In two previous articles, I dealt with “Confronting Eschatological Gnosticism” and “Should the Bible Always be Interpreted Literally?” In this article, I want to discuss the biblical method of interpretation that applies to everything not only prophecy.
Sound biblical interpretation begins with a comparative study of texts based on what Milton Terry describes in his highly regarded Biblical Hermeneutics as the “grammatico-historical” method. Anyone familiar with Terry’s works knows that he is a favorite of dispensational scholars. Robert Thomas quotes him favorably in his critique of “progressive dispensationalism.” What Thomas and others fail to note is that Terry was a preterist. This is evident in his books Biblical Hermeneutics and Biblical Apocalyptics. The arguments of Terry that Thomas uses to refute “progressive dispensationalism” also apply to his brand of dispensationalism.
It’s ironic that Zondervan, one of the biggest publishers of dispensational literature (e.g., Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and numerous prophecy books by John Walvoord) reprinted Biblical Hermeneutics and that it is quoted so favorably by dispensational writers. Terry’s exposition on “The Gospel Apocalypse” (Matt. 24) is preterist (438–453). A similar exposition is found in his Biblical Apocalyptics as well as a preterist commentary on Revelation.
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David Chilton's extraordinary verse-by-verse exposition of Revelation is as welcome as a cool drenching rain upon a dry, thirsty ground. From the very beginning, cranks and crackpots have attempted to use Revelation to advocate some new twist on the Chicken Little Doctrine: ‘The Sky is Falling!’ But, as David Chilton shows in this careful, detailed exposition, St. John's Apocalypse teaches instead that Christians will overcome all opposition through the work of Jesus Christ.Buy Now
Terry’s method is fundamental. In Matthew 24:34, Jesus says “this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place.” How does the Bible student know how to interpret the meaning of the word “generation”? Find other places in Matthew where “generation” is used beginning with Matthew 1:17: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” The plural of the Greek word genea (generation) cannot be translated as “races” or “nations” in Matthew 1:17. Additionally, there are words for “race” (genos) as in “chosen race” (1 Pet. 2:9) and “nation” (ethnos) as in “all nations” (Matt. 24:14). Genea means “generation.”
How do we know what “this generation” means? By comparing the phrase with every other use of “this generation” in the gospels. Gary Hedrick (see previous articles) admits that “this generation” in Matthew 23:36 refers to the first-century Jews who heard Jesus. The same is true for every other occurrence of “this generation” in the gospels. “This generation” occurs fifteen times in the gospels, three times in the Olivet discourse (Matt. 24:34; Luke 21:32; Mark 13:30). The other twelve times “this generation” refers to the people to whom Jesus is speaking. See for yourself (e.g., Matt. 11:16; 12:41, 42, 45; 23:36). It is only in the Olivet Discourse that Hedrick maintains that “this generation” refers to a future generation. I’m sorry, but this is not sound exegesis. Hedrick can’t claim to interpret the Bible literally and hold this position. I’m much more literal on this passage than he is, but literal is not the issue. It’s how words and phrases are used throughout the Bible. Some are often used literally and some are not. The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible.
If you want to know what a word or phrase means, then go to the Bible. The burden of proof is on the person who claims that twelve times it means one thing and only once it means something else. Notice the second person plural (“you”) used by Jesus throughout the Olivet Discourse. Again, I’m more literal than Hedrick is. If Jesus had a future generation in mind, He would have said “they” and “that generation” not “you” and “this.”
I have done a verse by verse exposition of Matthew 24-25 in Last Days Madness, Wars and Rumors of Wars, and Prophecy Wars. My methodology is simple: I take Jesus at His word when He says “this generation would not pass away until all these things take place” because I saw how He used “this generation” in other contexts. I soon learned that all the events and signs described by Jesus were fulfilled before and including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
Hedrick even admits “that certain aspects of our Lord’s prophecy in Matthew 24 were fulfilled in AD 70. [I deal with this mixed approach in my book Prophecy Wars]. The appearance of false Messiahs, religious deception, the flight of Jew to the hills, and the desecration of the Temple — all occurred in AD 70.” I would also add earthquakes (Acts 16:26), famines (11:28), preaching the gospel of the kingdom in “all the inhabited earth” (Gr: oikoumenē not kosmos in 24:14; see Luke 2:1) as a witness to all the nations (Col. 1:6; 23; Rom. 1:8; 16:25-26; 1 Tim. 3:16), and everything else by interpreting Scripture with Scripture.
Notice Matthew 24:30: “But immediately after the tribulation of those days….” An interpreter cannot maintain “that certain aspects of our Lord’s prophecy in Matthew 24 were fulfilled in AD 70” and some are yet to be fulfilled because the events following verse 29 occur “immediately after.” It’s an all-or-nothing package because of verse 34. If Hedrick wants to portray the partial preterist position accurately, then he must compare Scripture with Scripture. This is the interpretive key to understand prophecy.
