FOR BIBLE STUDENTS
Daniel J. Phillips, M.Div.
The Science of Bible Reading
The Bible is inspired, but it is not magic. Merely pointing our eyes at its pages is a good start. Many never get this far. But it is only a start! We must also use our God-given minds if we are to gain anything from the Bible. Scripture will not miraculously "zap" its meaning into our passive little brains, all by itself.
Hear Paul’s counsel to Timothy: "Think about what I am saying; for the Lord will give you understanding in all things" (2 Timothy 2:7). Paul does not counsel Timothy, "Sit down somewhere, pray for truth, and see what the Lord reveals to you." Nor does the apostle advise, "Pray, and listen for the still small voice." Rather, he tells Timothy to "consider," intellectually to concentrate, focus, ponder, analyze, study, and think about, "what I say" — written Biblical revelation. When we do that diligently, we have apostolic encouragement that the Lord will help our understanding.
We might do well to prepare ourselves by considering the words of Scripture in Proverbs 2:1-5. Here is my fairly literal translation of that section:
2:1 My son, if you receive my sayings,
And my commandments you treasure up with you;
2:2 So as to be making your ear attentive to wisdom,
Turning your heart to insight;
2:3 For if for discernment you cry,
For insight you lift your voice;
2:4 If you look for her as silver,
And as hidden treasures you search for her;
2:5 Then indeed you will discern the fear of Yahweh,
And knowledge of God you will find.
It takes effort on our part to gain God’s wisdom. The treasure, is there, to be sure, and God intends that we find it! But we must take it in the first place, and then make a repository of what we gain (v. 1). We must deliberately turn our attention to the things of God (v. 2), and pray for understanding (v. 3). We must put forth the sort of effort that eager miners would invest (v. 4). If we do, success is assured (v. 5)!
Some have said that the Bible is self-interpreting. This assertion can be true or untrue, depending on what one means by it. If one means that the Bible will magically explain itself to us as we slump in a spiritualized mental coma, then the statement is certainly untrue. Many have claimed Biblical support for monstrous, false ideas, as you are doubtless aware.
However, the Bible does contain keys for its own interpretation, and provides all the information necessary to glean its essential message. In that sense, it does interpret itself. We simply need to learn and apply those keys consistently.
As you read the Bible, your mind will be occupied. There is no Biblical doubt about this. The only question is: Will your mind be occupied profitably, or unprofitably? To help ensure that your Bible reading will be profitable, I would like to recommend several guidelines for your use.
To profit most fully from your reading, it is important to understand and hold to two premises: the Bible is God’s Word, and the Bible is God’s Word to us. From these two premises, three principles naturally follow.
Two Fundamental Premises
Premise One: the Bible is God’s inerrant Word. This is the plain teaching of Scripture, as the individual books bear independent testimony to each other and to themselves. In the very first verses of the very first chapter of the Bible, we find God speaking: "Then God said, ‘Let light be!’ — and light was!" (Genesis 1:3). Then, when God created Adam and Eve, He immediately spoke to them (Genesis 1:27, 28):
Then God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them. 20Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful, and become many, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, and every animal which crawls on the earth."
As we continue to read the record, God continues to speak, verbally, to His people (i.e. Genesis 12:lff.; 15:lff.; etc.). This verbal revelation is recorded and transmitted from generation to generation, first in the Hebrew of the OT, and then in the Greek of the NT.
Our Lord Jesus looked back over the whole of the OT, and said of it, "the Scripture is not able to be broken" (John l0:35b). Not even the smallest facet of the OT would fail of fulfillment (Matthew 5:18). This was true due to the fact that the OT was "the word of God" (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:13; John 10:35). Because the OT is the Word of God, and because God is true (John 3:33) and cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), therefore Scripture is (and only could be) "truth" (John 17:17). What Scripture said, God said (Matthew 15:4).
This is what Jesus said retrospectively, looking back towards the Old Testament. He said the same about the New Testament prospectively, looking forward. He guaranteed that the apostles’ teachings and rulings would reflect God’s prior ruling (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). He promised that He would give them the Holy Spirit, who would continue to reveal truth to and through them:
John 14:25 "These things I have spoken to you while remaining along-side you; 26but the Helper,1 the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, that One will teach you all things, and will remind you all things which I Myself told you."
John 15:26 "When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father — the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father — that One will bear witness concerning Me; 27and you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning."
John 16:12 "I sti1l have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear2 them right now; 13But whenever that One should come — the Spirit of Truth — He will guide you in all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative,3 but rather whatever things He will hear He will speak; and He will report to you the coming things."
John 16:14 "That One shall glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and shall report it to you."
You can readily see that Jesus is promising that the apostles would speak Christ’s own truth with His own authority. This is the basis for the ruling and binding nature of the NT writings.
Paul later affirmed that this promise was indeed fulfilled in his apostolic ministry:
1 Corinthians 2:12 But we — we did not receive the spirit of the world, but rather the Spirit which is from God, in order that we might know the things freely given to us by God; 13which things also we are speaking, not in words taught by human wisdom, but rather in words taught by the Spirit, matching spiritual things to spiritual words.4
1 Corinthians 14:37 If someone thinks himse1f5 to be to be a prophet, or a spiritual person, let him acknowledge the things which I am writing to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord!
This language is as clear and emphatic as we could possibly wish. The apostles did not teach by human wisdom, but by divine revelation. Their words were words given by the Spirit, expressing Spirit-given truths in Spirit-given words. This means that Scripture is verbally inspired. That is, that the very words of Scripture are given by God. The result is that "the things that [Paul was] writing...are the commandment of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37). Not just the ideas or the general concepts, but the very written words are God-given. As Paul says in a sweeping statement, "All Scripture is God-breathed, and is beneficial for teaching, for reproof, for restoration, for training which is in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).
