How To Interpret The Prophetic Scriptures

George Eldon Ladd

Before we can enter into a study of what the Bible teaches about the last things, we are faced with the question of methodology. How shall we construct our eschatology? Evangelicals recognize that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and constitutes our only infallible rule for faith and practice. But what does this mean when we ask what the Bible teaches about various doctrinal themes, especially about eschatology?

Many evanglicals feel that the inspiration of the whole Bible leads to the conclusion that the whole Bible is of equal theological value. The many prophecies of the Bible are like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle which only need to be fitted together to give us a grand mosaic of God's redemptive purposes both for the present and for the future.

A bit of reflection shows, however, that this procedure is impossible. The two Testaments have very different themes for their subject matter. The Old Testament is primarily concerned with the people of Israel - the elect descendants of Abraham - whom God called to be his peculiar people. Israel constituted a nation among other nations with a monarchy, a temple, and a priesthood. The Old Testament is primarily the story of this nation, her wars with other nations, her religious revivals and apostasies, her final political defeat and captivity at the hands of Assyria and Babylon, and finally the return of a remnant of the people to their land in Palestine in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Throughout the period of the monarchy and captivity prophets appeared among the people of Israel to proclaim God's judgment upon the nation because of her apostasy, but also to announce that Israel's apostasy was not final and irremedial. In the indeterminate future God would bring about a revival among the people so that they would turn in repentance and obedience to him. This would in turn result in God's favor upon the nation, and Israel would be restored in peace and prosperity to inherit the land. In the Old Testament the eschatological salvation is always pictured in terms of the national, theocratic fate of the people Israel. There are no clear prophecies of the Christian church as such in the Old Testament. The Gentiles do indeed have a place in Israel's future, but there is no uniform concept in the Old Testament of what that place will be. Sometimes the Gentiles will be subdued by force and compelled to serve Israel (Amos 9:12; Mic. 5:9-13; 7:16-17; Isa. 45:14-16; 49:23; 60:12,14). On other occasions the Gentiles are seen as being converted to the faith of Israel so as to serve Israel's God (Zeph. 3:9, 20; Isa. 2:2-4; 42:6-7; 60:1-14; Zech. 8:20-23; 14:16-19). Israel remains the people of God, and the future salvation is first of all Israel's salvation.

When we turn to the New Testament, we meet a very different situation. Jesus offered himself to Israel as her Messiah only to be rejected and finally crucified, As a result, "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel] and given to a nation producing the fruits of it" (Matt. 21:43). However, a remnant of the people did respond to his message and became his disciples. Acts tells the story of the birthday of the church at Pentecost; but this church was radically different from Israel. Instead of being a nation, the church was an open fellowship of people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. At first the church consisted largely of Jews, but Acts tells the story of how the church moved out into the Gentile world, accepted many Gentiles into its fellowship, and concludes with the story of Paul preaching to a largely Gentile church in Rome. Eschatology in the New Testament deals largely with the destiny of the church.

Here we have two different stories: the story of the nation Israel and the story of the church. What are we to make of this apparent dilemma?

Two radically different answers have been proposed, and every student of prophecy must choose between them. The first is to conclude that God has two different programs: one for Israel and one for the church. Israel was and remains and is to be a theocratic people who are destined to inherit the promised land of Palestine, for whom Jesus will be the literal Davidic king, when the prophecies of the Old Testament will be literally fulfilled. This system is called Dispensationalism. It is commonly thought that the main tenet of Dispensationalism is a series of dispensations or time periods in which God deals in different ways with his people. This, however, is incorrect. Judged by this norm, every Bible student must be a Dispensationalist. There are the eras of promise after Abraham, of law under Moses, of grace under Christ, and of the Kingdom of God in the future. Rather, the two chief tenets of Dispensationalism are that there are two peoples of God for whom God has two different programs and destinies - theocratic and earthly for Israel, spiritual and heavenly for the church. (See C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, Moody, 1965, p.97.) [See also C.C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded. Moody, 1995.]

