Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Interpreting the Bible for today

A time ago I mentioned my conversation which I had with two Jehovah’s Witnesses. I received both support and criticism for the fact that I believe it is not in the best interests of the Kingdom of God to chase representatives from other faith groups away from my door. I have also had someone from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who responded to this and we have had quite a discussion going on some issues. If you want to follow the thread, you can find it here: My conversation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I decided to start a new blogpost, on the one hand because the response would become too long and also because I believe that this has importance, not only for the discussion between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses but also for the ongoing arguments between the so-called Fundamentalists and Liberals. It all has to do with our method of interpreting the Bible.
I did my PhD on the influence that our view of eschatology has on our view of mission. The thesis is available on the internet for those who are interested, but unfortunately (and I consider this as one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made) I wrote it in Afrikaans and therefore you will need to be fluent in Afrikaans to be able to read it. You can find it here: http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-02212006-093453/unrestricted/thesis.pdf
One of the things I realised was that the Bible would often prophesy something, but then it would not become literally true. One example, out of many: In Joel 2:28-32 we find a prophecy from God. According to Peter, in Acts 2:1-4 this prophecy was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers on the day of Pentecost. This causes a huge problem for people who want to interpret every single word in the Bible literally. Let me explain:
In Joel, the following signs would appear when the prophecy is fulfilled:

  • Boys and girls will prophecy (28)
  • Old people will dream (28)
  • Young men will have visions (28)
  • God’s Spirit will come upon people (29)
  • Blood (30)
  • Fire (30)
  • Clouds of smoke (30)
  • Sun will become dark (31)
  • Moon will become red (31)

Compare this with the signs which Luke describes in Acts 2:1-4:

  • Wind (2)
  • Tongues of fire (3)
  • People were filled with the Spirit (4)
  • Began to speak in foreign languages (4)

The only reasonable explanation for this is that Joel wrote from his own perspective, realising that something magnificent was going to happen but lacking the words to know exactly what it would be. Using “war terminology” (blood, fire, smoke) he tries to make his readers realise that something big is going to happen. When the prophecy is fulfilled in Acts 2, it is not war that takes place, but the wonderful outpouring of the Hole Spirit. Peter immediately realises that this was indeed the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, but he also realises that the fulfilment is better than the prophecy. And to that we would all agree. What happened on the Day of Pentecost was so much better than the vision of war that Joel had.
Certain things in the Bible can and should be interpreted literally. The prediction of the birth of Jesus is interpreted literally. The prediction that He would die and would rise again from the dead should be interpreted literally. The prediction that Jesus will come again should be interpreted literally. The promise that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for our sin, thereby restoring the relationship between us and God, should be understood literally. But there are many prophesies which were not fulfilled literally. In a broad sense, they were fulfilled. The exile into Babylon did indeed happen. Did it last exactly 70 years? This is the question I was asked by TJ, a Jehovah’s Witness.
I am, thankfully, not an historian. But going through literature, it seems that the literal 70 years can only be explained by making a huge number of assumptions, such as that the dating of the start of the exile (587 BC) is totally incorrect, the viewpoint of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who date the start in 607 BC. Others try to play around with different year calenders, some starting in fall, others in spring, with a small number of people being moved to Babylon long before the exile and then saying that this was actually the real start of the exile. I find these arguments unconvincing and unnecessary.
One of the amazing things (as far as I am concerned) about God is that God can change. A few examples: In 1 Kings 21:21 we read: “I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel–– slave or free.” The reason for God’s anger we find in verses 25 & 26: “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.” But this is followed by Ahab’s repentance in verse 27: “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.” And then God says (and this is amazing): “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
The story of Jonah is another example: Jonah was sent to inform the people of Nineveh of their imminent destruction: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). Did it happen? No! Why not? Because the people of Nineveh repented! The clear prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed within forty days therefore did not come to fulfilment. Is this a sign of a false prophecy or rather a sign of a gracious God?
In Daniel 9:2 we read that Daniel discovered in the Scriptures that God has said that Jerusalem would be desolated for 70 years. Then we read in verse 3: “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” The rest of the chapter is dedicated to the remarkable prayer of Daniel, confessing his own sin as well as the sin of his people. If God had been gracious towards Ahab, is it not possible, even highly probable, that God would have listened to the humble prayer of Daniel and decided to shorten the 70 years out of mercy for His people? Such an explanation would not only be in line with God’s conduct in other places in the Bible but would make the egg dance which needs to be done to prove the literal period of seventy years totally unnecessary.


