Interpretation: The Responsibility of Every Christian
Often, people get the idea that biblical interpretation
is simply an academic or intellectual exercise, that it has
little or nothing to do with establishing solid beliefs or a godly lifestyle. This is just plain wrong.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, ignorance or
misunderstanding of God's word had led to bad things. God
clearly expects his words to be understood to the best of our
ability. This is a matter of morality, character and
faithfulness. Further, it is important to
be able to know what is true and right in the midst of incorrect
beliefs and practices around us. Simply following along the
incorrect beliefs of others is not acceptable either.
challenge not only what others believe and teach about the
Scriptures, they must also continually their own
understandings continually, They are always refining their
understanding of the Scriptures. It takes a lot of character
and integrity to challenge what one believes about spiritual
things. A lot of people never do it.
Let's consider just a few incidents from
the Bible itself that show us how important this is.
Case 1: Jesus
Jesus expected the Jews of his
time to do more than just follow the traditions of their
religion, however godly they might have seemed. He expected them
to know and understand the Scriptures, and he expected them to make the right
conclusions and take right actions based upon them. Even if this
meant rejecting traditional practices and teachings. For
some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from
Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your
disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash
their hands before they eat!"
Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the
sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and
mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put
to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or
mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me
is a gift devoted to God,' he is not to 'honor his father ' with
it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your
tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied
"'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.' "
Matt 15:1-9 (NIV)
Clearly, Jesus expected people
to follow what God had said in the Scriptures,
not just to follow along with the crowd's spiritual traditions. Jesus' measure of a "hypocrite" was not simply a
spiritual actor or insincere person, but someone who claimed
to be faithful to God's commands but followed the crowd instead.
If you are going to know the difference
between spiritual traditions and the commands of God,
you'd better learn good Biblical Interpretation skills.
Case 2: Jesus on the Messiah
Of course, one major issue in the gospels was that Jesus was the
Messiah and yet the Jews of his day did not understand it. Jesus
did not consider this a mere intellectual matter but a moral
one. And their lack of acceptance of him was based upon their
misunderstanding of the Scriptures. Many passages illustrate
this, let's look at a few of them:
"I have testimony weightier than
that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me
to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has
sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified
concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his
form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe
the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because
you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the
Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me
to have life.
"I do not accept
praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have
the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father's
name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in
his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you
accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain
the praise that comes from the only God ?
"But do not
think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is
Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you
would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not
believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I
Jesus recognized that they studied the Scriptures but ultimately
did not have the love of God in their hearts. And what was the
basis of that judgment by him? That they did not understand and
believe what Moses wrote about him.
Didn't the Jews claim to
believe what Moses wrote? Of course they did; and on that
very basis they rejected Jesus. But their understanding and
their belief was wrong, and it resulted in a completely wrong
action-- the rejection of Jesus. They were too busy adhering to
popular or traditional understandings that gave them the
approval of their peers rather than adhering to the Scriptures
and gaining the approval of God.
Case 3: Jesus on the Sabbath
The issue of breaking or keeping the Sabbath
was a major point of contention between Jesus
and the religious leaders. Many traditions had grown up around
the Sabbath, and The astute reader of the
gospels will notice that Jesus provoked the
Jews into examining these traditions by
deliberately breaking them. He then used the ensuing dispute as a basis to challenging
whether or not the tradition was in keeping with Scripture.
Jesus said to them, "I did one
miracle, and you are all astonished. Yet, because Moses gave
you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses,
but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the
Sabbath. 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."
Again, there was no dispute that the Jews believed Moses about
the circumcision and the Sabbath. There was no dispute about
whether the healings actually happened and were legitimate. But
their poor interpretation resulted in beliefs and a tradition
that forbade healing on the Sabbath. Thus, they missed the hand
of God. This was another bible interpretation error that led the
Jews to reject Jesus. This very topic came up again later in the
Gospel of John:
They brought to the Pharisees the
man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made
the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the
Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He
put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I
Some of the
Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not
keep the Sabbath."
asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they
turned again to the blind man, "What have you to say about
him? It was your eyes he opened."
The man replied,
"He is a prophet."
The Jews still
did not believe that he had been blind and had received his
sight until they sent for the man's parents. "Is this your
son?" they asked. "Is this the one you say was born blind? How
is it that now he can see?"
know he is our son," the parents answered, "and we know he was
born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we
don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself."
His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews,
for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged
that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.
That was why his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."
A second time
they summoned the man who had been blind. "Give glory to God,
" they said. "We know this man is a sinner."
"Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do
know. I was blind but now I see!"
Then they asked
him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"
He answered, "I
have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want
to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?"
Then they hurled
insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's disciple! We
are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but
as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from."
The interested reader may review the gospels and see how many
times Jesus corrects or criticizes his hearers for things that
have their roots in bad biblical interpretation. Jesus would
address these at a logical and intellectual level, yet there was
also a moral component to this as well. He took it as a
testimony that one did not really love God if one was not
devoted to properly understanding and following what he the
Scriptures said, particularly if one just went with the rest of
the religious crowd.
To Jesus, proper interpretation was hardly an
After the church began, we read
an interesting story about the Christians in Berea:
soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to
Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now
the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians,
for they received the message with great eagerness and examined
the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Acts 17:10-11 (NIV)
The Bereans were commended for
this examining of the Scriptures in light of what Paul was
telling them about this.
