A man is bound to interpret the Bible as he reads it. He brings to the text his culture, his experience, his knowledge of the Scriptures, his religious training and his ideas. Most believers think of the cross as a cross and not a T shape. Most materialists think of the “flesh” as the physical body rather than the sinful nature. The fact of translation in itself has already involved interpretation of the original text. A man must sit under the authority of Scripture and not subject Scripture to his understanding.
Often when a person refers to the “plain meaning” of the words in the text, he wants the text to support his own pet ideas. There are endless disputes as to the meaning of words by cults and also within the family of God. God Himself provides teachers. Eph ch 4 v 11. 1 Cor ch 12 v 28. This allows others with different gifts to learn more quickly and get on with their own tasks.
Being God’s Word, the Bible is inerrant in its content, infallible in its teachings and authoritative in its demands and declarations. Above all, the Bible reveals the truth about the genuine, living God, so far as He has spoken about Himself.
Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scriptures to discover the original intended meaning. It is necessary to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. The historical context is important. A man has to try to trace the author’s train of thought.
Hermeneutics has to do with what the passage means today. The meaning today must at least have been a possibility to the original readers. If it did not make sense to them, then it does not mean that for a man today. A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or readers. This does not always help to prove what it means but at least it may establish what it cannot mean. Wherever a man shares comparable situations with the original readers, God’s Word to him is the same as His Word to them, e.g. 1 Cor ch 6 v 1-11. It is wrong for two brothers in Christ to go to law outside the Church. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
For the study of the Bible it is advisable to have several well-chosen translations.
God’s truth is beyond unaided human understanding.
God’s truth cannot be known by the means men ordinarily use to acquire knowledge.
Only the Holy Spirit understands God’s truth.
Having the Holy Spirit, a believer is taught by Him. 1 Cor ch 2 v 12.
The Holy Spirit uses Scripture to teach man. 1 Cor ch 2 v 13. In order to receive the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit a man must:
a. Give himself to His influence and work. Eph ch 5 v 18.
b. Pray to Him. Psalm 119 v 18.
c. Be rightly motivated. John ch 7 v 16-17.
d. Read and meditate upon the Word. Psalm 1 v 1-3.
e. Apply the rules of Biblical interpretation.
f. Rightly respond to God’s Word.
If it is a warning – heed it. If it is a failure – confess it. If it is a direction – follow it. If it is a rebuke –
accept it. If it is a teaching – receive it. If it is a blessing – give thanks for it.
g. Use sound tools.
1. Each book is complete in itself. The only book, which does not seem to come to an end, is the Book of Acts. The reason is that it is intended that each man writes his own chapters with his own life. It is the acts of the risen Christ through individuals. Every book in the Bible has historical particularity. Each one is conditioned by the language, time and culture in which it was originally written. God chose to speak His eternal truths within the particular circumstances and events of human history. God’s Word to man was first of all His Word to the people in the early days. It could only have come to them in language they could have understood. A man must first hear the Word to them there and then and then to hear the same Word in the here and now.
2. The Bible is like a tree and not a building. It is complete in Genesis. There is sin, grace, faith, judgement, the Holy Spirit, etc. Genesis does not depend on any other book.
3. There are two covenants. The Old one is not old but earlier. It is not made obsolete by the New one. The Old Covenant is between God and the nation of Israel. The New Covenant is also between God and the people of Israel.
4. Prophets had to use the language at their disposal. When they spoke of the last days, they could not use tanks or bombs but John spoke of hailstones mixed with blood. This accurately describes a bomb. The prophecy of Gog and Magog speaks of bows and arrows but there will be missiles. Isaiah speaks of Israel returning like doves to a dovecot. This accurately describes the Jewish people flying home from Iraq.
5. When reading a letter there are 4 things to know.
a. Who wrote it?
b. To whom was it written?
c. What was the situation of the people to whom it was written?
d. What was the writer seeking to achieve by the letter?