The second way of interpreting prophecy is to recognize progressive revelation and to interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament. Dispensationalists usually refer to this as covenantal theology because it emphasizes the element of unity between the Old and the New Covenants. However, the present writer who supports this method does not do so because he was raised in covenantal theology; in fact, in his earliest years he was a Dispensationalist. It has been through his own inductive study of the Bible that he has become convinced that the Old Testament must be interpreted (and often reinterpreted) by the new revelation given in the person and mission of Jesus Christ.

Before we apply this principle to eschatology, we will try to establish its validity by a survey of biblical Christology - its teaching about the Messiah.

There are three messianic personages in the Old Testament which stand side by side with no indication of how they relate to each other. The first is that of the Davidic King - in New Testament times called "the Messiah," "the Christ," "the Anointed One." This royal heir to the throne of David is vividly pictured in Isaiah 11. Isaiah sees a day when the family tree of the royal lineage of Jesse, the father of David, would be fallen. It would look as if the messianic hopes of David's heirs were frustrated. But out of the stump of the fallen tree would spring forth a new shoot, a new branch, a new kingly heir, "The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him," bestowing upon him wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. This would in turn enable him to rule over his people with true justice, righteousness, and equity. His primary mission would be that of a just king. Not only would he rule over his people righteously; he would be so endowed as to destroy the enemies of God and God's people. "He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked." The result will be a rule of peace and blessedness. The curse will be removed from nature. Fierce beasts will lose their ferocity, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them." This, however, is only one aspect of his kingdom. "The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." This will in turn mean the salvation of the Gentiles. "In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwelling shall be glorious."

There is no word here of a humble prophet of Nazareth who went about as a man among men, teaching, healing, helping. There is no word here of an eternal, preexistent divine being who became flesh and dwelt among us. There is no word here of a humble servant who suffered death for the sins of man. The entire emphasis is upon his victorious rule - his vanquishing of wicked men, his establishing peace and righteousness in all the earth.

This certainly is the obvious meaning of the passage, and it is how the Jews of Jesus' day understood it. In the years of the Maccabees and their successors (163-64 B.C.), the Jews achieved independence from their Syrian masters (the Seleucids) and became once again a powerful independent nation with kings reigning over them. But in 63 B.C. Rome extended her iron hand into Palestine in the person of Pompey, captured Jerusalem, slew many of the Jewish people, and sent many others back as prisoners of war to Rome. At this time, an unknown Jewish writer penned these words:

Behold, 0 Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David,
At the time in which Thou seest, 0 God, that he may reign over Israel, Thy servant.
And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers,
And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample her down to destruction.
Wisely and righteously he shall thrust out sinners from the inheritance.
He shall destroy the pride of the sinner as a potter's vessel,
With a rod of iron he shall break in pieces all their substance.
He shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth;
At his rebuke nations shall flee before him,
And he shall reprove sinners for the thoughts of their hearts, , , .
And there shall be no unrighteousness in his days in their midst,
For all shall be holy and their king the anointed of the Lord.

The poet is expressing the prevailing expectation of the Lord's Anointed, the Lord's Christ in New Testament times. His chief role is to deliver God's people Israel from the hated yoke of the heathen nations.

This enables us to understand the perplexity of John the Baptist when he was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, who reigned in Galilee in the name of Rome. "Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ [the Messiah], he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'" (Matt, 11:2-3). The deeds of the Messiah - what were they? Teaching, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, antagonizing the religious leaders of his day. But this was not what the Messiah was to do. He was to challenge hostile nations; he was to slay the wicked. How could he be Messiah when Herod Antipas was living in open adultery with his brother's wife? John had challenged him, and as a result was sent to prison and finally lost his life. Jesus did not challenge him. He did not challenge the Roman rule embodied in Judaea in the governor, Pontius Pilate. How then could Jesus be Messiah? He was doing many good works but none of the deeds expected of the Davidic Messiah. John did not lose his courage; John did not question God's call of him to proclaim the Coming One. Had not John himself announced, "The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12)? John only questioned how Jesus could be the Messiah, for his deeds were not those of the expected King. Jesus, in fact, embodied a new revelation of God's purpose. He was indeed the Messiah, the Davidic King, but his mission was a spiritual mission - to deliver men from bondage to sin - rather than a political one - to deliver Israel from Rome.

