Text: II Timothy 2
Part one of How to Interpret the Bible
Would you open your Bibles this morning to 2 Timothy 2, and I’m going to read just one verse…verse 15. Beginning this morning I want to give you a three part study on the subject that I think is one of the most vital subjects to Christians today, namely, interpreting the Bible for yourself. And we’ll read the 15th verse of the second chapter of 2 Timothy, where he says to this young man, Timothy…
“Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God as a workman
who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word
Now, I want to underscore that last phrase for it is the text of our three part study… “handling accurately the word of truth…”
Now, most of you know that I grew up in Arkansas. In Arkansas today there are still quite a few people who consider “hog-calling” a fine art. It’s true that farmers don’t do it much anymore, but every year in various parts of the state they hold contests…hog-calling contests. And I’ll not try to reproduce what they say, what they do, but it goes something like this… “woo-pig-sooie-woo-pig…” But, it starts out slow and soft and it builds up until at the last when you say “pig” it’s a big scream and if you’re within ten miles you can probably hear the “woo-pig-sooie-pig” bouncing from wall to wall. And if you ever go to an Arkansas University football game, you will also hear those rapid fire hog calls from the fans jumping up and down in the stands. Most of them will be wearing bright red plastic hats shaped like a running razorback and what they’re doing, of course, is cheering their team, the Arkansas Razorbacks. For those of you who do not know, a razorback is a skinny, long-legged, half wild, mongrel hog with a bad disposition. But anyway…
I heard about an Arkansas farmer once who lost his voice and was not able to call the hogs at feeding time. And so, with this problem, he began to think, “how can I get my hogs to come at feeding time?” Well, he solved the problem by training his pigs to respond to the sound of a stick hitting a tree and every day at feeding time, he would go outside and pick up a stick and beat on a tree and it wouldn’t be long before the pigs would crowd around the feeding trough. And it was a great success until one day when the farmer went out to feed his pigs and found them running back and forth, grunting and oinking…lathered in sweat, laboring to get from one tree to another…several pigs had already collapsed in a heap… It only took the farmer a minute to discover what had happened. A flock of woodpeckers had descended on the farm and were hammering away at the trees and the pigs were chasing the sounds of the pecking, looking for food that wasn’t there…going from one tree to another.
Now, I do have some doubts about the accuracy of that story, but I have none about the truth that it illustrates. Many Christians are behaving like those unfortunate pigs…maybe I ought to use a more flattering metaphor… Ministers are finding themselves with a flock of sheep that are confused and frustrated, exhausting themselves, scurrying from one voice to another, searching for food that isn’t there, and frankly some of the voices that they’re hearing are woodpeckers just pecking on hollow logs.
Handling accurately the word of truth…interpreting the Bible for yourself…
We live in a day when the volume of religious teaching is exceeded only by its variety. Twenty-four hours a day you can watch it on television, dishing it out faster than you and I can take it in. You go to the bookstores, they’re all bulging with all kinds of books…everybody has a tape ministry. There are so many kinds of teaching today. There has never been a moment in history when communication has been at its peak as it is today.
And it can be confusing. I remember on a recent Sunday morning, as I was getting ready for church, I flipped on the television…I always like to see what the competition is up to…and being Sunday, of course, most of the programs were religious. I watched one minister charge his congregation to adopt a policy…what he called “downward mobility”…in other words, instead of accumulating more and more…they should dis-accumulate. He was saying that in the light of world hunger, Christians should be giving their money to buy food for starving children rather than buying newer automobiles and larger houses and building bank accounts and his listeners, his congregation were very silent and they didn’t seem to be enjoying the sermon.
The interesting thing is I turned to the very next channel and found another minister who was preaching prosperity. He was saying that prosperity is our divine right and that God wants all of us to healthy and wealthy. Now, I want to tell you something…his congregation was reacting differently…they were shouting “Praise the Lord” and waving their hands in ecstasy. And I thought, “It’s no wonder that people are confused” what with so many voices that they’re hearing…every one of them claiming, of course, to have the truth…it can be extremely confusing.
And so, the question is “How can we really know what the Bible teaches?” How do we discern between truth and error? How do we recognize who is a true teacher of the word of God and who is not? In other words, how can we interpret the Bible for ourselves? Is there a way that we can find the truth for ourselves in this matter?
