Want to start a fight with a New Atheist? Talk about Jesus.

Want to start a fight with a fellow Christian? Talk about prophecy.

The basics of the Christian faith are well known and widely accepted in the church: God is our holy Creator; mankind is sinful and under his wrath; Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin; we receive God’s forgiveness through faith. While each denomination has its nuances and special emphases, these are the broad outlines.

But there is no such consensus when it comes to biblical prophecy. Why not? Well, for one thing, the sheer multiplicity and volume of prophetic statements make disagreement likely. Christian apologist Hugh Ross estimates that there are about 2,500 predictive prophecies in the pages of Scripture, including about 500 that have yet to be fulfilled. So if you agree on 90 percent of the prophecies but disagree on only 10 percent, that still leaves 250 verses or passages over which to wrangle.

And that can lead to some strange—even disastrous—interpretations. Just ask Harold Camping’s disheartened followers.

There are other reasons, of course. One is that we tend to be weak on both hermeneutics and the events of biblical history, both of which are vital to understanding Scripture in general and prophecy in particular. Hermeneutics (taken from Hermes, the messenger of the gods) is the science of biblical interpretation, and it’s a science we dabble in only sporadically, or not at all. Too often we come to a text, usually the shorter the better, read it in our 21st-century English translations, make a hasty application to our personal circumstances, and move on.

The story is sometimes told of the Christian who, looking for divine guidance, opens his Bible and puts his finger on a verse that says that Judas “went and hanged himself.” He quickly closes the book and tries again. The next verse: “Go and do thou likewise.” Breaking into a cold sweat, he tries one last time: “Then said Jesus unto him, ‘That thou doest, do quickly.’”

This may be a joke (and an old one at that), but the hermeneutical approach it describes is all too common. Though it is true that we have the Holy Spirit’s help to interpret Scripture (John 16:13), we also need to keep in mind Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, emphasis added).

Yes, good hermeneutics is going to require some work. But none of us wants to be ashamed, as the followers of Harold Camping surely were when his predictions about the end of the world failed to come to pass.

Whole books—make that shelves of books—have been written on hermeneutics, but I want to mention just one hermeneutical principle here that, if grasped, will make a huge difference: Context is king. What is context? Well, an online dictionary says it is “the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context.”

When it comes to Scripture, we need to interpret prophecies—and everything else—in context. This means that we need to look at the context of a prophecy in several dimensions: the immediate context (the paragraph or section in which it appears); the larger context (the chapter); the Bible book; and the Bible as a whole.

A prophecy doesn’t just come to us, without roots or history, like a cryptic utterance of Nostradamus. It arrives nested in a larger section of teaching, a particular language, and a certain literary style. Camping and his followers could have saved themselves a world of pain if they had simply taken to heart Jesus’ contextual warning that “no one knows the day or the hour” (Matt. 24:36).