Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Understanding the Bible – Part 5
As we begin our final section, let’s review the main points from the previous installments. We have established that the Bible itself teaches us how to interpret its writings, and that regeneration is absolutely essential in order for anyone to be able to know the true and ultimate message of God. The Holy Spirit will continue to work in the regenerated man, opening his eyes to behold the unfolding revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. A careful student will consider context, progressive revelation, presuppositions, and the dangers of human reasoning as he or she seeks to learn what God intends for them to learn as they read his Word.
(5) Word meanings
Let’s go now to words. One problem many have fallen into is to give a detailed, narrow, and technical definition to a word, and then use only that definition every time that word is found. Statements of Scripture are then read in an ‘absolute sense’. There is great danger in that, and many wrong doctrines have developed because of this mistake. (By the way, I have been guilty of this error and also the error of reaching conclusions that are not actually based on the clear conclusions of Scripture. I am likely still guilty in both of these areas in some things, which is why it is so good to interact with brothers who are full of the Spirit and the Word in order to be continually corrected to think rightly about our great God and walk in truth.)
It is this error in regard to word definitions that can lead someone into believing the Bible says something that it really isn’t saying at all.
An example that you may have already dealt with is that kind of a reading of John 3:16. “See it says ‘everybody’—everybody who has ever lived and is living and ever will live,” some people will say. The word John used is “world.” What John (and through him, God) meant when he used the term kosmos (Greek word translated “world” in John 3:16) is the real issue. It makes a great study to look up all the references to kosmos in the writings of John to see just how it is used. What happens when you try to fit the definition, “everybody who has ever lived and is living and ever will live” into each passage containing kosmos?
The truth is that words are very ‘plastic’. They often carry a very broad, general definition and only the context will squeeze the word into a more precise or technical use. We must keep words in their general definition unless the context forces us to a more specific reading. The other key element is to see how the human author uses the word in the context of that particular sentence, in the paragraph, in the book, and in the context of the whole of the Scripture. How God uses that particular word is more important than how I might use it in conversations with my friends. Just because I might use a word and give it a particular meaning, does not mean that is how the writer of Scripture is using that particular word.
Consider the word love. People have very confusing thoughts of the love of God (especially in light of hell and suffering in this world). The issue of the love of God is greatly confused because of the many aspects of love that are referred to in the Bible. You will get into trouble if you do not see the differences in those aspects. If you lock onto one definition and force it upon every occurrence of the word, as if there is but one degree of love and one way of loving, you’ll have confusion. You could have a problem with passages like “God is angry with the wicked every day,” and “the wicked one, His soul hates,” and thus, at least practically, have to ‘erase’ them using passages like John 3:16. At the other end of the spectrum, you could have some hyper-Calvinists who explain away (erase) a lot of other passages and end up with a God who has absolute and total hate toward the non-elect—a God who desires only the worst for them. We don’t want to explain anything away. We want to hold together all the truths that God tells us, even when his ways are higher than our thoughts can take us (as I assure you, they will be!!!).
Additional confusion is created when slogans are thrown into the mix; taking something that is true in some way or situation and making it sound like an absolute truth. For example, you may have heard the slogan “God’s love is unconditional.” This is indeed a conclusion; however, we must determine if it is a conclusion based on clear Scriptural teaching, or if has it been reached by human reasoning based on some statements (key word is some) read in the Bible. The declaration that “God’s love is unconditional” contains some truth—but when it is stated as a whole truth it becomes untruth. What the Bible teaches about love is far more varied and complex than the axiom presented in this slogan.
Take the verse, “God loves a cheerful giver.” This is just one instance of usage with a sense of conditional love that comes from God. Additionally, there seem to be conditions established in John 14:21, 23. So there are some uses of the term love that seem to be quite conditional with regard to attitudes and actions on the part of the object receiving the love. There are other uses of the term where love is definitely not conditional on the part of the object receiving the love (Rom. 5:8; 9:10-13).
It is also not just as simple as checking out the Greek or Hebrew word originally used. Consider the Greek word agape (love). Does it always mean a noble form of love that is less emotional than another form of the word; phileo? In 2 Samuel 13, we are told that Amnon loves his half-sister, Tamar, but his love is selfish and sexual and emotional and lasts only until he incestuously rapes her. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures used in Jesus’ day) uses both agape and phileo to describe Amnon’s love for Tamar. When Paul writes that Demas has deserted him, having loved this present evil world, he uses agape, which makes no sense at all if you are locked into the definition of a “willed self-denial for the sake of another.” So, though there are distinctions in words and they do carry meaning in themselves, we cannot lock onto a single meaning and definition that is completely rigid. Context is crucial! Words have fluidity and carry various shades of meaning and can be general or specific depending on usage in context. Even our English word love has different and varying degrees and is expressed in varying ways to various people (often based on relationship!) I can love my neighbor, love my wife, love baked beans etc. and it is not the exact same kind of affection in each instance. People refer to making love, and it might just mean sex in the context—or it could truly be an act of love between a man and his wife. There are different kinds of love.
