Text: II Timothy 2
Part Two of How to Interpret the Bible
Let’s go on to the third rule of interpretation.
Rule 3: The revelation of God is a progressive revelation.
Now, the two words that provide the key to understanding what we call progressive revelation are accommodation and apprehension…in other words, the accommodation of God to the apprehension of man. Now, by this we mean when God revealed Himself He spoke in language you and I can understand. You don’t talk to a three year old the same way you talk to a thirty year old. And when we speak to a child we have to accommodate ourselves to that child’s ability to understand what we’re saying.
Bernard Ramm said, “The Bible represents a movement of God with the initiative coming from God, and not man, in which God brings man up from the infancy of the Old Testament to the maturity of the New Testament.” Progressive revelation is man’s growing apprehension of the redemptive purpose of God which culminated in the coming of Christ. It means that God revealed to us only that which we were able to comprehend. And in the infancy of the human race, He has led man slowly and carefully, step by step.
I believe this is what Jesus was referring to when He said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I am come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” He did not come to annul the law, Jesus is saying, but to bring it to blossom. The Law was right and good as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough or high enough or deep enough. Remember in Galatians 4, Paul talks about the fullness of time. And you might picture it like this…the time before Christ was the kindergarten of the human race and with Christ came the higher education. In the Old Testament God was teaching the “A, B, C’s” and in the New Testament He is teaching the “X, Y, Z’s.”
You remember what the letter of Hebrews says in chapter 1 and in the first two verses… “God after He spoke long ago to the fathers and the prophets in many portions and in many ways in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” And that Son is the full, final, complete revelation of the Lord God. And with Him, with Christ, all that we will ever need to know about God, at least in this world, was revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Now, there’s something important to remember when we talk about progressive revelation. Progressive revelation does not mean extra-Biblical revelations. It doesn’t mean revelations additional and outside the Scripture. Nor does it mean that God evolved with His creatures or that He grew less violent and more merciful in the New Testament period. God did not grow less violent or more merciful. God did not change from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The revelation of God progressed!
It’s not that what God revealed in the Old Testament was wrong or less good or less right. It was that He revealed Himself as much as He could to man at that point in the education of the human race. But God has been the same from the beginning. He is the first and the last. He’s the same as He always has been and forever more will be. What has changed is His revelation of Himself…His manifestation of Himself and our understanding and comprehension of that revelation.
Progressive revelation doesn’t mean that the Old Testament is incorrect or invalid or less inspired than the New Testament. Progressive revelation simply says that the final revelation is in the New Testament. The Old Testament, therefore, must be read and interpreted in the light of the New Testament. Some speak of this as the actualization of the Old Testament in the New Testament, saying that the Old Testament could only be read as a book of ever increasing anticipation. And it is a book in which expectation mounts with every turning of the page.
The Old Testament, you might say, leans toward the New Testament. So progressive revelation simply means that God progressively revealed more and more of Himself as the human race was able to comprehend it. So, at the beginning of the revelation God is the same. At the end of the revelation, God is the same. What has changed is not God, but the extent that He has revealed Himself.
Now, this is extremely important because you have to realize that the Old Testament is not the final revelation. The New Testament is. The final, full, complete revelation came with Jesus Christ. This means that everything in the Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament. Now, this is extremely important because I would be willing to say that the vast majority of all the error and all the heresy and false teaching is the result of interpreting the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament…of forcing the Old Testament above the New Testament. The Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament.
Now, that leaves us, I acknowledge, with a problem. And the problem is how should you and I behave toward the Old Testament? What should be our attitude toward it? Does the Old Testament speak with authority to the New Testament Christian? If the Old Testament is not the final and complete revelation…if it deals in shadows and symbols and pictures and previews…if it is not the last word, then what part applies to us today? I mean, I pick up this Bible and I open to the Old Testament where it speaks about the codes and ceremonial that were binding on the people of Israel and I ask myself, “Are the commands and the codes and the ceremonial laws that were binding on Israel…are they binding on the church today?”
Well, I think we can be fairly certain that God doesn’t expect us to offer animal sacrifices today, nor stone adulterers, nor cut off the hands of thieves. And so we immediately acknowledge that there are certain portions of the Old Testament that do not apply to us today, and yet at the same time there is much in the Old Testament that is ethically, morally, spiritually, theologically relevant, so how do we know which part is for the child and which part is for the adult?