And Paul gives us, I believe, a clue in 2 Timothy 2:15 that we read a moment ago, where he says that if we are diligent to present ourselves approved as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth. Now that phrase “handling accurately” translates a Greek word that means “to cut along a straight line, to cut along a straight road through heavily forested country or country that is difficult to pass through.” It means “to guide the word of truth along a straight path” like a road that goes straight to its goal so that the traveler may go directly to his destination. This word was used to describe the work of a priest as he would slice through the sacrificial animals according to God’s instructions. It was used of a farmer cutting a straight furrow. It was used of a stonemason who would quarry huge rocks so that they would fit into the walls of a building. It was used of a tailor or a tentmaker who cut cloth. But the key in every case is that it indicates precision. “Be diligent,” Paul said, “do your best, be zealous, take pains, make every effort and be persistent, handling accurately the word of truth demands serious and hard work.”
Now, I’ll just tell you from the outset that good, accurate Bible study is not easy. It’s not easy and as you and I approach the word of God, we have to come to it not only handling it accurately but also being diligent in that. If we are going to be lazy in our study, in our interpretation, then naturally we’re not going to be able to interpret the Bible for our own selves.
This Bible that I hold in my hand…what is it? Well, it is the word of God. The Bible is the product of revelation and inspiration. There are three components which make up revelation. God revealed Himself to man and of course revelation is God’s communicating to man spiritual truth which man could not otherwise know. This is very important. It is a special and extra-ordinary manifestation which removes the veil in a special and extraordinary way from something that is hidden. It is God’s communicating to man spiritual truth which man could not otherwise know.
And there are three components.
First of all there is manifestation. By manifestation I mean the historical act of God. He revealed Himself by His activity…by His deeds. Now, the Bible is not so much a book of theological propositions…it is not a book of dogma. It is a record God’s manifesting Himself in human history. It is a record of those times when God acted in such a way in the affairs of the world, in the affairs of men that He revealed something of His character…the manifestation of God.
The second component is inspiration. Inspiration is the ability God gave to man to interpret accurately the divine manifestation. So we have manifestation, inspiration…the final component is what I will call illumination. Now this Bible, as we have it…as I hold it in my hand is the product of manifestation and inspiration. But for it to be revelation to us, to me, to you, there must be illumination. Illumination is that gift of God’s Spirit which enables us to grasp this record of God’s inspired manifestation.
Illumination is the Spirit of God, who inspired the Word in the first place illuminating our hearts and minds so that when we read the Bible we can grasp what God is saying, and the Bible becomes to us a revelation. Without that illumination of the Holy Spirit is an interesting and beautiful book written in beautiful ways and containing all kinds of interesting stories and all kinds of wisdom but it doesn’t become to us a revelation until the Spirit of God enables us to grasp it to understand it.
So we have these three components of revelation: manifestation, which is the historical act of God whereby God did something that revealed His character. Then we have inspiration which is the ability, supernatural ability, that God gave to man to accurately interpret the divine manifestation and record it. Illumination is that gift of God’s Spirit which enables us to grasp the record of God’s inspired manifestation which is the Bible.
See, the Bible is the product of that manifestation and inspiration. God revealed to man by His deeds. The Holy Spirit’s inspiration enabled man to record that revelation and what the Spirit inspired, He illuminates and this illumination is essential to a correct understanding of the Scriptures.
But, and this is where our study comes in…an unsound approach to the Bible will thwart the Spirit’s word…an unsound, a faulty, inaccurate approach to the Bible stifles the work of illumination in our hearts. To handle accurately the word of truth, we must have sound principles of interpretation and faithful application of those principles.
Now, I want to give you a sort of mini-course in basic hermeneutics. You may say, “Well, what in the world is hermeneutics?” Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. Hermeneutics is the ability to understand the thought of an author and then communicate that thought to others. It’s simply the science of interpreting a written work…being able to understand the thought of the author who wrote that work and communicating that thought to others.
I want to tell you something…most of the confusion concerning various types of teaching…for instance, the health and wealth, sickness and healing…most of the confusion concerning those teachings would be eliminated if we followed the basic rules of interpretation. Every error of the health and wealth theology is a result of the violation of the rules of hermeneutics.
So, we’re going to begin with our study…interpreting the Bible for yourself. Our family has a farm in Arkansas. We call it a farm for lack of a better word…we don’t farm it. But, several years ago we had a road cut straight back from the lake to the end of our property which was about a mile and a half of heavily wooded land. A few days before the bulldozers arrived, my brother and I spent a day tracking all the way back to that end of the property which, as I said, was about a mile and a half…tracking all the way back…and we spent the day tying strips of red cloth on certain trees to mark the path of the way we wanted the road to go. The red flags were guide lines that enabled the bulldozers to cut a straight path through the woods and arrive at the correct destination.
