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Insight #9 — Five Ways to Unravel Prophecy (in-depth study)

March 29, 1999.

Prophecy can be very interesting. It can also be very frustrating. To have the desire to study prophecy is one thing. To know how to study it is yet another. Great rewards are available to the diligent student; but one must proceed with care.

What is the meaning of “666”? Who are the “144,000”? What is yet in store for Israel? When will Jesus establish his kingdom; or did He already establish it? Is Jesus coming back in “our times”? Will the Jewish temple to be rebuilt again? Who or what is the “little horn” in Daniel? And on it goes. How are we to gain an understanding of all these things? How are we to unravel the mysteries of prophecy?

A baseball player needs to play by the rules of the game. A driver of a car needs to obey the rules of the road. A writer should follow the rules of grammar.

Call them “rules,” “guidelines,” or “ways,” we must seek to unravel the mysteries of prophecy in a legitimate fashion. Otherwise, we will become more tangled up than when we started. The Bible does not list these “rules” as such. However, the truth of most, if not all, of them is self-evident, once they are explained. Some of them apply to all Bible study, and indeed to the study of all written materials. Others specifically apply to the interpretation of Bible prophecy.


Someone has said, “A text out of context is a pretext.” This is not just a rule for Bible study. It is a rule for properly interpreting the daily newspaper. It is a rule for understanding what the boss said to do. It is a rule for quoting people with fairness. Indeed, all communication becomes garbled when we remove a text from its context.

The Bible says: “And [Judas] departed, and went and hanged himself”; “Go and do likewise”; and “What you do, do quickly”! We can laugh at that; but it is no laughing matter when Bible teachers seriously string together unrelated prophecies in like fashion.
A Bible student must look at the context of any text to gain understanding. This is equally true of prophecy. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is a simple example (Daniel 2). He saw a great image divided into four parts. What does it mean? The very context starts the explanation. Verses 36-40 explain that four kingdoms will come, one after the other. But what kingdom does the prophecy start with? “You [are] this head of gold,” Daniel tells the king. That’s a rather simple and obvious example of starting with the context.

When is “the End”?

Many other prophecies involve more difficulty. For example, Matthew 24:14 says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” Many assume this means the end of the world. But what does the context show?

We need to use the common sense that we use in everyday conversation. Someone says, “That’s the end.” Out of context, there is no possible way to guess what this “end” is. Is it the end of a movie or a ball game? Is it the end of a test period or a coffee break? Is it the end of a marriage or a business partnership? Only context can tell. Who is speaking to whom? What is the setting? What is the topic of conversation?

Looking at the immediate context of Matthew 24:14, verse 16 refers to Judea. But it’s a good idea to back up to verse one. The whole conversation began when Jesus spoke of the temple in Jerusalem (in Judea). He said, “Not [one] stone shall be left here upon another.” That is certainly an end.

In Matthew 24:15, Jesus explained that Daniel had already spoken of the same events. Daniel’s prophecy is found in Daniel 9:24-27. In the middle of Daniel 9:26 it says, “shall destroy the city [Jerusalem; see verse 25] and the sanctuary. The end of it [shall] [be] with a flood, And till the end of the war desolations are determined.” Thus Daniel clarifies that the end Jesus spoke of is the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the sanctuary (temple).

The context of any Gospel account includes the other three Gospels, if they record the same event. The parallels to Matthew 24 are Mark 13 and Luke 21. Luke 21:20,21, joins concepts found in Matthew and Daniel. It says, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that it’s desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee.”

By thus studying the near and wider context of Matthew 24:14, it becomes clear that “the end” in that verse is not the end of the world. Rather, it is the end of Jerusalem and its temple. This “end” was fulfilled 40 years after Jesus spoke (600 years after Daniel wrote). In the year 70 A.D., the Roman army overthrew Jerusalem and left not one temple stone upon another. Its end had come. The context of Matthew 24:14 makes clear that this is “the end” referred to.


How many times do the Gospels say, “then was fulfilled,” “that it might be fulfilled,” “thus it is written,” “this is [he] of whom it is written,” and similar expressions? But, not only in the Gospels. Over and over again, God’s Word calls our attention to some prophecy that is fulfilled.

Many prophecies were both made and fulfilled within the pages of the Old Testament. For example, 1 Kings 22:37,38 says: “So the king [Ahab] died… and the dogs licked up his blood while the harlots bathed, according to the word of the LORD which He had spoken” (in fulfillment of 1 Kings 21:19). Another example is found in Ezra 1:1: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus…” To appreciate this prophecy, more of the context must be read, along with Jeremiah 25:12 and 29:10.

The Old Testament also contains many prophecies that were not fulfilled until centuries later, in the New Testament. Two examples follow in some depth.

Jesus and Our Sicknesses

Isaiah 53:4 prophesies of the Messiah: “Surely He has borne our griefs (footnote: literally sicknesses) And carried our sorrows (footnote: literally pains).” How did or does Jesus do this? Is this speaking of heaven where there will be no sickness, pain, or death? Or is this saying that Jesus would die on the cross for our physical sicknesses? Or is it saying something else?