What part of the Old Testament is binding on me today…upon you today? And I said a moment ago these questions are important for their own sake, but especially so because so much of the “health and wealth” theology that we’re hearing is based on Old Testament passages and it has a strong Old Testament flavor to it.
First of all let’s make it clear and understand that the Old Testament is relevant for twentieth century Christians. It does speak with authority to the church. Now there have always been attempts to get rid of the Old Testament if not as a fact and as a force in the church but the New Testament, you see, is rooted in the Old and actually the truth is, neither can exist without the other. You cannot have the New Testament without the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the foundation of the New Testament. The Old Testament is incomplete as it is without the New and the New in a sense is incomplete without the Old, because the Old is the foundation upon which the New is built and based.
So, we cannot understand one without the other. They are both essential to the existence of each other. The question is what way, then, is the Old Testament relevant? The Old Testament’s relevancy does not lie in its ancient forms and institutions…not in its legal codes and ceremonial rites…those belong to an ancient culture of an ancient world. They’re not binding upon us today. The Old Testament’s forms of belief and practice are not our forms…or they’re not the model for our forms, you see. As a matter of fact, as you read the Old Testament in many of its texts it seems in its plain meaning to have little to say to us as Christians. But if we examine the Old Testament and those ancient forms and texts and if we lay hold of the theological truths and concerns that are relevant to us today, we see what they are in the light of the New Testament. That’s how we come to this authoritative word.
Now, let me run back over that again. The relevance of the Old Testament is not found in the time-bound forms of that ancient day…but it’s in the theology of those forms. For example, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is out of date, but not its message. The message is that man has sinned and atonement must be made. The theology is still relevant, the message is still relevant, but the forms and the methods are not. We do not offer the sacrifices but we understand a sacrifice is required and in Jesus Christ that sacrifice has been made.
New Testament faith didn’t break with the Old Testament or deny its validity, you see. What the New Testament does is to bring the Old Testament to its fulfillment, and when that happens it takes over all the theological truths of the Old Testament faith, reinterprets them and gives them a new depth of meaning in Jesus Christ.
So, here is a rule…in interpreting the Old Testament….
Only those words of the Old Testament, the moral, ethical and religious teachings that are reiterated in the New Testament are relevant and authoritative for us today. I want to repeat that. Only those words of the Old Testament, the moral, ethical and religious teachings that are reiterated, repeated, redefined in the New Testament are relevant and authoritative for the church. Our guide must be the New Testament. You might say that the New Testament is the Christianized of the Old, so in determining the relevancy of any Old Testament word or passage, we must ask, “Does this reappear in the New Testament? Is this part of the revelation of God that Christ brought with Him into the New Testament? Or is it a part of that which He left behind because it had served its purpose and was no longer needed?”
And if a particular word or teaching from an Old Testament passage does not appear in the New Testament, then it does not have relevance to us today.
The Old Testament, for example, is more physical, more material in its approach to salvation. It speaks largely in terms to physical deliverance, a concept of a hereafter and eternal life was barely formed in the minds of the Israelites. Righteousness in the Old Testament days was pictured as outward obedience and external observance of rules and rituals.
For instance, the prevailing philosophy of that period said that physical and material blessings were evidences of God’s favor, and it was really very simple…if you were right with God you’d be healthy and wealthy and if you were not right with God you would be sick and bankrupt.
This is why Job’s three friends accused him of harboring sin. See, Job’s plight, Job’s situation was a threat to these friends of his, because his experience…what was happening with Job challenged and contradicted their own “cut and dried” theology! Their theology said that if a man was right with God then he’s going to be healthy and wealthy and here is Job…a man who has always been thought of as perfect and upright and he’s lost most everything…his family and he’s filled with this loathsome disease…it must be not that our theology was wrong, but it must be that Job has sinned.
What really scared his friends was that if their theology was wrong, it meant that what had happened to Job could happen to them. No matter how holy and righteous they were, bad things could still come upon them, and they didn’t want to acknowledge that! They were not interested in Job as a hurting person…their major concern was in Job as a problem to be solved, you see.
The same philosophy flourishes today. I remember not long ago I received a newsletter from a certain ministry and the lead article revolved around these words from one of their teachers… He said, “Your financial condition is a reflection of your spiritual condition.” Job’s friends would have loved that! That would have been right down their alley. Of course, the thing that was really fascinating to me about that newsletter was this…on the same day I received the newsletter I also received a letter from the head of that ministry…a letter that was appealing for money for their debts and their needs. I thought to myself, “Surely I’m not the only one who sees this as a glaring inconsistency.” On the one hand they’re saying that your financial condition is a reflection of your spiritual condition and at the same time, they’re asking for money because they have needs and debts. We still have that philosophy with us. It’s still here. If a person is right with God then everything is going to be swell in his life, you see. And that’s the Old Testament Jew…to be sure.
