by Jack Seay, copyright 1988, firstname.lastname@example.org Home Page
Of the reasons Christians disagree, an inadequate knowledge of what the Bible teaches tops the list. If many more Christians learned to interpret the Bible in context, quite a few denominational differences could disappear.
When interpreters from various groups have worked together to unfold the meaning of a passage, agreement on many significant conclusions have been reached. Thus hermeneutics [biblical interpretation] is a potent unifying force in the Christian church. ** A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting The Bible, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. vii.
Unfortunately, many people would like to have churches unite by compromising the truth. A much better unity will result by going to the Bible and studying it in all it's contexts, allowing it to teach us. The test of what is true should not be denominational creeds or doctrinal statements. What we believe should not be based on tradition, church history, personal opinion, wishful thinking, prejudice, bias, or unquestioning acceptance of what we have been taught. The final test of truth is the accurate interpretation of the Bible in any area it touches upon. God has shared with man a part of His infinite knowledge. We must find out what He meant by what He said.
Simply stated, the task of interpreters of the Bible is to find out the meaning of a statement (command, question) for the author and for the first hearers or readers, and thereupon to transmit that meaning to modern readers. The interpreter will observe whether a given statement tends to be understood by a modern reader identically, similarly, or differently from the sense intended by the writer, and will adjust his explanation accordingly. ** Mickelsen, Interpreting The Bible, p. 5
I will give examples of four contexts to keep in mind when studying the Bible. First there are the surrounding verses. Second is the cultural setting. Third is the book of the Bible the passage is in. Forth is the teaching of the rest of the Bible. "Do not accept anything heard nor written until you have checked the scriptures in the light of contexts." *
* William S. Dillon, Commentary On The Book Of Matthew. (River Grove, Ill.: Voice Of Melody, 1976) p.5
Many verses of the Bible are routinely taken out of their immediate contexts and misinterpreted. 1Jo 4:4 is a good example of this.
You, dear children, are from God and overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. ** All verses (unless otherwise noted) are quoted from the New International Version, (New York International Bible Society, 1978)
This verse is commonly taught as meaning that God is greater than Satan. However in verse 1 of this chapter, the one in the world is defined as being a false prophet.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
The words "spirit" and "spirits" in this context refer to intelligent beings - men, not demons or Satan. ("spirit" in 1Jo 4:6 refers to their teachings) This can be verified by comparing 1Jo 4:2,3 with Luk 4:3 and Mat 8:29 .1 Joh 4:2,3 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. Luk 4:3 The devil said to him, "If [in view of the fact that * ] you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread."
* "If" is more accurately translated here from the New Testament: An Expanded Translation, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961)
Mat 8:29 "What do you want from us, Son of God?" they [demons] shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?"
In the passage in I John, it states that if a spirit agrees with the divine incarnation of Christ, that spirit is from God. The other passages in Luke and Matthew are examples of both Satan and demons acknowledging that very fact. Obviously, in both the immediate context of I John 4 and when contrasted with other passages, the reference is to human "spirits" or intellects, not Satan or demons.
Another example of a verse clarified by the immediate context is Mat 3:11 .
"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Those who are pleading with God for a baptism with fire might reconsider if they connect this verse with the one following it. Mat 3:12
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Baptism with fire is hell.
An example of the importance of cultural setting can be found in 1Co 11:3,4 .
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.
In the Corinthian Greek culture if a man wore a head covering in public worship, he dishonored his head, that is, Christ. This was different from the Jewish and Roman cultures, where a man wore a head covering as a symbol of his humility before God. Therefore, the application of these particular verses depends on the customs of a society. *
* William S. Dillon, God's Work In God's Way, (Sanford, FL: Brown Gold Publications, 1972), p. 150.
The purpose for a book being written has an important influence on the meaning of particular verses in that book. Contrasting and comparing other books of the Bible is important also.
