On the Literal Interpretation of Prophecy – Part 2 of ‘The Hope of Israel’

(This is an edited version of the second chapter of Mauro’s book, The Hope of Israel.)

The main purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that the contrast in Scripture is not between the spiritual and the literal, but between the spiritual and the natural. A passage of Scripture, when taken ‘literally,’ may refer either to ‘that which is natural’ or to ‘that which is spiritual.’ In other words, the literal interpretation may call for a thing which exists in the realm of nature, or for the counterpart of that thing which exists in the realm of spiritual realities (1 Cor. 15:46). This is of critical importance, since the advocates of modern dispensationalism have wrought confusion, and have succeeded in giving plausibility to many misinterpretations of Scripture by first taking for granted that a ‘literal’ interpretation necessarily calls for something material or natural, and then insisting strenuously that all prophecies which refer to Israel, Jerusalem, Zion, etc., should be interpreted in such a way.

For example, those expositors who think the Bible teaches us to expect a future millennium of earthly bliss, a golden age of world-wide peace and plenty, during which the Jewish nation will be reconstituted and will have the place of headship over a world occupied by God-fearing and peace-loving Gentiles, base that expectation upon certain Old Testament prophecies which, they think, are to be fulfilled in the natural realm; and since they cannot possibly be fulfilled in that manner during this era of the Gospel, there must needs be an age to come of an entirely different character from this present day of gospel salvation.

Undoubtedly our bias is in favour of a natural fulfilment of prophecy, for to the natural man the things that are seen are the real things; and to that view he is disposed to cling tenaciously, notwithstanding the plain teaching of the New Testament that the ‘seen things’ are but the fleeting shadows of ‘things unseen’, the latter being the spiritual and eternal realities with which the promises of future blessing are mainly concerned.

For the New Testament Scriptures state, in most unambiguous language, that ‘the seed of Abraham’, to whom ‘all the promises of God’ belong, are those who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:7, 29; 2 Cor. 1:20). Further, in the New Testament it is plainly revealed that, even as ‘Abraham had two sons’ (which might make it uncertain whether the descendants of Ishmael or those of Isaac were to inherit the promises) so likewise there is a natural ‘Israel,’ ‘Zion’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and also a spiritual counterpart of each; and that just as Ishmael preceded in time the true heir (though eventually he was to be ‘cast out’ and not to be ‘heir with the son of the free woman’) even so the natural Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem preceded the respective spiritual realities to which those names properly belong. For God’s invariable order of procedure, in the working out of His eternal purposes, is “first – that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual” (1 Cor. 15:46).

If, therefore, an Old Testament prophecy of blessing, intended for the true Israel (that ‘holy nation’ spoken of in 1 Pet. 2:9), be interpreted as applying to ‘Israel after the flesh,’ the interpretation is not ‘literal’ (i.e., according to the letter) except in the sense in which ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6); for obviously in this case, interpreting the prophecy in relation to that typified by ‘Ishmael’ destroys it completely. And it is specially to be noted that, in the passage from which this Scripture is quoted, Paul is explaining the great differences between the Old Covenant (which was of the letter) and the New Covenant (of the Spirit); and, moreover, he is comparing the ministry of Moses, which had to do with things that are seen (an earthly sanctuary and its vessels of service, animal sacrifices, etc.), with the ministry of himself and others whom God had made ‘able ministers of the New Covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit.’ Also it should be noted that the apostle there speaks of the Old Covenant (under which promises were made to the natural Israel) as ‘that which is done away’; whereas the New Covenant is ‘that which remains,’ that is, abides eternally (2 Cor 3:11).

From this Scripture alone it is evident (and the same truth is set forth at greater length in Gal. 4:21-31 and Hebrews chapters 8 – 10), that all future promises of glory and blessing for Israel and Zion must belong to the true Israel and the heavenly Zion. And, in this very passage, we are admonished to ‘look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen’ (2Cor 4:18); which admonition, however, is habitually disregarded in the interpretation of prophecies relating to these very subjects.

Evidently then our difficulty in understanding certain prophecies is due to our lack of faith and our spiritual dullness. For, in respect to the things which are not seen, faith takes the place of sight; for faith has to do solely with things not visible to the natural eye; and the same is true for hope, for ‘hope that is seen is not hope’ (Rom. 8:24). Thus it is written that, ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’; and ‘through faith we understand’ (Hebrews 11:1,3).

Hence, to understand the prophecies it is necessary, and vitally necessary, that we believe the revelations of the New Testament; that we accept as ‘literally’ true that there is now, at this present time, a realm of spiritual realities, into which our risen Lord is actually entered, and we also, in Him; that ‘the substance of things hoped for’ is there, not here; and specially that God’s purposes concerning His Eternal City, Temple and People are being fulfilled at this very time, in that spiritual realm, though the natural eye cannot see what is going on there.