But the perspective of the Old Testament differs from that of the New Testament. And you have to reinterpret that with the New Testament in mind, you see. I mean, the New Testament is the capstone of revelation, and it has to be taken as the chief source of Biblical doctrine. Therefore, whatever is shadowed in the Old Testament is realized in the New which in turn makes the New Testament the chief source of Christian theology. The great doctrines of faith are almost fully developed in the New Testament.
A good example of how the Old Covenant telescopes in the New can be seen, I think, by comparing Habakkuk 2:3 with Hebrews 10:37. In Habakkuk 2:3, you see a good example of shadow becoming substance, of a lesser advancing to and being absorbed by the greater…Let’s read Habakkuk…in a time of national emergency God promised Habakkuk that deliverance would come and here’s the way it reads…
“For the vision is yet for the appointed time. It hastens
toward the goal and it will not fail, though it tarries wait for
it for it will surely come. It will not delay.”
Now, centuries later to encourage persecuted believers the writer of Hebrews quotes Habakkuk using what I call the new covenant version… Here’s what he says…
“For yet in a very little while He who is coming will come and
will not delay.”
Now, let’s compare those two statements. The Old Testament says that the vision is for the appointed time…it hastens toward the goal…it will not fail, but though it tarries, wait for it for it will surely come…it will not delay.
But the writer of Hebrews says,
“For yet in a very little while He who
is coming will come and He will not delay.”
Notice that Habakkuk writes of “it” coming and Hebrews speaks of “he who is coming. What is an “it” in the Old Testament is a “he” in the New Testament. Christ is the “yes and amen” of all God’s promises, Paul tells. In Him all the promises of God are filled to the full. This is what is better about the “better covenant” of the Book of Hebrews. “He” is better than “it,” you see. So, when you come to the Old Testament, you have salvation depicted in physical and material terms of blessing, but when you come to the New Testament you don’t see that. You read the letters of Paul…the thanksgiving prayers of Paul…he doesn’t thank God for his double car garage or his big house or his bank account. He’s thanking God for salvation, for mercy, for grace to endure. The New Testament emphasis is upon the spiritual blessings. Old Testament emphasis is upon the physical blessings.
Because you see, in the immaturity of the human race, man had to be appealed to on the basis of the physical and material rewards, but as the human race matures, it should come to see the spiritual is far greater than the physical, and that spiritual blessings are to be desired more than material blessings. That’s progressive revelation…Old Testament emphasis upon the material and the physical…New Testament emphasis upon the spiritual and the eternal. So, we must interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New.
On the other hand, interpreting the New Testament in the light of the Old is one of the chief causes of confusion about so much teaching today. For instance, let’s take the issue of physical healing. It wasn’t too long ago a friend of mine and his wife came to me with a problem. She had for some time been suffering with severe migraine headaches, and she’d been to a number of doctors and those of you who have had any dealings with that understand how terribly difficult it is to find a cure for that. So, she had been to several doctors and had suffered a great deal from it.
Well, they attended a Bible Conference. The Bible Conference was led by two well-known Bible teachers and one evening after the conference they were all visiting together and she happened to mention her headaches. Now the two preachers questioned her at length about her background, her parents, her grandparents and after all of that they concluded the headaches were the result of a curse passed on to her from her mother who played with a “ouija board” as a child…which gave the devil a point of entry and which said curse obviously had not been broken by her mother and so after these men prayed for her and prayed for her healing and rebuked the devil and renounced the curse, they advised her to immediately stop taking the medication her doctor had prescribed, because this would be her act of faith…her positive confession.
And this is how I got involved. Her doctor had warned her from the start of the treatment that any sudden withdrawal from the medicine could trigger a cardiac arrest. And so she asked me what I thought of what the preachers had said. I told her that I didn’t think much of it and if I were her I’d stay on the medication. Now, the reason that I said that was because these conference leaders, these two ministers had based their actions on the passages in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 which talks about curses, and I pointed out to my friend’s wife that those words in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 were spoken in a different time and space situation than ours. They were spoken to a specific people at a specific time dealing with a specific situation peculiar to Israel at that time and those verses in Deuteronomy do not apply to Christians today.
