Interpreting Prophecy

Interpreting the visions of prophecy can be very similar to interpreting dreams. Prophecies like Revelation have their basis in God’s Truth. The symbology and direct statements refer to how specific actions fulfill absolute Law. Dreams may or may not have some basis in a greater truth but typically reflect psychological and sensory impressions from the dreamer’s daily life. Both visions of prophecy and the visual imagery of dreams draw upon the experiences of the individual.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

To fully understand the visions of Old Testament prophets like Daniel and Ezekiel as well as John’s Revelation requires a different perspective and approach. The visions in the Old and New Testament of the Bible have similarities for two main reasons.

First, the visions are impressions of personal human actions that are either conflicting with or abiding by the absolute laws of creation as revealed to Jews. In this sense, Biblical visions are Jewish statements that express the universal experiences of all humanity. Someone from a different religious background, language, and heritage may express the same Truth according to their own language, life experiences and community references.

Second, Biblical prophets share a base of intellectual understanding provided by the five books of Moses. The visions described in Revelation and those of earlier prophets in the Bible are given by Jews who share a common religious tradition as well as a common ethnicity and historical culture.

For the prophet, or in this case for Apostle John, the visions seen during prophecy are also very personal. God has made each human in His image. To ensure the illusion of creation lasts for a time, each person’s ability to express Truth on the physical plane is limited by their own experiences as well as by events shared by their community.

In parts of Revelation, my ability to complete a line by line exposition is limited. I have my own life experiences. My language is English, not Aramaic, Hebrew, nor ancient Greek, and the general knowledge that I have received from Western Civilization is vastly different than the relative knowledge of first century Jews. While I am appealing in meditation and prayer to both John and Christ for help to understand throughout this commentary process, I cannot literally become either John or Christ. Perhaps over the coming years, John and Christ will fill in more details, but for now many statements in the remainder of Revelation are dreamlike.

Consider Dreams

One’s dreams build upon themes from daily life. When I was a child, there was an occult soap opera (daily stories with the same set of characters) on television. This show was called, “Dark Shadows”. The vampire characters and their situations surrounding death inspired many nightmares in my young mind. My mother soon realized the show was negatively impacting me and forbade me from watching it. However, from this experience, I came to realize that some elements from my dreams came from my daily environment such as watching this television program. I remember dreaming that a vampire sat in a large maple tree that I often walked beneath on my way to the neighbor’s house.

As the dreamer gains more life experiences and impressions of the world, the brain and consciousness has more to draw upon to create the imagery for a dream. Perhaps one has read a fantasy novel with dragons and later dreams about dragons. One who reads about saints may see those saints in their dreams. While there may be a deeper interpretation about dragons or saints than what they did in a dream, it is unlikely for one to dream about anything that has not seen or experienced personally.

John likely saw carvings and images of dragons in various pagan temples during his travels. So when dragons appear in Revelation, his visual language includes the dragons he has experienced externally. Christ may be using these images for a specific purpose, or John’s mind may be using the image simply like a placeholder. If what John is seeing doesn’t have an established Jewish reference, his mind may be using the visual language to encourage later contemplation or to retain an element of mystery for future students of the prophecy. When John’s mind (and Christ directing his thoughts) use references to a dragon 13 times, it may represent an undefined or complex idea that must be experienced to be understood. While a literal dragon may be possible, it is unlikely.

Prophetic Understanding

Another example of some prophetic elements that come together like a dream is more obvious in the mention of the Hebrew Abaddon or Greek Apollyon (a reference to Apollo) in Revelation 9:11. John’s mind and Christ’s influence are using symbols that John and most of his peers are familiar with from daily living.

While I pray for God and Christ and John (who is alive in God, while we are essentially dead in Biblical terms), my ability to develop a complete explanation of each line is limited by my own experiences, learned knowledge, cultural references, and the insights provided by Spirit. These limitations are experienced by anyone attempting to interpret scripture, not only prophecy. Theology is essentially an agreement to common interpretation, but theological conclusions have often been incorrect over the centuries. For example, Southern theologians in the United States used the Bible to justify the sinful practice of slavery for decades.

My Perspectives on Interpretation

In addition to the personal limitations already stated (English and liberal Western Civilization experiences), I am also aware of my following limitations. I share these perspectives so you can watch for their good or bad impact on these commentaries.

God is good. God is not one who punishes. God is love. He is not capricious in his application of established law. He couldn’t be. For if God changed his law at any time, it would end one form of creation and start another.

