“We are to believe and follow Christ in all things, including his words about Scripture. And this means that Scripture is to be for us what it was to him: the unique, authoritative, and inerrant Word of God, and not merely a human testimony to Christ, however carefully guided and preserved by God. If the Bible is less than this to us, we are not fully Christ’s disciples.”
-James Montgomery Boice, The Preacher & God’s Word
THE BEST MUSICIANS in the world move us—not simply because of their sheer technical prowess, but because they are able to connect emotionally with the music. That is why an old-time automatic piano that plays scroll music will never replace a great musician. We don’t care for a performance that is played with unyielding accuracy if it lacks soul. That’s not to say, however, that technique is not important! Learning scales, arpeggios, and practice pieces may not seem very exciting, but without a good technical foundation, a musician cannot express herself with any type of meaning or conviction. In order to communicate from the heart, one still needs the vocabulary of music. In fact, the best musicians are so good technically that they forget that they are playing an instrument, and they simply express themselves.
The Christian walk is like being a good musician. Without a strong foundation built upon the Bible, we cannot live a life that expresses any real authenticity, passion, or purpose. We need the spiritual “vocabulary” provided by God’s holy Scripture to seep into our hearts and minds before we can simply express ourselves in a way that brings honor, glory, and enduring worship to God. This means, of course, that the Bible cannot be treated as simply a trendy new romance novel to be casually glanced through, or an inspirational calender for our daily dose of pithy sayings. It must be digested, cross-referenced, contextualised, dissected, and meditated on. Only then can it reach the core where its medicine can begin to cure the infection hiding deep within our souls. But this understanding of the centrality of God’s Word brings to surface an age-old dilemma: to the onlooker, it appears that Biblical interpretation varies “all over the map”. How does one ever arrive at an accurate, God-centered interpretation of Scripture?
Before we delve into this important question, I want to suggest that the problem of correct Biblical interpretation is overstated. arriving at the authors intended meaning for the vast majority of Scripture does not require a doctorate in hermeneutics. As professing Christians, we believe that God desires to make His divine nature and redemptive plan clear to us. The basic message of the Bible should be easily understandable to both the young child or the seminarian. For God to inspire the writing of Holy Scripture in a manner that intentionally confuses us or contradicts itself is counterintuitive. The bottom line is this: God desires to reveal Himself to His creation. The problem comes when we, as sinful people, do not like the revelation that God provides us in Scripture, and we therefore attempt to alter its sound interpretation in order to fit our own preconceived notions. Almost all major interpretive errors occur because of this bias. If we believe that the Bible is the unerring revelation of God and that it has complete authority over our lives, then the nucleus for its proper interpretation lies within itself—not on the baggage that we bring to it.
Unity in Diversity
When we consider that the Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by 44 different authors, over a span of 1500 years, using three different languages, and penned in dramatically varying cultural and historical backdrops, we begin to realize that all these books which compliment each other and harmonize together as God’s singular redemptive plan for mankind are nothing short of a miracle! It is hard enough to find two people from the same culture who agree on something. Now imagine multiplying that by 44 authors over 1500 years. And the reality that God ordains the Bible as the preeminent means of communicating spiritual truths across all cultures and times is even more miraculous! Truths such as the depravity of man, holiness of Gods, divinity of Christ, and justification by faith are equally self-evident thru Scripture to both the Ecuadorean farmer and the Oxford professor. Although the languages and customs of various cultures may differ markedly, the truth of Scripture remain steadfast and constant as it passes through the ebbs of flows of human change. As Martin Luther, the great prostestant reformer, once said, “The authority of Scripture is greater than the comprehension of the whole of man’s reason.”
How To Interpret The Bible
PRAYER. Although there are literary principles that will assist us in sound biblical interpretation, the foundation for all good biblical interpretation begins with the leading and assistance from the Holy Spirit. Although biblical commentaries and other resources can help us to understand the text by filling in important historical and cultural clues, without God guiding the process, we will naturally add our own error-prone narrative into the interpretive process. We must pray for openness of will, cleansing of conscience, and spiritual discernment. In prayer, we ask for God to prevent our sinful and fallen desires from skewing us from a clear understanding of His Word. And as 1 John 4:1 instructs, we must constantly test every spirit—especially our own!
CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT. The three most important rules in real estates are: 1) location, 2) location, and 3) location. Something similar can be said of good Biblical interpretation—the three most important rules are: 1) context, 2) context, and 3) context. Although this may seem unblushingly obvious, many interpretive errors occur because of passages taken out of literary, cultural, and even biblical context. When the authors of the Bible penned Scripture under divine inspiration, they were using the vernacular and grammatical conventions of the day, contextualised by the cultural and historical events of that time, targeting a specific audience, and writing for a specific spiritual goal. Our duty, therefore, when interpreting the Bible is to determine the author’s original intent and meaning by considering these contextual clues (the fancy word scholars use for this activity is exegesis). In doing this, we are not trying to obtain a creative, original, or “exciting” interpretation of the Bible (because such interpretations are generally wrong). We are simply trying to find out what the author originally meant to say.
Some people may protest that imposing a contextual criteria for biblical interpretation is too difficult for the average person and that God would not make the Bible that hard to understand. There are several problems with this line of reasoning. First, interpreting information in its proper context is not a foreign concept. It is something that we do everyday. When someone, for instance, ridicules us in public, we naturally interpret that incident within its proper context. If that person’s wife just died, we would be quick to forgive that person, offer him our condolence, and possibly give him practical assistance. On the other hand, if that person was simply being obnoxious and rude, then our opinion of that situation would be radically different. The truth is that we interpret all information that we receive contextually. Not applying the same standard of interpretation to the Bible bucks commonsense. Second, without some objective standard for Biblical interpretation, sound interpretion of Scripture is drown in a sea of relativism where anyone can interpret any passage in any manner they see fit. When Christians describe the Bible as inerrant, they do not mean that all possible interpretations of the Bible are equally true. That would simply be absurd! Instead, what they mean is that God’s message— as witnessed through the author’s original intent and meaning—is the unchanging, authoritative, and inerrant Word of God. Our job, consequently, is to find out what that precise original message is through the glasses of context.
Let me illustrate how ignoring context can result in questionable conclusions. Paul writes about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
At first glance, Paul appears to be setting up a spiritual hierarchy between the unwed and the wed—staying unmarried is more “spiritual” because we can give our undivided time to God. However, such an interpretation would not only contradict other Bible passages that upholds the sanctity and blessing of marriage and procreation, but it would also be an questionable interpretation in light of the prior verses in 1 Corinthians 7:26-28:
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
What “present crisis” is Paul referring to? In view of many Bible verses that speak of the violent persecution that these early Christians were facing, Paul is likely referring to the torture, imprisonment, and even martyrdom that many Christians had to endure for their faith. And in this context, 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 is likely reiterating the importance of timing. Is it the right time to get married if we know that the husband or wife will face assured imprisonment? It it the right time to build a family knowing that the likely death of husbands will leave widows and orphans? For every activity there is a season and time. And during times of severe Christian persecution, Paul is exhorting us to exercise wisdom in our choices concerning marriage. The torture, imprisonment, or even death of an unmarried Christian is a tragic event, but the death of a Christian father of three children will assuredly “divide the interests and hearts” of all those involved. Like a concerned father, Paul is giving the Corinthian church loving, wise, and practical advice.
As we consider the importance of context in biblical interpretation, it’s good to keep in mind that context has many layers. At its most basic level, the grammar of the original language needs to be carefully considered; and at its most broad level, we must remember that the entire Bible is rightly interpreted through the revealed divinity of Jesus Christ. Let me illustrate how these layers influence the interpretive process.
GRAMMATICAL and LOCAL CONTEXT. Many experts consider the Portuguese word saudade one of the most difficult words to translate. In his book In Portugal of 1912, A.F.G Bell writes this definition:
The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.