Now if we're going to practice
good biblical interpretation ourselves, we should note that just
because somebody did something, it does not mean that absolutely
we must do it also. But we can may do what they did if we are in
a similar situation. This text shows that the Bereans were
capable of examining the Scriptures themselves to check Paul's
teachings. To the point we are talking about--
they were heralded for it. This is a
powerful testimony to us having that same attitude and skill
The Explicit Teaching of Paul
Later, Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus with the following
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 Tim 2:14-15
In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In
your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of
speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you
may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
Titus 2:7-8 (NIV)
Timothy and Titus were urged to handle the Scriptures correctly.
They were urged to have integrity in teaching. There is no idea
here that the leaders were permitted to get good things done at
the expense of mishandling or distorting Scripture. Doing so
would compromise their credibility, ultimately
damaging the cause of the Gospel itself with shame and
Peter and the
Danger of Distortions in the Church
Peter told the Christians of Asia Minor that misunderstanding
what had been written was a gateway to
Bear in mind that our Lord's
patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also
wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the
same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these
matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to
understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as
they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:15-16
Some within the Christian community took the teachings of the
apostles and distorted them. We don't have a specific example of
what Peter is talking about here. We don't know if the
distortions were deliberate or innocent. But clearly the church
needed to be able to discern between a proper and distorted
understanding of these writings.
Many other examples
could be cited where the early church was expected to know and
understand the Scriptures, and where they were warned against
unfounded or distorted teachings that came from wrong ideas
about the Scriptures. In fact, many of the New Testament
writings were written specifically to correct wrong or distorted
Further, the Bible writers often discuss complex and deep issues
from the Scriptures, expecting their readers to know and
understand that which is being discussed, and to be able to
understand the teaching being provided.
Paul and the "Fine Sounding" Ideas
Paul once told a church that there were
fine-sounding ideas that were just plain wrong:
I tell you this so that no one may
deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.
were exposed to "fine sounding ideas"
that were from the Bible but not faithful to the
Bible. In such a case, the Bible can be used to justify many
teachings and practices, but those things are not really built
upon a solid understanding of the Bible. Paul's instructions
were to help the Colossians avoid this.
Col 2:4 (NIV)
Given the wide variance of teaching and practice today in the
general Christian world, how much more is this skill needed
Zeal can be a highly praised trait. Church leaders and members
alike appreciate those who are eager to put their energy into
church programs. But zeal is
not a virtue. Consider what the Scriptures say:
It is not good to have zeal
Zeal absent from
solid Biblical understanding can just become
zeal to "miss the way." That's another word for "sin." Diligence and zeal in following a wrong
understanding of the Scriptures got Jesus crucified. Paul
was zealous in his persecution of the early church
(Galatians 1:14). Is there a greater testimony that shoddy
biblical interpretation and misdirected zeal are not
half-virtues to be praised but rather dangerous moral flaws
to be taken seriously and corrected?
nor to be hasty and miss the way.
Prov 19:2 (NIV)
Blind Obedience is Not a Virtue
Often, church leaders will praise members or young Christians
who are "eager to learn" and do what they are taught. Often the
idea of being simple-minded, naive or trusting, especially to
leaders, is praised.
Everybody loves to be praised, especially by leaders. But this
is the very tool by which we can be deceived into following leaders blindly. One of Jesus' most important
teachings about how discipleship works was about "blind discipleship."
He also told them this parable: "Can a blind man
lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A
student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully
trained will be like his teacher.
Discipleship is often taught in churches,
but Jesus warns that a blind person would
just lead another blind person astray. The
only way to learn from another person is with your eyes wide
open, and the first thing to pay attention to is whether their
eyes are open too! You might be being taught good things,
but if your eyes are not open you will never know for sure.
And you are being taught wrong or distorted things, you
will only know it if your eyes are open.
This desire for the praise from others
even kept some from being true to what they knew and believed
about Jesus during his ministry:
Yet at the same
time many even among the leaders believed in him. But
because of the Pharisees they would not confess their
faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;
43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from
The praise of others is a powerful
potion. Our best protections against being deceived by it
is desiring to please God first and foremost, good biblical interpretation skills, and the
courage to stand by our convictions. The great thing is
that if your convictions are based upon solid study of
God's word, your study will verify that you
are doing the right thing. This is especially beneficial if you are in a
minority, if you oppose leaders, or if you are threatened
for your faithfulness.
John 12:42-43 (NIV)
If you constantly challenge your beliefs,
you will find that you constantly refine your beliefs. You
trim away inaccurate understandings and replace them with
more defensible ones. And for those beliefs that
withstand the challenges, you confirm their accuracy every
It is stunning how little of
Scripture has to do with church
programs, church meetings, worship
styles, order of services, facilities,
and the like. These
things are all staples of modern
Christianity, yet were insignificant
or even non-existent in Bible times.
That doesn't mean those things are
necessarily unimportant today-- but it
does show a contrast between what was
most important and most focused on
then and now. While modern people tend
to view people Bible times as being
less knowledgeable, less intelligent,
less sophisticated-- it is stunning
how much more fluent and conversant
they were about Bible things than we
tend to be today.
Interpreting the Scriptures well is not just
a matter of expertise but a matter of character and
faithfulness. It will protect against wrong traditions
and misguided teachings. It will solidify the
foundation of truth and faith. And it will draw us
closer to the heart of God himself, who has given us
the Scriptures for our guidance in faithful living and
a relationship with Him.
From front to back, the Bible is loaded with
examples of people who endeavored to understand
and follow God's word, and also those who settled for just doing what others told
them. Still others did not act on what they
knew because of what others might think. One receives
the blessing and praise of God,
the others receive warning and lament.
Which shall you be?
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