“Then was fulfilled” will answer these questions. The Gospels say that Jesus “healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘He Himself took our infirmities and bore [our] sicknesses’ ” (Matthew 8:16,17). God’s Word is saying that Jesus’ healing ministry is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. That settles it. We must reject all other ideas that do not agree with God’s clear statement regarding the fulfillment.

The Spirit in the Last Days

On the day of Pentecost, Peter said, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). With a superficial glancing at the text, a person might conjecture that Peter was prophesying a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit to take place in the twentieth century. But let’s look more closely.

Acts 2:1-11 describes how the Holy Spirit caused the apostles to speak in many languages they did not even know. The crowd was amazed and perplexed. Some tried to explain it away, saying the apostles were drunk. Peter got up to speak, and declared that they were not drunk. Rather, he said, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days…’ ”

A close examination of the context thus clarifies that Peter was not making a prophecy. Rather, he was quoting a prophecy made some 800 years earlier. Peter was telling the people that “this” (the apostles speaking in tongues) was “what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” That is to say, Joel 2:28-32 is not a prophecy about the twentieth century. Rather, it is a prophecy about the first century. It was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, 30 A.D.

“Then was fulfilled” often tells the story. “Then was fulfilled” is a divine explanation of the fulfillment of a prophecy. It is God’s interpretation.


There are yet other “rules” that ring true. With a little explanation, they appear obvious. For example, we should study similar prophecies together. They may be similar in subject matter, similar in certain details, similar in symbols used, or similar in some other respect.

The most obvious example is when several prophecies deal with the same subject. For example, a study of the prophecy against Babylon in Isaiah 13 and 14, should include the kindred text in Jeremiah 50 and 51. In the same way, a complete study of the judgment of Edom (Seir) should include not only Ezekiel 35, but also Obadiah and a portion of Jeremiah 49.

Four Kingdoms

An interesting prophecy is that of the four beasts in Daniel 7. Daniel is told they represent four kings (7:17) or kingdoms (7:23). However, chapter 7 does not clearly identify the beasts (kingdoms); so, where does the prophecy begin? Fortunately, there is a similar prophecy that sheds light.

Though Daniel 7 is different in many ways from Daniel 2, Daniel 2 is also a prophecy about four kingdoms (2:39,40). So, the two are indeed similar in this important respect. Also, since both prophecies were made by Daniel during the time of the Babylonian empire, the two prophecies have the identical historical setting. There is thus every reason to believe that the four kingdoms in the two prophecies are the same four kingdoms. There is no reason to believe otherwise.

Since Daniel 2 positively identifies the first kingdom as the Babylonian power (2:37,38), that becomes the only meaningful place to begin in chapter 7. Using this clue of similarity as the starting point, the other details of the beasts in Daniel 7 fall into place. The details fit the succeeding kingdoms (empires) of Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome.

Similarities. Revelation also speaks of beasts. Any connection to Daniel? The four beasts in Daniel 7 are a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a ten-horned beast. The beast in Revelation 13 has ten horns and is like a leopard, a bear and a lion. The same beasts mentioned in reverse order! Who would doubt that the similarity is on purpose? Who would question that this is an important clue to the proper understanding of the beast of Revelation 13?

Revelation 13 refers to the same four beasts as Daniel 7. The four beasts are four kingdoms. The only kingdom that would have the characteristics of all four kingdoms would be the last of the four. The last was the Roman Empire. The prophecy of Revelation 13 is about Rome!

Thus, similarity between Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 is an important beginning place for the study of the latter. Most students of the Word recognize this. Most find that Rome is somehow the subject, whether it be past, present or future. The similarity of Revelation 13 with Daniel 7 is the reason.


Prophecies range from the very simple to the very profound. It does not take a college degree, so to speak, to understand the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. A person does not even have to be literate to understand that Jesus Christ is coming again. Many prophecies are thus a part of “the milk” of the Word.

On the other hand, many prophecies are not at all milk. They are solid food, meat, even tough meat! This is not either to belittle them or to suggest that they be shunned. Rather, it is a caution to approach them with great care and preparation.

Preparation? One of the most important preparations, if not the most important, is to possess a solid understanding of sound Scriptural doctrine.

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need [someone] to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes [only] of milk [is] unskilled in the word”; “in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable [people] twist to their own destruction” (Hebrews 5:12,13; 2 Peter 3:16).

We must grasp well the “elementary [principles] of Christ” (Hebrews 6:1,2), before dealing with “things hard to understand.” This is vitally important in the study of many prophecies. Following are two examples.

“The Mark of the Beast”

Who has not pondered over the meaning of “666,” the mark of the beast? It is not an easy topic by any means. One thing is sure. The study of sound New Testament teaching must precede the study of this prophecy.

Why? For example, some would teach that the observance of Sunday is the mark of the beast (Revelation 13). By the same token, they teach that Sabbath keeping is the seal of God on the foreheads of the 144,000 (Revelation 7 and 14). Are these interpretations possible?

