Basics For Understanding the Bible
It’s sometimes not as hard as we make it....
This note is not meant to be sarcastic (OK, a little, but delivered good-naturedly) . Its goal is to get us to start to look at scripture in the context in which we find them. We must remember the 6 things we need to consider in our scripture interpretation.
- The PERSON who wrote it
- The PEOPLE to whom it is written
- The PLACE it involves
- The PERIOD (or age) in which it was written
- The PURPOSE for which it is written
- The PLAN around which it is written
We must also take every word literally. This applies to literary techniques such as figures of speech, hyperbole, sarcasm, parables, etc. That might sound contradictory, but when the text tells us something is a parable, for example, we understand it as such in context of a literal speaker, audience, etc.
God hath spoken, "at sundry times," as well as "in divers manners" (Heb 1:1). And, if we are to understand what He has spoken, we must learn to distinguish, not only the various peoples to whom He has spoken, but the "sundry times" at which He has spoken to them, and also the "divers manners." It is true that the [Greek] word polumeroß means strictly, in many parts, or portions. But it is equally true that these parts were spoken at different, or "sundry times"; so that the rendering of the [Authorized Version] is literal as to the fact, and to the sense—though not literal to the Words.
-Dr. E.W. Bullinger (How to Enjoy the Bible, Part I, Section III, 1916)
Here are some scripture examples with clear meanings which have often been misinterpreted, misunderstood, misapplied or simply dismissed because of a failure to either apply the 6 Ps or acknowledge a literary device. In some cases, men hold the scripture to be in error or in contradiction. In the worst cases, it is implied that God is a liar.
- When the Lord tells the gentile woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, he meant that he was sent only to to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matt 15:24)
- When the Lord says in the future he will make a New Covenant with Israel and Judah and no one else, it means he will make a future New Covenant with Israel and Judah and no one else. (Jer 31; Heb 8)
- When the Lord said he would come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, he meant he would come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matt 24:30)
- When the Lord speaks of Adam, Noah, Moses, Daniel, and Jonah as real, historical figures, he means Adam, Noah, Moses, Daniel, and Jonah are real historical figures.
- When the Lord said that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, it means Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (Matt 24:40)
- When the Lord said that marriage was one man and one woman from the beginning, he meant that there was a beginning, man and woman were there, and marriage is only between one man and one woman. (Matt 19:4)
- When the apostles asked when the Lord would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), they expected the Lord to restore the kingdom to Israel. [Note, the Lord does not rebuke or correct them, he tells them the specific time is not for them to know, v.7]
- When the Lord states that parable are give so unbelievers will not understand them (misinterpret) we must believe they are difficult to understand even for the believer (Matt 13:10-11)
- Claiming Jer 29:11 for yourself is like claiming 2 Sam 7:12-13 for yourself. We can claim neither. We must learn the difference between principle and doctrine.
- Should widows marry (1 Tim 5:14) or not marry (1 Cor 7:8)? That answer is found in understanding how to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
If you believe, for example that everything Jesus said was said to you, do you truly do all that is commanded in the gospels (see: Matt 5:42)? You also might not want to read Matt 10: 5-10.
Over the years I’ve been in discussions with those who went to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), claiming the words there are binding on us, promises to us, and the foundation of the present age. To date, not one has paid my medical bills despite repeated requests. ;)
We don’t want to interpret scripture correctly simply to be “right.” We are charged by God with studying to show ourselves approved by rightly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15).
Often a passage takes hours, days, months or even years to wrestle with unto a better understanding. Some passages cannot be fully understood in this age because God has not given it to us. We must not simply settle for any interpretation. This will lead to confusion or stagnation. And in the worst cases, a wrong interpretation can rob from another’s hope or lead us to forsake our own hope.
We can no more rob Israel of her promises than we can rob the 12 disciples from their promise to sit on 12 thrones. We do not spiritualize the latter, thus we can never spiritualize Israel or its promises in regard to the land.
So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matt 19:28)
We cannot claim anything in there. We will not sit on thrones, we will not judge Israel, we are not Israel. As this is merely an introduction to the topic of interpretation, I will leave that there. But much damage has been done to sound doctrine by some Bible teachers by spiritualizing the literal, simplifying the complex, complicating the simple, confusing ages, people, commands and promises. In the worst cases, the faith of many has been made shipwreck by following these teachers.
For the one intent on holding on to every promise and every command in the Word as applicable to him, I suggest he read Ezekiel 4. About those “Bible diets”...
And your food which you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from time to time you shall eat it. You shall also drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; from time to time you shall drink. And you shall eat it as barley cakes; and bake it using fuel of human waste in their sight.
You don’t need a seminary degree to study and better understand the Bible. There is nothing wrong with formal study, but I can produce 10 seminary grads with 10 different opinions on the topic of baptism. As Paul instructs us in this present age, in his final epistle to the Body (2 Tim), each of us must “study to show [ourselves] approved unto God.” Let us not study to show ourselves approved unto any other. The goal is to discover truth as best we can understand it in this life.
Truth must be sought, studied, applied, defended and passed on.
As Charles Welch has put it (I paraphrase):
- Something is not true merely because it is repeated... that is only Vanity.
- Something is not true merely because some church says its true... that is only Ecclesiasticism.
- Something is not true merely because it is old... that is only Tradition.
Truth is truth. It bows to no vote; it is no more or less true with the passage of time.