All of this coalesces to establish the inerrancy of the Bible. Inerrancy is a vitally important term. It means that the Bible is free from error in everything that it teaches and affirms. It might be said that the Bible contains error, if one means that the Bible inerrantly records the lies that others have told (i.e. Genesis 3:4, 5). However, the Bible teaches and affirms nothing but truth. This is not true because the writers were unusually intelligent or moral. No, Scripture is inerrant because the Bible is the Word of God, and God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). This truth of inerrancy applies whether Scripture touches on matters of a spiritual or material nature (cf. John 3:12). The Bible teaches nothing but truth in areas of science, history, geography, theology, and ethics.
Premise Two: the Bible is God’s Word to us. Scripture is not primarily the inner musings of God. It is not a book written by God to Himself. Scripture is a book of God’s Word to us. Note the majestic opening words of the letter to the Hebrews (1:1, 2):
After God spoke of old in many portions and in many manners to the fathers in the prophets, 2at the last of these days He spoke to us in the Son, whom He appointed Heir of all things, through whom also He made the ages;
In these words, the writer of Hebrews basically comprehends the revelation enshrined in both Old and New Testaments. Masterfully, he gathers together all of the multifaceted and multiform revelations of the OT as being God’s word to the fathers by means of the prophets. Thus, the OT is God’s Word — "to the fathers"! It is not God’s Word to Himself. It is not a soliloquy; it is an address.
We must hasten to add that these words to the fathers also apply to us, in varying ways. If we stay with Hebrews, we will find that writer quoting at length from Psalm 95 (Hebrews 3:7-11, 15; 4:3, 5, 7). This quotation, even though from the Old Testament, and written some 1,000 years previously, is prefaced by the words, "Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit is saying..." (3:7a). Further, he applies these words to the present-day, Christian era readers in 3:12-19, and 4:1-11. In some way, then, we are shown that the "Old" Testament has application for us!6
Similarly, the writer says that "at the last of these days He spoke to us in the Son" (v. 2). The NT is God speaking to us in One who is His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, it is not God’s thoughts to Himself; it is God’s words "to us"!
In many cases, this fact is plain to see and understand. The prophets prophesied God’s Word to their nation and to other nations, and recorded those prophecies for all time. Likewise, much of the NT is in the form of letters written to churches or individual church-leaders.
In the Bible, then, we do not primarily find God speaking to Himself.7 Instead, we find God speaking to us, to His erring creation.
Some might see this point as so obvious as hardly to be worth saying. However, the truth of the Bible’s targeted audience is of great consequence, as we shall see.
The two fundamental premises, then, are: first, the Bible is God’s inerrant Word; and second, the Bible is God’s Word to us. Out of these two fundamental premises, we can directly derive three reliable principles for interpretation.
Three Principles for Interpretation
Principle One: the literal (or common) meaning is the fundamental meaning. The normal use and import of words is always, always fundamental to our understanding. On the basis of what we have just studied, it should not surprise us to find that Jesus and the apostles take the very words of the OT with great seriousness.
Examples fairly leap off of the pages of Scripture. The OT says that a virgin will be Messiah’s mother (Isaiah 7:14), and the fulfillment involves the literal pregnancy and delivery of a literal woman who is a literal virgin (Matthew 1:22, 23; Luke 1:34). The OT predicts that Messiah will arise from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and that very city is the site of fulfillment (Matthew 2:1, 5, 6). Jesus builds an argument in favor of the resurrection from a point of Hebrew grammar (Matthew 22:31, 32). The Lord also constructs an argument for His own deity from one Hebrew letter and vowel-point (Matthew 22:41-45). Although allowance is clearly made for poetic imagery (Matthew 21:42) and typology8 (Matthew 2:15), the foundation is always literal, and great attention is paid to the very words and grammar.
Paul’s approach, too, was fundamentally literal. He saw Adam as being an actual, historical individual just as surely as Christ was (Romans 5:12-21). The apostle used Deuteronomy 21:23, which declares a curse on the one who hangs on a tree, to prove that Christ became a curse for us when He hung on a cross made from a tree (Galatians 3:13). Paul pressed the fact that the OT statements about Abraham’s "seed" employed the singular form of the word (Galatians 3:16). "Israel" meant "Israel" to Paul, not the church; and the apostle took the OT’s unconditional covenant with Israel literally (Romans 9:3, 4; 11:1, 2, 26-29; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:32).
This literal foundation should not surprise us, for at least two reasons. First, all normal communication is fundamentally literal, allowing for idioms and figures of speech. "I am going to build a house in Mammoth Lakes" would not normally be understood to mean, "People like me all over the land (and in Heaven) will lead spiritually fulfilled lives, like a village near many large waters with abundant fish." "I" means me, "build" means construct, "house" means a building to live in, and "Mammoth Lakes" names a specific, literal, gorgeous city locatable on any modern map of California!9
The Bible, as we have already established, is communication. Communication communicates. The greater the skill of the communicator, the more effective the communication. Effective communication must be understandable. Thus, we should not look for God to speak commonly in indecipherable "code."
Second, the OT itself exemplifies the fundamentally literal approach, from the very start. God’s first recorded words had reference to literal light, water, land, vegetation, and animals (Genesis 1:2ff.). When He encouraged Adam and Eve to eat the fruits and vegetables He had made, God meant precisely that (Genesis 1:29, 30). When God enjoined the filling and ruling of the earth, it was this actual planet that He envisioned, not some vague, nebulous spiritual realm (Genesis 1:26, 28). Also, when He forbade the eating of the fruit of a tree, it was real fruit from an actual tree that Yahweh was indicating (Genesis 2:17). From the very first, then, God Himself set this precedent: His words had fundamentally literal meaning.