That is exactly what Paul is talking about…the figure of speech he is using when he spoke and said to Timothy, “we need to handle accurately the word of truth.” Actually, in a very real sense as my brother and I were tying the red flags we were handling accurately the word of truth, you see. There was a straight path to the back without any deviation…cutting it straight all the way to the back. In the same way you and I are to handle accurately the word of truth…cutting a straight path to the right interpretation of the word of truth.
So as we go through these rules of interpretation, think of those as the red flags that my brother and I tied on those trees to guide the bulldozer accurately to his destination.
There are six rules of interpretation. We’ll deal with some of them today and the rest of them tomorrow.
Rule 1: The Bible as the Word of God is our sole guide and authority for faith and practice.
I remember when I was a teenager, there was a popular song going around called It’s In The Book and those words were repeated over and over again… “it’s in the book”… “it’s in the book”. And before long everybody was going around saying, “It’s in the book…it’s in the book.” And the question you and I need to ask of every doctrine of every teaching is this, “Is it in the Book?” For we accept the Bible as the authoritative word from God to man. It is the full and final revelation of God recorded in that book. There is no authoritative revelation apart from or outside of that written word. Everything must square with what is written there. The last word on any doctrinal matter is not an experience. It’s not observation. It’s not feeling. It’s not a word of prophecy from some modern prophet…it is does it square with the word of God? Is it in the book?
To handle accurately the Word of God you’ve got to have a firm grip on it, you see, and if you handle it loosely as many do, you’re going to be interpreting it falsely. Now, I cannot overstate the importance of this first principle because to fail here is to fail everywhere. It’s sort of like buttoning your shirt…if you get the first button in the wrong buttonhole, you’re going to be wrong all the way to the end.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking… “Well, Preacher, everybody knows that! Everybody knows that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and it is the sole authority for faith and practice.” Well, the fact is everybody does not know it or if they know it, they are ignoring it. There is a subtle erosion of this principle occurring everywhere in contemporary history.
One prominent author wrote in her book called Something More, that the Holy Spirit has not confined His revelation to the truths contained in the canon of the Old and New Testaments. She said, “It is good to know the Holy Spirit has not confined His revelation to the truths contained in the canon of the Old and New Testaments.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is giving revelations today that are as valid and inspired as those found in the Bible.
Now, teaching like this sets loose all kinds of confusion, misunderstanding and heresy. It becomes a license for anyone to claim that they are speaking “from the Lord.” And that creates a monster of theological chaos. The fact is the Holy Spirit has limited revelation to the Old and New Testament! There is no added revelation today! There is no inspiration today as the Holy Spirit inspired the Scripture writers. That kind of inspiration is not going on today. What we have today is illumination… the Holy Spirit’s giving us the ability to understand and comprehend what He has written in this book. Revelation is confined to the Word of God.
We sometimes talk about a canon…the canon of the Bible. We talk about these books like John and Matthew and Mark and Luke being in the canon. A canon is a rule…a law…a measuring rod. It’s a criteria by which something is measured, and the Bible is our canon. The Bible is our criteria by which Christian faith is measured and it is complete.
Now, I want you to look in Jude, the little epistle of Jude over back right before Revelation. Jude 3:
He opens his epistle saying, “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common faith, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints…”
Now, I want you to notice the phrase… “once for all delivered to the saints…” Now, that phrase “the faith” refers to the whole body of Christian truth…when he says to contend for “the faith” he’s referring to the complete and final revelation of God to man. The definite article in the Greek is there. It’s “the faith” and that points to the one and only faith. There is no other. He’s referring to that body of Christian revelation which today we call the Bible. It is the faith, the one and only faith…there is no other. The phrase “once for all”…he talks about that faith which was delivered “once for all” to the saints refers something done once for all time…needing no addition or repetition. The word “delivered” is a Greek participle indicating that it has been completed and stands complete. The word “delivered” is used for handing authorized traditions in Israel, and what Jude is saying is that that apostolic tradition has been handed down to the people of God and it is the canon.
Now, this is important for us to understand. The Bible is the only objective part of our faith. The rest is subjective and easily misinterpreted. I remember a man in St. Louis saying to me, “I don’t care what the Bible says, I’ve had an experience.” Now, somehow I don’t think he meant to put it just like that but actually he was probably telling the truth about himself. Exalting his subjective experience above the Word of God. Someone has said that religious experience nowadays arouses more public interest than religious doctrine and that’s certainly true. Experience is a powerful persuader. But as a reliable interpreter of religious truth it is profoundly inadequate and downright misleading.