God’s Law is unmalleable. The new dispensation given by Christ Jesus is simply to make public the knowledge about grace. There is a stage of discipleship which fulfills God’s material laws and enables one to “sin no more”. However, centuries of intellectual rationalization and poor theology has degraded much of this knowledge to a point that it cannot be recognized.

The fallen human who hears the Truth spoken interprets that as judgement and possibly even as punishment. Consider when an automobile driver is pulled over by a police officer for driving erratically. The officer will likely test the driver for being under the influence. If the person is driving impaired, they will feel that this stop is both a judgement of their poor choice and a punishment when they are arrested or given a ticket. However, the police officer has discretion. Perhaps the erratic driving has another explanation such as extreme worry about a relative who has been taken to an emergency room. In this case the officer may remind the driver of the law without any judgement or enforcement.

God is One. Creation is orderly. Humans give birth to more humans not to turtles or some other creature. The chaos in creation results almost entirely from humanity not following the basic laws of creation. There is one God for all of humanity. God condescends to give scriptures, share wisdom, and provide insight that is understood personally. Over the eons of time, various cultures speaking different languages have discovered many aspects of God. These aspects are expressed in terms understood by communities. However, as cultures and religions develop closer relationships with God, each describes the same end goal. The God goal only looks different to fallen humanity because languages and the shared histories of communities are diverse.

Material science can and does discover aspects of God and God’s Law. However, the materialistic perspective is mired in the lowest aspect of creation. In other words, material science cannot “rise above” nor “expand beyond” the limitations of materialism. God is beyond material, spiritual and causal aspects of creation. Only the perspective of God can provide clear insights into that One entity.

This is why theology alone fails. Without the transcendental and experiential spiritual experiences, religions derived solely from the intellect are dead. Intellectual religions are also dangerous because the man-bound intellect will justify any actions that the fallen individual desires. Most Evangelical churches fail because they are based on apologetics and not on experience. Both are necessary for a balanced, worldly approach to knowing God, but intellectual theology alone is harmful.

God’s law is neutral. It is the actions of humanity that either optimize or conflict with the laws governing creation. Like the driver in the example above, a disciple may feel judged or punished when it is their own behavior that has produced the undesirable outcome.

Preaching fear is a false teaching. Fallen preachers who have not developed a loving relationship with God often interpret Revelation as the “End of Days” for physical creation. Some theologians have even created a “rapture” to pump the adrenaline through their followers to improve personal behaviors (and donate). Even as oil and water do not mix, no one filled with fear may ever enter God’s presence. Using the threat of punishment and condemnation, the apocalyptic preachers may amass a great personal fortune. Those who preach fear and who use preaching as a tool to gain personal wealth should be discarded as false prophets, and as anti-christs.

Prophecy is personal and can be communal. All of the prophets describe their personal experience of God’s Law and are compelled by Spirit to share this experience. For some prophets the sharing comes with exposition of a greater measure of potential violence and negative outcomes than from other prophets. Violating the absolute Law has negative outcomes for both individuals and communities. The manner in which the prophet expresses the results of abiding by or violating Law is determined by the limitations of the prophet. All humans are limited by their egos. Only the Christ has transmuted these limitations.

Disciples are needed. I strive to live by the idea that humanity doesn’t need more denominations of Christianity, nor any new religions, instead more true disciples are needed. Few humans place loving God or even solving the mystery of life as their top priority. The purpose of human life is to love God. Yet who gives God even a few minutes of concentrated thought each day. Most Christians dismiss God with a prayer over food or a parrot-like repetition of “The Lord’s Prayer”. That is not discipleship. To follow Christ Jesus one must be committed to developing a deeper connection with God than the relationships experienced with a spouse, a friend, or a relative.

As I share this commentary on Revelation, I strive to interpret Christ’s and John’s intention through my own understanding of Western culture and the English language. In addition, I abide by the guidelines that God is good, God is One, God’s law is neutral, fear is a false teaching, prophecy is limited by personal expression even when it has a communal message, and committed disciples are needed more than any new religion or denomination of Christianity.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. — 2 Timothy 1:6–7

The next in the series will be linked here), when posted.

“A New Eschatology for Revelation” begins here: https://edsharrow.medium.com/a-new-eschatology-for-revelation-1c7bb51ef8df

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Ed Sharrow

Author, philosopher, Christian meditation instructor. Secular thoughts on edsharrow.substack.com weekdays.