They were usually occasioned by some kind of behaviour, which needed correcting, or a doctrinal error, which needed to be set right. It is necessary to read the whole letter through. That is how a man reads ordinary letters. Why should this be different? That way a man gets the drift of the meaning of the letter. Then it is possible to outline the letter. In many cases the reason why the texts are so difficult is that they were not written for today. The original author and readers were on the same wavelength but man today is not. The author assumes a great deal on the part of the readers. The same principle applies when interpreting the words of Jesus.
The real letters were intended only for the persons to whom they were addressed. The epistle on the other hand was intended for the public. The epistles are more like tracts or treatises e.g. Ephesians and James. They are for the whole Church.
6. Each book and each letter has a theme. Each theme builds up a picture of God’s character. Like a jigsaw puzzle a picture of God emerges.
7. There are conflicting commands. One word says: “Go”. Another word says: “Wait.” Which is right? The Holy Spirit will direct through the appropriate word. If God wants a man to wait, He will use the passage, which says to wait. He speaks through the relevant passage.
8. There are 40 chapters about judgement of the nations. Amos speaks of the nations around Israel. At the time these were all the nations known to Amos. He was limited in knowledge. But the passage means that God will judge every nation, though not mentioned in the passage. The individual may be being blessed, while the nation in which he lives is under judgement.
9. Each passage has to be interpreted in light of the other Scriptures. God would never tell a lie. If the passage suggests that this is the case, then the interpretation is wrong.
10. It is necessary to know the historical setting of the person who is writing, e.g. Daniel and Ezekiel were in Babylon, while Jeremiah was in Judah. The people to whom they were writing were in different situations. God chose to speak His eternal truths over a period of 1,500 years within the particular circumstances and events of human history. If the recipient was to hear the word of God, it could only have come through events and in language they could have understood. It is necessary to hear the word they heard and to understand what it meant to them. Then man must hear the same Word here and now.
11. Do not force on the Scriptures what would not be forced on other literature. Jesus spoke of gouging out his eye, if it causes a man to sin. He obviously did not mean that to be taken literally. He was using a figure of speech to get across how serious it was to sin. One Disciple spoke of meeting two men. Another spoke of meeting one man. There is no untruth there. The second Disciple chose to mention the one person. Is the reference to 1,000 years in Revelation literal or symbolic? It appears only once and in a book, which is highly figurative and full of symbols and colourful language. Ezekiel also used very colourful language.
12. The Scriptures are to be taken literally but not literalistically. God sees what happens on the whole Earth. This does not mean that there is a huge eye roaming across the sky.
13. God hammers out His message on the anvil of history. He uses events to teach man how He views matters. Other religions use mythology. God is a God of truth. The truth is seeing things as they really are. The Bible is like a tutorial. Man listens into God dealing with the lives of others so that he can learn what pleases God and what displeases Him. “Israel is you and me on a national scale.”
14. The Bible is not a history book, although there are a lot of historical events recorded in it. It is not a science book but there are scientific facts recorded there. It is primarily a book about salvation – being saved and made holy. God says all man needs to know about sanctification.
15. There are many different literary forms within the Scriptures. When God writes in verse it shows His feelings. Prose narrates facts and discloses God’s thoughts. There is poetry, prose, parables, allegory, sarcasm, apocalypses, narrative history, chronicles, laws of all kinds, proverbs, oracles, riddles, drama, letters, sermons, sketches, etc.
16. Symbols. These are usually used to point out something difficult. e.g. bread, water, wine etc to point to the mystery of new life. It is used to convey a lesson or truth. The relation between the symbol and the truth must be discovered from what the original speaker intended. There are different types.
1. Miraculous symbols – like the burning bush.
2. Visional symbols – like a scroll.
3. Material symbols – like blood.
4. Emblematical symbols – like colours, metals.
5. Numbers e.g. in scripture 10 is a figure for fullness. 7 is a figure for perfection. 6 is a figure for imperfection. 12 is the number for government. The 12 tribes. The 12 Disciples.