One cannot properly handle context until he has a good grasp of biblical content. The interpreter must know the content of the book from which the particular passage he is interpreting comes. He needs to know the content of books in which there are passages devoted to the same theme which he is interpreting...Biblical content is essential far the much-needed grasp of context. ** Mickelsen, Interpreting The Bible, p.100
The book of James, for instance, was written for the purpose of showing that we are justified in the eyes of other people by our actions. Other people cannot know of our faith unless they see it in action. The book of Galatians, on the other hand, sets forth the doctrine that we are justified before God by our faith, not our actions.
Gal 2:16 "know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."
Contrast this with Jam 2:24 . "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." Galatians teaches justification before God. James teaches justification before men.
Sometimes a doctrine is just partially covered in one book of the Bible and must be compared with another to get a full understanding. Such is the case with Gal 5:19-21 .
The acts of the sinful (human) nature (not society, sickness, Satan, or one's upbringing) are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Taken in isolation, this passage would seem to indicate that anyone who has hated or been jealous couldn't make it to heaven. But when the parallel passage of 1Co 6:9-10 is completed by verse 11, it is made clear that there is hope.
1Co 6:11 . Some of you were like that. But you have been cleansed from sin; you have been dedicated to God; you have been put right with God through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (GNB)
The most common misinterpretations occur when parts of the Bible written about the Jews are interpreted to be written to the Church. It must be remembered that the Church did not begin until the day of Pentecost. Therefore every event in the gospels occurred during the age of law, before the Church age began. All of the parables are about Israel, not the Church. * This is important to remember in order to avoid a great number of contradictions. All of the Bible is of value to the Church, but not all can be directly interpreted or applied to the Church. The Church is made up of only those who are saved. Israel was made up of some who were saved and some who were lost. This makes clear verses like Joh 15:6 .
* Dillon, Commentary On The Book Of Matthew, p.6
"If anyone does not remain in me he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned."
This verse doesn't teach that some Christians will lose their salvation, but rather that some Jews are lost, not ever having been saved.
The Church age began in the book of Acts, a book of transition from the age of law to the age of grace (the Church age). Some things that were begun in this transitional period were not carried over into the epistles (Romans through Jude).
Most people, who have wrong ideas about the ministries of the Holy Spirit, base their beliefs only on the book of Acts. No one can learn the complete working of the Spirit until they have also studied and incorporated the Epistles into their thinking. The book of Acts does not even mention such important ministries of the Spirit as, The Fruit of the Spirit, The nine gifts of the spirit, etc. Acts is a book of transition, but more of method than message. Some events recorded in Acts will never occur again. ** William S. Dillon, The Seven-Question Series Of Bible Doctrines, (Sanford, FL: Brown Gold Publ., 1972) p.42
If all of these aspects of context are carefully kept in mind when interpreting the Bible, a much more accurate knowledge of it's truth will be known. I believe this approach to be much better than the common practice of ignoring or belittling doctrine, (the teachings of the Word of God) usually hiding behind the excuse of avoiding controversy. Only by finding out what God meant by what He said can we begin to do His will and have real unity with Him and fellow Christians. We must begin with a teachable, humble attitude, willing to change, realizing how much we don't know and God does. Then once we have correctly ascertained the will of God from the Word of God, don't ask "should we obey it", just obey it. As the missionary leader, C. T. Studd, said: "If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then nothing is too great for me to do for Him".
Dillon, William S. Commentary On The Book Of Matthew. River Grove, Ill.: Voice Of Melody, 1976.
Dillon, William S. God's Work In God's Way. Sanford, FL: Brown Gold Publications, 1972.
Dillon, William S. The Seven-Question Series Of Bible Doctrines. Sanford, FL: Brown Gold Publ., 1972.
Good News Bible. American Bible Society, 1971.
Mickelsen, A. Berkeley. Interpreting The Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963.
New International Version. New York International Bible Society, 1978.
New Testament: An Expanded Translation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961.