The rest of the OT bears out this selfsame orientation. In fact, without a fundamentally literal orientation, the test that God prescribed for discerning true prophets would be both meaningless and useless. God said that a prophet was certified when his predictions came to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22). This presupposes and requires that the avowed prophet’s words would convey a sufficiently clear meaning. Anyone can make vague, billowy statements and then adapt them to any "fulfillment." This is what modern false prophets routinely do, and it requires no prophetic gift. God clearly intended that the meanings of the prophets’ words be clear enough that their hearers would be able to tell whether or not the predictions came to pass. And so, time and again we find surprisingly literal fulfillments of inspired statements (cf. Joshua 6:26 with 1 Kings 16:34; 1 Kings 13:2 with 2 Kings 23:15, 16; etc.).
In this way, OT and NT alike show us that the literal sense is the basic sense of the language of Scripture. Words may mean more than the accepted literal sense (allowing for idioms, symbols, and poetry), but they do not mean less.
The "Golden Rule" of Interpretation. On the basis of the direct statements and examples of the Lord and His apostles, a sound interpretive rule has been formulated. This rule has been called the "Golden Rule" of Interpretation. Bible students would do well to commit this rule to memory:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes good sense, seek no other sense. Therefore, take every word in its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental and axiomatic truths, clearly indicate otherwise.10
This "Golden Rule" lays down a sound path to follow.11 It will deliver one from the mystical and spiritualizing excesses which have long plagued the Christian church. One who consistently applies this rule will not rob the meanings of the six days of creation, he will not scratch out the historicity of Adam and Eve, he will not equate the Christian church with the "New Israel" (thus annulling all the multitude of still-unfulfilled Biblical prophecies concerning Israel), and he will not magically transform the predicted return of Christ into either a past event (mirabile dictu!)or a personal event at each believer’s death.
This grammatical-historical approach also makes full allowance for the poetic and metaphorical language of Scripture (i.e. Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 55:12; Matthew 26:26-28; John 15:1, etc.). Metaphor is a common feature of normal communication. However, one must recognize that the literal meaning is always fundamental, even to a figure of speech.
For instance, the statement, "Your word is a lamp for my feet" (Psalm 119:105), is clearly a metaphor. Everyone knows that the Bible is not a literal source of literal light. A room will be equally dark with or without a Bible in it. Nor does one strap a Bible to his literal feet. This is a "fundamental and axiomatic truth," in Dr. Cooper’s words.
However, the meaning of these metaphors is clear, and depends on our understanding of what the literal items mean. What is the function of a literal light? One needs literal light in order to see! Without light, all is indistinguishable darkness, and full of dangers. What of feet? One normally uses one’s feet to move about through the activities of his life. Therefore, the meaning of Psalm 119:105 clearly is that the Word of God enables us to see what we otherwise would not see, and what we must see in order to make God-honoring and right life-decisions.
But which is more dynamic? To say, "The Word of God enables us to see spiritual realities we would not otherwise see, so that we can negotiate the perils and details of life?" Or is it not far more vivid and dynamic simply to exclaim, "Your word is a lamp for my feet"? Such is the beauty and power of figures, similes, and metaphors! They make deep truths clear, by imagery based on literal realities.
The basically literal meaning of Scripture grows out of both of our two fundamental premises: the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, and it is His Word to us. Being the Word of God to us, the Bible will accurately reveal the mind of God in such a way as can be readily comprehended by all sorts of men and women.
We are all irritated when our valuable time wasted by someone who does not bother to speak clearly. When one is verbalizing only to entertain himself, he may use many allusions and figures that only he can understand. That person is a bore, not a blessing.
If, however, one wishes another person to grasp his meaning, he will speak so as to be understood. He will normally use plain language, the meaning and significance of which may be readily appreciated by his hearer. This is what we do in our normal, daily communication. We use grammar, terms, and idioms which will reach the perception of our hearers.
And so it is with the Bible. God intended to be understood. He spoke so as to be heard. Therefore, He did not choose to speak in secret code, where words really mean something far different than their normal significance. A godly interpreter, then, will respect God’s choice to speak in essentially literal language. He and will reverently interpret God’s words in this way, with the objective and reasonable balances outlined above.
Principle Two: always study the context. This leads us to stress perhaps the most important principle for understanding the Bible, after appreciation for the words and grammar. Neglect of this principle accounts for the aberrant doctrines of most or all of the "Christianoid" cults (i.e. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, etc.).
The principle: context. When we observe the context, a great many initially-puzzling Scriptures will become clear. When we neglect the context, we will virtually always go astray, sometimes very seriously.
"Context" refers to the setting of a word or verse. It is the words, thoughts, and/or events which surround a given text. Context is to a verse what a setting is to a diamond, or a house to a room. Context may be immediate, near, dispensational, or Biblical. These may overlap, and they have varying application. Let me illustrate and discuss these four aspects of context.
First: Immediate Context. By this I mean that one must carefully read all the words in the verse or sentence being studied.
This may seem to be simple a principle as to be self-evident. Yet the neglect of this rule has caused the unchallenged toleration of a great deal of misunderstanding, and even of false teaching.
For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that the Bible teaches Christ’s deity. Christians therefore do well to point Witnesses to John 20:28, where Thomas says, "My Lord, and my God!" Some Jehovah’s Witnesses have responded to this by saying that Thomas’ words were merely an exclamation, due to his being shocked at seeing Jesus again. Other Witnesses have suggested that the words "My Lord" were directed to Jesus, and "My God" was directed to Jehovah above.
However, if one will simply read the entire verse, honest misunderstanding will become impossible: "Thomas answered, and said to Him, ‘My Lord, and my God!’" The text explicitly says that these words — all of them — were directed at Jesus.
Very often, attention to the immediate context will clear up difficulties just this easily, or prevent them altogether.
Second: Near Context. By this, I mean words either in the same section as that being studied, or in the same book.
Let us illustrate using the same example, John 20:28. What of the Witnesses’ idea that Thomas’ words were merely an exclamation?