I can testify from experience that, by the simple process of believing what is written in the New Testament concerning the actual present existence, among the things not seen, of the true Zion, of the city of the living God the heavenly Jerusalem, of the holy nation which is a royal priesthood, and of other spiritual realities, the main difficulty in the understanding of the Old Testament prophecies which speak of a glorified state of the things named above, vanishes away.

Let me illustrate this through the prophecies of Zechariah.

Zechariah is one of the books that is frequently referred to as containing prophecies which await a ‘literal’ fulfilment in a future dispensation.

Zechariah, with Haggai, prophesied during the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, after the return from Babylon of some of the deported Israelites; at which time ‘the elders of the Jews built and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo’ (Ezra 6:14). But, as all would agree, the prophet looks beyond what those men were building, to a temple and a city that were to be far more glorious. He records the word of the Lord concerning Zion: ‘For, lo I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord. And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day and shall be My people; and I will dwell in the midst of you’ (2:10,11). And the prophet goes on to speak of a priest, Joshua, who was clothed at first with filthy garments, but to whom it was said, ‘Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you, and I will clothe you with change of raiment” (3:3,4). This Joshua and his fellows were to be ‘men wondered at; for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the Branch. For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua’ (vv. 8,9).

There is no difficulty in recognizing in this passage a prophecy of the coming of Christ as the Branch of Jehovah and as the Foundation Stone of the true Temple of God; for Peter (quoting a similar prophecy by Isaiah) writes to those who have been ‘redeemed… by the precious blood of Christ,’ saying:

‘Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious’; and he had just said in the preceding verse, ‘Ye also, as living stones are [being] built up, a spiritual house, an holy priesthood’ – as typified by Joshua’s change of garments – ‘to offer up spiritual sacrifices’ (1 Pet. 2:5,6). Thus by Peter’s application of the prophecy we are given plainly to understand that it relates to ‘spiritual’ things, and that it is now being fulfilled in the spiritual realm.

It will greatly help us in our efforts to understand the type of prophecies referred to above, if we give due heed to the facts stated in the above quotation from Peter (and stated also in Hebrews 12:22-24, and in the Letter to the Ephesians as pointed out below) that God’s ‘spiritual house’ is in course of erection now, that it is being built ‘in Sion’, and that the believers in Jesus Christ are the ‘living stones’ of this temple, and are also a “royal priesthood.”

Zechariah refers again (6:12-15) to ‘the Man whose name is the BRANCH,’ who ‘shall build the temple of the Lord’; and says of Him that ‘He shall bear the glory, and He shall sit and rule upon His throne; and He shall be a priest upon His throne.’ No-one will dispute, in the light of New Testament Scriptures, that this prophecy is being fulfilled now (Heb. 2:9; 8:1, etc.). And the prophet goes on to say that crowns shall be given also to certain men, whom he names, and that “they that are far off” (a scriptural designation of Gentiles, see Acts 2:39 and Eph 2:13), ‘shall come and build in the temple of the Lord.’

Furthermore, in Zechariah 9:9 we have the familiar passage: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion… behold, thy King cometh unto thee’; and we know to a certainty, from Luke 19:38, that that prophecy was fulfilled when Christ came to Jerusalem to die for our salvation.

In Zechariah 13:7-9 the atoning death of Christ is foretold in the words, ‘Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the Man that is My Fellow, says the Lord of hosts. Smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered’ (see Matthew 26:31). And what was to follow as regards the Jewish people is foretold in these words: ‘And it shall come to pass that in all the land, says the Lord, two parts shall be cut off, and die; but the third part shall be left therein.’ And in agreement with this, the two great parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were ‘cut off’; but a third part, the disciples of Christ, were left. And as to these, the prophecy goes on to say: ‘And I will bring the third part through the fire and will refine them as silver is refined’ (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6 and 4:12); and further ‘they shall call on My Name and I will hear them. I will say, it is My people; and they shall say, the Lord is My God’ (cf. Rom. 11:1,2).

Moreover, the apostle Paul declares the same truth concerning the building of God’s true temple now as declared by Peter. He makes known that those who believe in Jesus Christ are even now ‘quickened together with Christ, – and raised up together, and made to sit together [i.e. on thrones] in heavenly places [Zion] in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2:5,6); which plainly declares that we live and reign with Christ even now. This is not something perceived with the natural eye, or realised in our conscious experience, but is something that is nonetheless true, as we will fully discuss in a later part.

And furthermore, in the immediate context, Paul also declares the companion truth revealed by Peter, namely that the saints of this era, Gentiles as well as Jews, and being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, grows into an holy temple in the Lord” (vv. 20, 21).

The expression ‘in that day’ occurs about twenty times in the book of Zechariah; and, as a judicious commentator says, ‘It is a synonym for the great Messianic hope.’ The first of these occurrences we have quoted, ‘And many nations shall be joined unto the Lord in that day’ (2:11). What was ‘that day’ then, is this day now, for ‘now is the day of salvation’; and ‘all the prophets from Samuel … as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days’ (Acts 3:24). And so, when Zechariah says (13:1) ‘In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleaness,’ we understand clearly that he is foretelling the cross of Christ; as very plainly appears from verse 7, ‘Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the Man that is My Fellow, says the Lord of hosts; smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.’

