Interpreting God’s Written Word 

It is crucial that believers learn to interpret the written Word of God rightly.

 

Being mighty in the Scriptures and interpreting the Word accurately

 

No matter how well we know the teachings and commands of the Bible, God wants us to know and interpret them more accurately. We see evidence of this in Acts 18:24-26: “Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him asise and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

Here we see that there was a Christian teacher in the Church who was “mighty in the Scriptures” and a fine public speaker and who taught the Bible accurately, but he still needed to learn from other believers the way of God from the Bible more accurately.

In Greek, the word “accurately” in Acts 18:25 and 18:26 is “akribos” which means “accurately, carefully” [1] or “pertaining to strict conformity to a norm or standard, involving both detail and completeness”. [2] When referring to “akribos”, Vine says: “the word expresses that ‘accuracy’ which is the outcome of carefulness.” [3]

These two usages of the word “accurately” in Acts 18:25 and 18:26 reveal:

 

a)        God’s Word has absolute standards of right and wrong and containing absolute truth.

b)        it is very important that all teachers and preachers interpret and share the written Word of God very accurately in terms of detail and completeness.

c)        even if we interpret, teach and preach the written Word relatively accurately, we need to learn to do this even more accurately.

 

Acts 18:24 says that Apollos was “mighty in the Scriptures”. In Greek, the word “mighty” is a form of the word “dunatos” which means “powerful”. In Luke 1:49, the same word is used of God and in Luke 24:19 of Jesus Christ.

We all should aim to be powerful or mighty in the Scriptures.

 

Twisting, distorting, adulterating and doing violence to God’s Word

 

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter warns that untaught and unstable people distort or twist the Word of God which Paul wrote and the rest of the Scriptures: “as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”

Peter here reveals that by twisting the Scriptures, we can destroy ourselves spiritually. In Greek, the word “untaught” above is a form of the word “amathes” which means “ignorant”[4] or “unlearned” [5] or “unlearned, uninstructed…” [6] “Amathes” is derived from the Greek word “manthano” which means “to learn”. [7]

In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter was referring to religious people who read and used the written Word of God, but who were ignorant of its main teachings. Added to this, they twisted its meanings from what God originally intended. It may also relate to them having not being taught properly from the Scriptures about Jesus Christ, salvation and so on.

The word “amathes “ used in 2 Peter 3:16 is different from the Greek words “agrammatos” and “idiotes” used in Acts 4:13 by the members of the Jewish ruling council – the Sanhedrin – about the Apostles Peter and John. Acts 4:13 states: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.” In Greek, the word “uneducated” here is a form of the word “agrammatos”. Vine says one meaning of “agrammatos” is unversed in “the learning of the Jewish schools”. [8] If this is the sense of meaning of “agrammatos” in Acts 4:13, this means the Jewish religious leaders regarded Peter and John as untrained or uneducated in their Jewish studies and interpretations of the Law.

Bauer states “agrammatos” generally means “unable to write, illiterate, uneducated”.[9] But since John wrote the Gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation, John could not be classified as unable to write or illiterate.

In Acts 4:13, the Jewish religious leaders also said Peter and John were “untrained”. In Greek, the word “untrained” is a form of the word “idiotes”. In the context of this verse, “idiotes” means “layman, amateur in contrast to an expert or specialist of any kind…an untrained man”. [10]

In 2 Corinthians 11:6, Paul said he was trained in God’s Word but was not trained (in Greek “idotes”) in professional public speaking according to the Greek schools of rhetoric: “Even though I am untrained in speech, yet I am not in knowledge…” Paul had received much knowledge from God (see 2 Corinthians 12:1 and Ephesians 3:4).

2 Corinthians 4:2 sets a great example for us when it refers to Paul and Timothy not “handling the Word of God deceitfully” (N.K.J.V.) or not “adulterating the Word of God” (N.A.S.B.). In Greek, the phrase “handling deceitfully” or the word “adulterating” is a form of the word “doloo” which means “to cause something to be or to become false as a result of deception or distortion” [11] or “falsify”. [12] Vine says that in the context of 2 Corinthians 4:2, “doloo” means “to corrupt, especially by mingling the truths of the Word of God with false doctrines or notions and so handling it deceitfully.” [13] Paul stresses that he and Timothy did not falsify or distort or corrupt the Word of God by mingling or mixing its truths with false philosophies or ideas.