Thursday, August 6, 2009 - Posted by | Theology


  1. I suggest that Peter was not re-interpreting or correcting Joel (God forbid that the Holy Spirit be so sloppy in His inspiration of Joel!); Peter was simply making an application of Joel to the current situation in Acts. There is nothing in Acts 2 that suggests that Joel will not have a future, complete, literal fulfillment.

    From Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Israelology:

    I:843: Another key factor under Bibliology concerns the way the New Testament quotes the Old. It has been shown several times that this is a major evidence Covenant Theologians use to prove that the Old Testament prophecies cannot be understood literally. They claim that the New Testament “changed” the meaning of the Old Testament or “reinterpreted” it. Even Covenant Premillennialism has a hard time using the Old Testament as evidence for their Premillennialism. What this boils down to is that the original intended meaning of the Old Testament was changed by the New and this requires an ignoring of the original context. The Old Testament cannot be understood on its own merit and saints had to wait until the writings of the New to understand the Old. According to Covenant Theology, in light of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament prophecy, these prophecies cannot be understood literally. What they fail to see is that the New Testament also treats historical passages in the Old Testament the same way, but does not deny that these were literal people and that the historical event never literally happened. In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul gives an allegorical application to the story of Sarah and Hagar, and Isaac and Ishmael, but he does not deny that these were literal people and that the Genesis account of their history literally did happen. The solution to the problem is simply to recognize that the New Testament quotes the Old in four different ways. This was a typical Jewish way of quoting the Old Testament in that period and the writers were Jews. The often gave a spiritual meaning or a new application to an Old Testament text without denying that what the original said literally did or will happen.

    I:844: An example of prophecy is in Acts 2:16-21 which quotes Joel 2:28-32. Nothing that happened in Acts two was predicted by Joel two. What actually did happen in Acts two (the speaking in tongues) was not mentioned by Joel. What Joel did mention (dreams, visions, the sun darkened, the moon turned into blood) did not happen in Acts two. Joel was speaking of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole nation of Israel in the last days, while Acts two speaks of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Twelve Apostles or, at most, on the 120 in the Upper Room. This is a far cry from Joel’s all flesh. However, there was one point of similarity, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, resulting in unusual manifestations. Acts two does not change or reinterpret Joel two, nor does it deny that Joel two will have a literal fulfillment when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on the whole nation of Israel. It is simply applying it to a New Testament event because of one point of similarity.

    Comment by Kevin Quick | Thursday, August 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. This is an amazing post! This comes from someone who had read from the Bible for years :]

    Comment by Joshua H Wu | Friday, August 7, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hello Arnau, I appreciate the new post. Of course there are times when figurative language is employed in the Bible. The context usually bears this out. But is this really the case with the 70 years of exile?

    Consider: God had Jeremiah prophesy ahead of time that Judah and Jerusalem would be desolated for 70 years. Daniel, towards the end of the exile, discerned that the 70 years were drawing to a close, offering a prayer on behalf of his people for God’s blessing. The chronicler later reported that the land indeed was ‘at rest’, void of its inhabitants, to pay off its sabbaths, fulfilling 70 years.

    So the 70 years is reported before, during, and after the exile, by at least three different writers. If it is your position that the 70 years is some metaphor, isn’t the burden of proof on you to show specifically, from scripture, why it shouldn’t be taken at face value? What does it represent? If the exile really lasted 50 years, as the secular chronology allows for, wouldn’t it have been just as easy for the Bible to state 50 years over and over instead of 70?