6. Names. Babylon represents human rebellion because of Babel. Jerusalem represents the dwelling place of God. Egypt is the name for the World.
17. In poetry imagery is stronger than in prose. There is a need to be careful in interpretation of imagery in prose.
18. Prophecy. The message of the prophet relates to his situation. Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon. It may have a significance, which the prophet did not realise but it is rooted in his experience. Isaiah ch 24. Isaiah saw pollution but God was speaking of pollution Worldwide. There is nothing in the prophecy, which was irrelevant to the hearers. Consider what the message meant to the people of that time.
19. The allegory is an extended metaphor. “I am the true vine.” Do not go outside of the passage. Note the context of the allegory. A true allegory is a story where each element in the story means something quite foreign to the story itself.
20. The parable. It is an extended simile. A story true to the facts of life is used to make one chief point of comparison. The Good Samaritan. The meaning is to show who a man’s neighbour is. A man ought not to find multiple meanings. e. g. the coin, inn and hotel keeper have no significance so far as the meaning is concerned. In the parable of the sower, the meaning is – the response to the word of God will be mixed but effective. The parable of the mustard seed is meant to show the size of the Kingdom of God. The birds of the air are irrelevant other than to show the size. The lost sheep in Luke ch 15 v 3-7 has nothing to do with numbers but is to show how concerned a man should be for the lost. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard is nothing to do with industrial relations but teaches about mercy and the free grace of God. The ten virgins in Mat ch 25 v 1-13 is nothing to do with numbers but is one of a series to teach about the importance of being ready for the Second Coming of Jesus.
In Mat ch 13 v 10 Jesus explains the reasons for the parables. They helped make the message clear to the Disciples but made it confusing to others. They are used as a teaching tool. Picture language is used to convey truth in easily digested form. It is essential to identify the audience. For whom was the parable intended – non-believers or Disciples?
The story parables function as a means of calling forth a response on the part of the hearer. In some ways interpreting a parable is like interpreting a joke. It loses its impact under analysis. It no longer functions as a joke. The parables were designed to cause the hearers to catch the point or be caught by it. The parable leaves the hearer with a feeling of guilt. The Good Samaritan was told in response to an expert in the law, who, wanting to justify himself, had asked the question about his neighbour. Jesus exposed the self-righteousness of the lawyer. In the prodigal son, the real force is to be found in the attitude of the second son. God is gracious and the righteous should not begrudge God His generosity.
The Kingdom parables start with – “It is like this with the Kingdom of God.” The parable tells something about the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is the rule of God in the heart of man.
21. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God is the same thing. Matthew is writing to Jews and Jews never mention the name of God. So Matthew uses the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke on the other hand is writing to Gentiles and calls it “the Kingdom of God”
Guidelines to help differentiate between what is cultural and what is for all times.
1. What is central to the message and what is peripheral?
2. Distinguish between what is inherently moral and what is not. Adultery is inherent. Foot washing is not.
3. Distinguish between what is uniform and what is not. Sexual immorality is basic – eating food offered to idols is not.
4. Is head covering for a woman literal or to show that there may be some kinds of dress, which would be similarly out of place today – e.g. a bikini at Church – wearing shorts in Africa. It would also disrupt worship.
The Old Testament Narratives.
Why did God choose a people? He did this to represent in a particular way all peoples before God.
Why did God choose a land? He did this to represent the natural World in a particular way before God.
That God is faithful to the people of Israel is a witness to His faithfulness to all people.
That God is faithful to the land of Israel is a witness to His faithfulness to all creation.
If God were permanently to break the relationship between Israel and the land it would mean no hope for the redemption of humanity and the whole created order.
