Before I start the discussion concerning the interpretation of numbers in apocalyptic and prophecy literature, I want to make a statement concerning what I experienced when I began my journey to honestly assess my understanding of the scriptures concerning Reformed theology and the end-times.
Honestly, I cried. A lot. I fought against it. How can I be possibly wrong? I was (and continue to be) a serious student of the bible. Was I deceived? In a nutshell, I was very angry with myself. How could I have taught something that I now no longer could accept? Teachers of the word of God are held to higher standards, according to James 3:1, and will be more strictly judged at the Bema Seat of Christ, for which I have sincerely repented to Christ. Again, this is not a light matter at all. And though I have been forgiven by Christ, there are consequences. And I’m hoping that writing down my thoughts and publishing what I have discovered is but a small means of amends for my dispensationalist friends. And I pray that they will take to heart what I have written and also go on their own quest to uncover the truth and continue to grow in the knowledge of God, as commanded by our Lord in 2 Peter 3:18.
So, let us now turn to the interpretation of numbers in apocalyptic and prophecy literature. It is generally accepted that numbers have meanings. For example, the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years because of the bad report given by ten of the spies concerning the people of Canaan (Numbers 13-14). Because of disbelief and lack of trust in God, the generation that exited Egypt (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb’s families) would not enter the promised land. Therefore, the concept of a generation equals 40 years, in most instances. The number 40 is also considered “a time of testing” such as what Christ experienced when He fasted and lived in the desert for 40 days and was tempted by Satan prior to His starting His ministry (Matt 4). There are instances that the number 40 is literal: 40 is also associated with the rules of kings such as Saul, David and Solomon, and judges ruled for 40 years too: Othniel, Deborah and Barak, Eli and Gideon. And let’s not forget that it rained 40 days and 40 nights for Noah too. So, in non-apocalyptic literature (in the examples provided, they are historical accounts), 40 is literal – but in apocryphal literature, 40 is symbolic of a generation or as a “time of testing”.
Let’s now look at three numbers that come up in apocalyptic and prophecy literature most often: the numbers 7, 10 and 12. I am not going to discuss what these numbers mean literally such as 7 days in a week, ten fingers and toes and 12 months in a year – but what they mean apocalyptically and prophetically – and all three numbers – 7, 10 and 12 – are associated with God’s perfection and completeness.
Let’s look at examples of each number –
The number 7 is replete throughout the bible and more so in the Book of Revelation. For example there are seven churches, candlesticks, seals, trumpets, bowls, spirits, etc. John had seven visions that together make up the book of Revelation. Did John literally have seven visions? Yes, he did – but the content of the visions are symbolic. Are we to interpret all of these objects as literal? Absolutely NOT. Were there only seven churches in Asia at the time of writing the book? No, there were dozens, just in Asia alone (what is today called Anatolia or western Turkey). In future blog posts, I will be addressing the Book of Revelation and their symbolism.
The number 10 is mentioned in the bible in a number of places, such as the 10 commandments – four of the commandments are directed to men in relation to God (vertical) and six of the commandments are directed to men in relation with other men (horizontal); if the 10 commandments were kept perfectly, all men would live in perfect harmony with God and other men – therefore, the number 10 symbolizes God’s governmental authority over the affairs of mankind. That’s why you will see , for example, 10 elders at the city gates (Ruth 4:2) – which represents man’s responsibility of obedience to God’s law. And let’s not forget that there were also 10 times that the phrase “God said” occurs in Genesis 1; the 10 plagues (Ex 7-12); the 10th day of the seventh month (again, the number 7 pops up) was the date of sacrificing the Passover lamb which is symbolic of our Paschal Lamb Jesus Christ (John 1:29b); 10 generations that lived up to the time of Noah (he was the 10th generation from Adam); Abraham was the 10th generation from Shem, Noah’s son; Jesus used the number 10 often in parables – 10 virgins, 10 lepers, 10 talents, 10 minas and 10 “I AM” spoken by Jesus in the book of John alone.
In addition, a related number, the number 1000 (which is the number 10 cubed – or more commonly understood as 10 to the third power or 10 times 10 times 10 – and don’t ignore the trinity aspect of the number 10 being cubed) reflects a number that is understood to mean unnumbered multitudes (such as myriads which equals 10 to the fourth power as in Rev 5:11) or immensity. For example, in Ps 105:8 –
He has remembered His covenant forever,
The word which He commanded to a thousand generations,
Are we to take literally that God will honor His covenant with Abraham for ONLY one thousand generations? Absolutely not. Here, 1000 equals an unnumbered immensity, or more accurately, FOREVER. And it’s a good thing too – because we are all grafted in to Abraham, aren’t we, as Christ’s sheep? I wouldn’t want to be in eternity with God and Christ and find out that it will all be over after 1000 generations!
And lastly, the number 12 represents completeness or authority, such as the 12 tribes of Jacob representing the completeness of the nation of Israel. Jesus chose 12 apostles; 12 stones that make up the high priest’s ephod; 12 minor prophets and 12 historical books in the Old Testament; in the book of Revelation, there are 12 foundations, 12 gates and an angel at each gate (therefore 12 angels), 12 precious stones, the wall of the New City are 144 cubits high (twelve squared, or 12 times 12); 12 spies sent out to the Land of Canaan; 12 curses for disobedience to the nation of Israel. These are just a few examples.
As you can see, numbers can be viewed literally or symbolically – it all depends on the context of the passage.
The fact is that most dispensationalists are always propounding that the bible should be taken literally and that if you don’t, often you are labeled either a heretic or are deceived or are confused. But in reality, the dispensationalist also interprets many passages symbolically. They have to – otherwise, their end-time scenarios and their theology would completely disintegrate. This is a call for honesty and self-reflection by dispensationalists.
And by the way, if you are a dispensationalist that calls anyone a heretic because they don’t agree with you, please STOP. To call a fellow brother or sister in Christ a heretic is truly unChrist-like. And yes, I have been subjected to ignorant name calling by a number of dispensationalists. I can expect that from Christian cults and pagans, but from a dispensationalist, it is particularly biting.
In the next blog, I will discuss the end of the ages and the Millennial Reign of Christ. Please join me in my quest of discovery.