A very different messianic picture is painted in the Christology of Daniel 7. In a vision, Daniel sees four beasts arising from the sea. These represent four successive world empires. Then Daniel sees in his vision the heavenly throne with God seated upon it. Then the world empires were destroyed.

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Dan. 7:13-14).

Whether this figure "like a son of man" is an individual or, like the four beasts, a symbol representing the people of God is not important for our discussion. Whichever it is, we know from contemporary sources that certain circles in Judaism interpreted this figure in individualistic terms. The Son of Man becomes a heavenly, preexistent, supernatural figure who has been preserved in the presence of God. In God's time, he will come to earth to raise the dead, to judge the wicked, to redeem God's people and gather them into a glorious, everlasting kingdom.

The first thing to be emphasized is that this is a very different concept from that of the Davidic Messiah. To be sure, twice in our sources the Son of Man is called the Messiah, but this represented a tendency obvious in Judaism to conflate diverse messianic concepts. The Messiah is a son of David; the Son of Man is a supernatural being. The Messiah arises as a man among men; the Son of Man comes from heaven. The Messiah rules in an earthy kingdom of peace and righteousness; the Son of Man raises the dead and rules in a glorious kingdom on a transformed earth. These two figures are utterly diverse, and, on the surface at least, mutually exclusive.

Against this background we can understand the confusion of the disciples when Jesus began to use the term "the Son of Man" to designate his own mission and ministry. When Jesus pronounced the sins of a paralytic man forgiven, the Jews thought he was guilty of blasphemy. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2: 7). In reply, Jesus said, ""But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins' - he said to the paralytic - "I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home'" (Mark 2:10-11). Again, when he and his disciples were criticized for picking grain on the sabbath, he said, "The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28).

Such language was utterly confusing. How could Jesus be the Son of Man? The Son of Man was a preexistent heavenly being who would reign in a glorious kingdom. Everybody knew who Jesus was - the son of a carpenter from Nazareth. What did he have in common with the Son of Man?

Later Jesus uttered a number of sayings that were more like Daniel's prophecy. "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38). "And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (Mark 13:26-27).

This language made sense to the disciples. A heavenly figure, coming in clouds with power and great glory to gather God's people into the Kingdom of God - this they understood. But what did such a heavenly figure have to do with Jesus? The Son of Man was a preexistent figure in the presence of God. Jesus was the son of the carpenter of Nazareth. What did he have in common with the Son of Man? And what could either one have in common with the Davidic King?

But this is not all. There is a third personage in the Old Testament who carries messianic dimensions - the the Suffering Servant. He is pictured in Isaiah 53.

He was humble and passive "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth." He was oppressed and marred by suffering. "He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." He was to meet an untimely death. "He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of my people, and they made his grave with the wicked." However, his sufferings were undeserved, vicarious. He suffered for the sins of his people. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." "He was stricken for the transgressions of my people." "He makes himself an offering for sin." He shall "make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities." "He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

The first thing to be noted about this great chapter is that the suffering one is not identified with the Messiah. He is not called an anointed one; there is no reference to the family tree of David. In fact, in the prelude to the chapter (52:13), he is simply called God's servant. "Be hold my servant shall prosper he shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high." In the context in which this chapter is found, the servant is often identified as Israel. You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified" (Isa. 49:3). "The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!" (Isa. 48:20). "For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name" (Isa. 45:4). Again, the servant is one who redeems unfaithful Israel. "And now the Lord says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, that Israel might be gathered to him" (Isa. 49:5; see also 49:6). It seems that the servant concept fluctuates between the corporate concept, Israel, and the individual who redeems Israel.

However, the fact remains: the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 seems clearly to be someone other than the Davidic messianic King and the heavenly Son of Man. How can Messiah at one and the same time be one who smites the earth with the rod of his mouth and slays the wicked with the breath of his lips, and also be one who is smitten, who helplessly and passively suffers death? It was only the mission of Jesus which conflated the three Old Testament messianic ideas.

