A key to understanding the Bible is learning how to properly interpret it through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Sounds simple. However, cultural traditions and personal biases complicate our efforts. Another barrier arises from the biblical concept that there are three realms of existence: our physical world, God’s heavenly realm, and a spiritual realm that bridges the other two. This multi-realm structure can create paradoxes where something is true in one realm but may seem contradictory in another realm. Passages that seem contradictory are possible to harmonize by identifying their relationship to these separate realms. But we will be frustrated and confused if we try to force all passages into merged realm context. The kingdom of heaven’s interaction on earth is a good example that will be thoroughly explored.
As discussed in the Introduction and Appendix 1, biblical prophecies can utilize literal or figurative language while referring to the physical, heavenly, or spiritual realm. Knowing the point of reference in a given passage will untangle many complex paradoxes found in Scripture. The big picture and complete context of the Bible will start to come together as you sort the paradoxical puzzle pieces according to their categories. With proper perspective comes correct insight.
If this sounds like a lot of work, don’t blame God for making it difficult for us to understand the Bible in its original context—the fault belongs to our own culture and traditions. Our experiences and biases obstruct our efforts to interpret passages objectively. Depending on tradition or preconceived notions, a person generally falls into one school of interpretation and follows along with others in that grouping:
People within the first camp do not necessarily give every passage a spiritual interpretation. They acknowledge that there are actual historical events mentioned in the Bible. But they predominantly view the language of the Bible as metaphorical, analogical, symbolic, or allegorical. This approach allows us to make Bible passages mean whatever we want to believe. Interpretation becomes a subjective matter—but this book is about objective approaches to the Bible. If you yourself tend to read the Bible through a purely spiritual lens, this book will present some interpretations you perhaps have not considered before. I challenge you to read with an open mind.
Likewise, people in the third camp do not necessarily interpret every passage literally. There are obvious metaphors (figurative language) in the Bible, but for the most part, this person believes in the history of the Bible, the miracle accounts, the existence of Satan, and the fulfillment of prophecies. People in this camp believe that prophesied events that have not yet occurred will be fulfilled on earth; they are not focused on spiritual fulfillment.
A 2016 Barna study found that about 7 percent of Americans fall into this third camp. Most proclaimed Christians fall into Camp 2.
Camp 2 is the hardest perspective to nail down because there is room for numerous belief systems between the extremes of the physically focused and spiritually focused camps.
At the dawn of Christianity, believers mostly fell into either a Hebrew way of thinking (an eastern perspective) or a Greek (western-centric) mindset. Within 100 years after the time of the apostles, each viewpoint had its champions—such as Irenaeus (eastern) and Clement of Alexandria (western).
At the turn of the 5th Century, Augustine of Hippo arrived on the scene. In his book City of God, he argued for the amillennialist view that the thousand-year reign of Jesus on earth as described in Revelation 20 should not be interpreted literally. His argument, using a Camp-2 hybrid approach, was predominantly accepted for most of western Church history up through the Reformation and Protestant periods. Since the post-Reformation period, several Protestant groups have shifted to more literal interpretations within the modern premillennial movement (which argues that the millennial kingdom described in Revelation 20 will literally come to pass).
Let’s try to group the primary perspectives on Revelation 20 according to whether they interpret the passage literally or figuratively, and whether they look for fulfillment in the physical, heavenly, or spiritual realm.
If you don’t feel like your own view is represented by one of these labels, don’t worry; we’re merely looking to simplify discussion for now. I myself do not intend to rigidly argue for one of these labels over another—except to recommend against the extreme represented by the Gnostics and the mystics. I appreciate the premillennial’s insistence on looking for literal fulfillment of prophecy, but some adherents can be too rigid in their focus on the physical realm
In the Introduction, I shared my perspective that God has a single plan of redemption, and if I were to adopt a single label, it would represent that belief. I believe that God has been using the same plan from Genesis 3 onward to redeem all mankind. He rolls it out in stages, but there is only one plan.
Because God does not change His nature over time, we can study the interwoven biblical passages to discover an objective interpretation of God’s progressing plan. From Old Testament to New Testament, every passage of Scripture unfolds. We can easily follow the progression of the covenants God made with Abraham, with the nation of Israel, and with David—and finally the new covenant.
The main point of Scripture in this view is that there is only one plan of redemption for all people throughout all history. As we look at various passages throughout this book, this is the lens I will be using.
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