Now, why do I say that? Because no such thing is taught in the New Testament. You won’t find that teaching about curses in the New Testament at all. I ran those verses through the filter of the New Testament and they didn’t come out at the other end. And some of you I know are thinking about the passage in James 4 that talks about curses but both exegetically and grammatically the curses of which James speaks are not remotely similar to the voodoo type of curse or hex. James was talking about cursing and blessing with your words. He’s not talking about this type of curse that’s laid on somebody and passed on through the generations. There’s nowhere in the New Testament where this is taught. As a matter of fact, the opposite is taught…that Christ has broken all those powers and broken all those curses and we are delivered from all those curses.
Now, see…I guess what grieves me most and angers me to a point… and I trust that it is righteous anger, about this incident is that these preachers recklessly endangered the life of this friend with their reckless theology. When you tell someone to stop taking medication and the stopping of that medication can trigger a cardiac arrest causing a heart attack, then you better have a good reason for saying what you say. And these men, I felt, were careless and reckless. If they had been physicians you could have sued them for malpractice. Only those teachings of the Old Testament which are reiterated either in form or theology in the New Testament apply to us today.
God promised healing and prosperity to Israel, but He never made that same promise to the New Testament church…you just won’t find it! Israel was in the infancy of their nation and like all children, they had to learn primarily through rewards and punishments. But, there comes a time when children must learn to obey not because obedience is profitable, but because obedience is right! And the trouble with some of the health and wealth theology, and it’s not my intention while doing these studies on Bible interpretation to hammer on this, but this is the most relevant illustration of these things that I know anything about. The health and wealth theology and all of its excess baggage, such as curses, drag believers back into the Old Testament to the shadows of the old covenant and the uncertainty of immaturity. Progressive revelation is one of the important keys in interpreting the Bible.
The Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New Testament. The full and final revelation is in the New Testament. The last word to those who know Christ, the church today, is found in the New Testament. All of those teachings in the Old Testament which are reiterated in the New Testament are relevant for us today.
Rule 4: We must distinguish between the picture and the frame.
Hanging over the fireplace in our home is a beautiful painting of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”. That hymn has special meaning for Kaye and myself. When our oldest son died in 1975, Miss Bertha Smith, who was a retired missionary to China, called us from her home in South Carolina. When I answered the phone, she asked Kaye to pick up the extension, and then without any preamble Miss Bertha began to sing that great hymn over the telephone.
During World War II when Japanese planes were bombing the hospital that Miss Bertha Smith was attached to she has told us a number of times about crawling under the hospital beds and dragging some of the nurses with her…they were terrified because of the bombing and the only way she could calm the nurses and herself was that she sang all seven verses of “How Firm a Foundation” over and over and over. The hymn had been such a source of strength to her in her hours of crisis that she thought it might be the same for us. And it was and it is…how firm a foundation!
And the hymn, the picture of us that is hanging over our fireplace was painted for us by a gifted young woman in our church who knew of the hymn’s significance to us. Now later, when we redecorated the den we replaced the original frame with a new one that blended in with the color and décor of the room. We didn’t get a new picture, we got a new frame. The picture is permanent, but the frame is temporary.
Now, in much the same way, when God revealed Himself to man, He did so within a specific timeframe…an age with particular cultural backgrounds and settings. The Bible, you see, is rooted in history. It is a collection of books and letters with addresses and dates and it possesses an historical and a geographical and a cultural setting…the frame. Now, you take this historical setting at a certain time in history, certain geographical location and certain cultural patterns and in that position, God placed spiritual and eternal truths which is the picture. The historical, geographical, cultural situation is the frame. The truth, the revelation is the picture.
Let me put it this way…God dressed eternal truths in period costumes, but He does not expect us to wear the clothes and adopt the customs of that ancient age in which the Bible was given. We have to distinguish between the frame and the picture…that which is temporal and that which is eternal. You see, when we open the Bible, we are A.D. people reading B.C. documents…documents that were written hundreds even thousands of years ago in different languages, from diverse settings and cultures. It’s the Word of God, but it’s also an historical document.
One of Augustine’s famous sayings was this… “Distinguish the times and you will harmonize Scripture.” So, our first task in interpreting a passage of Scripture is to discover what it meant to the original readers. We cannot know what it means to us until we know what it meant to them! That is a very important statement. We cannot know what the Bible means to us until first of all we know what it meant to the original readers. Unless we recognize that there are cultural and historical and geographical positions that separate us from the text being studied, we will overlook the differences, you see, and we’ll find ourselves in great confusion.