Little wonder that the disciples were slow to grasp the messiahship of Jesus. This is the significance of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi when he as spokesman for all the disciples recognized the messiahship of Jesus. Peter means to say that in spite of the fact that Jesus was not acting like a conquering Davidic King, he was nevertheless the Messiah in whom the Old Testament hope was being fulfilled. After the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, there arose a popular movement to take Jesus by force and make him king (John 6:15). Here indeed was a man divinely endowed. Give him a few swords and spears and he could multiply them and equip an army. Pilate's troops would be unable to stand before him. However, this was not Jesus' present mission. As the Son of Man, he had come to be the Suffering Servant and only after this mission of suffering to be the heavenly Son of Man. Jesus began to instruct his disciples in this fact immediately after Caesarea Philippi. He was indeed the Messiah, the Davidic King, but it was not his mission at present to rule from the throne of David. "He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him' " (Mark 9:31). "For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Here was a message the disciples were not prepared for. There is no evidence that Jews in Jesus' day interpreted Isaiah 53 messianically. Indeed, the two concepts seem to be mutually exclusive. How could a heavenly, supernatural Son of Man, destined to rule in God's glorious kingdom, be a humble, submissive man, taunted and tortured and finally put to death by his enemies? It seemed impossible.

But precisely here is our basic hermeneutic. Jesus, and the apostles after him, reinterpreted the Old Testament prophecies in light of Jesus' person and mission. The Son of Man must appear on earth before he comes in glory, and his earthly mission was to fill the role of the Suffering Servant.

This reinterpretation is not confined to Jesus' teaching; it was furthered by the apostles in an equally unforeseen way. After Jesus death the disciples experienced his resurrection and ascension and then Pentecost. On the day of Pentecost Peter preached an amazing sermon. He reinterpreted passages from Psalm 16:8-11 and Psalm 132:11 which in their Old Testament context speak of David s hope that death would not be the end of existence.

"Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ. . . . Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.' Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." (Acts 2:30-36)

Here is an amazing bit of reinterpretation of Old Testament prophecy. The promise in Psalm 110:1-2, "The Lord says to my lord: "Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool' " refers to the king's throne in Jerusalem, as the next verse proves: "The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes" (Ps. 110:2). Peter, under inspiration, transfers the throne of David from its earthly site in Jerusalem to heaven itself. This verse became a favorite verse used by the author of Hebrews to affirm the triumphal session of Jesus at the right hand of God in heaven (Heb. 1:13, 10:12,13) . Peter's summary affirmation, "God has made him both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36) asserts the same truth. "Lord" means absolute sovereign "Christ" means Messiah or Davidic King. By his resurrection and ascension, Jesus has entered into his messianic reign. "For he must reign [as King] until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (I Cor. 15:25). "He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne" (Rev. 3:21). That Lord and King are basically interchangeable terms is proven by Revelation 17:14 where it is said of the conquering Lamb, "for he is Lord of lords and King of kings." By his resurrection and ascension, Jesus has entered into a new experience of his messiahship. On earth, he had been the meek, humble Suffering Servant. Now he is enthroned at God's right hand. Now that his messianic sufferings are past, he has entered in upon his messianic reign, and he will continue that reign until all enemies have been subdued (I Cor. 15:25). The character of this messianic reign was unforeseen in the Old Testament. There his reign is from Jerusalem, over Israel. "The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: "One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne' " (Ps. 132:11). In the New Testament his reign is from heaven and is universal in its scope.

We trust that this excursion into Christology has proved the point we wish to make, namely, that the Old Testament prophets must be interpreted in light of their fulfillment in the person and mission of Jesus. We have seen that this involves reinterpretation. Sometimes the fulfillment is different from what we would expect from the Old Testament.

In other words, the final word in doctrine, whether in Christology or eschatology, must be found in the New Testament.

From: "How to Interpret the Prophetic Scriptures", The Last Things - An Eschatology For Laymen, George Eldon Ladd. Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 1978. Pages 7-18.