Jeremiah 8:8, Ezekiel 22:26, Zephaniah 3:4 and Malachi 2:8 refer to Jewish religious leaders interpreting the Law in sinful wrong ways. Ezekiel 22:26 says: “Her priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things; they have not distingushed between the holy and unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean…” Zephaniah 3:4 states: “Her prophets are insolent, treacherous people; her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.” Under the Mosaic Covenant in both Ezekiel and Zechariah’s times, most of God’s priests did violence to God’s Words by wrongly interpreting it and/or adding their own man-made rules to His Word and/or subtracting from His Word by making up their own exceptions to His commands.

In Hebrew, the phases “have violated” in Ezekiel 22:26 and “have done violence” in Zechariah 3:4 are “hamas” which means “treat violently, wrong”. [14] This signifies the fact these Israelite priests were doing wrong to God’s Word when they were teaching or interpreting it.

Even though no human except Jesus Christ has a perfect understanding of God’s written Word, God regards it as a sin to seriously misinterpret His Word. In James 3:1, God warns everyone who teaches or preaches His Word: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”

2 Peter 3:16, 2 Corinthians 4:2 and the above-mentioned Old Testament verses show why it is so important for us to learn good principles of how to interpret the Holy Scriptures. One of the greatest needs today is to rid the Church of the many twisted, distorted and adulterated interpretations of the written Word of God which have led so many sincere good-hearted believers astray. God wants His people to be no longer “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” like Paul said many were in Ephesians 4:14.

 

Jesus’ versus Satan’s method of interpreting the Scriptures

 

Matthew 4:5-6 reveals Jesus and Satan interpreted the Bible by different methods. These verses record Satan interpreted passages of Scripture in isolation from other verses and passages on the same or related topics: “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

Satan implied Psalm 91:11-12 contained a promise that God the Father would allow His power to be used for showing-off purposes. Satan was able to suggest this false interpretation because he took this verse in isolation from other verses of Scripture. But Jesus Christ showed all verses must be interpreted in agreement with the meaning of other verses of Scripture which can relate to the topic. He did this by answering Satan’s false interpretation of Psalm 91:11-12 with Deuteronomy 6:16. Matthew 4:7 records Jesus saying: “Jesus said to him, ‘It is written again, you shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” By quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, Jesus taught that Psalm 91:11-12 cannot be taken to mean we can force God to use His power just for show.

If Satan can wrongly interpret verses of Scripture by taking them in isolation, so can humans. In this example, the Lord Jesus revealed He regards two of the keys to interpreting verses of Scripture correctly are:

 

         not taking any verse in isolation.

         making sure that one’s interpretation of this verse agrees with the wording of other verses on the same topic in other parts of the Bible.

 

The importance of interpreting Scripture by Scripture

 

The Pharisees who condemned Jesus for healing or the Sabbath, tragically did this because of their sinful unbelieving hearts. But note they also used very poor interpretation principles when dealing with this matter. They interpreted the Sabbath Commandment to mean it was sinful to miraculously heal someone on the Sabbath (see John 5:1-16). But note as Jesus pointed out, the Mosaic Law itself shows God commands various offerings including atoning burnt offerings to be made on the Sabbath (see Numbers 28:9-10).

So Jesus interpreted the Sabbath commandment in agreement with God’s other commands which also relate to the Sabbath. This is the same cross-referencing method of interpretation Jesus used in Matthew 4:5-6 when dealing with the twisted interpretation by Satan of Psalm 91:11-12.

John 7:49 shows how proud and arrogant the Pharisees were of their knowledge of the Law. The Pharisees believed that their explanations of the Old Testament were special God-given revelations. This is even though many of their revelations involved interpreting verses out of context and/or contrary to many other verses on the same topic.