The purpose of the narratives is to show God at work in His creation and among His people. The narratives glorify God, help man to understand and appreciate Him and give a picture of His providence and protection. At the same time they also provide illustrations of many other lessons important to man’s life. The story is told on three levels. The top level is that of the whole universal plan of God worked out through His creation. God’s story of redemption. The middle level centres on Israel. The bottom level deals with individual narratives. Each individual narrative is part of a greater narrative of Israel’s history in the World, which in turn is part of the ultimate narrative of God’s creation and redemption of it. The individual narratives are first and foremost stories about what God did to and through the people involved. “Israel is you and me on a national scale.” Just because someone in the Bible did something in a Bible story, that does not mean that man either has permission or obligation to do it too. For the believer the Old Testament is his spiritual history. The stories are the basis of a tutorial. Man listens in as God deals with individuals and situations, pronouncing what pleases Him and what displeases Him. God did amazing things with unlikely people. The focus is on God. He accomplishes what He will. God makes His own decisions and man is not entitled to question these decision.
The Book of Acts. Luke writes not merely to inform from a historical point of view but to encourage inform, moralise and offer an apologetic aspect. Luke wants to tell the story of the continuing actions of the risen Jesus through His Disciples. They were continuing to write their own part of the continuing story. What was the motive behind the writing of the book? Acts can be seen to be composed of six sections, which give the narrative a continually forward movement from its Jewish setting based in Jerusalem with Peter as its leading figure towards a predominantly Gentile Church, with Paul as the leading figure and with Rome the capital of the Gentile World as the goal. The Holy Spirit is orchestrating the move from a Jewish based Church to a Gentile based Church as the Gospel moves out to the ends of the Earth. Luke was not so interested in individuals, Church organisation or geographical expansion except from Jerusalem to Rome. Church history was not Luke’s reason for writing. The crucial question facing the reader is this. Is what happened in the early Church what must happen in the present Church? Must believers follow the pattern or may they choose to do so or not? Luke demonstrates that the Church was always intended to be evangelistic, joyful and empowered by the Holy Spirit. What of the specific details within the narrative? Are they normative models? They are incidental to the narrative and there are ambiguities from one part of the narrative to another. Biblical precedents may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns, even if they are not understood to be normative. Walking round the town is a useful pattern but not a normative one.
The Covenant with Israel.
Deut ch 14 v 21. “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” What is wrong with that? This and other prohibitions were designed by God to forbid the Israelites to engage in the fertility cult practices of the Canaanites. They believed in sympathetic magic – the idea that symbolic actions can influence the gods and nature. They thought that boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk would magically insure the continuing fertility of the flock. God would not bless His people, if they practised such nonsense. The laws are not arbitrary but graciously beneficial. The Old Testament law is a generous gift from God to Israel to bring Israel much blessing when obeyed.
The prophets did announce the future, but it was usually the immediate future for Israel and the nations around them in their day, although some are clearly relative to the end times of World history, since they have not yet been fulfilled. Their primary function was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. In the longer books the oracles are not always presented in their original chronological sequence. At times it is not clear where one ends and another begins. Prophets were covenant enforcement mediators.
There were curses of the covenant when it was broken. The prophets spoke out the consequences for breaking the covenant. Positive enforcement brought blessing. Negative enforcement brought punishment. Some were corporate blessings and curses – to the whole nation. The curses brought death, disease, drought, danger, destruction, defeat, deportation, destitution and disgrace. The prophets were the ambassadors from the Heavenly court, who relayed the divine sovereign’s will to the people. The prophets require study. School textbooks need study. So do the prophets.
The times of the prophets from 760 – 460 B. C. were characterised by 1. unprecedented political, military, economic and social upheaval. 2. an enormous level of religious unfaithfulness and 3. shifts in population and national boundaries. Life was in turmoil for many people. God’s word was needed anew. God raised up prophets to speak to the people. Each prophetic utterance was delivered in a specific historical setting, at a given time and place. The prophets employed a variety of literary forms to convey their messages. The lawsuit. The woe. The promise.
Poetry. In ancient Israel poetry was widely used as a means of learning. Just as man can easily remember songs, he can recite poetry. Reading and writing were rare skills. Books were unknown. People recited and sang poetry and the Psalms.