The Bible, which was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, also has its share of translational challenges. Scholars have gone to great lengths to provide an accurate English translation from these ancient languages; and the translations that we have are excellent. But there are many pearls to be found by digging into the subtleties of the original language. Since I am no expert in these languages, I rely on good Bible commentaries to help shed light on these subtleties.
But even if we don’t know the original language, many times we can figure out the meaning of the passage simply by analyzing its local context—as we look at the verses and chapters surrounding it. Let me provide an example: in John 8:12, Jesus gives us the second of his seven famous “I AM” sayings:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.”
Now, how are we to interpret “I am the light of the world”? Does Jesus mean that he literally has the power to glow like a lightbulb? (Well… I think that he does, but I don’t think that’s what he means here.) If we look at the Pharisee’s response to Jesus (i.e. the local context), we get a clue to the meaning. And what they say is a little surprising, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” In other words, by saying “I am the light of the world”, Jesus appears to be making a bold claim about his personhood that bucked the Pharisees in an very wrong way. What was that claim? We get many clues throughout the earlier chapters in John. But let’s look at one example in John 5:18:
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
So the beef the Pharisees had with Jesus was that “I am the light of the world” was somehow a claim to divinity—that he made himself “equal with God.” So when the Pharisees said that Jesus’ testimony was not true because he was bearing witness about himself, they were basically saying, “Prove it!” Actually, it was more negative than that—they were actually saying, “You can’t prove it!” According to the Pharisees, Jesus had committed blasphemy!
Now as we reflect on how we use the local context to interpret a particular passage, we come across a crucial principle of Bible interpretation: Scripture interprets itself. To understand a particular verse, we first look at the nearby verses. If that doesn’t shed light on the meaning of the passage, then we look at the overall context of the surrounding chapters. And if that still doesn’t give us a clue, then we continue to enlarge our “interpretive circle” until we have all 66 books of the Bible in view as God;s unified message to mankind. In other words, when interpreting the Bible, we moves from local to broad. If we move the other way—from broad to local—we can come up with some bizarre and serious interpretive errors.
So, let’s go back to our example passage: how was Christ’s claim to be “the light of the world” a claim to divinity? Is it possible that because God the Father is often described as the Father of light (Job 12:22, Psalm 18:28, Psalm 27:1, Psalm 36:9, Psalm 43:3, Psalm 90:8, 1 John 1:5 and James 1:17), Christ’s description of himself as “the light of the world” smacks of blasphemy to these Pharisees? Yes, I think this is likely one explanation. But there may be others. Let’s now look at the culture context of this passage…
CULTURAL CONTEXT. It’s important to remember that the authors who penned the New Testament were raised in a Jewish society. That is, the cultural background which affected how they wrote and thought was thoroughly Jewish—in the rituals they followed, festivals they celebrated, and customs they followed. So when John tells us that Jesus was at the Feast of Booths (John 7:2) when he boldly proclaimed that he was “the light of the world,” that likely tells us something important. So what was the Feast of Booths? In Leviticus 23:40-44, we read the following:
And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts ofthe LORD.
The Feast of Booths (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot) was a seven day feast that was part of the Old Testament worship. Here, each family would construct a small shelters to live in for a week as a remembrance of how God protected and provided for Israel while they were wandering in the wilderness. It was a time of joyful celebration. In his commentary on the book of John, Dr. James Boice helps to fill in some of the cultural context of this festival:
On the first night of the feast, and probably on succeeding nights also, after the sun had set, two great lamps were lighted in the courts of the temple. These were said to have cast their light over every quarter of the city. The lamps were meant to recall the pillar of cloud and fire that had accompanied the people in their wanderings in the desert. This was the cloud that had appeared on the day when the people left Egypt and had stood between the Israelites and the pursuing armies of the Egyptians the night before the crossing of the Red Sea.