If we’re not careful, we will read their words but with our definitions. Now, for instance, let me illustrate it like this. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 8 concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols. It was a big issue back in those days because here is a man or a woman or a family who goes down to a pagan temple to worship a pagan god and they take with them an animal to sacrifice. So, they sacrifice that animal on the altar of that pagan god. Now, afterwards the priests, the pagan priests would take the remainder of that animal that had been sacrificed and they would sell it in the marketplace…and so, it became a hotly debated issue in Paul’s day of whether it was right for a Christian to eat meat that had been offered to idols. So, when you went to the marketplace to buy a slab of meat, you would say, “I want to know first of all…was this meat offered to idols?” And if it was, then there were those who said, “Oh, you can’t eat meat offered to idols.” There were other Christians who said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. An idol is not anything…it doesn’t matter whether it was offered to an idol or anything…”
So, this was a great controversy. And in Paul’s day, it was a big deal among Christians. Now, I must admit to you that I have no problem with that. I can’t remember the last time the subject came up. When I go the supermarket I almost never ask the butcher if the hamburger was offered to idols first of all. No, and you don’t either. See, the historical situation has no relevance in our day. That is no argument today. It has absolutely no relevance today. It was simply the frame into which was placed a picture of a lasting truth and an eternal relevant principle.
Do you know what Paul’s conclusion was? What Paul basically said was that there’s not anything wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols because an idol is nothing, so it doesn’t matter…it’s not anything wrong with it. But, he said and here’s the principle… “If eating meat offends my brother or causes my brother to sin, I will eat no meat as long as the world stands.” Here is the issue of meat being offered to idols and should that meat be eaten by Christians. Now, that’s the frame, folks. The picture is you don’t do anything that makes yourself a stumbling block to weaker Christians. That’s the picture. That’s the eternal truth. That’s the lasting truth…set down, fitted into the frame of a certain historical, cultural situation.
I remember a few years ago at the Keswick Convention, a woman asked me if I thought we ought to obey the Bible. Now, when somebody comes up and says, “Do you think we ought to obey the Bible?” there’s only one answer to that question, of course… “Yes, we ought to obey the Bible.” And I said, “Yes, we ought to obey the Bible.” Then, she said, “Okay, if we ought to obey the Bible why don’t we greet the brethren with a holy kiss like the Bible says?”
Well, I assumed she was referring to one of Paul’s statements or Peter’s like in Romans 16 or 1 Peter 5, where we’re told to greet one another with a holy kiss. That’s what she was referring to. And so I said to her, “Well, in the first place, the emphasis in those words is on ‘holy’ not ‘kiss.’ And in the second place, greeting one another with a kiss was the customary greeting in that day…in that culture…it still is.” As a matter of fact, just a few days before that I’d seen on television Arafat greeting the president of Jordan by kissing him on both cheeks and on the nose…I’d never seen that before. And so when Paul and Peter were telling their readers to greet one another with a holy kiss, they weren’t telling one another to greet one another with a kiss…they were already doing that…they were to make sure that it was a holy kiss, you see. By the way, you know the difference between a holy kiss and an unholy kiss? About two minutes!
Anyway, Paul was not telling them to greet one another with a kiss, because they were already doing that. They were to make sure that it was a holy kiss. “The gesture of kissing,” I said to the woman, “was the same as a handshake for us. If Paul were writing these words to us he would say something like this… ‘greet one another with a holy handshake.’” The frame is the act of kissing. The picture is a holy kiss. And according to 1 Peter 5… “a lovely greeting”…not just “a greeting” but “a lovely greeting.”
Now, I think because it is receiving so much attention nowadays that I will mention one other example of this “frame versus picture” principle. And this has to do with the matter of lifting up hands in praise and worship. In some places this is a controversy. Some people say that we ought to do it and others say that we ought not to do it. Some say that we’re not really worshiping God unless you’re raising your hands in worship and so…let’s deal with that for just a moment.
What was once practiced almost exclusively in Pentecostal churches has now become a common and popular expression in many evangelical churches and for many it is a wonderful way to express their praise to God. For some it has become a spiritual status symbol…a sign of liberty and life in public worship. I’ve heard that some go so far as to say that we do not truly worship God without it. And those who don’t raise their hands, at the most sin against God and at the least do not really and truly praise Him. Churches that don’t practice this are often accused of being dead and dry and stuffy, bound by the shackles of denominational tradition and have not yet learned how to worship.