First, the immediate context renders this an impossibility, inasmuch as we read that Thomas said these words to Jesus. Further, most would consider the thoughtless exclamation, "My Lord and my God," to be blasphemy — taking God’s name in vain. Then we read the very next verse, where Jesus responds to Thomas: "Jesus says to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, you have believed? Blessed are those who did not see, and yet believed!’" (John 20:29). It is impossible to imagine Jesus pronouncing a blessing on a blasphemy.
To continue with this example, some Watchtower publications urge Witnesses to point to verse 31 of the same chapter: "But these things have been written in order that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in His name." Chained to their misrepresentation of Biblical teaching, they then say, "You see: ‘Son of God,’ not God the Son!" The assumption is that one who is God’s Son cannot be God Almighty.
Now, it must be said at the outset that this is not a logical assumption; but then, again, the Watchtower is not renowned for good logic. When Witnesses have tried this approach with me, I have sometimes replied by asking, "Do you have a son?" If they answer that they do, I follow up thus: "Just because he is your son and is not you, does that make him less than human? In fact, is it not the case across the board that humans ‘beget’ little humans, as dogs ‘beget’ little dogs, and cats ‘beget’ little kitties?" Although the relationship between a human parent and his child is not exactly the same as that within Father and Son in the Trinity, it does prove that sonship does not demand inferior essence or value.
Still, it might be replied, believers "become" children of God (John 1:12, 13) — without becoming God!12 One might think, then, that this is the case with Jesus. He is son of God, without being God, even as we are sons of God, without being God. Perhaps this is the meaning.
However, this notion will not hold up when weighed against the context of the book. We must find out what it means to the apostle John to call Jesus "the Son of God," since John wrote this Gospel. To do that definitively, we can come from two angles of approach. First of all, we might ask whether John indicates that Jesus’ Son-ship is like ours, or whether Jesus’ Sonship is unique.
The first, and most well-known — even if unconsciously so — indication is found in the KJV phrase, "only begotten son." Jesus is so described in John 3:16 and 18, with the word translated "only begotten" used of Jesus again in 1:14 and 18.
1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us as in a tent,13 and we beheld His glory, glory as of the unique One from the Father, full of grace and of truth!
1:18 No one has seen God at any time; the unique God, who is in the bosom of the Father, that One set Him forth.
3:16 "For thus did God love the world: that He gave His unique Son, in order that everyone who believes in Him should not perish, but should have life eternal!"
3:18 "The one who believes in Him is not condemned; the one who does not believe already stands condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the unique Son of God."
In my translation, "unique" replaces "only begotten." The word in Greek is monogenés, which comes from combining the adjective monos, which means "only, alone, solitary" with the noun genos, which means "kind, sort, class."14 This compound word does not have anything necessarily to do with begetting. It describes someone who is unique, who is in a class by himself, who is (as we would say) "one of a kind."
For this reason, when Jesus is called the monogenés Son, it means that He is utterly unique, He is one of a kind, He is in a class all by Himself. This in itself indicates that John did not necessarily mean that Jesus was less than God when he called him "Son of God" in John 20:31 — any more than he thought that Jesus was less than a man when he quoted Jesus as calling Himself "Son of Man" in 6:27! A son of a man is a man, and the unique Son of God is God. This accords perfectly with the clear Biblical doctrine that Jesus is both God and man. Jesus is the unique Son, in that He alone is both God and man: fully God, and yet Son of God.
Further, from within the Gospel of John we see that this phrase "Son of God" means far more when applied to Jesus than those who deny His deity might wish. For instance, we see the concept used in this way in the fifth chapter. In the context, Jesus had violated the Pharisees’ rules by healing on the Sabbath. When challenged, Jesus responded, "My Father is working until now; I too am working" (5:17b). Then John writes in verse eighteen,
For this reason therefore the Jews began seeking rather to kill Him, because not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was saying that God was His own Father, making Himself equal to God!
An honest reader cannot but notice that to John, the very person who wrote the verse under consideration (20:31), Jesus’ claim to be God’s unique Son was tantamount to claiming to be "equal to God"! Therefore, so far from negating the clear meaning of 20:28 ("My Lord and my God!"), John 20:31 is a re-statement of Christ’s Godhood.
Again, someone hostile to the Scripture’s teaching about Christ might say that John was only re-phrasing the Jews’ thought. This is not inconceivable, in itself. However, in the flow of His very next statement to them, Jesus says in verse twenty-two,
"For the Father does not even judge anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him!"
Here, beyond sincere doubt, Jesus claims full equality with God. This seals the meaning of the context.
And so we see that John 20:28 is indeed a straightforward affirmation of the full Godhood of Jesus Christ. The context of the words, plus the context of the book in which the words occur, conspire to make this truth honestly inescapable.15
Third: Dispensational Context. All Christians believe in dispensations, whether they are conscious of the fact or not. The doctrine of dispensations is not as widely understood as it once was among Bible-believers; I shall try to remedy that here in a small way.
"Dispensation" is a doctrinal term. Simply put, a "dispensation" is a stewardship-arrangement between God and believers, designed to test men and glorify God. The dispensational context, then, has to do with the specific arrangement with God which serves as the background for a particular Scripture. To determine this, one will ask: what were the ruling covenant(s), laws, promises, and threats from God to His people?
No one can read the Bible without noticing that God apparently had some differing specific rules and expectations at differing times. Examples are quite easy to find. God, through Moses, once assured believers that they would be forgiven if they believingly sacrificed an animal in the proper way (Leviticus 4:20). Yet elsewhere, He says that animal sacrifice can never remove sin (Hebrews 10:4). Or again, in one place God forbids eating certain foods (Leviticus 11); yet in another, He says that no food is unclean in itself (Romans 14:14). Here, God seems unconcerned when leaders have many wives (2 Samuel 5:13); there, He says that leaders must be one-woman men (1 Timothy 3:2). Here, Yahweh commands Sabbath (Saturday) worship (Exodus 20:8-11); there, He says that any day is acceptable if honored unto Him (Romans 14:5, 6).