There are four Gospels. None of the evangelists intended that his Gospel be read in parallel with the others. Yet they cannot be read in total isolation from one another. Each one told his story from his own perspective. Mark had three special interests. 1. Jesus popularity with the crowds. 2. Discipleship for the few. 3. Opposition from the authorities. The basic theological framework for the entire New Testament is eschatalogical. When Jesus came the Disciples thought that the new age had come. Then Jesus was dead. When He rose, the first question they asked was in Acts ch 1 v 6. Would Jesus now restore the Kingdom to Israel? Then it dawned on them that Jesus had come not to usher in the end but the beginning of the end. They were living between the beginning of the end and the consummation. They celebrated the Lord’s death until He comes. There is an increased awareness that Jesus, having come once, will return as He has promised.
The purpose of the Psalms is to help man to express himself to God and to learn His ways. They are musical poems. They are intended to appeal to a man’s emotions and to evoke feelings rather than thinking and to invoke a response. There is much symbolic language to express feelings and ideas. There are various types of psalms. Psalms of thanksgiving. Psalms of lament (more than 60). Times were often hard for the Israelites. These Psalms express the deep distress that the people felt. Psalm 137 is a lament for the suffering of Jerusalem. Psalms of praise. These centre on the praise of God, His creation and His providence. Psalms of salvation. The story of Israel as a special nation is celebrated in these Psalms. Psalms of Zion. Psalms of Enthronement. Wisdom Psalms. The Psalms were functional songs, composed for use in worship. They made connection between the worshipper and God. They came to be like a Temple hymnal. The Psalms are opportunities to speak to God in words inspired by others to speak to Him in times past. The Psalms are a guide to worship. They also help a man to reflect and meditate on those things, which God has done for him. David, who wrote half of the Psalms, lived a life, which was filled with almost constant tragedy and disappointment. Imprecatory Psalms harness a man’s anger and help him to express it to God. A man should honestly express his anger to God, no matter how bitterly and hatefully he feels it. God will swallow it and it saves the man from expressing it to others.
General rules for interpretation.
1. Interpret the passage according to its context. The limits of immediate context are determined by the limits of the principal thought, activity or topic of which the passage speaks. Each passage is like a piece of a jigsaw and must be put in its proper setting. Apart form its context, words might mean anything. Psalm 14 v 1. “There is no God.” In its context the passage says: The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
2. Interpret the passage in light of all that the Bible teaches. A man needs to know what the Bible teaches on a particular subject to see how the passage in question fits in to the overall teaching.
3. Understand the meaning of the words in the passage. Words can have more than one meaning. e.g. the word “flesh” and the word “choose.” (It may mean a preference or for a purpose – the chosen people of Israel were chosen for a purpose.)
4. Interpret the passage according to its grammatical meaning.
5. Interpret the passage in the light of its background. Consider the writer’s plan and purpose, the historical data (Herod killing children), the geographical data, the cultural data. (Gates – holy kiss.) The question is this: Should the custom be observed today? If the custom was wholly cultural, then it is no longer binding on man today. If the custom was wholly trans-cultural, then he should obey it in his Churches. If its purpose was to illustrate a Biblical principle, then he should follow the principle but does not need to observe the detailed application of it in the passage. Head covering is a sign of a
woman’s submission to a man as the head of the house. Gen ch 3 v 16. Eph ch 5 v 22-4.
6. Recognise, identify and interpret any figurative expression in the passage. If the literal meaning of the word is unsuitable or absurd in its context or is in general conflict with the teaching of the Bible. Mat ch 7 v 15. Wolves. Figurative expressions convey truth much more vividly and powerfully than literal words do. Proverbs ch 15 v 3. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place.” This conveys the power of God and the fact that God is omniscient.
A simile is an expressed comparison. Hair like wool.
A metaphor is an implied comparison.
A symbol. The cup and the bread.