I have a friend who was a guest speaker at a local church and during the song service he was standing next to the pastor and the pastor, like most of the people present, had his hands raised up in worship. And the pastor said to my friend, “You know, you’re free to raise your hands in this church.” And my friend said, “Am I free not to raise my hands?” That was a good question.
Now, lifting up the hands was customary of Jewish worship. It was one of the three postures of prayer…kneeling, lying prostrate and standing with the hands lifted toward heaven…those were the three common positions of prayer. Being a part of their culture, it is mentioned often in the Old Testament…especially in the Psalms. Now, remember the third guideline of interpretation? What does the New Testament say? It’s not enough to go back to the Old Testament and find it there…what does the New Testament say about this? Are we, as New Testament believers, commanded to raise our hands in worship and praise? The only passage that comes close to it is 1 Timothy 2:8 where Paul says, “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” Now, here again the emphasis is upon “holy”, not the lifting up of hands.
Always in New Testament worship the central concern is not the mechanics or the motions of the body but it is the attitude of the heart. Paul was primarily concerned that their prayers were offered in holiness and without anger and quarreling. As I mentioned earlier, lifting up the hands was and still is a regular posture of prayer…Paul was speaking of the language of the custom and culture. If he were writing to us today, he might just as well say, “Kneeling on holy knees…” Lifting up the hands is the frame…holy prayer without wrath and dissension is the picture.
Now, I think it’s worthwhile to note that Paul here is referring to prayer, not praise and worship. And more significant are the words “the men”. Now, when Paul uses that phrase, he’s using the definite article with men, indicating that he is speaking to a specific group and that group is the men as opposed to the women. The word Paul uses here for “men” is the word for “men as opposed to women”…males as contrasted to females. It’s not men in the generic sense, when he says, “I would that all men everywhere…” He’s not talking about all Christians everywhere…men and women…he’s talking about men as opposed to women…males as opposed to females. “The men”.. “the males” in the church, you see. And again, it was the custom for the men only to pray aloud in public. Generally the women kept silent. Of course, we don’t accept that custom today and we don’t have to accept any of the customs today.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against raising hands in worship. I think it is wonderful that believers in worship feel the freedom to express their praise to God in that way. I certainly want the right to do it if I so choose. What I am saying is that from the viewpoint of the New Testament the lifting up of hands carries no more spiritual weight than does saying, “amen.” It is not the better, the freer or more spiritual way to worship God. Its value resides in what it means to the worshiper only. If it means something to you…if it enables you to worship, by all means do it! But, we should not make it the sign of spiritual freedom in corporate worship. Christians are not commanded to do it. Christians should be free to do it and they should be free not to do it. That’s the difference between the picture and the frame.
Rule 5: Scripture interprets Scripture.
By this, I mean simply that the Bible is its own best interpreter. And every verse must be interpreted in the light of its immediate context as well as in the total context of the Bible. The unity of the Scripture follows from the fact that God is the principle author of it and implies that the meaning of the parts agree with the meaning of the whole so that one passage sheds light on another passage because it comes from one divine Author. Scripture is its own interpreter.
The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books and letters written by different people, separated by hundreds of years and yet, it is one book possessing one scheme of truth, one consistent theology in which all the separate parts harmonize with one another. This is sometimes referred to as the analogy of faith, which says that there is one and only one system of doctrine taught in the Bible, therefore, the individual interpretation must conform to that one system. In other words, the analogy of faith is the consistent and perpetual harmony of Scripture in the fundamental points of faith and practice.
The theological unity of the Bible means the interpretation of a specific passage must not contradict the whole teaching of Scripture on a point. There’s an old maxim that says that a text without a context is a pretext. See, when you isolate verses from their context, that is a careless and reckless and even dangerous way of establishing truth. Everybody’s heard the old saw… “Judas went out and hanged himself…go thou and do likewise…and whatsoever thou doest, do quickly.” You can take those three texts and take them out context and put them together and that’s what you have. When you and I neglect context in which a single verse is to be found we are opening ourselves to gross misinterpretation of the Scripture.
Now I think this is a particular danger for evangelical conservatives. I mean, if somebody can give us a proof text, it’s just instinctive to say, “Well, you’re right because there’s the proof text.” But, you see, there must be a sound exegetical examination of every text. I mean, if you pick a verse out of the fifth chapter of Isaiah, you must understand what that verse means in the fifth chapter of Isaiah. It must be interpreted in the light of its context and if you simply lift it out and quote it out of context, what you’re doing at that moment is you are guilty of very superficial treatment of the Scriptures.