For one thing, we cannot always interpret accurately our own experiences. There is a vast difference between feeling certain and being right, do you know what I mean? Have you ever made a fool of yourself by insisting on something that you felt certain was right? But feeling certain is not the same thing as being right. You may feel like it’s Wednesday, and it may be Thursday, and all the feeling that you have doesn’t change it. You may feel like it’s 4:00 in the afternoon, but it may not be. Feeling certain about something and being right about something are two different things.
For one thing, our experience can be so elusive. Not only can we not always interpret our own experience right, but we cannot always interpret the experience of someone else. I was reading just last night in the Gospel of John for example…John 12:28-29… Jesus prayed that the Father’s name would be glorified and the Father’s voice answered from Heaven saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Well, John goes on to say that the people around Jesus disagreed as to what they had heard. Some said what they’d heard was thunder…others said an angel had spoken to Jesus. Even those who were on the scene when that manifestation, that experience happened, were in doubt, they were in conflict about what really happened.
There is no desire, I think, more human than the desire to know…the desire for knowledge. We try every means that can enable us to have knowledge and when reason fails, we’ll make use of experience. That’s why the occult is so fascinating. People want to know things that are hidden and if they cannot acquire that knowledge by correct methods then they will go to other methods. But experience is a very slippery word. I want to quote Dr. J. I. Packer. He says, “Experience coming to imperfectly sanctified sinners cannot help but have dross mixed in with the gold. No experience just by happening can authenticate itself as sent by God to further His work of grace.”
The mere fact that a Christian has an experience does not make it a Christian experience and that’s what I want you to get. The mere fact that a Christian has an experience does not make it a Christian experience. As a matter of fact, the same phenomena that Christians claim to experience have also been experienced by non-Christians. One of the interesting studies points out that there are people both inside and outside the Christian faith that have had out-of-body experiences. Lost people have the same experiences. Anthropologists know that among primitive, pagan tribes similar incidents have occurred…where folks spoke in unknown tongues, had visions, there were prophetic utterances…there were physical healings, there were casting out of contrary spirits…I mean these things happened among pagans in primitive tribes.
Now, this doesn’t mean that all similar Christian experience is false. What it does mean is that such experience cannot authenticate itself. And this is extremely vital to understand. Experience cannot authenticate itself. You cannot say, “I’ve had this experience and that means it’s authentic.” You just can’t do that. It has no basis because experience is a subjective part of our lives.
Then also in this matter of experience, there is the inclination to make our experience a standard for everyone else. Have you ever noticed that? If God healed me, that means God will heal you. If God made me wealthy, that means God wants all His children to be wealthy. Let God do something extraordinary for one person and we rush to declare that it’s the ordinary experience for every Christian. But, it is not!
I know at times I’ve heard people point to the apostles and we’ve often been told that if God did it for them, then He will do it for us. But, church doctrine, you see, is not based on the apostles’ experiences, it is based on their teaching. Now, Paul had a very dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus, but it would be foolish to demand that every experience of conversion have the same kind of attendance to it. That would be ridiculous.
We do not get our doctrine by the apostles’ experience. We get our doctrine from the apostles taught. Now, of course, the ultimate peril of exalting experience above Scripture is that we tend to turn experience into doctrine. But, there’s also a more subtle danger that I want to talk to you for just a moment. I’ll call it deductive doctrines. Now what in the world do I mean by that?
Making a logical deduction from a Biblical truth and treating the deduction as Biblical truth. Now, let me go through that again. Here is a Biblical truth. You and I come along and we look at that Biblical truth and we make certain logical deductions from that and then we turn around and we treat our deductions as though they were Biblical truth itself
One example of this is the abortion issue. There are some who have been teaching that the abortion that is going on right now is a sign that the Lord is coming back again soon. And they point to the fact that when Moses, the deliverer, was born that Pharaoh slew all those male children. When Jesus was born Herod had all the male children below a certain age slaughtered…and so they take this Biblical truth and they make a logical deduction from it. Since when the deliverer, Moses, came there was a slaughter of the innocent children and when Jesus was born there was a slaughter of the innocent children that nowadays because there is a slaughter of these unborn children that means the Lord is coming back real soon.
Now, the fact is the Lord may be coming back real soon…sooner than we think…but you can’t prove that by that statement. That is an occasion of taking a Biblical truth and making a logical deduction from it and treating the deduction as truth itself.
