Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (7): Safeguards for Apocalyptic Scholars

The interpretation of biblical apocalyptic, however, has proven to be problematic throughout history. The complexities of apocalyptic interpretation have caused apocalyptic to become a “safe-haven” for time-setters and speculators. The goal of any biblical hermeneutic is a whole-hearted openness to the Word of God wherever it may lead. But when it comes to apocalyptic literature, the meaning of the text often seems to resist our openness to it. It becomes very easy for us to read our own ideas, concepts, and needs into the symbolism. The resulting interpretation may look more like us than like God.

How can we safeguard our study of apocalyptic from speculation? The best way, as we have seen above, is careful attention to the original setting in which the passage was given, including the original languages in which the text was written. But most readers of the Bible will never have the opportunity to learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, or to become specialists in the ancient time, place, and circumstances. Understanding of the Bible must never be limited to scholars and specialists. But can non-specialists approach the apocalyptic texts of the Bible without succumbing to speculation? I believe so. I’d like to suggest five approaches to Bible study that can keep us in the solid center of the Biblical message. These form what I sometimes call a “life hermeneutic,” a lifelong process of becoming conformed to the message of Scripture, rather than bending it to conform to our own needs and purposes.

1) Prayer and Self-Distrust
As we approach any biblical text, but especially apocalyptic texts, it is important to study them in the in the context of much prayer and an attitude of self-distrust. Our hearts are naturally deceitful (Jer 17:9). By nature we lack a teachable spirit. It doesn’t matter how much Greek you know or how many Ph.D.s you accumulate, if you don’t have a teachable spirit, your learning is worth nothing. True knowledge of God does not come from merely intellectual pursuit or academic study (John 7:17; 1 Cor 2:14; James 1:5). “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:14 (NIV).

According to 2 Thess 2:10, the knowledge of God comes from a willingness to receive the truth from God no matter what it costs. The gifts of God are free but they can be costly in their own way. Knowledge of God can cost your life, your family, your friends, and your reputation. But if you are willing to follow the truth no matter what the cost to you, you will receive it.

The study of apocalyptic texts, therefore, needs to begin with authentic prayer. An example of authentic prayer might go something like this: “Lord, I want to know the truth about this text (or topic) no matter what that knowledge costs me.” That’s a hard prayer to pray. But if you pray that prayer, you will receive God’s truth. And you will also pay the price. When we come to God’s Word with this kind of personal dedication, there is reason to hope that the natural self-deception of our hearts can be turned aside by the Spirit of God and the Bible can truly become our teacher rather than our servant.

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