The use of proof texts is only as good as the exegeses that under-girds the quote. Now, this principle means two or three things.
1) This means we must give attention to grammar…
The meaning of words and the relation to one another within a verse. Theology starts with grammar. Any doctrinal position is no better than the grammatical and exegetical foundation that underlines it and Bible study that ignores the meaning of a word and its relation to other words within that verse is unreliable and careless and should not be regarded as serious Bible study.
2) Obscure passages must give way to clear passages.
Let’s face it, some parts of the Bible are downright difficult to understand. Do you think you have a hard time understanding Paul? You’re in good company because Peter himself had trouble with some of Paul’s writings. For instance, in 2 Peter 3:15-16, here’s what Peter says,
“Our beloved brother, Paul, according to the wisdom given him wrote to you as also in all his letters speaking in them of these things in which some things are hard to understand…”
Some of the things that Paul writes even Peter acknowledged are hard to understand. Everything that is essential to salvation and Christian living is clearly revealed in Scripture. Essential truth is not tucked away in some incidental remark in Scripture. It is not found in some passage that remains ambiguous no matter how much you study it. Any teaching that is build upon an obscure passage of Scripture is suspect.
For instance, certain people have devised a doctrine of material physical prosperity based on John’s salutation to Gaius in 3 John…
“Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and
be in good health just as your soul prospers.”
And some have taken that simple greeting and built a complete doctrine upon it. Some have come away from 1 Peter 2:24 with a detailed theology of healing in the atonement by superimposing upon the text something that’s not there! The words in that verse by the way… “by whose stripes we are healed…” are unmistakably metaphors referring to the spiritual healing from our sin. Neither Peter nor any other New Testament writer puts forth the idea of a theology of healing in the atonement.
3) Quoting verses and preaching the Word are not the same thing.
Some teachers bombard their listeners with verse after verse from every corner of the Bible and the verses have no relation to one another. There is rarely any attempt to reconcile one verse with the other or explain the meaning of that verse in its context. I’ve heard some preachers just inundate their listeners with hundreds of isolated texts, mostly from the Old Testament and then they would say, “Don’t analyze it, just believe it.” They mean to say, “Don’t question me about any verse I just quoted.” If you question somebody about one of those verses, then they accuse you of unbelief. I admit that quoting a steady stream of verses is impressive and can overwhelm an audience and they will sometimes discourage scrutiny of those verses but quoting verses and preaching the Word are not the same thing.
And when somebody says, “Don’t question it, just believe it,” they have something to hide. That’s a naïve and shallow view of both faith and preaching. See, faith doesn’t fear facts. Truth doesn’t resist questions, it welcomes them. Truth welcomes analysis and merely reciting verses…heaping one on top of another is not preaching the Word.
For instance, Matthew 10:1 is a good example of interpreting Scripture out of context… “and having summoned His twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.” Some use this verse to support the claim that we have the same power and authority Jesus gave to His disciples…that we can do the works of Jesus just as He did them, and since Jesus so clearly commanded His disciples to heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead…we can do the same.
Now, this of course just isn’t so. It’s just nonsense. Why do I say that? Because Jesus goes on to instruct His disciples “to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, avoid the Gentiles and the Samaritans.” In verses 9 and 10, Jesus instructs them further that they should not acquire gold or silver or copper for their money belts or a bag for their journey or even two tunics or sandals or staff for the worker is worthy of his hire.
Now folks, if we lay claim to verse 1, we must also claim the following verses. This would mean that we could minister only to the Jews…no preaching or healing among the Gentiles. We must raise the dead as well as the sick. We must not acquire any money, carry only one suit and one pair of shoes. I tell you, folks, I’ve heard many claim verse 1, but I’ve never heard anybody make the same claim for the verses that follow. If anyone ever struck out on the circuit with only one suit and one pair of shoes and didn’t acquire any gold or silver along the way, I missed him when he came to my town.
Now, here is a powerful example of the rule of context…that Jesus meant this commission for the original twelve only, and that it was limited to a specific group in a specific time frame is made clear by verse 2. Jesus says He gave His disciples this authority…verse 2: “Now the names of those twelve apostles are these…” and then Jesus lists them. I remember reading years ago J. Sidlow Baxter said, “Dear brother, if your name is not among the list of the twelve, the commission was not ever given to you.” So, here is an example of interpreting a verse out of context.
