An Exercise in Imagination or
the Application of Plain Sense?
by Dr. David R. Reagan
When I was about 12 years
old, I stumbled across Zechariah 14. It was an amazing discovery.
You see, I grew up in a church where we were told over and over
that "there is not one verse in the Bible that even implies
that Jesus will ever set His feet on this earth again."
Well, Zechariah 14 not only
implies that the Lord is coming back to this earth again, it
says so point- blank! It says that the Lord will return to this
earth at a time when the Jews are back in the land of Israel
and their capital city, Jerusalem, is under siege. Just as the
city is about to fall, the Lord will return to the Mount of
When His feet touch the ground,
the mount will split in half. The remnant of Jews left in the
city will take refuge in the cleavage of the mountain. The Lord
will then speak a supernatural word, and the armies surrounding
Jerusalem will be destroyed in an instant.
Verse 9 declares that on
that day "the Lord will be king over all the earth."
When I first discovered this
passage, I took it to my minister and asked him what it meant.
I will never forget his response. He thought for a moment, and
then He said, "Son I don't know what it means, but I'll
guarantee you one thing: it doesn't mean what it says!"
For years after that, I would
show Zechariah 14 to every visiting evangelist who came preaching
that Jesus would never return to this earth. I always received
the same response: "It doesn't mean what it says."
I couldn't buy that answer.
Finally, I ran across a minister
who was a seminary graduate, and he gave me the answer I could
live with. "Nothing in Zechariah means what it says,"
he explained, "because the whole book is apocalyptic."
Now, I didn't have the slightest
idea what "apocalyptic" meant. I didn't know if it
was a disease or a philosophy. But it sounded sophisticated,
and, after all, the fellow was a seminary graduate, so he should
A Discovery Experience
When I began to preach, I
parroted what I had heard from the pulpit all my life. When
I spoke on prophecy, I would always make the point that Jesus
will never return to this earth. Occasionally, people would
come up after the sermon and ask, "What about Zechariah
14?" I would snap back at them with one word: "APOCALYPTIC!"
They would usually run for the door in fright. They didn't know
what I was talking about (and neither did I).
Then one day I sat down and
read the whole book of Zechariah. And guess what? My entire
argument went down the drain!
I discovered that the book
contains many prophecies about the First Coming of Jesus, and
I discovered that all those prophecies meant what they said.
It suddenly occurred to me that if Zechariah's First Coming
prophecies meant what they said, then why shouldn't his Second
Coming promises mean what they say?
The Plain Sense Rule
That was the day that I stopped
playing games with God's Prophetic Word. I started accepting
it for its plain sense meaning. I decided that if the plain
sense makes sense, I would look for no other sense, lest I end
up with nonsense.
A good example of the nonsense
approach is one I found several years ago in a book on the Millennium.
The author spiritualized all of Zechariah 14. He argued that
the Mount of Olives is symbolic of the human heart surrounded
by evil. When a person accepts Jesus as Savior, Jesus comes
into the person's life and stands on his "Mount of Olives"
(his heart). The person's heart breaks in contrition (the cleaving
of the mountain), and Jesus then defeats the enemy forces in
the person's life.
Hard to believe, isn't it?
When people insist on spiritualizing the Scriptures like this,
the Scriptures end up meaning whatever they want them to mean.
Keys to Understanding
I believe God knows how to
communicate. I believe He says what He means and means what
He says. I don't believe you have to have a doctorate in hermeneutics
to understand the Bible. The essentials, instead, are an honest
heart and the filling of God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10-16).
One crucial key is to approach
the Scriptures with childlike faith. Dr. Henry Morris addresses
this issue in his great commentary on Revelation, called The
Revelation Record. He says, "Revelation is not difficult
to understand. It is difficult to believe. If you will believe
it, you will understand it."
For example, in Revelation
7 it says that at the start of the Tribulation God is going
to seal a great host of Jews to serve as His special "bond-servants."
The text specifies that the number will be 144,000, and that
12,000 will be selected from each of 12 specified tribes.
Now, I ask you: What would
God have to do to convince us that He intends to set aside 144,000
Jews for special service during the Tribulation? The text is
crystal clear. Yet, hundreds of commentators have denied the
clear meaning and have spiritualized the passage to make it
refer to the Church! This is reckless handling of God's Word,
and it produces nothing but confusion.
The Meaning of Symbols
"But what about symbols?"
some ask. Another crucial key is to keep in mind that a symbol
stands for something, otherwise it would not be a symbol. There
is always a literal reality or plain sense meaning behind every
Jesus is called "the
rose of Sharon." He is not referred to as "the tumbleweed
of Texas." The image that a rose conjures up is something
beautiful; a tumbleweed is ugly.
The Bible is its own best
interpreter as to the meaning of the symbols which it uses.
Sometimes the symbols are clearly explained, as when God reveals
to Ezekiel the meaning of the symbols in his vision of the valley
of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:11-14). In like manner, the apostle
John was told the meaning of certain symbols which he saw in
his Patmos vision of the glorified Lord (Revelation 1:20).
At other times, a simple
search of the Scriptures will reveal the meaning of a symbol.
