“But that’s just the way you look at that verse,” says one Bible student. Another Bible student will interject, “that’s just your interpretation.” The skeptic and scoffer say, “No wonder no one believes in God, it’s impossible to know what the Bible says, that book is so confusing.” These are common statements that are made when people engage in discussion about the Bible. Why is it that people can’t see the Bible alike? What gets in the way of people who have the same book reaching the same conclusion? We can know the truth, it is not subjective, elusive, or above the skill set of humanity to know the truth (Jn. 8:31-32, 14:6).
God’s Word is truth and it has the power to sanctify (Jn. 17:17). God would not have left a guidebook that we could not understand, what good would that do (cf. Isa. 55:10-11)? Imagine leaving someone a map with directions to your house. Then you tell them, “You can’t be sure of these directions, streets can mean different things, and right doesn’t always mean right, nor does left always mean left.” How would this person ever get to your house? They would probably be better off without the map.
The Bible claims to contain the writings that equip mankind for every good work and fully furnishes him, being breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible also says that it can light the pathway of man’s life (Ps. 119:105). Also, the Bible (specifically the Old Testament) can help us learn and provide hope (Rom. 15:4). What will help individuals to look at the Bible the same way? Does God want us to all see the Bible alike (cf. Jn. 17:20-21; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:1-6)? Why do we come away from the same book with a myriad of conclusions? Let’s look at a few principles that must be considered and maintained when studying the Bible.
Respect the authority of the Scriptures
Before we can agree on what the Bible says, we need a respect for God’s Word. The psalmist loved God’s Word (Ps. 119:97). Likewise, we need to have a love and high respect for God’s Word and the authority it contains. Paul told a group of Christians in the first century that whatever they did, both words and actions should be done in the name of (or by the authority) of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17). So when it comes to Christianity, whether it is something we speak or do, we need to do it all by the authority of Jesus. If we don’t have a passage for it, then we shouldn’t be practicing it. Statements like “we have always done it this way,” or “the Bible doesn’t say that we can’t” are not sound techniques of Biblical interpretation, and show a lack of respect for the authority of the Scriptures.
Sometimes in talking to someone about what the Bible says, someone will say, “well the Bible says that, but in my heart, I feel otherwise.” The attitude that allows one’s heart to trump heaven’s authority will never be able to see the Bible for what it really is (cf. Jer. 17:9). We need to recognize that the Bible is the only way we can know truth religiously. Without the Bible, we would not know anything about how to please God, but with it, we have all that we need in order to please God (2 Pet. 1:3). If we would please God and understand His Word, we must first have a respect for the authority of God’s Word and how it trumps opinion, heritage, tradition, or popularity. When we respect the authority of the scriptures we are more concerned with what is right and less concerned about with who is right.
Divide the Testaments
Another huge problem that arises when looking at the Bible is the division of the testaments. So many times in discussing the Bible, one pulls passages from all over the place and seeks to harmonize them. We need to realize when looking at the Bible that there is an Old Testament and a New Testament. The Law of Moses was written to Jews who were under the Old Covenant (Deut. 5:3ff). The Law of Moses is described as a schoolmaster (or tutor/guardian) for God’s people but it is no longer necessary since faith in Jesus is realized (Gal. 3:23-25).
Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law and it is now done away with (Mt. 5:18; Lk. 24:44; Jn. 19:30; Rom. 7:1-4, 10:4; Eph. 2:11-16; Col. 2:14-17; Heb. 8:7-13, 9:15-17). For a Christian to seek to be justified by the law that is no longer binding, and fail to see the division of the Bible is to faultily interpret the Scriptures. “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4 ESV).
We need to appreciate the fact that the New Testament is the authority in matters of religion today, and it is the only authority. We need to listen to what Jesus and His New Testament have to say if we would be pleasing to God (Mt. 17:5; 28:20). We need to look at what the New Testament teaches about how to be saved, how to worship God, and how to treat our fellow man. We can learn from the Old Testament, but it and its laws are not binding today on the Christian (Rom. 10:4, 15:4). If we could agree on which Testament is in force (by letting Scripture interpret Scripture), we would help to clear up a lot of religious division we see in the world today.
Understand literary differences
Once someone realizes that the New Testament is the authority, the type of literature being read must also be considered. Even Jesus divided the Bible into different types of literature (Lk. 24:44). Likewise, when we approach the New Testament we need to see the difference between the biographical gospel accounts, the history book of Acts, the letters to early Christians, and the apocalyptic nature of the book of Revelation. Today, if someone says “I could eat a cow,” we all understand this to mean that the person is extremely hungry.
No one goes and fetches this person a literal cow. To go to Revelation and borrow symbolic literature and attempt to apply it literally will be detrimental to one’s Bible study. Imagine if someone told you before performing in a play, “break a leg” and you literally went out and did this. How foolish would that be? We all understand that statement as a figure of speech for “do your best.” There are figures of speech in the Bible and we need to recognize this in order to properly view scripture.
To go to Revelation and borrow symbolic literature and attempt to apply it literally will be detrimental to one’s Bible study. Imagine if someone told you before performing in a play, “break a leg” and you literally went out and did this. How foolish would that be? We all understand that statement as a figure of speech for “do your best.” There are figures of speech in the Bible and we need to recognize this in order to properly view scripture.
When we read the Bible, we need to allow the context and the passage to determine if it is to be taken literally. When the Bible says Christians are dead, this is obviously a figure of speech (Col. 3:3). This passage suggests a Christian’s life is so drastically changed after being converted it is as if they are dead to their former ways. To understand the Bible properly is to read poetry and prophecy in their proper light. The Bible student who would come away with the truth must be able to determine what type of literature is being discussed so that he or she doesn’t make the Bible say something it does not really teach. We don’t need to make literal passages figurative to avoid the plain truth, but we also don’t need to make the mistake of making figurative passages literal. We do this every day with secular literature, we should be able to do it with the Bible.
The Bible student who would come away with the truth must be able to determine what type of literature is being discussed so that he or she doesn’t make the Bible say something it does not really teach. We don’t need to make literal passages figurative to avoid the plain truth, but we also don’t need to make the mistake of making figurative passages literal. We do this every day with secular literature, we should be able to do it with the Bible.
Don’t be a parrot
Another issue that prevents people from properly interpreting the Bible is parroting others. Parrots are skilled birds that can repeat just about any phrase they hear when properly trained. We don’t need to mimic the behavior of parrots in Bible study. Let us strive, as difficult as it is for us all, to remove all bias from our Bible study. We need to allow the Bible to make up our mind about men, and not allow men to make up our mind about the Bible. Don’t get into the habit of merely repeating your religious grandmother, pastor, or Sunday school teacher. We need to parrot scripture and what Jesus and His apostles taught, not other men (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. Acts 2:42).
If we love God and His Word we will have the proper mindset about obeying it. We need to have more confidence and trust in the Bible than we do in commentaries, preachers, and traditions. Everybody can parrot a scholar or commentary that agrees with them, let’s be concerned with what God says. Study the Bible for yourself and vow to do what it says regardless of what you have to leave behind and what you have to change. Conforming our will to God’s will is always worth it. Often it is best to allow the Bible to explain itself and be its own commentary. Don’t let the voice of man ring louder in your heart than the voice of God.
The truth is that the Bible is not the problem, man is. God’s Word can be understood if we have the right respect for it, properly divide the testaments, and don’t parrot other men. The Bible is not a book of contradiction, impossible to interpret. Study your Bible, search the Scriptures, and “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”