How should the Bible be interpreted? Most conservative Christians will immediately respond with the answer “literally.” But what does it mean to interpret literally? How should a book written thousands of years ago by multiple authors in different settings and cultures be understood by modern readers?

Paul Lee Tan is helpful when he writes: “Literal interpretation of the Bible simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary usages of its language."[1] But we would quickly add that the normal and customary usages of English in the 21st century is not how the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

R.C. Sproul’s definition of “literal interpretation” gets us closer to the actual practice. “The term literal comes from the Latin litera meaning letter. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature."[2]

A Beginner's Guide to Interpreting Bible Prophecy

A Beginner's Guide to Interpreting Bible Prophecy

For many Christians, interpreting Bible prophecy is a complicated task. As a result, they often turn to so-called Bible experts and complicated charts that include gaps in time, outrageous literal interpretations, and numerous claims that current events are prime indicators that the end is near. Many Christians are unaware that the same Bible passages have been used in nearly every generation as ‘proof’ that the end or some aspect of the end would take place in their generation. They’ve all had one thing in common: They’ve all been wrong.

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But not all of the literature contained in the Bible is the same. Interpretation that takes the form of literature into consideration can only be accomplished through the grammatical (according to the rules of grammar), historical (consistent with the historical setting of the passage), and contextual (in accord with its context) method of interpretation.

On today’s episode of The Gary DeMar Podcast, Gary concludes his discussion with Pastor Richard Henry about popular “end-time” interpretations. The book of Revelation tells us that it is a book of “signs.” Too often, popular writers try to make these signs “literal” in the sense of reality and not in the sense of the literature. Reading Revelation “literally” means reading it on its own first-century terms, not with a modern 21st century mindset.

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[1] Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Assurance Publishers, 1974), 29.
[2] R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48.