But then again, many other themes and requirements remain the same from age to age. To pick a major specific, faith is central throughout the Bible (Hebrews 11:2). Abraham was declared righteous through faith some 3900 years ago (Genesis 15:6); we are declared righteous through faith today (Romans 3:26). Jews were commanded to love their neighbors as themselves some 3400 years ago (Leviticus 19:18); so are we today (Galatians 5:14). God urged believers to pray some 3000 years ago (Psalm 62:8); He urges us to do so still today (Philippians 4:6). God desired obedience to His Word in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 18:19), and He does so today (1 John 5:3). Nine of the "Ten Commandments" are reiterated for Christians, the exception being the Sabbath law, as noted above. Numerous other examples could be found. Many themes never fundamentally change.
We already established under Principle One of the science of Bible reading that the Bible is inerrant. Therefore, we know that these apparent contradictions are only apparent. We will not follow the bad example of others who have lazily dismissed such phenomena as errors.
Indeed, it is an understanding of dispensations that explains these and many other matters. God made specific covenants and arrangements with specific people or peoples throughout the flow of Bible history. From one dispensation to the next, God may retain or let drop specific commands and prohibitions. For instance, God’s one recorded prohibition to Adam is the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17) — a rule which is not directly applicable to us today.
The following is my modification of a popular and useful layout of the progress of dispensations in revealed history, with a very broad listing of the relevant Scriptures:
Innocence (creation to fall; Gen. 1-3)
Individual Responsibility (fall to flood; Gen 3-9)
Human Government (flood to patriarchs; Gen. 9-11)
Promise (patriarchs to Sinai; Gen. 12 -Exod. 18; Job)
Law (Sinai to Pentecost; Exod. 19 — Esther; Psalms — Acts 2; Rev. 4—19)
Church (Pentecost to "rapture"; Acts 2 Rev. 4)
Kingdom of God ("Phase One;" Millennium; Rev. 20)
These dispensations are followed by the eternal continuation of the kingdom of God, or the "eternal state" (Revelation 21-22).
Some of these dispensations are more subtle than the others. And, as I mentioned, the listing is broad. Some OT prophets prophesy of the Millennial Kingdom (Isaiah 2, 11, etc.), as do some NT books. Also, Job is probably chronologically best placed within the dispensation of "promise," though canonically it is located among the books written during the dispensation of "law." This general outline may serve, then, as a useful "thumbnail sketch."
The two most immediately-relevant and easily-distinguishable dispensations are those of Law and Church (also called "Grace," after John 1:17 and Ephesians 3:2). Failure to distinguish these two has caused a great deal of unnecessary division, damage, and misunderstanding within professing Christendom.
To appreciate these two distinct economies, let us take again the whole context of Mosaic law — that is, the law of God given through Moses. One can easily find the first giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. But it is important to pay close heed to the near context. When we do, we see that this law was given to the physical nation of Israel (Exodus 19:1, 3ff,; 20:2, etc.). The larger Biblical context (to be discussed below) affirms that this covenant and this law was not given to other nations (cf. Romans 9:4; Ephesians 2:11, 12). We also see that it was part of a conditional covenant, which promised that Israel would experience special blessings if it obeyed the terms of this covenant (Exodus 19:5, 6), which they agreed to do (v. 8).
As we read on, we see that these Ten Commandments are not meant to be detachable, but are connected to a whole host of highly specific rules (detailed throughout the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy). We cannot distinguish one part as "civil," another "ceremonial," and yet another "moral," and decide that one part is eternal while the others are not. The Law is one, it is a unity. Further, we see that obedience to the commands of the Law would bring very rich physical and material blessings to Israel, whereas disobedience would bring them equally physical and material curses (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).
By contrast, the Church was formed as a new man, a new spiritual entity (Ephesians 2:11-22). As such, it is distinct from Israel (1 Corinthians 10:32). The church is composed of Jews and Gentiles on equal spiritual footing in Christ (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22). It was created on the day of Pentecost by baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:lff.; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27). This new entity, the Church, was future (i.e. not-yet-existent) even to Jesus during His earthly ministry (Matthew 16:18); it was not an extension of Israel. Its present guaranteed blessings are spiritual in nature, rather than physical (Ephesians 1:3ff.).
Therefore, this church (or, to translate the Greek ekkl sia more accurately, "assembly") would not be under the same covenantal rules or promises as was Israel. Christians are expressly declared not to be under the law of Moses (Romans 6:14; 7:1-4, 6; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 3:24, 25), but are rather to obey the commands of Christ and His apostles (John 14:15; 1 Corinthians 9:21; 14:37; 1 John 5:3). As with the other dispensations, God may continue some elements of that specific arrangement (cf., e.g., Romans 12:9; Ephesians 4:28). Also, we may legitimately apply a great many principles (i.e. cf. Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9ff.; 10:1-22; 1 Timothy 5:18, among many others). Nor should it surprise us that other elements may be discontinued completely (i.e. diet, feasts, Sabbath; cf. Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:16, 17).
Let us apply this to a few specific "for-instances."
Tithing? Religious telemanipulators and even pastors have often appealed to Malachi 3:8-11, telling Christians who fall behind on their tithes that they are "robbing God." They then urge their Christian listeners to prove the Lord, to see if He will not open "windows of heaven," to "pour out" a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (v. 10, KJV). Driven by guilt and drawn by tantalizing promises and visions of millions of dollars supernaturally pouring in to "pay back" our tithes, many Christians have tithed away desperately, all because of this allegedly Scriptural appeal.