Zechariah prophecies are dealt with further in a later part. Enough has been said, however, to make evident that the prophecies of Zechariah referred to above, and hence other prophecies of like character as well, relate to things spiritual and have their fulfilment in this present era of grace.

But it will be profitable to follow a little further the subject of the building of God’s true temple. So we recall when our Lord, on his first visit to Jerusalem, had driven the money-changers out of the temple that Herod had built, which was one of the wonders of the world; and when the onlookers demanded of Him what sign He could give in proof of his authority to do those things, He answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ (John 2:19). The Jews understood this ‘literally’; that is to say, they took it as applying to that building of material stones which stood on Mount Moriah. Had the Scripture record stopped there, it would no doubt be insisted by some in our day that that the physical structure, which was subsequently destroyed so completely that not one stone remains upon another, is to be miraculously restored in the space of three days in the coming millennium. But, to the end that we should not be misled and also that we might have a key to the interpretation of prophetic utterances of this sort, the Spirit caused John to insert the explanatory note: ‘But He spoke of the Temple of His Body.’

This is just one of the many, seemingly casual, indications scattered throughout the Scriptures, that God’s promises are to be fulfilled and His purposes are to be accomplished in the resurrection; that is to say, in the new creation.

Again, at a subsequent visit to Jerusalem, at the season of one of the feasts, ‘in the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried saying, If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink, he that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37-38). We might well wonder what would have been made of this saying by those who insist upon ‘literal’ interpretations, had it been left unexplained; and therefore we should be thankful indeed for the added words, ‘But this spoke He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive; for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.’ Those words put beyond all uncertainty the meaning of the phrase ‘living water,’ as used, for example, in Zechariah 14:8, ‘And it shall be in that day that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former (or eastern, marg.) sea [the Caspian], and half of them towards the hinder sea” [the Mediterranean] – in other words, both eastward and westward – ‘in summer and in winter it shall be’ – that is, all the year round.

In the light of John’s explanation, we understand, therefore, that out Lord was foretelling, not some extraordinary physical phenomenon, which was to happen in a far off millennial age, but the then approaching era of the Holy Spirit, when there was to be an outflow of the gospel, ‘with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’ (1 Pet. 1:12), both eastward and westward from Jerusalem. Thus both the place whence (Jerusalem) and the time when (‘in that day’) those living waters were to begin to flow out into all the world, both summer and winter, are plainly foretold in Zechariah’s prophecy. For a further explanation of the prophecies concerning the outflow of living waters from the Temple at Jerusalem, see the later part, ‘Where did the Spirit descend at Pentecost?’

And again let it be noted that these explanations disclose the general principle on which all similar prophecies should be interpreted. They harmonize fully with all other indications contained in the Scriptures; making it abundantly plain that all the prophecies of future glory and blessing for Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem, pertain to that ‘holy nation’ (1 Peter 1:9) ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16), and to that heavenly ‘Mount Zion,’ and to ‘the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,’ to which we already ‘are come’ (Heb 12:22).

Therefore, for the above, and for other reasons stated later, I reached the conclusion that we should look for the fulfilment of the prophecies in question –  not to another age than this, but rather to another locality; namely, to that spiritual realm, which Paul designates ‘the heavenlies’; where our Lord is gone to prepare a place for us, where the true temple is now in the course of erection, and where already exists ‘the Jerusalem which is above, which is the mother of us all’ (Gal. 4:26).

The idea of a future ‘dispensation’ for the fulfilment of prophecies on the earth, abounds in difficulties, and moreover it contradicts many passages of Scripture; whereas the idea of another locality, a spiritual and heavenly realm where those prophecies are in the course of fulfilment right now, is free from all difficulty, and has, moreover, the support of many New Testament Scriptures.

Concerning the now-existing realm of unseen things enough is said in the Scriptures to make known that it is a region of great activity; that numerous and mighty ‘principalities and powers’ exist there – angels and demons, good spirits and evil – and so we must infer that there are happenings there which are of immense importance and significance. For example, we read: ‘There was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels’ (Rev. 12:7). Also, that ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Eph. 6:12).

In this connection it is good to recall that the title of the last book of the Bible, ‘the Apocalypse,’ means the unveiling; that is to say, the taking away of the veil that normally separates the realm of spiritual things from that of natural things. The title indicates that the visions described in the book of ‘Revelation’ bring into view things and happenings in the spiritual realm, of which, except for this unveiling, we should be wholly unaware. And when we come to chapter 20 of that book, which contains the only reference in the Bible to the millennium – ‘the thousand years’ – the language of the inspired writer makes it evident that the happenings of the millennium are part of the history of the spirit realm. This subject is dealt with in the final part. It follows that all effort to find a place for those happenings in the history of this physical world, whether before or after the second advent, is utterly vain.

The next part deals with Paul’s insight into the Old Testament prophecies.