Consider the statement in Revelation 12:14 where it says that
the Jewish remnant will escape from the Antichrist into the
wilderness "on the two wings of the great eagle."
Is this a literal eagle?
Is it an air lift provided by the U.S.A. whose national symbol
is an eagle?
A concordance search will
show that the same symbolism is used in Exodus 19:4 to describe
the flight of the children of Israel as they escaped from Egypt.
The symbol, as Exodus 19 makes clear, is a poetic reference
to the loving care of God.
The Importance of Context
Another key to understanding
prophecy is one that applies to the interpretation of all Scripture.
It is the principle that the meaning of words is determined
by their context.
I ran across a good example
of this problem recently in a book in which the author was trying
to prove that Jesus is never coming back to reign upon this
earth. Such a position, of course, required him to spiritualize
Revelation chapter 20 where it says six times that there will
be a reign of the Lord that will last one thousand years.
In this author's desperate
attempt to explain away the thousand years, he referred to Psalm
50:10 where it says that God owns "the cattle on a thousand
hills." He then asked, "Are there only one thousand
hills in the world?" He answered his question, "Of
course not!" He then proceeded to explain that the term
is used figuratively. But then he made a quantum leap in logic
by proclaiming, "therefore, the term, 'one thousand,' is
always used symbolically."
Not so. It depends on context.
In Psalm 50 the term is clearly symbolic. But in Revelation
20, it is not so. Again, the thousand years is mentioned six
times. What would the Lord have to do to convince us that He
means a thousand years? Put it in the sky in neon lights? Pay
attention to context!
An additional key to understanding
prophecy is one that applies to all Scripture. It is the principle
of searching out everything that the Bible has to say on a particular
Avoid hanging a doctrine
on one isolated verse. All verses on a particular topic must
be searched out, compared, and then reconciled.
Let me give you a prophetic
example. Second Peter 3:10 says that when the Lord returns,
"the heavens will pass away with a roar . . . and the earth
and its works will be burned up." Now, if this were the
only verse in the Bible about the Second Coming, we could confidently
conclude that the heavens and earth will be burned up on the
day that Jesus returns.
But, there are many
other verses in both the Old and New Testaments, which make
it abundantly clear that the Lord will reign over all the earth
before it is consumed with fire. Those verses must be considered
together with the passage in 2 Peter 3 in order to get the correct
There are some special problems
related to prophetic interpretation. One is that prophecy is
often prefilled in symbolic type before it is completely fulfilled.
In this regard, I feel certain
that the Jewish people must have felt that Antiochus Epiphanes
fulfilled Daniel's prophecies about a tyrannical leader who
would severely persecute the Jews. But 200 years after Antiochus,
Jesus took those prophecies of Daniel and told His disciples
they were yet to be fulfilled.
Another example is the sign
which Isaiah gave to King Ahaz to assure him that the city of
Jerusalem would not fall to the Syrians who had it under siege.
The sign was that a young woman would give birth to a son whose
name would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:1-19). The passage certainly
implies that such a boy was born at that time.
But hundreds of years later,
Matthew, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reached back to
Isaiah's prophecy and proclaimed that its ultimate fulfillment
was to be found in the virgin birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:22-23).
Another peculiar feature
of prophetic literature is called "telescoping." This
occurs when a prophet compresses the time interval between two
prophetic events. This phenomenon is very common.
The reason for it has to
do with the perspective of the prophet. As he looks into the
future and sees a series of prophetic events, they appear to
him as if they are in immediate sequence.
It is like looking down a
mountain range and viewing three peaks, one behind the other,
each sequentially higher than the one in front of it. The peaks
look like they are right up against each other because the person
viewing them cannot see the valleys that separate them.
In Zechariah 9:9-10 there
is a passage with three prophecies which are compressed into
two verses but are widely separated in time. Verse 9 says the
Messiah will come humbly on a donkey. The first part of verse
10 says the Jewish people will be set aside. The second part
of verse 10 says the Messiah will reign over all the nations.
These three events
the First Coming, the setting aside of Israel, and the reign
of Christ appear to occur in quick succession, but in
reality, there were 40 years between the first two events, and
there have been over 1,900 years thus far between the second
and third events.
Another way of viewing the
phenomenon of telescoping is to focus on what are called "prophetic
gaps." These are the time periods between the mountain
peak prophetic events.
Because the Old Testament
rabbis could not see the gap between the first and second comings
of the Messiah, some theorized that there would be two Messiahs
a "Messiah ben Joseph" who would suffer and
a "Messiah ben David who would conquer. From our New Testament
perspective we can see that the Old Testament prophets were
speaking of one Messiah who would come twice. We can see the
gap between the two comings.
I ask you: How do you treat
Zechariah 14 as fact or fiction? Are you guilty of playing
games with God's Word in order to justify sacred traditions
and doctrines of men?
I challenge you to interpret
God's Word all of it for its plain sense meaning.
As you do so, you are very likely to find yourself challenged
to discard old doctrines and to adopt new ones. This will be
a painful process, but it will be a fruitful one, for you will
be blessed with the truth of God's Word.
"If you abide in My
word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know
the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John