Monday, October 26, 2015


In some ways, understanding the Bible is as plain as understanding how to read the clock or the calendar. The Bible is so plain, that the lay person was expected to teach its truths to their children:

  • These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

However, for a number of reasons, interpreting the Bible can also be challenging:

  1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN ANCIENT LANGUAGES. These languages also arose from different and distant cultures. Even if we rigorously study the Hebrew and the Greek, there are idioms and nuances that we might miss.
  1. SOME OF THE BIBLE IS WRITTEN IN FIGURATIVE/POETIC LANGUAGE. Jesus spoke in parables: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’" (Matthew 13:34-35, citing Psalm 78:2)
  1. WE OFTEN DO NOT WANT THE CORRECT INTERPRETATION. Often we prefer an interpretation that will affirm us or our worldview: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
  1. THE BIBLE MUST BE UNDERSTOOD IN ITS TOTALITY IN ORDER TO ADEQUATELY UNDERSTAND AND APPLY ANY ONE PART: “Jesus answered [Satan], ‘It is written: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4) 
Let’s just focus on #5. “Every word” was necessary for not only living but also for understanding. This had been one of Jesus’ critiques of the religious leadership, who would take one verse out of the context of the rest of the Bible. Consequently, they would apply it wrongly.

For instance, the Israelite was forbidden to work on the Sabbath. However, as Jesus pointed out, there were numerous exceptions to this rule:

  • Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." (John 7:23-24)
The leadership had failed to understand and correctly apply the teachings against work on the Sabbath in light of the exceptions. One exception was the requirement to circumcise on the eighth day.

In order to interpret and apply a verse correctly, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of Scripture. Otherwise, it might seem that Scripture is contradicting itself. Take the example of Jonah preaching to Nineveh:

  • “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." (Jonah 3:4)
To our culturally bound ears, it sounds as if Nineveh was absolutely doomed to destruction in 40 days! However, we later find that this wasn’t the case:

  • When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)
Is this a contradiction? It seems like it is until we read about the conditional quality of many of God’s promises:

  • “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” (Jeremiah 18:7-8)
Some will charge that this is simply an example of Jeremiah contradicting Jonah. However, if we understand Scripture in context, we see that even Jonah understood the conditionality of God’s promise about Nineveh:

  • "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1-2)
Jonah had so hated Nineveh that he would have been glad to deliver a message of Nineveh’s unconditional destruction. However, Jonah knew that his God is one who relents, and therefore, he fled.

Here is another reason why we have to appreciate the entire counsel of Scripture. Any statement has to be understood in context. I often say, “I love chocolate.” While this is true, it doesn’t mean that I always love chocolate. I do not love chocolate after I have already ODed on sugar. I don’t love to eat it when I am nauseous.

Do these exceptions mean that my original statement was wrong? No! It just means that my statement has to be understand within the context of the entirety human experience with its many nuances. No one would call me a “liar” for saying that “I love chocolate” if I declined it when I was nauseous. Instead, they understand that it is perfectly okay to state a generalization without stating each exception along with it.

Let’s take the example of Jesus’ teaching on divorce. In one contest, Jesus taught:

  • "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)
Does this mean that there weren’t exceptions to the general rule? Of course not:

  • But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).
There is no requirement that whenever we mention a general principle that all of the exception must be immediately mentioned along with it.

Hear is another teaching that requires us to understand the entirety of Scripture. Based upon the Malachi 4:5-6 prophecy of Elijah’s return, John the Baptist was asked if he was Elijah. He answered that he was not! However, Jesus claimed that he was Elijah:

  • For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John [the Baptist]. And if ye are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, that is to come. (Matthew 11:13-14; 17:12-13)
This seems like a contradiction. However, if we understand this claim within the entirety of Scripture’s teaching on the subject, we find that this “contradiction” can be resolved. Evidently, Jesus had taught that John was Elijah only in a spiritual or figurative sense.

This becomes apparent in the Angel of the Lord’s revelation to John’s father, Zechariah:

  • He [John] will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:15-17)
It should not be surprising that Jesus had referred to John the Baptist as Elijah in a figurative/spiritual sense. Jesus often taught in this manner. Let’s just take a few examples:

  • "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matthew 6:2-3)
  • "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
  • And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:30)
Understanding how Jesus taught allows us to better understand His teaching about John. Paul counseled:

  • Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
It is so easy to incorrectly interpret. Instead, correct Bible interpretation is so foundational to God’s purposes, that incorrect interpretation is associated with not having God’s approval. Let us therefore pray that we might handle His Word correctly!

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