Here are a few more examples:
Grace: It is defined by some as “unmerited favor,” and in many places that definition is true—especially when it comes to us! However, read Luke 2:40 and we will find “unmerited favor” does not fit at all. This is not a “one size fits all” kind of definition. Favor is certainly included in the definition, but it can have various shades and intensities depending upon context.
Hate: We are called to hate sin. In Luke 14:26 we are to hate our parents, wife and children. Is it the same definition? (Better not be!)
Law: We will find as we read the Scriptures that this word is used in many different ways. We read in one place that the law was flawed (Heb. 7:18-19; 8:7). In another we read that the law is perfect and converts the soul (Psalm 19:7). Sometimes the word law is referring to the Word of God, as in the case of Psalm 19, to which I just referred. Sometimes it refers to just the first five books of Moses. Sometimes it refers to the books of the Old Testament Scriptures from Genesis up to, but not including Job (as when Jesus refers to the Scriptures as “the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets.”) Sometimes law refers to the Ten Commandments, and sometimes to the whole Old Covenant. Sometimes it is simply used generally for any commandments of God, not referring to any specific covenant.
So if someone asks us, “Is the law of God obsolete?” we need to know what they mean by law. If they mean God’s Word or even the Old Testament Scriptures, the answer is a resounding no! If they mean God’s commandments, it is still no. If they mean the Old Covenant considered as a covenant to gain acceptance with God, then the answer is yes!—for Christ has come and he has fulfilled the law—its pictures, its requirements, its purpose!
When we read that we are not under law or that the law has been done away in Christ, how do we discover what those passages teach that is in harmony with the whole of Scripture? We can see by looking at Hebrews 8:7-13 that the law covenant established at Sinai is obsolete AS A COVENANT. We must consider all the biblical evidence when we are seeking to establish the meaning of particular verses.
It is essential when we exchange ideas about issues like the law that we are clear about what we are discussing. Since this term refers to many different things and is used in many different ways in the Scripture, we must be careful when comparing one passage with another. Recognizing this principle will help clear up several apparent contradictions that a quick read will sometimes seem to present.
(6) Erasing Scripture with Scripture
Let us be careful in our reading to sincerely seek to understand God’s meaning and intent of any word or passage. We want to examine all that the Scripture has to say on any given topic, taking into consideration the particular contexts (i.e. in redemptive history). Too often errors occur because people use one passage or truth to erase another. We must receive all that the Scripture reveals, whether or not we can mentally reconcile all the truths it presents.
This error has occurred throughout the history of Christianity with regard to the nature of Jesus Christ. Some people have read that Jesus is a man. They then use the texts that specifically present his humanity to ‘erase’ the texts that speak of his deity. In other words, the humanity texts become the lens through which they interpret (or re-interpret) all other verses. We must, however, receive both truths and hold them together—whether our thimble-sized brains can reason it all out or not (and when it comes to God—we are definitely out of our intellectual league!).
Is Jesus God or man? Yes! Is he fifty percent man and fifty percent God? No! He is one-hundred percent man and one-hundred percent God. Doesn’t that make two-hundred percent? Maybe so, but that is what the Scripture reveals to us. It is his complete humanity and his complete deity that makes Jesus alone qualified to be the one Mediator between God and men.
Another area where this ‘erasing’ (my own coined term) takes place is in the area of salvation. People read of human responsibility and “whosoever will”. They then put on lenses that virtually fade-out the verses dealing with election and predestination, etc. Those verses are (at least practically) erased through being reinterpreted by the “whosoever” verses. Some hyper-Calvinists erase the “whosoever will” verses and teach that the elect are saved (even if they don’t ever come to faith and thus know it) and kill evangelism. But the whole counsel of God’s Word must be received and believed. God has elected a people and that is who will come. The God who has ordained their salvation has also ordained the means of their salvation. The means is the preaching of the gospel, and justification through faith in Jesus Christ. The sinner must believe in Christ to be saved (i.e. John 3:36). Men are responsible for their sin and will be judged accordingly. God is responsible for the new birth that gives us spiritual life so we can see the truth and thus, repent and believe (which we do, not God—however, apart from God, we would never have believed!). Thus God gets all the glory for our salvation!
