 4. What does this teach us about the end of the world?(That the man of destruction is coming before Jesus' Second Coming and this man will proclaim himself to be God.)
- Who do you think is this "man of destruction?" Who is coming before Jesus comes a second time and pretending to be God? (The older commentaries, such as Matthew Henry, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, and Barnes, all identify this with "the Papacy" (the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church).)
- Did the Pope ever set himself up in (v.4) "God's temple?"
- Since the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, how could anyone set themselves up in it? (It is certainly possible that the older commentaries are correct. However, the language used by Paul to describe this "man" is very similar to the language used to describe Satan in Isaiah 14:12-14. Jesus tells us in Matthew 24:24 that "false Christs" will appear. This may very well refer to Satan himself impersonating Jesus at the end of time. What triggers my imagination is the possibility that this text infers that the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. That would certainly catch the attention of the world - the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt and "Jesus" coming to set up "his" throne there.)
- Read 2 Thessalonians 2:7-10. What does this add to our discussion on the identity of the "man of destruction?" (It seems that he cannot be Satan alone, because verse 9 says "in accordance with the work of Satan." This makes it hard to interpret this prophecy to mean Satan alone. Thus, this seems to be Satanic powers which were currently at work and will be revealed in a dramatic way at the end of time. What I like is the text we ended with last week - we can have confidence in the future because Jesus (v.8) will in the end just speak his enemies away!)
- Read 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12. Is there something you can do now to avoid being deceived by the impersonator of Jesus? (If we believe the truth, if we study to know the prophecies now, we can avoid being deceived when critical end-time events occur.)
- Prophecy and Symbols
- Read Revelation 1:10-11. What instruction is being given to John?
- Why would he want to send what he saw to these churches? (God had a message which he was giving, through John, to the believers.)
- Read Revelation 1:12-13, 16. How would you like to hear a voice behind you and see this?
- Let's skip down to Revelation 1:20. This says that John's vision contained symbols. Why does God use symbols in giving prophecy? Doesn't that just make it more difficult to understand?
- Read Matthew 13:10. Does this sound like our question: "Why does the Bible use symbols in prophecy?"
- Let's read what Jesus says. Read Matthew 13:11-13. Why does Jesus say that He uses parables to teach the principles of the kingdom? (I think there are a couple of reasons to use symbols. First, as with Jesus' parables, God wants us to study His word so that we can understand it. The Holy Spirit can help us to unravel the parables and the end-time prophecies. Second, we have discussed in the past how a prophecy can have more than one interpretation. By using symbols, you make it easier for the prophecy to have more than one application.)
- What is our obligation when it come to prophecy? (If we are willing to dig deep, we can find truths that will help us to have confidence when the world is not going right.)
- Friend, do you sometimes feel that life is not turning out quite the way you expected? How do you feel when that happens? Jesus offers to give us a "peek" into the future if we are willing to dig. Why not commit this quarter to studying these end-time prophecies so that you will feel more confident in your Lord.
- Next week: Daniel 2 and 7: The ABC's of Apocalyptic Prophecies