Matthew 15:1-20 contains a classic criticism by Jesus Christ of how the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law misinterpreted some Old Testament verses, believing their special revelations of the written Word were inspired by God. This is even though their interpretations were contrary to other Old Testament verses relevant to the same topics. One reason the Pharisees hated Christ was because He did not accept many of their so-called “revelations” of the Word. He interpreted the Old Testament with perfect correctness. But the Pharisees did not accept what He said because it disagreed with their supposedly “anointed special revelations” of the Word.

The same problem is being repeated today. Many wish to cling to the “special revelations” of the Word claimed by various popular writers and certain television preachers even though these interpretations involve taking verses out of context and interpreting these verses contrary to many others on the same topic. These preachers do not follow Jesus’ principle found in Matthew 4:5-7 of comparing their interpretations of specific verses to the teachings of other verses. Nor do they like to have their interpretations examined by the noble Berean principle in Acts 17:11 of searching the Scriptures to see if what is being preached is true. They claim their teachings are “revelation knowledge”. But their false teachings are not inspired by the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

The results of not interpreting verses by other verses

 

Here are some examples which show how wrong it is to interpret verses or passages of Scripture in isolation:

 

a)        Mark 16:18 says: “they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” If we took this verse in isolation, we could conclude that if we deliberately drank poison for showing-off purposes or some other foolish reason, God would miraculously protect us from the effects.

b)        Acts 2:17 states: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.” By taking this verse by itself, we could falsely conclude only young men receive visions from God and only old men receive dreams from God.

But such a conclusion does not agree with other verses in the Bible. Genesis 17:1 records Abraham was ninety-nine when he had a vision of God. Moses was over eighty years old when he had visions of God (see Genesis 7:7 and 33:11). Joseph had dreams from God when he was only young (see Genesis 37:5-10).

c)        Ephesians 5:22-24 says: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” Some Christians claim God gave them a “Holy Spirit-inspired revelation” of Ephesians 5:22-24 that if a non-Christian husband wants his Christian wife to not go to church for many months in a row, God wants the wife to submit to the husband about this. It is sometimes even claimed this is a sure method of winning the non-Christian husband to the Lord. (If the husband does turn to God in such circumstances, this is despite the wife’s wrong actions, not because of them.)

The above so-called “revelation of the Holy Spirit” of Ephesians 5:22-24 is not from God. This revelation is contrary to other verses in the Bible. Hebrews 10:25 is a command to all Christians, even to wives with non-Christian husbands: “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” James 4:4 commands all Christians to submit to God: “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

The Bible teaches our submitting to God is always at a higher level than our submitting to any human God-ordained authority such as husband, father, mother, government, boss and so on. Acts 5:27-29 reveals an example of this.

Verses such as Matthew 10:37 and 22:36-40 reveal we must love God more than anyone else. Verses such as John 14:15 and James 2:14-26 show that if we really love God and have faith in Him, we will wish to do what He commands in preference to what any other person wants us to do. Therefore, the true meaning of Ephesians 5:22-24 is wives should do what their husbands want them to do as long as such desires are not contrary to God’s will in other parts of the Bible.

Interpreting verses in context

 

Another key to using the Scriptures correctly is to interpret its verses in context. This means interpreting the verses in agreement with the verses and passages that surround it.

When someone writes a paragraph or a large piece, they mostly put related thoughts in sentences next to one another. In this way, sentences near one another often give hints as to the meaning of each other. Cloze passages given by language teachers at schools work on this same principle of guessing missing words by looking at the surrounding context of words and sentences.

If we wrongly took the speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar in the Book of Job out of context we could find support for some false teachings. This is because unless we took their words in the context of God’s comments in Job 42:7-8 about their speeches, we could think these three fellows were speaking God-inspired revelations. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar spoke in ways that many church people would support.

But Job 42:7-9 states: “And so it was, after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord commanded them; for the Lord had accepted Job.” This shows the great dangers of quoting verses or passages of Scripture out of context.

If we took Jesus’ words in Luke 16:9 by themselves, we could wrongly conclude He commanded us to use natural resources in sinful ways: “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.” But when we take Christ's words here in the context of surrounding verses, such ridiculous interpretations of Luke 16:9 are shown to be wrong.