We must let all that the Scripture declares stand together, whether or not we can fully reconcile it in our minds.
E. Closing Words
In our study of the Scripture, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Heb. 10:7; Luke 24:25-27, 44-45; John 5:39). There is no greater place to fix our attention than on the Lord Jesus Christ. People cry out for so many things. God says, “I give you Jesus! Look unto him! He is the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End!” There is nothing so suited to our growth in grace as an ever-increasing acquaintance with Jesus Christ. Sanctification does not occur when we read just the words of the Bible—the historical facts; we are then like those who still have a veil over their minds.
Read the context of 2 Corinthians 3, which concludes with these words:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
The means of our reflection of his image is to behold the glory of the Lord in the Scriptures. The Spirit of the Lord frees us to see and live in a genuine love relationship with the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord uncovers the glory of Christ and his kingdom—his everlasting covenant. While we behold the glory of the Lord, the Spirit of the Lord transforms us to reflect his image in our lives. Our “faces” and lives manifest the life of this glorious Lord of lords as we are gloriously being transformed into his likeness. Oh, that Christ might be manifest in my mortal flesh!
The one whose mind is unveiled reads the Scriptures very differently from the one whose mind is veiled. The former delights in the law of Lord far beyond the one who reads mere history.
When you read that Abraham is going to take “his only begotten son” (Heb. 11:17 NKJV), Isaac, and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah, do you rejoice in seeing a dedicated father and an obedient son? Or do you have exceeding joy in the picture that it portrays of another Father and Son? Is not your joy found in seeing that to which Abraham points: God the Father who gave his only begotten Son on Golgotha, a portion of Mount Moriah? This time God did not stay the knife, and provide a ram to die in place of the Son. No, Jesus was the substitute. He was the acceptable sacrifice; the ram who died in the place of the seed of Abraham.
It is worth forsaking the entire world to gain a portion in this kingdom in which there is the forgiveness of sins. Our Sovereign Lord will once more shake heaven and earth and it will all pass away, but we who believe are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken! All that is in the world cannot be compared with what is ours to enjoy in the kingdom of God’s dear Son.
Too often we struggle against specific sins, wishing all the while that we knew how to gain victory over them. The answer for us is the same as for those searching for salvation in the first place—Christ! Read the Scriptures. Think. Meditate on the lovely picture of Christ displayed there. Behold him! Behold the man! Behold the Lamb of God! We must fill our minds with thoughts of him. Meditate on these things and commune with him—decrease that he may increase. God’s goal is that Christ will be the preeminent one in all things. May that begin to be realized in our own lives, where Christ manifests his life and preeminence in and through us as his vessels. He owns us—having redeemed us with his own precious blood. His Spirit has been poured out to the end that the very life of Christ—the Word of God—might be the fruit revealed and diffused in and through us. This is the fellowship into which we have been brought. Eternal life is not merely everlasting existence, but an eternity of union with CHRIST OUR LIFE. We have been united into his death and resurrection. We have been united to Christ himself, our Beloved! As his bride, may our desire be only for him, and may we submit ourselves wholly to our Lord and Master. He is our life. If we will yield to that life, it will transform and overwhelm us, eclipsing our selfishness and molding and shaping us into the very image of him who has called us!
When we lose sight of Christ, our love for him begins to dwindle and we begin to fail. When we are faced with some “besetting sin,” the best way for us to overcome is not to concentrate on it, but to concentrate upon him! (Heb. 12:1-3). Our thoughts and affections must be set on his loveliness and glory and desirability. Victory lives within us; victory has a personality. Dear brothers and sisters, have you met the man named Victory, or are you still looking for it as an experience? Stop searching, for victory is Christ, and he is already present within you as life. Victory is bound up in Christ, and not in yourselves.
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)
For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:13)
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:6-11)
The Bible gives us such a wonderful presentation of Christ throughout the volume of the Book. Why? So that as we look to him, we will be saved, and so that continuing to look, we will grow to be like him. This is why Peter closes his second epistle with, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
After thirty years of following Christ, Paul’s chief aim in life was still, “that I may know Him…” (Phil. 3:10). I echo his prayer.
When we study the Scriptures, may our hearts burn within us as we hear our Shepherd’s voice and as the Lord gives us encouraging glimpses of himself in all his splendor.
Then He [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him … and they said to one another, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:31-32)
Then He [Jesus] said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)
Oh, Jesus, may you have the preeminence henceforth and forever! May we continually abide in you, for you are the life. You are the vine. Apart from you, we can do nothing.