Interpreting the Bible

A Rational Faith Section 3.1 Interpreting the Bible Correctly

The Bible is one of the oldest and most published books in the world. It was written in a
number of different languages over a period of time that spans many centuries by a
number of different human authors. Within its pages Christians believe that the God who
created the trillions of stars of the known universe has revealed his will and his plan for
mankind. Given these facts, it would seem to go without saying that interpreting such an
enormous work would require a great deal of humility. Unfortunately, many Christians
do not take appropriate care in the way in which they interpret the Bible.

In order to interpret the Bible correctly, it is vitally important to understand that many
verses must be interpreted in the context of the work as a whole. The Bible cannot be
interpreted simplistically by taking a single verse and sticking to its “obvious”
interpretation. Instead, the Bible must be interpreted in a holistic manner where every verse is interpreted in the context of the overall message and other related passages. As
we will see below, the interpretation process is complicated by the fact that God uses a
variety of techniques to veil the true meaning of various passages from the eyes of the
casual observer. Only through dedicated and persistent study does the word of God yield
its greatest treasures. “If thou seekest her (wisdom) as silver, and searchest for her as for
hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge
of God. ” (Proverbs 2:4,5)

3.1.1 The Challenge Method of Teaching

One of the ways that various passages of Scripture can be difficult to understand is God’s
use of the challenge method of teaching. Many times in the Scripture, God will say
something in a way that he knows will be misunderstood in the hopes that believers will
question his meaning. As an example, let us consider a passage of the Bible where Jesus
seems to say something that is totally false if you try and understand it independent of the
rest of the Bible:

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.

And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?

But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. (Matthew 9:10-12)

“They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” How do you interpret
this verse? If you read it in context, Jesus seems to be saying that the Pharisees are not
sinners. Is Jesus congratulating the Pharisees on their great righteousness? Is Jesus
saying that the Pharisees do not need a savior?

If one is familiar with the rest of the New Testament, the answer to this question is
obvious. For those who are skeptical, the answer is given explicitly in Luke 18:9-13. In
this passage, Jesus says that the Publican who “smote upon his breast” and did not
consider himself worthy to look up to heaven went away justified before God while a
Pharisee who believed himself to be righteous was not justified before God.

What is going on here? Jesus is the greatest possible teacher of truth, and yet he says
something that we know to be false. Not only that, but he later explicitly teaches that it is
false. Is Jesus lying? Was he wrong at first and only later learned the error of his ways?
These explanations are impossible. The only way to understand this passage is to see
that Jesus is using a technique to teach truth. I call this technique the challenge method
of teaching and it is used throughout the scripture. Consider the following examples:

But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.

And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.

And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. (Mark 7:27-29)

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.  And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.

Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? (John 14:3-5)

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.  Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6: 53-54)

As we can see from the above examples, Jesus will sometimes say something that is
untrue in a literal sense and wait for believers to ask for clarification. Was Jesus refusing
to heal the woman’s daughter in Mark chapter 7? Or was he testing her faith, trust and
persistence? Was Jesus saying that Thomas knew the physical location where he was
going? Or was he testing Thomas’ understanding? Does Jesus really want those who are
listening to him to carve him up with a steak knife and serve him with A1? Or is he
trying to get them to understand a deeper truth?

At other times, Jesus uses an analogy to physical things to teach us about spiritual things:

Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread.

Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread?

Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?

Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?

How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? (Matthew 16:6-11)

In this passage, Jesus teaches the disciples to beware the teaching of the Pharisees by
making an analogy to bread. Why doesn’t he come out and explicitly say beware the
teaching of the Pharisees? When he uses parables to the crowds, he does it: “Therefore
speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not,
neither do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13) This is not the case, however, with the
disciples. Jesus wants the disciples to learn to seek and question what he says in order to
learn deeper truths and sternly rebukes them when they interpret the saying in a
simplistic way. What is true of the teaching of Jesus is also true of the Bible as a whole.
Only by thoughtfully considering what the Bible says and questioning it if it doesn’t
make sense can we see the deeper truths that God is pointing us towards.

3.1.2 The Divine Trial

Even more shocking than the fact that God sometimes tell us things that he wants us to
question is the fact that he sometimes gives us commands that he does not want us to
accomplish. The purpose of these commands is not to actually achieve what was
commanded, but to test our faith, our obedience or our knowledge of his true purposes
and character. Consider the following verses:

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (Genesis 22: 2)

Did God really intend Isaac to die under Abraham’s knife? Obviously not, as the above
verses constitute the most famous test of faith in all of human religious experience. Less
well-known is the fact that Abraham’s response was not a blind and obedient leap of
unquestioning faith:

And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?

Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.  (Exodus 32:11-14)

The crucial fact to remember from these verses is that God will often give a stern
command where he does not mean for that command to be carried out. How do we know
if God means a command to be carried out? By reading other related passages of
Scripture and carefully considering the message of the Bible as a whole. Only by doing
this can we understand the purposes of God and interpret the Bible correctly.

3.1.3 The Veil Between Man and God

As we have seen, God challenges us with statements that he knows are difficult for us to
understand and tests us with commands that he does not mean for us to accomplish.
Probably the most shocking thing that God does, however, is to intentionally hide his
nature from us. Consider the following verse:

At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. (Matthew 11:25)

As we see in this verse, this world is not an intelligence test where those who are smart
enough to figure out what God is doing get to go to heaven and those who are not smart
enough do not. Rather, what God seems to be looking for is trust. Will you trust that
what I say makes sense even when you do not understand it? Will you have faith that I
am good even when you do not like what I have to say?

All throughout the Bible God talks about seeking that which he has hidden from our
eyes. The importance of seeking his face and seeking his will and seeking the truth of
what he is saying resounds throughout the Scripture. If the truth in the Bible requires so
much seeking, then why is it that Christians think that they can so easily understand what
the Bible means? In order to understand the Bible we must have the humility to acknowledge that many passages are not easily understood. In order to interpret these
confusing passages correctly, therefore, we must use the context of the rest of what the
Bible says in a holistic way.

3.1.4 Summary of Interpreting the Bible Correctly

As we have seen above, God makes statements that are not intended literally, uses
parables that can only be understood with careful consideration and issues commands
that are not consistent with his character in order to test us. He also explicitly says that
He is going to hide his nature from us. Given these examples, it is quite clear that we
need to be careful in our interpretation of the Bible. We cannot simplistically say, “This
is what God plainly said and anyone who denies it is a blasphemer and a heretic!” We
must carefully evaluate the meaning of each verse in the context of the whole of
Scripture. The appropriate response to God’s difficult statements, therefore, is not blind
obedience and acceptance but respectful questioning. Bearing this critical truth in mind,
let us consider some important Biblical principles.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Rational Faith Extracts. Bookmark the permalink.

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