But once apply the Biblical principle of comparing the dispensational context, our view will necessarily change. When was Malachi written? Was it written to a Christian church? In fact, Malachi was written centuries before the beginning of the Christian church at Pentecost after Christ’s ascension. It was addressed to Israel, then, within the context of the Law of Moses. Thus, the dispensational context is not difficult to determine.
We will then note that the law of Moses did command Israel to tithe, on more than one occasion (cf. Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:21; Deuteronomy 14:22, 28). We will notice that it was connected with Israel’s form of theocratic government, and with the Levitical priesthood. We will recall that the "blessings" promised here (Malachi 3:10) fits in with the material terms of the conditional Mosaic Covenant (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).
Then we will search the NT for any passage re-affirming a law of tithing, and urging Church-age Christians to tithe. We want to see if this, too, is a trans-covenantal, or trans-dispensational, principle, such as faith or prayer. Our search will be in vain, however. No church nor Christian is urged to tithe, per se. This will lead to the conclusion that there simply is no such requirement under the New Covenant.
We will further see that Christians are indeed urged to support their leaders financially (1 Corinthians 9:9-14; Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17), and to help the needy (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-16; 1 John 3:17, 18). So the idea of giving, support of God’s servants, and generosity to the needy are still in effect. But we will find no specific percentage laid down as God’s law, God’s requirement, for Christians.
Accordingly, it will be illegitimate to use Malachi 3 to constrain Christians to tithe. It would be legitimate to apply the principle that we should be concerned to give gratefully to God, in accord with Malachi 3 and passages such as Proverbs 3:9. But we will note that the NT teaches that our fundamental offering is ourselves (Romans 12:1, 2) - though our finances are part of ourselves too!
National Prayer for National Blessing? Another "for-instance" would be the celebrated promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14 — "...and My people, which is called by My name, will humble themselves, and will pray, and will seek My face, and will turn from their wicked ways, then I Myself will hear from Heaven, and I will forgive their sin, and I will heal their land." This has often been held out to American Christians as a direct call and iron-clad promise. If American Christians will pray, God will heal America of its many ills.
However, a little reflection, an examination of the near context, and a consideration of the dispensational context, is all once again very enlightening. When were these words spoken, and by whom, and to whom? These words were spoken by the Israelite King Solomon, who was so "under" the law of Moses that he was praying these words at the dedication of the Temple! This was nearly one thousand years before the dawn of the Church Age. Therefore, not only were "My people, who are called by My name," clearly not Americans (which should go without saying); they were not even Christians! Further, the "healing" promised to repentant Israel was guaranteed by God’s specific covenant with Israel (Deuteronomy 28). America has no such guarantee.16
Holy War? A final example would be the bloody wars of the OT, which many modern readers find so distasteful and hard to understand. How could a loving God command the slaughter of so many men, women, and children (cf. Exodus 23:31-33; Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21, etc.)?
We will not attempt a full discussion here, but will only illustrate how to apply the principles we have been learning. First, we will notice that many who object to OT wars have not carefully read the Bible. When we do read it ourselves, and note the whole Biblical context (discussed below), we will remember that the entire earth is not our property. The earth belongs to God (Ps. 24:1), and we are at most tenants (cf. Ps. 39:12). Even human landlords have the right to evict tenants who mistreat the landlords’ property. Both archaeology and the Bible testify that the previous tenants of Canaan had behaved abominably, to the point where the land itself is depicted as vomiting them up (cf. Leviticus 18:24-27).
Further, because of the Biblical context, we will take it as a fundamental truth that God, the Judge of all the earth, does what is right and just (Genesis 18:25). If He does it, He has the right (Psalm 115:3), and what He does is right (Psalm 7:11).
Now we refer to the dispensational context. We recall that, during the dispensation of promise, God had unconditionally guaranteed a great deal of real estate to Abraham’s seed (cf. Genesis 15:18-21, etc.). For this to happen, the previous inhabitants obviously must first be evicted. Thus, the initial occupation and subsequent hold on the land required military action. In this, Mosaic Law guaranteed success, if and when Israel obeyed God’s laws as given through Moses (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Israel was commanded to offer terms of peace to those not in the promised area of land (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
Thus, it was partly a decontamination operation. The Law expressly states that these idolaters were not to be permitted to remain as such, lest they spiritually contaminate the Israelites (cf. Exodus 23:33; Deuteronomy 20:18). There were to be no "Comparative Religion" courses in Israel (cf. Deuteronomy12:29-31).17
The church dispensation, by contrast, contains no such mandate to take possession of any physical real estate anywhere by slaughtering its inhabitants. Our possession is spiritual, in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3ff.; 2:lff.) — and only we have to move, by repentance, to obtain it! Our earthly hope will be realized when Jesus returns, handles the conquering Himself, and sets up the Millennial Kingdom (cf. Revelation 2:26, 27; 5:9, 10). Meanwhile, our mandate and conquest are spiritual, as we extend the good news and whole message of the coming King to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
Therefore, we see that an appreciation of the dispensational context resolves a great many potential difficulties.
Fourth: Biblical Context. This is the broadest context of all, and yet it is vitally important. It rests on the foundational truth explained and demonstrated above, that the Bible is the Word of God. As God’s Word, it has a unity all its own, a beautiful confluence of all the parts, independently painting a single portrait of the all-glorious God.
Inasmuch as there is one Divine Author behind the whole of Scripture, it is logical and correct to expect that Scripture, taken in context and according to the rules of grammar and word-meaning, will never contradict itself. It is fair, therefore, to "compare Scripture with Scripture," as many have put it.
We must use caution with this principle. Many have employed it in violation of the principles laid out above. For instance, to use a glaring example, some will reason essentially this way:
Major Premise: Israel is said to be God’s holy people (Exodus 19:6).
Minor Premise: The church is said to be God’s holy people18 (Ephesians 1:1).
Conclusion: Therefore, the church is Israel!
