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).

Knowledge of Bible history is also critical for understanding the prophecies. Do you know what happened in 2,000 B.C.? 1,300 B.C.? A.D. 70? 586 B.C.? 1,000 B.C.? You should. These dates and others mark key events in the history of salvation, and they are critical for understanding Bible prophecy. They are just as important as 1776 and 1941 are for American history.

Unfortunately, most of us struggle with the biblical timeline. As a result, we have no clue about the situation that a prophet such as Isaiah or Habakkuk may have been addressing, and we don’t even know whether a particular prophecy may have already happened or is yet in the future.

One author I read back in the day interpreted Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Lord leaving the Jerusalem temple (Ezek. 10) as an “end time” event, when clearly it refers to God’s judgment on Israel at the hands of the Babylonians … in 586 B.C. In the same way, many modern interpreters skip right over New Testament prophecies about the destruction of Herod’s temple by Titus in A.D. 70, claiming they apply to end-times events only.

Once we start to get a handle on hermeneutics and biblical history, we will be better prepared to decide how to interpret Bible prophecies. This knowledge will provide the theological scaffolding we will need on which to hang the prophecies. Today and throughout church history, there have been three major schools of Bible prophecy. They all try to answer the question of the relationship between the Second Coming of Christ and the Millennium.

Premillennialists believe Jesus will return before the Millennium, or thousand-year reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-3, also Matt. 20:20-23, Luke 1:32-3322:29-30, Acts 1:6-7). Historic premillennialism was the doctrine of the early church, held by Papias, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp. The present age of grace, they say, is the plan of God and is predicted in the Old Testament. The church and Israel are one body.

A modern variant, Dispensationalism, holds that the promises to Israel will be fulfilled literally, while the church has its own callings from God. Adherents generally believe God has provided seven “dispensations” in salvation history, from the Old Testament until now: dispensations of innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and the millennial kingdom. Adherents include John Walvoord, Charles C. Ryrie, C.I. Scofield, and Hal Lindsey

Amillennialists believe there will be no millennial kingdom. They take references to the millennial reign of Christ as non-literal. A later doctrine (starting in the 2nd or 3rd century), amillennialism was held by Origen, Dionysius, and Augustine. Preterism, a modern form of this doctrine, holds that most or all of the prophecies about Christ’s second coming and the millennial kingdom were fulfilled by A.D. 70, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.

Postmillennialists believe Christ will come after the Millennium, which they see as a symbolic era when the church spreads the knowledge of Christ worldwide. Popular at the start of the 20th century in liberal Christianity (with talk of a “Christian century”), postmillennialism fell largely out of favor after two world wars.

Whichever system you choose, you need to realize that it is a choice and not the only possible way to interpret Scripture. Sincere Christians have disagreed and will continue to do so.

But wherever you come down on Bible prophecy, there are at least three bedrock principles we all need to hold onto: (1) Christ is coming back (Acts 1:11); (2) no one knows the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36); and (3) we must keep in balance this world and the world to come (1 Corinthians 10:31Luke 21:25-28).

My new book—A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know—is all about learning from Bible prophecies, no matter which eschatological system you choose. The prophecies A Concise Guide describes have value far beyond simply satisfying our curiosity about the future—as God intended from the beginning. As my friend Luis Palau has said, “Nothing is more exciting—or more important—than the promises and prophecies of Scripture. Nothing brings greater hope. Nothing brings greater clarity to our lives.”

For as it is written, “All Scripture”—including its many prophecies—“is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

You’ll get no argument from most Christians about that.

Stan Guthrie is author of the new book, A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know. Stan blogs at stanguthrie.com.

Publication date: July 10, 2013