How to Understand Bible Prophecy

Are you curious about all the prophecy in the Bible, but hesitant to start studying it? Are you afraid you won’t be able to understand it?

Or maybe you feel a bit uneasy when you hear about the “mark of the beast” or the “antichrist,” so you avoid those sections of the Bible. (You wouldn’t be the only one!)

But there’s good news—you can understand Bible prophecy, even if you’re not a scholar. And it doesn’t have to be scary. Ultimately, prophecy reveals the love of God and the hope we have in Jesus Christ. And there are so many ways we can see that as we study. 

All prophecy ultimately points back to Him and His desire to reconnect with us. To keep on loving us. Forever.

So if you feel intimidated by the predictions of the future, the beasts, and all the other symbols—or if you’re worried about the end of the world—you can claim the assurance that comes from knowing Jesus and understanding prophecy as His story. 

We’ll answer the following questions in this overview: 

Be prepared for fresh insight and a deeper glimpse into who God is!

What is Bible prophecy?

In general, prophecies are messages from God to a human prophet, who then shares those messages with the intended audience. While you can categorize types of Bible prophecy in several ways, we’ll start with two main types that can encompass all of it: (1) general prophecies and (2) symbolic prophecies about the end times. 

When people come across the term prophecy in sci-fi or fantasy, it usually refers to fantastical predictions of events. These predictions are often vague but unchanging, relying on themes of fate and destiny.  

But prophecies in the Bible are different.

They are not mere predictions, and not all of them are unchanging. 

Notice what 2 Peter 1:21 says about prophecy:

“Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (NKJV). 

Jeremiah is one such prophet. When God called him to be a messenger for Him, He told him, “To all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak” (Jeremiah 1:7, ESV). 

And those messages were anything but vague (Amos 3:7)! Jeremiah received prophecies from God that warned the people of the consequences of their disobedience and called them back to God (Jeremiah 1:14–16; 3:22–23). 

Though God does use symbolism and metaphors for some future events, most of the prophecies were clear and specific.

It’s important to differentiate between these two categories of biblical prophecies.

Two primary categories of prophecies

From Genesis to Revelation, we find both general prophecies and symbolic prophecies. Identifying the kind of prophecy you’re reading will help you study it.

General prophecies

General prophecies are typically non-symbolic prophecies that have to do with the lives of the followers of God. Many of the general prophecies in the Bible were about the Israelite nation and were conditional, meaning that their outcome depended on the people’s response to the prophecy. We find this type in books like Isaiah and Jeremiah. 

God’s words in Jeremiah 18:7–10 help us understand how general prophecies work: 

“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (ESV). 

Think of Jonah—you might’ve heard of him and his experience in the belly of a whale or a huge fish. 

God called him to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria at the time. Jonah was to prophesy its destruction, because of their oppression and “wickedness” (Jonah 1:2, NKJV). 

But when the people of Nineveh heard the message, they realized their wrongs and turned back to God. As a result, their destructed was averted, and the prophecy wasn’t fulfilled (Jonah 3:10). 

Some general prophecies, such as Matthew 24, also speak of end-time events right before Jesus’ second coming. Theologians use the fancy word eschatology to refer to them. 

But while some of the prophesied Matthew 24 events can be interpreted literally,  most end-time prophecies are more complex and nuanced.

Symbolic prophecies about major events and the End Times

These prophecies, sometimes called “apocalyptic prophecies,” are mostly found in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. (Though some smaller prophetic passages can be found in the gospels and a few other places in the New Testament.)

They’re different from general prophecies in that they contain symbolism, and they’re not conditional. 

They tell of the direction the entire world is headed.

A prophecy in Daniel 2 is an excellent example. 

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon dreamed of a giant statue with different metals from head to toe: gold, silver, bronze, iron, and a mixture of iron and clay. The succession of metals symbolized the successive world empires from Babylon down to our time and the end of the world. 

Today, we can see that those empires have risen and fallen just as God said they would—regardless of human efforts. 

They give us confidence in God’s plan and encourage us to prepare for the last days of this earth’s history. 

Why does God use prophets and prophecies?

Prophets and their prophetic messages are God’s way of communicating with His people, guiding them, preparing them for the future, and giving them hope. These messages help us frame the events of the world within the big picture of the Bible and the plan of salvation. 

In the perfection of the Garden of Eden, God didn’t need to use prophecy. He could speak with humans face to face (Genesis 2:15–16). 

But when Adam and Eve chose their own way instead of God’s, the communication between them and God broke down. God needed another way to communicate His love and care to humans. 

That’s where prophecy comes in.

Out of love, God chose individuals—prophets—to speak on His behalf. 

In Hebrew, the word prophet means “one who is called.” God called prophets not only to predict the future but also to guide and lead His people the way parents guide their children. 

The prophecies they spoke and wrote had many purposes: 

To expose the pitfalls of human nature and warn of consequences. In this case, the prophecies were often conditional. The goal was to correct behavior and save people from the results that awaited them if they didn’t change. 