And the fact of the matter is ignoring this rule of interpretation can lead to another common error, that is superimposing Western culture and values upon the Bible. The doctrine of prosperity, the idea that God wants every Christian to be materially wealthy is the result of forcing our economic values upon the pages of the Bible.
One religious speaker…this is good…one religious speaker, one of these fellows said that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey He established the doctrine of prosperity. Now, let that sink in…that Jesus established the doctrine of prosperity when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Riding on a donkey,” he said, “was equivalent to driving a luxurious limousine.” Now, there’s not anything wrong with driving a limousine, but to establish a Biblical doctrine on that incident defies reason and slaps common sense in the face. Anyway, the donkey was borrowed. Rather than the doctrine of prosperity, Jesus established the doctrine of “rent-a-car.” That is one example of taking Western values, American values and superimposing them upon the Bible. You see, only an affluent society could generate such a doctrine.
Let’s face it…where else but America can you buy low-calorie dog food for overweight canines? Only in America could that happen…the claim of the “wealth and health” doctrine may sound plausible when spoken by some wealthy banker in a hotel ballroom. But you take that same message to the village in India, or Bangladesh, or some other drought ridden part of Africa and try to preach it over there.
Rule 6: We must take into account the literary character of the Book.
Now, while the Bible is one book, it’s more than one book…it is a collection of books. And you’ll find a full range of literary forms in Scripture…historical narratives, poetry, proverbs, hymns, allegory, law, prose, and this is an important factor in understanding the Bible, because the approach to each literary style must be different. You don’t interpret Acts the same way you would interpret Ezekiel because that would lead to a great deal of confusion. The Psalms are largely poetic writings, filled with vivid images. I really don’t believe God has wings like it says in Psalm 17:8. And I don’t believe He really has feathers as it says in Psalm 91:4. That’s poetic imagery. And we understand it as such. The four Gospels and the Book of Acts are largely historical narratives, and this should influence our approach to them.
I remember early in my ministry I wondered if churches should meet in homes like they did in the Book of Acts. I’d heard some who suggested we should. They said that because the church in the Book of Acts, we ought to meet in homes also. But, I suspect the reason the people met in homes was because they had no other place to gather. Whatever reason…we are not instructed to meet in homes, and by the way, this is a very important point…our doctrine comes not from what the apostles did or what the apostles experienced, but from what they taught!
John Phillips, who is the author of the EXPLORING SERIES of commentaries said, “It is an axiom that you don’t get your doctrine from the Book of Acts.” You see, in one way, the Gospels and Acts present the same question as does the Old Testament. Since they are historical documents, how do we separate the picture from the frame? Much of the Gospel record is clearly universal and eternal in its application, such as the ethical and moral teachings of the Sermon on the Mount…the Upper Room Discourse and the truths that are expressed in the parables, and so on. But, what about foot washing? What about baptism? What about communion? What about healing? On matters like these, we turn to the epistles, don’t we? It is in the epistles where church doctrine is established. We interpret the Gospels and the Acts in light of the epistles, you see. We interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. And we interpret the Gospels and the Acts in the light of the epistles as far as finding out what our church doctrine is to be…what teachings, commands, precepts are reiterated in the epistles…
This is why most churches don’t observe foot washing as an ordinance of the church. Why? Jesus washed feet, and He said in John 13…He commanded His disciples to wash feet, but hardly any churches do that today. Why? Because there is no evidence whatsoever that the early church practiced it as such and it is never taught in the epistles to be a part of the ordinances of the church. You won’t find it taught in the epistles and you won’t find it mentioned in the epistles as something we’re supposed to do.
And you can apply the same to any other question that you have. For instance, we’ve been talking a lot about healing. Through the epistles’ teaching…read through the epistles…is there anywhere they exhort us to apostolic healing? Now, what is interesting is that in view of the prominent place that healing occupies in the Gospels and the Acts, I’m surprised to find almost nothing about it in the rest of the New Testament. If the church is supposed to believe in and practice apostolic healing, it should be taught in the epistles. But, it isn’t. Nowhere is it taught or suggested that we have the divine right to be healed of all sicknesses and maladies.
To me the conclusion is obvious. If the emphasis of our ministry is to be the same of the apostles’ teaching, we cannot justify the excessive emphasis on physical and deliverance and material prosperity.
Now, I said at the beginning of these messages that these principles of interpretation, while not exhaustive, are basic and sufficient. And observing these six guidelines can safeguard us from doctrinal error. They can enable us to recognize false teaching and equip us to handle accurately the Word of truth.
God bless you.
© Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2005