When speaking of prophecy, Hedrick writes, “when the Lord speaks prophetically, He means what He says and He says what He means.” I agree. But how do we determine what He means? The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible as former Dallas Theological Seminary professor S. Lewis Johnson insists:
Since [the biblical authors] are reliable teachers of biblical doctrine, they are also reliable teachers of hermeneutical and exegetical procedures. It is just this that is lacking in so much of our biblical interpretation today. Failing to examine the methodology of the scriptural writers carefully, and following too abjectly and woodenly the limited rules and principles of human reason’s presuppositions, we have stumbled and lost our landmarks along the pathway toward the understanding of the Holy Scripture. Scriptura sui ipsius interpres [Scripture is its own interpreter] is the fundamental principle of biblical interpretation.”
Hedrick works hard to avoid this biblical methodology. When he comes to the time texts, he abandons his standard “when the Lord speaks prophetically, He means what He says and He says what He means.” “What our preterist brethren fail to understand,” Hedrick writes, “is that [the Greek word] tachus [‘near’] is very much a relative term.” And this from a literalist! In support of this claim, Hedrick quotes from Second Clement 20:3 rather than from the New Testament. In another place he writes, “When Jesus said He would come ‘soon,’ or ‘quickly,’ He used terms that did not lock Him into any specific time frame.” Unbelievable! I wonder if the same “no-lock” time frame applies when Jesus told His disciples, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is at hand; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples”’”? (Matt. 26:18). It is easy to determine how to interpret the time words: See how they are used in the New Testament in other contexts. Get out a concordance and look them up for yourself. They mean what they mean in everyday speech.
Gary Hedrick wants us to believe that Jesus’ coming is “near” today. He’s not alone. Prophecy writers continually point to contemporary events as evidence that Jesus is coming “soon.” For example, a letter writer to Christianity Today (Dec. 6, 1999) claims that “Signs of Christ’s return are increasing in frequency and intensity.” Where have we heard this before? I don’t have enough time or space to show how this claim has been made by hundreds of prophecy writers throughout the centuries. The letter writer continues by asserting that “All of these signs indicate that the sand in earth’s hourglass will soon run out and that a literal fulfillment of God’s final prophetic book, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, is shortly at hand.”
This writer uses “soon,” “shortly,” and “at hand,” time words that also appear in the Bible. What do you think he means by them? Do these words mean what they mean in ordinary speech? Of course, they do. Then why don’t they have the same meaning when they’re used in the Bible?
The late Jack Van Impe said that “Jesus is coming soon” in his book Millennium: Beginning or End? (81, 1999). Chuck Smith made the same prediction in his book The End Times (65, 1978), also published as The Final Curtain in 1984 (46): “It is later than you think. It is time to wake up from your lethargy and realize that the coming of the Lord is at hand!” Again, why do these authors use the same time words used in the Bible but don’t interpret them the same way? They want us to believe that Jesus is coming “soon,” that the “time is near,” for our generation, but then they interpret them a different way when they were used nearly 2000 years ago!
A similar approach is taken by Hedrick when he gets to “this generation” (Matt. 24:34). He admits that the “this generation” of Matthew 23:36 “refers to the Jewish people who lived when certain events took place (specifically, the first-century persecution of the Jewish nation).” When he gets to 24:34 he claims that Jesus’ “reference was not to the generation of believers alive in the first century but to the generation living when ‘all these things’ (i.e., the prophetic signs and trends delineated in Matthew 24) begin to be fulfilled.” Look what Hedrick has to do to get Matthew 24:34 to mean this: First, he has to dismiss the way “this generation” is used elsewhere in the gospels: It always means the generation to whom Jesus is speaking. Second, he must add words to the text to get the interpretation he wants: The generation living when all these things take place. In effect, he doesn’t use the Bible to interpret the Bible. Like the time texts, Hedrick scrupulously avoids showing how Scripture (“this generation”) interprets Scripture (“this generation”). Since Jesus was telling His disciples that they would see these things (Matt. 24:33), Hedrick has made Jesus out to be a liar. That generation did see “all these things” happen because Jesus said they would.
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Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 205.
Robert L. Thomas, “The Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism,” in The Master’s Perspective on Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1998), 187–203.
S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., The Old Testament in the New: An Argument for Biblical Inspiration (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), 83.
“No righteous man reaps fruit quickly [ταχυν] but waits for it.” “Quickly” means “quickly” in this passage. It is not used in a relative way. The point being that the righteous man does not take short cuts, that is, tries to make a fortune quickly.