This sort of reasoning violates the fundamental literal meaning and usage of words, it violates immediate and near context, and it violates dispensational context. Beyond that, one might jokingly say, it is perfectly logical!
However, other references to the Biblical context are not only legitimate, but necessary. We have already seen it employed in the examples analyzed above. For another example, if the book of James were the only book in the NT, one might mistakenly conclude that sinners are saved by good works (cf. James 2:24). However, when James is compared with clear passages such as Romans 3 and 4, and Galatians 2 and Ephesians 2, we see that this cannot be the case. Then, when we note John 14:15, Romans 6 and other such passages, we see that the truths taught in James and elsewhere harmonize perfectly well.
Principle Three: apply the meaning personally, in line with the results of the first two principles. Because the Bible is God’s Word to us, He means us to take it personally. The Bible is not an abstract treatise, full of free-floating theories and concepts. Rather, it is filled both with statements of truth to be understood and believed (e.g. John 1:1), and also of commands to be received and obeyed (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:18a).
Interpretation asked the question, "What does the text mean in itself?" Application deals with the question, "What does the text mean to me? What am I to do about it? How does it apply to me, as an individual?" Sometimes the application of Scripture really is very simple; sometimes it only seems simple; and other times it is a "tough call." But always, application must be based on careful interpretation, or it may go wildly off-course.
The soundest way to proceed in the work of interpretation and application would be to take our "cues" from the Lord and His apostles. After all, we learned that Scripture is fundamentally literal from the Lord and His apostles. We should learn about application in the same way.
In the interests of clarity of communication, let me first state what I believe the Biblical procedure to be, and then let me give examples. I believe that the simplest Biblical procedure is this: first, determine the interpretation, and the primary (or "Level One") application, and then see if there are secondary (or "Level Two") applications. Let us set this out graphically:
The interpretation is determined by the procedure explained above.
The primary application is the direct intent of the passage being studied, what the writer means the reader to do, right away, about what he says.
The secondary applications are applications which are in line with the essential idea of the interpretation and the primary application, and which develop both.
Let me expand on this a bit.
There is only one interpretation for each passage. By this, I mean that each passage only means one thing. There are not many meanings to each passage! That one meaning may be easy to discover, or it may be very difficult. We may or may not be confident that we have determined that one meaning, but we may be confident that God meant only one thing in moving the writers of each passage of Scripture. "The Word was God" (John 1:1) does not mean both that Jesus was deity, and that everything anyone says is divine. The verse can mean only one of those things, at the most! (In fact, it means the first.)
Although there is only one interpretation, however, there may be many possible primary applications, depending on the text. For instance, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your house" (Acts 16:31), is a fairly narrow text by design. It teaches that the way to salvation for me and my family is to believe in Jesus. The interpretation and primary application are essentially identical, and there is only one primary application in this verse.
Other texts, however, are what I might call "specifically broad." For instance, I earlier cited 1 Corinthians 6:18a, "Flee immorality!" The interpretation of this is straightforward. However, what is "immorality"? The Greek word porneia, translated "immorality," means sexual immorality, violation of God’s laws regarding sex. But is only one practice sexually immoral (say, adultery), or are not rather many practices sexually immoral? In truth, the term does take in such varied sins as adultery, and premarital sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, incest — a whole dreary thesaurus of sexual sins. So, is the primary application of this text that I, a church age Christian, should flee from premarital sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, or incest? To this the answer, of course, is "Yes!" Since the command is, by design, specific (sexual sin), and yet broad (various types of sexual sin), there are many possible primary applications.
The secondary application builds on the one interpretation. It gleans from the one interpretation its central principle, and applies that principle to Christian thought and life. It is not the specific thought or action which the original writer had in mind, but it is a legitimate application of the principle that he had in mind.
Now, let me illustrate the fact that this procedure is directly Biblical.
Look with me at Deuteronomy 25:4. This will make a very useful example, for it is a case where both the primary and secondary levels are recognized in Scripture itself. The translation of the Hebrew text is quite straightforward: "You are not to muzzle an ox while he is threshing." The interpretation is also straightforward. It is a humane law, relating to the practice of using oxen to thresh grain, either directly or pulling a threshing sledge, thus separating the ears of grain from the stalks. This verse directs that these oxen are not to be muzzled while they are threshing. This is the interpretation, and the primary application follows directly from the interpretation. Given in the law of Moses, it would apply literally to Jewish farmers from the fifteenth century B.C. to the beginning of the Church Age.
We learn from the apostle’s example, however, that there are more riches to be gleaned from this verse, by way of secondary application. I will ask you to pause now, and read 1 Corinthians 9:6-14.
In this chapter, Paul is speaking of the privileges which he as an apostle and pastor had but chose not to use. In the section we are examining, he is dealing with the matter of financial support (v. 6). He appeals to common reason in verse 7: workers get their livelihood from their field of endeavor. Then, in verse 8, he insists that this is not merely a matter of human wisdom, but of revealed wisdom as well. Paul then quotes our text, Deuteronomy 25:4, in verse 9.19 What he then does with that text is what concerns us now.
Paul asks a reasonable question: in effect, is Deuteronomy 25:4 written sheerly for the benefit of oxen (— the primary application)? Or, he asks in verse 10, does this verse not apply to us (— a secondary application)? This latter question he answers in the affirmative.