The fancy word to describe this pillar of fire is a theophany which simply means a physical manifestation to mankind of God’s presence. So with this as the backdrop, Christ’s claim to be “the light of the world” takes on a new dimension—it was a claim to to be that very pillar of fire in the Old Testament. It was a claim to be God.
CONTEXT OF GENRE. The Bible contains books on poetry, songs, historical narratives, wisdom literature, letters to churches, personal spiritual letters to friends, and prophetic literature. As such, these books contain the gamut of human literary expression—everything from direct moral commands, literal historical accounts, irony, poetic imagery, illustrative hyperbole, passionate love songs, and even humorous sarcasm can be found in the Bible. That’s what I love about Scripture: there is divinely-inspired literary artistry. God has even used His holy Word to reveal His tremendous creative nature. That does not mean, however, that we have a “creative license” in its interpretation. We do not! Even when God uses metaphorical language, there is still an essential message that He desires to convey. What this literary diversity means to us, however, is that we must read parables as parables, poetry as poetry, history as history, and prophecy as prophecy. We make serious errors when we interpret literal history as metaphorical, or poetic imagery as literal. When we read the Bible, the genre of the book needs to be considered before an accurate interpretation can be made.
BIBLICAL CONTEXT. Each book of the Bible does not exist its own “interpretive bubble.” These 66 books complement each other and together form God’s complete and authoritative and unified revelation to man. As such, correct interpretation of Scripture must seriously regard the context of the entire Bible. If we are trying to discern, for example, the spiritual role of angels, we must consider all verses that speak on angels. If we are trying to understand God’s holiness, we must form our theology based on all Scripture that address God’s holiness. Picking and choosing verses to the neglect of other verses will not do.
And if, at first glance, some parts of the Bible seem to contradict other parts, then we do our best to reconcile those passage into a unified message based on the rules of 1) context, 2) context, and 3) context. As R.C. Sproul liked to say, “God does not speak with a forked tongue.” In other words, God does not affirm one thing as true in one passage and then affirm that the opposite is equally true in another.
Let me illustrate this point. Jesus says in Matthew 18:8-9:
“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”
Is Jesus advocating salvation by mutilation (which would be a very works oriented view of salvation)? Does Jesus believe that we can atone for our sins by ripping off body parts? Because that is what a purely literal interpretation of this text would suggest! (Of course, the limitation (pun intended) of this view of salvation is that, after a short while, we would run out of parts to cut off!) A more reasonable (and biblical) interpretation is obtained when we view this passage in the context of the entire Bible. In this light, Jesus is exhorting us to treat our sins with utmost seriousness (since it is a matter of “life and death”). And ultimately, such a deep realization and conviction of the seriousness of our sins and our utter hopelessness before a holy God will lead us to the amazing doctrine of Justification by Faith (not by mutilation).
THE CONTEXT OF JESUS. The Bible reveals Jesus as the crowning centerpiece of God’s redemptive plan. In the Old Testament, he is the complete fulfillment of Messianic prophecy and his life was foreshadowed in Jacob’s Ladder, the diversion of God’s wrath by the Passover lamb, the pillar of fire in the wilderness, the Temple, the role of the high priest, the Jewish ceremonial rites, the substitutionary ram provided in place of Isaac, and the tender story of Ruth and Boaz. In the New Testament, doctrinal truths such as the holiness of God, divine grace, righteousness, justification by faith, sanctification, and the resurrection of saints are interpreted through an understanding his incarnate birth, sinless life, inspired teachings, sacrificial death on the cross, bodily resurrection from the grave, and heavenly ascension to his throne. Jesus Christ is, in fact, the cornerstone on which the entire house of Christianity is built. Other religions can exist without their founders, but Christianity cannot. Without Christ, there is no Christianity. In this broad context, all the Bible can and should be read with this question always in mind: How might this passage help me to understand Jesus? How does this passage magnify my worship of Christ? Of course, we must not “force” this presupposition on every verse we read. But it is important to remember the Jesus is the crowning revelation in all of holy Scripture.
How Firm A Foundation (Page 1)