    When the Bible offers a prophecy cloaked in figurative language, and that same prophecy is fulfilled in scripture, isn’t the *literal* fulfillment explained at that time? We don’t see that with the 70 years. It is straightforwardly admitted that the land rested, not 50 years, not ‘a long time’, but a full 70 years.

    Really, it seems to me, your only reason for rejecting this stated amount of time is due to the currently-accepted secular chronology, which relies principally on a single tablet that may well have been misinterpreted. Is that really so strong of evidence to cause you to reject the literal 70 years, attested to over and over in the scriptures?

    Comment by TJ | Saturday, August 8, 2009 | Reply

  4. I’m curious about how your thesis was made available — are others available? How can one see them?

    Comment by Steve | Saturday, August 8, 2009 | Reply

  5. TJ, as I said earlier, I am not an historian, butafter having read through quite a number of different books and articles concerning the dating of the start of the exile, I fail to find any substantial proof that your dating is more accurate than the generally accepted dating from respected historians all over the world, who would have no reason at all to present a false date. It’s not as if there is some kind of conspiracy against the Jehovah’s Witnesses by secular historians. If anything, one would expect them to be opposed against the evangelical Christian religion.
    For the next week or so I will have no or possibly only restricted internet access and I am not of the opinion that you are going to convince me and neither am I going to convince you. As I said in this post: It is all about our way of reading the Bible (and we haven’t even touched on issues like 666 and the 144,000.
    I am busy this week in a fairly remote area teaching at a Bible School on eschatology and Revelation, so I will be fairly busy with these topics. But for the moment, or at least until I have full internet access again, we will have to postpone this conversation.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Saturday, August 8, 2009 | Reply

  6. Hi Steve, I have found that some universities do make their Masters and Doctoral thesises available. Try these links:
    UP: http://upetd.up.ac.za/ETD-db/ETD-browse/browse?first_letter=A
    UNISA: http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/ETD-browse/browse?first_letter=a;browse_by=last_name (I tried to test this link, but the network seems to be down somewhere, but it should work)

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Saturday, August 8, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hi Arnau. You have not addressed any of the questions I presented to you. If you are going to imply that the 70 years, stated several times in the Bible, is not a literal 70 years but is some metaphor, do you not see why you should present *specific* reasons for regarding it as a metaphor?

    Comment by TJ | Sunday, August 9, 2009 | Reply

  8. TJ, as I feared, this discussion is becomeing senseless, as you are trying to convince me of something which I do not believe and I am trying to convince you of something you do not believe. To expect of me to prove that the date, accepted universally by historians is correct, is the same as for me to claim that the the Mayflower did not arrive in America in 1621 as historians seem to agree upon, but rather in 1615 and the onus is upon you to prove me wrong.
    I am willing to accept the date of the start of the exile as historians through many years of research have agreed upon and do not accpet your earlier year of 607 BC, for which I find absolutely no historical proof.
    And I think, with this, I am going to stop this conversation, merely because I have more important things to do at this stage. But thanks for the discussion in any case and for the way in which you handled it. I just realise that this is leading nowhere.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Sunday, August 9, 2009 | Reply

  9. So am I banned now? My last message didn’t show up.

    Comment by TJ | Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | Reply

  10. TJ, not banned, but this is my blog and I decided that this conversation is leading nowhere. You mentioned in that post: “I think further discussion on this could be beneficial for all here in helping to bring out the biblical testimony on this aspect of history. But whatever you decide, I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to present our argument.” I honestly believe that this conversation is leading nowhere and it is using up a lot of my time, for no purpose. That is therefore the reason why I decided to call a halt to this, as I tried to say before.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | Reply

  11. Alright Arnau, I disagree with your assessment of the value of the discussion, but I can appreciate that you may not have the time to continue. Take care.

    Comment by TJ | Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | Reply

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