Synecdoche. This is a word for a part, which represents the whole. A set of wheels stands for a car. James ch 1 v 14. Lust stands for the sin-force within man. It also speaks of the whole expressing a part.
Metonomy. This is a word, which stands in close relation to something else. The cross represents the atoning work of Jesus.
Hyperbole. Pluck out the right eye. It is exaggeration to make a point.
Rhetorical question. This is a question, which has only one obvious answer.
Irony. This says the opposite of what the speaker means.
Sarcasm. This is a cutting remark showing the vanity of the hypocrisy.
Euphemism. “Joseph knew not Mary” means that he did not have sexual relations with her.
Personification. The fields shall clap their hands. The fields represent human beings.
7. Recognise and interpret any type in the passage. A type is an Old Testament person, event or thing, which illustrates a New Testament truth. Joseph was a type of saviour. He fed the people in a time of physical famine. Jesus fed the people spiritual truth in a time of spiritual famine. Jesus was the Passover Lamb.
Wisdom. Ecclesiastes, Job and Proverbs.
Wisdom is the ability to make godly choices in life. All of life is conditioned by the choices a man makes. Everything he does is to some degree a matter of choice. Choices chart the course of his life. There is plenty ancient and modern literature called wisdom literature. Biblical wisdom literature added the dimension that the only good choices are godly choices. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of real wisdom. The first step is to know the Lord. Wise living will follow the correct choices made in light of the knowledge of God. Wisdom has little to do with I. Q. but is to do with orientation to God. James ch 1 v 5 invites man to ask for wisdom. Wisdom was sought by Joshua and Solomon, who had to make decisions affecting the lives of others. Worldly wisdom seeks to get ahead of others and look after number one. There is a danger of seeking wisdom for one’s own advantage. Isaiah ch 5 v 21. Parents want to give their children wisdom for life. Proverbs is the advice from God for godly living. In Job and Ecclesiastes there is speculative wisdom. God uses different types of literature to teach people wisdom.
Many ignore Ecclesiastes looking for quicker spiritual benefits. It takes time to study Ecclesiastes. Its consistent message is that life without God is meaningless. It is a contrast to the rest of Scripture, which shows God at work. Here is the opposite – life without God and it is meaningless. For a man to try to make it in life on his own the result is hopeless. Chapter 3 v 11 is the key verse. God has left a hole in the heart of each person. Only Jesus can properly fill that hole.
Job. What happens in life is not always because God desires it or because it is fair. Scriptures do not teach that everything is the result of the will of God, even though He is in total control. He allows Satan a sphere of influence and man has freedom of choice. The reader learns that the wisdom of the World is logical but wrong.
Proverbs give man rules and regulations, which people can use to help themselves make responsible and successful choices in life. There are basic attitudes and patterns of behaviour, which will help a person to grow into a responsible adult. Life may not always go well but Proverbs will shape man’s life into one, which pleases God. They tend to lead to success according to God’s definition of success but they may not lead to success in the eyes of the World. Nowhere does Proverbs teach automatic success. The Proverbs show a sharp contrast between choosing wisely and foolishly. They also help to correct the danger of spiritualising everything. A Proverb is a brief particular expression of truth. It is not a complete statement of truth. Their purpose is to impart knowledge, which can be retained.
“Look before you leap” is easier to remember than: “In advance of committing yourself to a course of action, consider the consequences.” A proverb is catchy. A proverb does not state everything about a truth but points towards it. A man may not be able to control what he hears but he can control what he says. Proverbs are not promises from God and cannot be taken as such.
Song of Solomon.
God created love and sex. Anything can be used for evil as well as good. Instead of being a source of joy and blessing in a monogamous marriage, it can be a means of selfish personal gratification. The Song of Solomon is all about using sex and romance for God’s glory in accordance with His original design. In the Old Testament monogamous heterosexual marriage was the proper context for sexual activity. Love songs were probably sung at wedding banquets. Romance is something, which should continue throughout and actually characterise marriage.