Q. Why can’t all Christians interpret the Bible in the same way?
This is a question that deserves an answer. One of Satan’s greatest tools is divisiveness. Skeptics wonder why people who claim the Bible is their guide can’t agree on what it says. I will list several simple issues that must be addressed if we are to come to agreement.
1) I must accept that the Bible is written by inspiration.
First, let’s define inspiration for our viewers.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 (NASB)
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
The word here for “inspired,” means literally, “God-breathed.” This means that the Holy Spirit acted in such a way that the writers of the Bible presented the exact truth that God desired revealed. Peter says
2 Peter 1:20,21(NASB)
20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,
21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
1 Corinthians 1:11-13(NASB)
11* For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.
12* Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God,
13* which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
God revealed through the Spirit the exact words, word-for-word, that He wanted man to have in the Scriptures. And since he did, there should certainly be evidence of Divine knowledge in the Scriptures.
To be able to agree about what the Bible says we must first agree about what the Bible is. If I believe that the Bible is the Word of God I am going to search it with every fiber of my being and I’m going to want to know what it says to be pleasing to Him. I am going to want to obey such passages as:
2 Tim. 2:15
15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.
2) If I’m going to understand the Bible properly, if I’m going to “accurately handle the word of truth” I must understand something about the scheme of Scripture, or the flow of Scripture.
The Bible is not a random collection of sayings from God. There is a scheme to it; there is a flow to it. Someone once rightly noted that the Bible really has three major chapters, but they are not of equal length.
Chapter 1 is the chapter about God’s creative power, including the creation of man. You can read about that in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
Chapter 2 in the Bible is the story of the fall of man. You can read about that in Genesis
Then the third, the last and the largest chapter in the Bible begins at the end of Chapter 3 of Genesis and goes through the rest of the Bible. It is the story of God reaching down and redeeming mankind. That is the flow of Scripture.
In the third and last section of the Bible we have a progressive revelation of how God reaches down to redeem man.
There are differences in how God deals with man depending on where your are in the scheme of things.
24* Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.
25* But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
26* For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
27* For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28* There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29* And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
15* by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,
16* and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
17* AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR;
18* for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.
2 Cor. 3:2-15
2* You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men;
3* being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4* Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.
5* Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God,
6* ¶ who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7* But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was,
8* how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?
9* For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.
10* For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it.
11* For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.
12* ¶ Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech,
13* and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away.
14* But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ.
15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart;
14* having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
The Old Testament illustrates for us WHAT sin is and WHAT God does in response to sin. THEREFORE we MUST study diligently what the Old Testament teaches. For example consider:
4* For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
7* ¶ What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.”
8* But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.
9* I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died;
10* and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me;
11* for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
12* So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good
13* Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
14* ¶ For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
1 Cor. 10:6-14
6* ¶ Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.
7* Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.”
8* Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.
9* Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.
10* Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.
11* Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
12* Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.
13* No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
14* Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
3) If I’m going to understand the Bible properly, I must understand something about “context.”
Let all passages in the Bible speak for themselves within the context of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book. Our major problem in properly interpreting a passage may be our bias or our subjectivity. If we approach a passage thinking we already know what it teaches we may read our own meaning into the passage. This is called eisegesis (eis is a Greek word meaning “into” or “unto”; Cf. Acts 2:38). To correctly interpret the Bible one must practice exegesis (ex is a Greek preposition meaning “out of”). The “rules” of Hermeneutics are established to assist one in the fine art of exegesis.
Every person comes to the Bible with some kind of preconceived idea about what it says. We all have our biases.
I saw a cartoon, a little one-framed cartoon, that kind of was the extreme on this. A husband was sitting over his Bible and his wife was standing behind him and apparently, she was trying to interrupt him. His comment at the bottom of the cartoon was, “Don’t interrupt me now, honey, I’m trying to find a verse to back-up my preconceived notion.” If we are honest, there is a lot of that in the religious world.
Once a scripture or scriptures are identified with respect to their place in the flow of the Bible, it is crucial to understand its immediate context. Before asking the question of, “what does this passage mean to me?”, I need to ask the question, “what was this writer saying when he first wrote it?” People, that is a crucial element of Biblical interpretation; otherwise, Scripture will mean anything we want it to mean.
Let me give you an absurd example: Ecclesiastes 10: 19 says,
” 19 Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.”
How would you like for that to be your life’s philosophy? Pull that verse out of context and you would live an Epicurean lifestyle that is absolutely contrary to the ways of God. Somebody says, “Mike, how can that verse be in the Bible?” If you understood anything about Ecclesiastes, and if you knew who wrote it, and if you knew what was happening in his life when he wrote it, and if you particularly knew the context of Ecclesiastes chapter 10, it would make sense to you. You see, you do have to understand context.
