Whenever we examine the context of Scripture, we do so with the intent of discovering what the Word of God has revealed to us. In the field of prophecy, examination of context is important, for without a careful reading, we’ll be apt to wander from the truth. This has been evidenced in the case of many who confuse the physical with the spiritual. By mixing the various Dispensations into a common melting-pot, they are unable to discern whether a passage should be taken literally, or in a symbolic sense.
Recently, I got involved in a discussion with an A-Millennialist who did just that. He insisted that the “living waters” of Zechariah 14: 8 were to be understood as the present outpouring of the Spirit in this Dispensation of Grace. He quoted many verses from the New Testament which proved that water does sometimes denote the Spirit’s work. However, he erred in judgment, because he did not distinguish the times and seasons to which Zechariah referred. Therefore, he was unable to determine the true nature of fulfillment. The fact is, that because Zechariah 14 is fulfilled at the RETURN OF CHRIST, the entire chapter must be taken literally.
Let me explain. It is true that spiritual interpretation of Old Testament language applies today, for Christ is absent from earth, and has sent His holy Spirit to indwell believers and to guide them into all truth necessary for their edification. Therefore, during this Dispensation of Grace, everything is spiritual. However, this does not annul phsyical and objective realities. It only means that for the time being, spiritual realities have taken their place. Because now we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5: 17), we know that the literal physical fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures is in abeyance. Such is the characteristic of the present Dispensation.
True, the Comforter was sent in Christ’s absence. But what when He comes back? When Jesus Christ returns in His own body, the Comforter’s present work will be finished, and we shall “know, even as we are known” (1 Cor. 13: 12) When we “see HIm as He is” (1 John 3: 2) faith will be turned to sight, and the objective and physical nature of the kingdom manifested. Then will the age of spiritual application be over.
When Jesus was on earth the first time, Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled to the letter. Now they are fulfilled spiritually, because He is gone, and the Holy Spirit has taken His place. When Jesus Christ comes back, however, the remainder of Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled just as literally as they were during His first advent. The reason is quite simple. Christ’s manner of presence determines the nature of fulfillment. When He is present on earth, the fulfillment is physical. When He absent, the fulfillment is spiritual. This important principle may be used as a key to unlock the true interpretation of any prophetic verse in the Bible.
Take Isaiah 55: 1, for instance. “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, and buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The fulfillment of this verse is obviously spiritual, for it pertains to the current Dispensation characterized by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the absence of our Lord. Therefore, the waters, the money, the wine and the milk, must all be interpreted in a spiritual sense.
However, let us now look at Isaiah 64: 1-2: “Oh, that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make Thy name known to thy adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence.” In this instance, the fulfillment is the very opposite of spiritual, for it describes the second coming of Christ, and His return to earth. Therefore, it is to be interpreted in a literal sense, and expressive of a future physical realities.
To prove that this principle is correct, we read in Luke 23: 45 that “the sun was darkened” at our Lord’s crucifixion. It was a literal darkening of the literal sun, because the Son of Man was present on earth. But no one would look for the darkening of the sun and moon in this spiritual dispensation. When Christ returns, however, we find that “the sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining. The Lord also shall roar out of Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake” (Joel 3: 15-16). These predictions will be literally fulfilled, because they point to the Lord’s personal return to earth.
This is why the parousia is expressly referred to as the Son of Man’s return. “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven; and then they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24: 30). Please note that the term “Son of Man” is always indicative of our Lord’s humanity; and therefore, whenever the term is employed in Scripture, it relates to presence on earth. This is how we determine whether Matthew 24: 30 is to be taken literally, or metaphorically.
The Son of Man is none other than the Second Adam, He who shall redeem the creation from the bondage of vanity when He returns. And how will He return? Metpahorically, or in His own body? After Christ ascended from the Mount of Olives, the two angels informed His disciples that He would return in like manner as He asended (Acts 1: 11). Now go to Zechariah 14: 4: “And His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east.” The verse predicts Christ’s second coming, when the Dispensation of the Spirit shall have ended. Therefore, the connected prophecies may not be spiritualized. They are be understood as descriptive of physical and objective events.
It is interesting to note that the phrase “Son of Man” occurs eighty-four times in the New Testament, but is never once used in the church epistles. The first use of the title is in Matt. 8: 20, where it is written, “The Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.” Its last use is in Rev. 14: 14, where the Son of Man is seen as “having on His head a golden crown.” Between the Gospels and Revelation, the term occurs only twice, in Acts 7: 56 and Hebrews 2: 6.
What is the reason for this? The answer is quite simple: Because the phrase “Son of Man” has nothing to do with this present Dispensation of the Spirit, during which Christ is absent, but has everything to do with His first and second advents. Therefore, Matt. 24: 30 and related prophecies do not speak of any “spiritual” coming, but denote the Lord’s personal presence restored. This fact demolishes forever the false doctrines of Preterism, A-Millennialism, and every other teaching which spiritualizes passages pertaining to the parousia.
Remember, all things are spiritual in this Dispensation, because Christ is absent. Therefore His presence is realized only in the third person of the Trinity. In this age, the natural things have been set aside, that spiritual things might take their place. For example, the natural Israel has fallen, while the spiritual Israel gains prominence (Romans 11: 11 ff.). Natural circumcision is replaced by that of the Spirit (Phil. 3: 3); and even the the resurrection we enjoy now is of a spiritual nature (Eph. 2: 1, 5). But do we still look forward to a physical resurrection? Of course we do. And when will this take place? When the Lord returns. Is the natural Israel to be restored? Of course it is! But only when the Lord returns (see Romans 11: 26-27).
Applying this principle again, we come to Revelation 20, the long-studied passage which speaks of the first resurrection and “1000 years.” We know that during this Dispensation, our reign is of a heavenly (spiritual) character (Eph. 2: 6). But does Rev. 20 speak of the same thing? How is John’s vision of the Millennium to be taken–literally, or spiritually? The key is found by examing the time of fulfillment.
Since the beast and false prophet are to be cast into the lake of fire WHEN JESUS CHRIST RETURNS (Rev. 19: 19-20), we know that the ensuing visions of the binding of Satan and reign of the martyrs will take place on earth, and in a literal fashion. For Paul writes that Antichrist will be destroyed by the epiphany of Christ’s parousia (see 2 Thess. 2: 8). And since the same parousia is mentioned in Matthew 24 in connection with the coming of the Son of Man, it is evident that the subsequent events will take place in the natural realm. Compare with Revelation 2: 26-27 & 5: 10.
This principle of distinguishing between natural and spiritual fulfillment may be called “The Master Key of Prophetic Interpretation.” I do not claim any originality for this view. However, I do claim that this method is the absolutely correct one; and that, when properly applied, it will clear up the meaning of any prophetic passage in the Word of God. Just take the simple method of interpretation which I have outlined above, and see how easy it is to use. As such, it will be found helpful in refuting any kind of error that may present itself for consideration. And this makes it not only a key, but also a very formidable weapon.