God would call attention to a problem, explain its repercussions, and leave people with the opportunity to make an informed choice about their lives.

To help us prepare for the future. Some of the prophecies provide signs that help us know when to expect certain events. 

The Old Testament contains many prophecies God gave to prepare His people for Jesus’ first coming. 

And He also gave us signs of Jesus’ second coming and the end of the world. Some of these prophecies contain symbolism because they describe future events or new and complex concepts that the readers at the time didn’t have a frame of reference for. 

To give hope. Prophecies don’t only speak of negative events. They also remind us that this imperfect world is not our forever home. God has a plan to restore humanity and the earth to the joyous perfection He originally intended for it. 

Someday, evil will be forever gone, and this earth will be made new. 

The prophecies in Revelation 21 and 22 are some of the best examples. They give us hope that we will be reconnected with God once again. 

Then, we won’t need prophecy anymore (1 Corinthians 13:9–12). 

But until that time, let’s learn how to study it for ourselves. 

How do I read and interpret Bible prophecy?

Understanding Bible prophecy for yourself doesn’t have to be complicated! God’s Word has something for each of us if we come to it with a prayerful attitude and some basic Bible study principles. 

Here are the steps we’ll explore:

  1. Pray for wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Keep Christ at the center.
  3. Determine your approach.
  4. Determine the type of prophecy.
  5. Take note of details.
  6. Pay attention to context.
  7. Don’t be discouraged!

Some people have claimed that we can’t understand certain prophetic books in the Bible, particularly Daniel and Revelation. So they don’t even try to read and study them.

But by having this mindset, they miss out on this promise:

“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3, NKJV). 

God has blessings for those who take the time to dig into the prophecies. After all, they were written for our benefit. He didn’t want to keep us in the dark about the world’s future.

1. Pray for wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit guides us to truth and helps us understand the things we read in the Bible (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:14). That’s why it’s so important that we acknowledge our need for Him. 

And as you pray for wisdom, you can also claim this promise:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5, NKJV). 

2. Keep Christ at the center. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the symbolism of Daniel and Revelation—the beasts, the trumpets, the plagues—and forget that Christ is central to prophecy. 

Jesus said that all the Scriptures testify of Him (John 5:39). And even the book of Revelation is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1, NKJV). 

This means that prophecy reveals the fullness of Jesus’ identity and message. 

In fact, in the book of Revelation alone, “Lamb” is used 27 times to refer to Jesus. Here are a few examples:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12, NKJV)

“The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17, NKJV).

“These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings; and those who are with Him are called, chosen, and faithful” (Revelation 17:14, NKJV). 

As you read the prophecies in the Bible, look for how they connect back to Christ and your relationship with Him.

3. Determine your approach. 

Bible scholars have identified three main schools of interpretation when it comes to understanding end-time prophecy. Your approach will shape your interpretation, so it’s important to choose one that aligns with the Bible. 

You’ll also want to be sure that the resources you seek out have a similar biblical approach.  

We’ll look at three common approaches as they are described by Adventist scholar Gerhard Pfandl:

The historicist approach 

This approach sees the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as happening throughout history. 

The Bible itself shows ways in which this approach is applied. 

For example, in Daniel 8, the prophet Daniel saw a vision of a ram and a goat. When an angel came to interpret the dream for him, the angel said that the ram represented the empire of Medo-Persia and the goat represented Greece (Daniel 8:20–21). 

When Daniel received the vision, he was living under the rule of the Babylonian empire (Daniel 8:1). History shows us that Medo-Persia and Greece indeed followed afterward.   

Thus, the symbols came true shortly after the time they were prophesied.

The preterist or historical-critical approaches

This approach doesn’t give credit to prophecy in its truest sense. This way of thinking considers the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as historical events that were recorded after they occurred. 

The originator of this approach was Porphyry, a philosopher in the third century AD, who said that Daniel didn’t write the book of Daniel when he lived in the sixth century BC. Instead, it was written by a Jew in the second century BC who described events in his time. 

Preterists today also think the prophecies in Revelation are about events in the Roman Empire in the first century. 

The futurist and dispensational approach 

This approach sees all prophecy to be looking far into the future rather than being fulfilled throughout history. 

Of these three approaches, Adventists take the historicist approach because we believe it best aligns with the truths of the Bible and the events of history. 

4. Determine the type of prophecy. 

Remember that as you read prophecies in the Bible, not every passage will be the same type of prophecy. 

The Bible contains two primary types, as discussed above: general prophecies and symbolic prophecies about the end times (apocalyptic). Use the descriptions above to identify which kind you’re reading. 

It could be a prophecy about Jesus, the coming Messiah. It could be a conditional prophecy for the Israelite people. Or it could be a prophecy that hasn’t been fulfilled yet. Keep this in mind throughout your study. 

5. Take notes!

Keep a notebook or journal to jot down details, such as:

  • Repeating words or phrases 
  • Symbols 
  • Words you don’t understand 
  • Questions you have 

Look up unknown words in a Bible dictionary and write down the definitions. It can also be helpful to read the passage in different Bible versions to give you a better picture of what the passage is saying. 