Let me give you a more up to date example that I hear abused just about every week. Somebody will turn to Philippians 4:13 where Paul says,
” I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Boy, the positive mental attitude specialists have a field day on that one. How many times have you heard these television preachers get up there and say, “God wants you to be rich! God wants you to be successful! God wants you to have everything you ever wanted! How do we know? Paul said ‘I can do everything through him who strengthens me’.” People, you ought to read that in context because in the four verses that surround that Paul is talking about being content, even when he is in the most adverse of circumstances. The passage is saying exactly the opposite of what is usually preached about.
4) If I am going to correctly handle the Word, I am going to let the Word speak for itself.
Earlier I noted that no one studies the Bible totally exempt from imposing on a passage his own ideas, or ideas he has learned from someone else. But let me encourage you, do your best to be a “blank sheet”. Once you know where that passage is in the flow of the Bible, and once you know its immediate context, let the Word speak. That is when it is profitable, as 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Not when I have my preconceived notions to massage it into what I want it to be; it is profitable when I let it speak.
By the way, there is a sub-point here I need to bring out. Let the Word govern your experience and don’t let your experience govern the Word. If I had a quarter for every time somebody has had some experience, then they have taken the Bible to justify or to validate their experience, I’d be a rich man. If we are going to look at the Word as the inspired Word of God, let it mold our experiences, don’t let our experiences mold the Word.
Let me give you another absurd example of this: I read just this week about a man who thought about marrying a woman. He went to the preacher and said, “Preacher, how do I know she’s the one?” Do you know what advice this preacher gave him? He (the preacher) said, “If it were me, I’d walk around her seven times like Israelites did around the city of Jericho, then if the walls of her heart tumble, you know she’s the one.” Do you know he did it? This is a true story. He walked around her seven times and he said, “Honey, how do you feel?” She said, “Well, I feel a little strange inside.” To tell you the truth, I’d probably felt strange if somebody had walked around me seven times. He proposed, they got married, and they were divorced less than a year later; then
they wondered why God had given them a false signal. Is that not the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen? God didn’t give them a signal at all! They were taking something out of the Old
Testament, out of context, trying to let their experience dictate what the Word said. People, don’t do that! That is not how God designed his Word to be interpreted.
5) If I am going to correctly handle the Word, I am going to compare scripture with other scripture.
You know, when you study scripture, sooner or later you are going to run into a real difficult passage. You know what a lot of people do when they hit that difficult passage? They run and grab a commentary and look up what that’s supposed to mean. Commentaries have a worthy purpose, but I want to tell you today they have limitations, and here’s why:
Number one, commentaries are uninspired documents written by men for men.
Number two, you go get a commentary that shows me an exegesis of any passage in scripture, any passage in scripture, and I can go find you a commentary that will offer a totally different view.
So, if you get right down to it, commentaries have contributed to this issue of controversy about interpretation.
Do you know the best place to find commentary on a passage of scripture is? The best place is other passages of scripture. The greatest improvement in the study of the Scriptures in modern times is Bible computer software. Another good resource book is called a cross-reference Bible (most Bibles today are), what that means is by a verse there is a little letter, a little number, and a footnote someone on your page that will let you know other places in the Bible that deal with that exact same thing. If you don’t own one of those, get one of those. I would also advise to you some topical Bibles and some Concordances that can let you know where words appear in the Bible. These are not commentaries, they don’t offer any insights or any man’s opinion, they just help you correlate Scripture. People, the Bible is its best interpreter. If you have problems with a verse, find another verse that talks about the same thing and it will make it clearer to you. Compare scripture with scripture.
For example, let’s look at what the Bible says about judging:
1* ¶ “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.
2* “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.
24* “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”
Wait a minute…….are we to judge or NOT?
4* Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
43* Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.”
16* “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?
17* “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
18* “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.
19* “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20* “So then, you will know them by their fruits.
1 Cor. 14:29
29* Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.
You see you must let the Bible speak for itself. When the context is observed the Bible is clear in it’s teaching when you compare scripture with other scripture.
6) If I am going to correctly handle the Word, I am going to Pray. When you study the Bible, P R A Y.
Keep two things in mind:
1) The devil will try to keep any one of us from correctly determining what God would have us know. The devil doesn’t want us to know what is in God’s Word. So when you read the Bible, you pray that God protect you from the evil one as you try to search for his will.
2) Remember that prayer and Bible study go hand-in-hand. You see, the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). And that same Holy Spirit is our intercessor in prayer (Romans 8:26). So you see, the Holy Spirit wants us to merge Bible study with prayer, and it’s amazing how clear the Bible can become when you diligently study and pray. Folks, the thing I’m worried about most is not how we interpret the Bible; the thing I’m worried about most is whether or not we read the Bible. I saw a Gallup poll; It said that 82% of America believes that the Bible is the literal, inspired Word of God, but only 21% study it. I believe if we would just study it, we would come closer to interpreting it alike. If we would just be honest, and study. Let’s try to use these principles and see if we can’t see what God wants us to know.