Now, what has Paul done here? He has not appealed to any personal revelations from the Holy Spirit, nor to his authority as an apostle. Rather, he isolates a principle from the original text, and applies it to the question. The principle, in Jesus’ words, is: the worker is worthy of his wages (cf. Luke 10:7)~ However, Paul does not appeal here to Jesus’ words explicitly.20 He builds his case on the principle embodied in Moses’ law, and applies that principle to church matters. In fact, he does it twice, as he also appeals to the fact that the Levitical priests — another feature of Mosaic law! — ate from the offerings presented at the Tabernacle (v. 13). Thus, Paul has found the same principle in two pieces of OT law. On this basis, the apostle concludes that preachers should be fully supported by those whom they serve (cf. v. 14).21
Now, this application of the principle embodied in Deuteronomy 25:4 is what I have called the secondary application. We do this by isolating the principle represented in the original text, and applying that principle to our situation.21
Obviously, the most important guideline for discerning one of the many possible secondary applications is this: any application must be within the lines drawn by the whole Word of God! For instance, suppose I lift this line from the parable found in Matthew 20:1-16 —"…is it not permitted to me to do what I wish with what are my possessions?" (v. 15a). So, I reason to myself, "The principle here is personal ownership and control of private property." Fair enough, so far. This is correct. Then I say, "This bodes ill for Communistic theories." Again, that would be a fair application.
But then, I further say, "Let’s see, now. Since I can do what I wish with my possessions, then I do not need to pay taxes with my money, I can drive my car through red lights, and I will suck all the benefits I can from my church without contributing any of my own personal money or resources." Here I have gone beyond the lines drawn by Scripture, in every stated particular! But the fault would not be in the approach I outlined above. It would be in the person who fails to test his applications by the whole teaching of Scripture. If he did so, he would see that he had engaged in un-Scriptural reasoning and application, which is "headed off" by Romans 13:6, 1 Peter 2:13, and Galatians 6:6, respectively.
So we must make sure that the "principle" grows directly out of the interpretation of the text, and that it accords well with the whole revelation of Scripture.
I genuinely hope that this paper has proven helpful, and that you will find occasion to refer back to it from time to time. However, I will have failed in my purpose if all of this does not have an immediate and very practical impact on your life:
1. Read your Bible!
2. Study your Bible!
3. Apply your Bible!
And, so very importantly,
4. Attend a Bible-teaching church — even if it means that you must leave the church you have been attending!
May God grant that we all deepen in our grasp and practice of His eternal Word!
1 The Greek word is paraklétos, which literally means "called-alongside [for help]"; it could also be translated "Advocate," "Comforter," "Counselor," or simply transliterated as "Paraclete."
2 Literally "carry."
3 Literally "from Himself."
4 Or, "explaining spiritual things by spiritual words."
5 Or "seems."
6 This truth will be unfolded further, below.
7 I say "primarily" because the Bible does record some dialogue between the Persons of the Trinity (i.e. Genesis 1:26; 3:22, etc.). Even those portions, however, were recorded for our benefit (cf. Romans 15:4, etc.).
8 A "type" is an OT feature which God has designed to foreshadow a greater fulfillment in the NT. A type may be a person (as King David prefigures Christ, for instance in parts of Psalms 22, 69, and elsewhere), a structure (i.e. the Tabernacle), or other facets. Here one could define the meaning as "literal-plus."
9 I have long found it humorous that those who deride the literal interpretation of Scripture invariably demand that their arguments be taken literally.
10 This rule was enunciated by Dr. David L. Cooper, a Bible teacher from earlier in this century, and repeated in many of his writings (cf. the frontpiece for The God of Israel [Biblical Research Society; 1945, 1967]. My version is slightly modified.
11 Indeed, I believe that it is nothing more nor less than a consistent application of the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), and of the Reformers' partial reclamation of the grammatical-historical approach to Scripture.
12 The word "become" in verse 12 is thus very important, and rules out the heresy taught by some that Christians become "little gods." As I have often remarked. if you ever weren't God, you never will be God (cf. Malachi 3:6a). Believers had a beginning (cf. John 8:58; Abraham, came into existence, whereas Jesus always existed). Believers become children of God by adoption (cf. Ephesians 1:5), before which time they are enemies of God (cf. Romans 5:10). Therefore, the whole context of the Bible makes very clear that our being children of God does not make us "little gods." One could well say, on the basis of 1 Kings 8:27, "If it's 'little,' it isn't God!"
13 1n John 1:14, "dwell as in a tent" translates the Greek verb skénoô, of which the noun (skéné) means "tent." The Hebrew word translated "dwell" in the Exodus passages is šakan. The word translated "dwelling-place" in the Exodus 40 passages is a noun (miškan) formed from the same verb, though most translations render it "Tabernacle", as the NASB does over 100 times.
14 Cf. A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, by C. Abbott-Smith (T. & T. Clark: 1937), pp. 91, 296; also A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker (University of Chicago: 1979 [second edition]), pp. 156, 527, 528.
15 If one wished, he could pursue the same line in determining the context of the apostle John's total writings, then the context of the New Testament, then the context of the entire Bible. All would point in the same direction: Jesus Christ is Lord and God, just as Thomas confessed Him to be.
16 If Americans want sobering and hopeful passages, they would do better to look to Jeremiah 18:-10 and Jonah 3:4-10, which do apply to Gentile nations such as ours.
17 1n addition to this, those who wished could either evacuate the land (cf. perhaps Exodus 23:27-30), or repent and convert to faith in Yahweh (cf. Joshua 2; 6:25).
18 The common translation "saints" means "holy ones," and is used in the Bible to describe all genuine believers, not just a special class.
19 Your Bible probably has a note in the margin, or a footnote, telling you where Paul's quotation originated.
20 Paul does do so in 1 Timothy 5:18, where he also quotes Deuteronomy 25:4.
21 I have known of two diverse Bible teachers who would respond in effect, "Apostles can do this because of their office and inspiration; Christians can only glean one application from Scripture." To this, I think the unanswerable response is: if we interpret literally because Christ and the apostles interpreted literally, then we must allow for multiple application, because Christ and the apostles made multiple application.
22 We can see Paul engaging in the same practice in 1 Corinthians 10:1-26, among other places. We can see Jesus doing this in Matthew 12:1-8, and in Mark 7:6-13. In fact. Jesus roundly criticizes the Pharisees for not applying this same essential procedure in Matthew 12:7 (cf. 9:13).
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