A close look at Revelation 13 reveals that there is nothing in the context that says that the mark of the beast has anything to do with Sunday. A close look at Revelation 7 and 14 reveals that there is nothing in the context that says that the seal of God has anything to do with Saturday. The context of all three chapters is highly symbolical. To be acceptable, any interpretation of symbolism must be in full harmony with the clear teaching of God’s Word.

It is not the purpose here to enter into arguments relative to the Sabbath versus Sunday. It is not the purpose here to discover what are the mark of the beast and the seal of God. The purpose here is simply this: to make clear that no interpretation of any part of Revelation is acceptable if it contradicts clear New Testament teaching. The Sabbath-versus-Sunday issue must be settled before studying the prophecies of Revelation. The same is true of any other doctrine.

“The Temple of God”

Both 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Revelation 11:1 speak prophetically of “the temple of God.” Before even starting with these prophecies, a Christian must clearly understand, according to solid New Testament doctrine, what is “the temple of God” today. Certainly not a building of stone and mortar, whether built by Jews or Gentiles.

Paul tells the Corinthian brethren: “You are the temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16). The church is the temple of God today. Sound New Testament doctrine on “the temple of God” must come before studying these prophecies. This is the only way to correctly unravel them!


Is it true that “the Bible is all we need”? That depends upon what one means by this statement. There is a sense in which this statement is true. There is also a sense in which it is false and misleading. One of the problems in the study of much Bible prophecy is that the Bible does not have all the information needed. We must often study sources outside the Bible.

The Treasurer of Ethiopia in Acts 8 is a good example of the need for outside sources. While he was reading Isaiah, Philip approached him and asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (8:30,31). Some would cite this exchange as proof that a person cannot understand the Bible by himself. They miss a very important point. The Ethiopian was reading prophecy!

The Ethiopian would not have needed the help of someone to understand “You shall not murder… You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13,15). He would not have needed anyone to explain to him: “The wicked borrows and does not repay, But the righteous shows mercy and gives” (Psalms 37:21). A person of average intelligence and normal education can understand much of the Bible by simply reading it for himself.

But the Treasurer was reading prophecy. An Old Testament prophecy. None of the New Testament had yet been written. Therefore, the fulfillment of that prophecy was outside the “Bible” then in existence. The Treasurer needed someone who had additional information, someone with historical facts. That someone was Philip. Philip took the facts of the life of Jesus and showed how Jesus fulfilled the prophecy.

In the case of any prophecy that does not have its fulfillment recorded in the pages of our now complete Bible, we must look for facts outside the Bible. This is where many people run afoul.

Many people never liked history in school. The daily newspaper or TV news is much more interesting to them. Even more interesting to many are the imaginations of today’s would-be prophets who invent future events at will. To many, history is dry. To many, speculation on the near future is exciting. People who fall into this trap will never understand Bible prophecy.

We all need someone like Philip. We need someone who knows the facts of history that clearly fulfill a particular prophecy. The Old Testament prophesies the return of the Jews to the promised land. The Old and the New prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem (after the coming of the Messiah). The Old prophesies the complete desolation of Babylon. The New prophesies the coming of “the man of sin.” For all of these and many more, history records the facts. They have already been fulfilled.

In the first case mentioned, Bible history itself records the fulfillment. In the other cases, only history outside the Bible will lead the student to the fulfillment.

Once history reveals the fulfillment, it is in vain to speculate about a Bible prophecy on the basis of today’s headlines. It is vain to consider tomorrow’s prognostications. If the prophecy has been fulfilled, it has been fulfilled.

Start Looking in the Past

The problem is that many people are very ignorant of history. They thus leave themselves wide open to the frequent claim, “Bible prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes.” Maybe so, maybe not. Who has not heard people claim that present day earthquakes, famines and wars are prophecy being fulfilled in our times? We must keep such prophecies in context. Earthquakes, famines and wars have taken place throughout history.

All Bible prophecy is at least 1,900 years old. We cannot–we dare not–simply set aside 1,900 years of history and start looking for fulfillments in our days. This might be easier and more interesting, but the results cannot be good.

The place to start looking for the fulfillment of a prophecy is in the history immediately following the prophecy. From there, one works forward in time.

An example: almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the temple. Some people start in the present. Since they see no temple in Jerusalem, they conclude the Jews will rebuild the temple to fulfill the prophecy.

But Jesus was talking about the temple then in existence. He said that regarding “These things which you see–the days will come in which not [one] stone shall be left upon another” (Luke 21:6). These things which you see! So we must start with what they saw, and work forward in history. In this case, we only have to travel 40 years, to the year 70 A.D. There, history clearly records the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. History reveals the fulfillment of the prophecy.


Bible prophecy is not the easiest study in the world. Nevertheless, one can start by applying five basic “rules of the road.” 1-Study the context. 2-Look for “then was fulfilled.” 3-Compare similar prophecies. 4-Apply sound Bible doctrine. 5-Study history. Five basic rules. Five keys to unraveling difficulties. Five ways to get a start–and to continue well–on the road to understanding Bible prophecy.

(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)