Ask journalist questions—questions that start with who, what, when, where, why, and how. Then, record the answers as you uncover them in your study.

It might also be helpful to have your prayer journal handy for note-taking, as well. Write down your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to what you read, and pray over all of it. Ask God to guide you in your understanding, and express any questions you have in your heart.

6. Pay close attention to context.

Context is key to understanding what the writer of a Bible passage was trying to convey. This includes the biblical, linguistic, historical, and cultural contexts. 

See if a certain word or phrase is mentioned in the same chapter or book. How about in other writings written by the same author? Those passages can help you understand what the phrase or word means. 

Then, there’s the historical and cultural context. 

You’ll want to figure out:

  • When was the prophecy given?
  • What were the circumstances at the time? 
  • Why was the message given? What was the hope or goal?

But you don’t have to be a history buff to get the answers to these questions. Some Bibles—and many commentaries—provide historical backgrounds in the introductions to each book. 

In addition, you can consult historical surveys of the Old and New Testaments. And Bible dictionaries will have historical information.

When deciphering the symbols and metaphors of the prophecies, it can help to compare Bible passages.

Sometimes, the chapter itself defines the symbol (as in Revelation 12:3, 9); or the answer might be found somewhere in the Bible, or in historical or archeological records. 

For example, certain symbolic prophecies have time periods, such as 2,300 days (Daniel 8:14) or 42 months (Revelation 13:5). In many prophecies in the Bible, one day is equivalent to a literal year (Ezekiel 4:4–6). Remembering this detail can help a lot in interpreting the time periods mentioned. 

7. Don’t be discouraged! 

Studying Bible prophecy isn’t without challenges. You may find yourself struggling to understand what you’re reading. 

But don’t allow this to discourage you. Instead, expect your study to be a process. Give yourself time to dig more and mull over what you’re reading.

And start simple. 

Matthew 24 is a great option. This prophecy is given by Jesus Himself as He answers His disciples’ questions about events that will happen before He returns at the Second Coming. 

Or Revelation 12 traces the experiences of God’s people through history. 

Remember, you don’t have to do this on your own, either. Seek out resources such as Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and other study books. Or talk with a Bible teacher or pastor who is knowledgeable about prophecy. 

Above all, keep your eyes on Jesus and the ultimate goal of knowing Him in a deeper way. That’s what it’s all about.

Why should I study Bible prophecy?

Every part of the Bible was inspired by God and has meaning, usefulness, and relevance for our lives (2 Timothy 3:16)—prophecy included! Its ultimate purpose is to help us know Jesus and understand His plan for us. 

And God promises a blessing for those who study it (Revelation 1:3).

Prophecy is connected to every aspect of the Bible. When we understand prophecies and their fulfillment in the Old Testament, we’re better able to follow the history of Israel. 

And it shows us the story we’re living—from past to present to future. 

One instance of this is Revelation 14:6–7, which is a message for the end times, calling God’s people to worship Him as Creator. In a world where most people deny Creation and believe in evolution, isn’t this message more relevant than ever?  

Another reason for studying Bible prophecy is that it increases our confidence in God’s Word. 

We’re able to see prophecies that were given and fulfilled, such as: 

  • The prophecies of world empires in Daniel 2, 7, and 8 
  • The Persian King, who allowed the Jews to return to their land after their exile (2 Chronicles 36:22, 23; Ezra 1:1–4). 
  • The many prophecies about Jesus’ first coming

This means that what God says will happen! If all these prophecies have been fulfilled, won’t the others also be? 

And that’s where our last reason comes in:

Prophecy helps us prepare for what’s ahead. 

The Bible shows us we’re living in the end times and there are only a few prophecies left to be fulfilled. Thus, prophecy spurs us to be ready. 

But this sense of urgency isn’t to inspire fear or anxiousness. Those who trust in Jesus can have the assurance that God is with them to help them (1 John 5:11–13; Psalm 46:1). 

We don’t have to worry about what’s coming because He will take care of us (Psalm 23:4). 

Most of all, we can look with hope to the pinnacle of prophecy: the second coming of Jesus to free us from this world of sin and take us to heaven (John 14:1–3).  

Bible prophecy reveals God’s incredible plan for us

Bible prophecy doesn’t have to be intimidating. It’s just another part of the Word of God that can teach us more about Him and His great love for us. 

And you don’t have to have a degree in theology or biblical studies to understand it. 

You’ll sometimes find tricky passages or concepts, but that doesn’t have to halt your studies. Just write down the places you need to come back to for further understanding. After all, the underlying principles are the most important. Just because you can’t define every symbol perfectly doesn’t mean that you don’t comprehend the ultimate meaning and significance behind it.

And you don’t have to study alone. Using the many available resources will give you the boost you need to keep going. 

The more you study, the more you’ll see the big picture and the beauty of God’s plan for you. 

And it can be a fascinating journey of discovery.