Approaches to Scripture

How literally one expects biblical prophecies to be fulfilled, and to what degree of detail, is another significant variable in how one attempts to piece together the end time puzzle. Premillennialists take biblical prophecy most literally, and treat it like a painting with the finest and most detailed brush strokes. Amillennialists and Postmillennialists tend to interpret biblical prophecy more allegorically, and to treat it more like a painting with broad sweeping brush strokes.

In various places, the Gospels highlight the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For example, in his birth narrative Matthew points out that prophecies were fulfilled in Mary and Joseph's flight to Egypt with the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:15), in Herod's slaying of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18), and in their return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:23). In his account of Christ's crucifixion, John points out how prophecies were fulfilled when the soldiers cast lots for his clothing (John 19:24), and when they pierced him without breaking his bones (John 19:36-37).

On several occasions, Jesus insisted on the necessity of Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled. In his first sermon at the start of his teaching ministry, Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and then said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read" (Luke 4:21). At the end of his ministry, as they were approaching Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus said to his disciples, "Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; he will be mocked, mistreated, and spat on. They will flog him severely and kill him. Yet on the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-33). In this particular instance, Jesus especially had in mind the detailed prophecy of Isaiah 53. He expected it to be fulfilled, not in some allegorical manner, but literally, and in its details. Shortly before his arrest, he said, "For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me is being fulfilled” (Luke 22:37). Again, Jesus was picking out a particular detail from an Old Testament prophecy and insisting that it had to be fulfilled in its detail.

In similar manner, after Christ's resurrection Peter addressed the other disciples and said, "Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit foretold through David concerning Judas – who became the guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was counted as one of us and received a share in this ministry…For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his house become deserted, and let there be no-one to live in it', and 'Let another take his position of responsibility'" (Acts 1:16-20). Peter was quoting from Psalms 69:25 and 109:8. He understood them to be prophecies about Judas, and that they were fulfilled according to their detail.

Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist of the 2nd century AD, wrote to the Roman Emperor and tried to convert him to Christianity. This document, known as 'The First Apology of Justin', contains a lengthy explanation of how Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the first coming of Christ. He then looks forward to the second coming, and says, "Since, then, we prove that all things which have already happened had been predicted by the prophets before they came to pass, we must necessarily believe also that those things which are in like manner predicted, but are yet to come to pass, shall certainly happen. For as the things which have already taken place came to pass when foretold, and even though unknown, so shall the things that remain, even though they be unknown and disbelieved, yet come to pass" (The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume I by Roberts & Donaldson, The First Apology of Justin, Ch. LII, p. 180).

In other words, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in Christ's first coming sets a precedent. We should expect prophecies of his second coming to be fulfilled in like-manner. That means we should also expect the same kind of attention to detail in the fulfilment of second coming prophecies.

The book of Daniel is especially important in terms of this precedent, for some of its prophecies were fulfilled in the past, and some concern end time events related to the second coming. Daniel 11 is the most detailed prophetic chapter in the whole bible. In verses 1-35, Daniel prophesied events that were subsequently fulfilled during the inter-testamental period, from the 5th to the 2nd century BC. His prophecies were fulfilled in such astonishing detail that unbelieving scholars invariably assume this part of Daniel to be an apocryphal work completed in the 2nd century BC, after his prophecies had been fulfilled. But from a believer's perspective, the fulfilment of verses 1-35 sets a precedent for the fulfilment of verses 36-45, which prophesy things the end time Antichrist will do. We should expect them to be fulfilled in the same detailed kind of way.

Similarly, in chapter 9, Daniel gives us his timeline of '70 weeks'. Understanding a 'week' to be a heptad of seven years (as in Leviticus 25:8), the first 69 of these were fulfilled literally in 483 years, which is 69 times 7 years. This sets a precedent for the 70th week of Daniel 9:27 to also last seven years. It begins with Antichrist confirming a seven-year treaty, but breaking it in the middle of that seven years. That leaves three and a half years during which Antichrist is in breach of the treaty. This three and a half year period aligns with various other scriptures that limit the Great Tribulation to time, times and half a time (i.e. three and a half years), or to 42 months, or to 1,260 days, which are three different ways of saying the same thing. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the day-year theory was popular, and the 1,260 days were understood to represent 1,260 years. Even today prophecy scholars who hold to historicist interpretations assume this to be valid. But the precedent set by past fulfilment implies that the final 70th 'week' must last seven literal years, half of which is a nominal 1,260 literal days.

Similarly, the detailed fulfilment of Isaiah 53 in Christ's suffering, death and resurrection sets a precedent for Isaiah's many prophecies about yet-future events. For example, Isaiah 34 and 63 prophesy Jesus' end time judgments against his enemies in the region known biblically as Edom, with the sky being rolled back like a scroll and Jesus stomping the winepress of nations in his anger. Neither of these prophecies specifically name Jesus, but we know they relate to him because Revelation associates both of them with him (Revelation 6:14 and 19:15).

Obviously, many bible prophecies use symbolic language and metaphors, just as Jesus also did in many of his parables and in his teaching. The biblical authors expect us to discern whether a passage is symbolic, or whether it is to be taken more literally. When they use symbolism, they expect us to interpret that symbolism and to understand the actual realities portrayed by it. The fact that the bible uses symbolism does not take away the need for prophecies to be fulfilled in their details.

The precedents set by past fulfilments of biblical prophecy strongly support an expectation that prophecies about yet-future events will likewise be fulfilled according to their details. Biblical allegory and symbolism do not reduce the need to interpret prophetic details.

In my opinion, these biblical precedents provide compelling support for Premillennialism, and reason to reject Amillennialism and Postmillennialism.