Another example has to do with the gifts of the Spirit. Sometimes we take the gifts of the Spirit and we draw up a psychological profile about every gift. For instance, a prophet has certain psychological characteristics that are different from that of a teacher or a mercy giver. You know, a prophet will kiss his wife in a different way than the mercy giver will kiss his wife and a prophet has these psychological tendencies and these personality traits and you know what I’m talking about…there are people who have gone to great lengths to draw up these huge psychological profiles about each person’s particular gift. Now, the problem is that we treat those psychological profiles as if they were absolutely true. They may happen to be true, but it’s not Biblical truth. Paul never describes the personalities of the different gifts. So, here’s a case where we take Biblical truth and we make certain logical deductions from it and then we treat those deductions as Scripture.
Another, and this will be the last example of deductive doctrines is when you come to the “better covenant” of Hebrews. It is said in Hebrews that in Christ we have a “better covenant.” So, the reasoning is this…if God healed people in the Old Testament days under the old covenant, it only makes sense that God will do no less under the new and better covenant since our covenant is better and we have everything they had under the old covenant plus more. And again, this is reasoning from Biblical truth and treating our conclusion as divine revelation, which is in fact nothing more than human assumption. The fact is that in his treatment of the better covenant the author of Hebrews never mentions healing, nor does Jeremiah in his great passage on the new covenant in Jeremiah 31.
To make such deductions forces our concept of “better” on God. And folks, it’s always a mistake to assume that God thinks as we do. His value system is vastly different than ours. With God, spiritual is better than physical, forgiveness better than healing, assurance better than wealth, persecution better than prosperity.
So, to the point…at last. The Holy Spirit has confined inspired and infallible revelation to the canons of the Old and the New Testament. The work of the Holy Spirit today is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unrevealed and unknown. His function is to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. The Holy Spirit illumines that which is already written in Scripture. He gives us the wisdom to know what lies within the Scriptures, not beyond them. It is through His illumination that we know not only what is written there but how to apply it in our daily lives.
And here’s something you need to know…illumination is never infallible. Only inspiration can lay claim to that. Illumination is never infallible. In the Middle Ages, there was a cleric named Hugo of St. Victor and he made a famous statement… He said, “Learn first what you should believe and then go to the Bible and find it there.” Unfortunately, Hugo is still very much with us. I find a good rule to follow is “Say no more than the Bible says.” Everything beyond that is human speculation. Where the Bible is silent, we ought to be silent also. I think it was John Trapp, a Puritan, who said “Where the Scripture has no tongue, we must have no ears.” If we go further than the Bible goes, that’s going too far. “Say no more than the Bible says…where the Bible is silent, let us also be silent.” Well, that’s rule number one.
Rule 2: The primary theme of revelation is redemption.
In other words, the Bible deals with ultimate truth. When Paul wrote to Timothy he said that the purpose of Scripture is to make us wise unto salvation…and he goes on to say in 2 Timothy 3:15… “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Now, when Paul writes these words he is giving to us the purpose of Scripture. And he’s saying the purpose of Scripture is two-fold…to evangelize and to edify. Let me read that verse again… “All Scripture,” he says first of all, “is given to make us wise unto salvation,” and then in the next verse, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” The purpose of Scripture is to evangelize and to edify. The primary theme of the Bible…the primary theme of revelation is redemption.
When we preach messages like “Jesus wants you well,” and “God is committed to your happiness”… What we’re saying today is in some circles these themes are superseding the Biblical call to repentance towards faith towards God. I just lately have been watching some of the programs on television and it’s remarkable how that on some of those programs all they ever talk about is health and wealth. There is no preaching of self-denial. I’ve not seen any one of them preach self-denial. The cross is not preached. Winning the lost is barely referred to. There is no call to person holiness and submission and kindness to others and getting right with others. The entire theme is “God wants you healthy and God wants you wealthy” which is, I think, a supreme violation of the Scriptures. The primary theme of revelation is redemption.
When I was a boy I remember a preacher came to our church. His specialty was prophecy. I’ll never forget that he had found in some obscure passage in the Old Testament predictions of the tire shortage in World War II. He found where God predicted the invention of tanks and submarines and flamethrowers. I remember hearing someone say that he was a “deep” preacher. But the fact is he wasn’t deep…he was muddy. I have to believe that God has more important things to talk about in the Bible than submarines and flamethrowers and the tire shortage during World War II. You don’t manipulate the Word of God like that. That is finding in the Bible things that God never intended to be there. The Bible is not a handbook on economics, nutrition or politics. The Bible never professes to contain all the truth about all things. And the interesting thing is that much of that that stirs our imagination and excites our curiosity is untouched by the Scriptures. That to me is further evidence of its divine authorship.
I believe the inspiration of the Scriptures is attended to not only by what it says but by what it does not say…how many things it does not touch upon. Why? It limits itself to redemption. The primary theme of the Bible is redemption.
We’re going to have to stop and see rule number three tomorrow.
© Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2005