Note both Jesus and Paul sometimes applied Old Testament verses to situations that were not specifically mentioned in the original context of the verses themselves. Examples of this are recorded in Matthew 4:3-4, 4:7, 12:1-8, 13:14-15, 1 Corinthians 6:16, Hebrews 13:5 and 2 Corinthians 8:15. But note these examples are rare. Also in each case, both Jesus and Paul followed Jesus’ method of interpretation found in Matthew 4:5-7 by interpreting these verses in ways that were not contrary to all of the other verses in the Old Testament that were on the same topics.

Interpreting verses in context does not prevent us from applying a particular command of God to a new context not specifically mentioned in a verse or passage or in its surrounding relevant context, as long as this new application is not contrary to other verses or passages in the Bible on the same topic. For example, it is right to apply God’s command against murder in Romans 13:9 to gladiator fighting, abortion and killing newborn babies, even though these sins are not mentioned in the specific context of Romans 13:9.

 

 

 

 

Take into account the original historical and cultural contexts

 

Aim to interpret the various Books of the Bible in agreement with their original specific historical and cultural contexts. But when doing this, be careful! This is because it is sometimes debatable exactly what is the truth about the historical and cultural contexts of the various Books of the Bible. We have limited primary historical sources written in ancient times by which we can determine these historical and cultural contexts and some of these historical sources contradict each other.

 

The practical application of God’s Word

 

It is very important that all Christians apply the written Word of God to their lives in a practical sense. James 1:22 commands: “but be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

We cannot be a doer of the Word unless we know how to apply the written Word to our lives. But unless we interpret the Bible correctly, we will not apply the written Word to our lives in ways God approves.

Some methods of interpreting the Bible focus so much on Biblical doctrines and truths that they wrongly neglect both the practical application of God’s Word and personal experience of Jesus Christ by His Holy Spirit. Other methods of Biblical interpretation focus so much on practical application and personal experience of God that they end up wrongly reinterpreting the Bible according to various popular unbiblical practical ethics philosophies and personal fallible subjective human experiences.

 

God has a specific will about many but not other things

 

In Romans 14:1-6, God reveals that He does not have a specific will about some cultural and religious matters: “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.”

Therefore, it is right if Christianity has various cultural variations in different nations or locations. But it is wicked when any Christian deliberately disobeys any of the clear teachings and commands of the Bible and justifies their disobedience by saying that they are adapting their Christianity to their culture.

 

 

Check which covenants if any, are relevant to the verses

 

Another key to interpreting the Bible correctly is to make sure that you check to see which Biblical covenant or covenants of God, if any, the verse or passage you are studying relates to. If you do not check this, you may wrongly apply a verse or passage to yourself which does not relate to you because:

 

a)        you are not under the covenant which the verse or passage relates to

b)        you are not under a particular aspect of a covenant which the verse or passage relates to.

 

If you are a non-Israelite believer in the Lord Jesus Christ:

 

a)        you are under the New Covenant.

b)        the Noahic Covenant applies to you, just as it does to every other human on Earth (see Genesis 8:20-9:17). The Noahic Covenant contains a few commands to obey (see Genesis 9:1-7).

c)        the Abrahamic Covenant applies to you, except its command about circumcision (see Galatians 5:2-6) and except its promise about giving Abraham’s physical descendants – the Israelites – the land of Canaan.

d)        the Davidic Covenant applies to you as a promise but it does not contain any commands to obey (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17).

e)        you are not under the Mosaic Covenant and its relevant promises and commands.

 

We all need to have our views challenged at times

 

Do not go from one church leader to another trying to find someone who agrees with all your interpretations of the Bible. We all need others who can challenge our views at times. If our interpretations are correct, they will stand up to the challenge and examination of other believers who love Jesus Christ.

 

Do not use the Bible like an occult book

 

Do not use the written Word of God like a book of occult or divination. Some people use Scripture promise boxes like fortune cookies.

