Some Scriptures have been given many different interpretations. How do I judge which is right?
The purpose of any serious piece of writing is that the message of the author be understood. How much more so with the utterances of the Almighty God! It is imperative then that we arrive at an understanding of what God Himself meant when He caused the Scriptures to be written. An interpretation of a verse, even a seemingly adequate one, is not sufficient. We must be assured in our hearts and minds that such an interpretation is in fact what God intended to convey. Well might the Apostle urge Timothy to cut in a straight line the word of truth, (see 2 Tim. 2: 15). Let us ensure that we do likewise!
God is not a God of disorder, (1 Cor. 14: 33), but of order, and that order can be seen in His Word. The Bible is not a collection of disjointed themes and stories, but a masterpiece throughout which we may see the Divine design. This order is a considerable help to interpretation, for it follows that there will be certain rules which always hold true when reading the Word. Let us look then at some of these principles of interpretation.
Of fundamental importance is the fact that the Bible is one book. Of course it is made up of many smaller books, and these in turn may be divided into sections, but the fact remains that the Scriptures are one whole. This has a very important bearing on interpretation, for a right interpretation will depend a great deal on a consideration being made of all that the Bible presents on a given subject: “knowing this first, that [the scope of] no prophecy of scripture is had from its own particular interpretation”, (2 Pet. 1: 20). The selective use of texts is the root of every school of opinion.
Notwithstanding the unity of the Bible, each of its component books has its own distinctive character and message. To understand a book, we must understand the specific purpose for which it was written. For example, each of the four Gospels emphasise a different aspect of the Lord Jesus: Matthew His kingship, Mark His servanthood, Luke His manhood, and John His Deity. Careful study reveals that such emphases govern what each Gospel writer includes in his record and why.
Closely allied to the last point is another, namely, To whom is a given Scripture addressed? Now “every Scripture” is profitable for the Christian, “for teaching, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”, (2 Tim. 3: 16), but this does not mean that every Scripture is addressed to him. All Scripture is profitable because it is God’s Word, and is pregnant with moral and spiritual values, but this does not give anyone license to read Christianity into every verse! As an example, take the mission of the twelve in Matt. 10. Many think that this gives guidelines for Christian evangelism, when the context clearly shows that the Lord is addressing not Christians, but Jews!
This matter of context is of vital importance. What I mean by this, is that the meaning of any given statement of Scripture is governed and influenced to a considerable extent by the surrounding text. The practice of quoting texts in isolation, is a habit that lends itself to erroneous interpretation. As an example take part of Matt. 10: 19 “be not careful how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given to you in that hour what ye shall speak”. This is commonly quoted to support a lack of preparation before preaching, yet the context makes it quite clear that it refers to testimony under interrogation by wicked authorities!
It is also important when considering any given Scripture to discover the exact meanings of the words used. God’s Word is precise in its choice of words, and we need to be precise in gleaning the accompanying meanings. If the words themselves are not properly understood, then how can the Scripture under consideration be understood? Never rely on your own definitions of a word—these may be very inadequate. Find out how and where Scripture uses the word—make the Bible its own dictionary. Do not be content with superficial understanding—dig deep into the meanings of the words.
I must also stress the necessity of avoiding personal prejudices when reading God’s Word. Not only can certain Scriptures be conveniently ignored where they do not fit one’s theological dogma, but it is also possible to twist the Word of God to make it conform to one’s preconceived notions. To do this is no less that “falsifying the word of God”, (2 Cor. 4: 2). Read the Bible honestly and fairly, accepting whatever you find there. We are not to add our own ideas, nor to ignore or water down plain Scripture, (see Rev. 22: 18, 19). Let us handle the Bible for what it is—THE VERY WORDS OF ALMIGHTY GOD.