Others use the finger pointing method of using the written Word. They open their Bibles and point at a verse and then take this as God’s revelation for the day. Someone could point to Matthew 27:5 which records Judas hung himself and then point to the first part of Hebrews 13:19 which says “But I especially urge you to do this…” and end up foolishly thinking God wanted them to commit suicide.

 

 

 

 

 

The written Word does not contradict itself

 

Realise that the written Word does not contradict itself in its original God-intended meanings. Our false interpretations contain contradictions. The Holy Spirit is perfect. He does not contradict Himself in what He revealed through His Word.

 

Do not limit yourself to just your favourite verses and passages

 

When reading the written Word, do not limit yourself just to your favourite verses, passages or Books. Read as widely as possible in order to have an opportunity of receiving a revelation of the full counsel of God. If you read only your limited favourite selections, you can easily become very unbalanced or even a heretic.

It is crucial to read more widely in the written Word because so many preachers and teachers these days only preach a limited number of their favourite verses or passages.

 

Using Bible commentaries

 

It is sometimes helpful to read Christian Bible commentaries. But never treat any Bible commentary as a perfect interpretation of the Bible. All Bible commentaries have some errors and unbalanced presentations of Biblical truth in them.

 

Use background history and geography in a balanced way

 

It is helpful to have a certain amount of background knowledge of the history and geography of places, people and nations mentioned in the Bible. But note all such background knowledge is not to be regarded as infallible. This is especially in the case of history. Historians often change their views of various historical matters. About many topics, you can find many different views among academic historians. I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Church history. So I know the above by experience.

The ancient writings on which our views of ancient history are based were written by people such as Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Horace, Caesar, Tacitus, Livy and Virgil. But note the oldest still existing copies of their writings range from 350 years (Virgil) to 1600 years (Euripides and Herodotus) after they were originally written. So it is possible, some of these have been altered in the copying process.

The history of the church over the last few hundred years is littered with the tragic results of the Bible being interpretated by false secular and/or so-called “Christian” historical theories. For example, many church scholars previously accepted the false theories that:

 

1.         Sodom and Gomorrah did not exist. (Achaelogical excavations at Tell Mardikh in northern Syria have dicovered about 17,000 tablets containing information from the ancient city of Ebla. These tablets mention the existence of the cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar. These five cities are referred to in Genesis 14:2. Note the tablets even say the earlier name of Zoar was Bela, something seen also in Genesis 14:2. [15]

2.         The idea of God being the King or Sovereign Ruler of Israel originated only after Israel began to have human kings. [16]

3.         Paul and Apollos taught a Law-free Gospel which was opposed by a supposedly Law-centred Gospel taught by the Apostle Peter. This suggestion was based on a misunderstanding of verses such as Galatians 2:11-14. (This theory was taught by the German liberal theologian F.C. Baur, professor of New Testament at the University of Tubingen.)

 

Also, note the historical critical methods which historians use in their search for truth are not infallible. Historical methods are useful in studying history but they are not totally objective and always reflect the limited philosophies of their users.

Secular historians each have different underlying philosophical assumptions which govern their approach to their search for truth. For example, a rationalist historian concentrates more on human reasoning and logic in the search for truth than a humanist who focuses more on physical sense experiences, feelings and human rights in their quest for truth. They can both view the same historical evidence and come to different conclusions because of their different perspectives. Rationalist and humanist historians will not view history or God in the same way as a born-again historian who allows God’s written Word to influence strongly his study of history.

 

 

 


 


[1] Bauer, page 33.

[2] Louw and Nida, page 674.

[3] Vine, page 10.

[4] Bauer, page 42.

[5] Vine, page 652 and Marshall, page 683.

[6] Perschbacher, page 16.

[7] Vine, page 652.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Bauer, page 13.

[10] Bauer, page 370.

[11] Louw and Nida, page 674.

[12] Bauer, page 203.

[13] Vine, page 151.

[14] Brown, Driver and Briggs, page 329.

[15] Dr Clifford Wilson, “Elba Tablets – Secrets of a Forgotten City”, Master Books, San Diego, 1979, page 36.

[16] G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren and Heinz-Josef Fabry (Editors), “Theogical Dictionary of the Old Testament”, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1997 (English translation), page 265.

 


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