People often ask, "How should I interpret the Bible?"
It's an important question.
If we approach the Bible effectively, we'll be pointed in the right direction toward knowing GOD. If not, we're likely to become confused or trapped in religious tradition.
Keep it Simple
I prefer to think in simple terms.
GOD worded the Bible in such a way that it could be easily understood by simple-minded people like me. In fact, GOD often used simple-minded people like the Galilean fishermen, Peter and John, to pen the Scriptures.
The question of how to properly interpret the Bible is one that people often over-complicate.
For example, people often use the word "hermeneutics" when it comes to how we understand the Bible.
When is the last time you heard someone use the word "hermeneutics" in a conversation not about understanding the Bible?
Yeah, that's what I thought. Me neither.
I strongly dislike the word hermeneutics and I think it unnecessarily complicates the answer.
Let's break this question down simply, shall we?
Two Covenants, Two "Laws"
It is essential that we recognize the two covenants contained in the Bible and how these covenants affect how the Scriptures apply to us.
A simple breakdown of the Bible goes like this:
- In the beginning GOD created everything that exists.
- An angel, Satan, rebelled against GOD. Satan tempted Eve and sin entered the world.
- Wickedness spread, GOD destroyed all but 8 people in the global flood and started over with Noah's family.
- Within a few generations after Noah, people had lapsed into idolatry. GOD chose Abraham to become the father of a special people—a remnant among the nations of earth. These people multiplied until they became the nation of Israel.
- GOD gave this nation a law, the Law of Moses, which governed all aspects of their life—physical, spiritual and civil—because they were a physical nation.
- The Old Testament books are comprised of two main parts:
- The Law
- The Prophets
- The Law
- Jesus Christ was GOD's Messiah, foretold throughout the Old Testament. Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses and, by dying upon the cross despite having never sinned, became the author of the New Covenant, foretold in the Prophets.
- All who live after Jesus' resurrection from the dead (that'd be you and me) are governed not by the Law of Moses (i.e., the Old Testament Scriptures), but by the "law of Christ," as Paul put it in Galatians 6:2.
- Through Jesus, GOD replaced the physical nation of Israel as His chosen people with the spiritual nation of Israel (see Gal. 4:21-31; Rom. 9-11). This is one of the most important and overlooked truths in all the Bible.
(For this reason, many have misunderstood the Prophets and therefore they misunderstand matters pertaining to Jesus' second coming, death, the resurrection and the judgment. For this reason, many support the protection and financial aid of the physical country of Israel today.)
- Christians are governed by the New Covenant: the contents of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament writings.
(Note: We must remember that Jesus lived and taught under the Law of Moses. Some of Jesus' teachings, such as the sermon on the mount, are widely misunderstood because people fail to discern that which applied specifically to the people Jesus was speaking directly to at the time versus that which applies to every disciple of Jesus.)
- We aren't governed by the Law of Moses today.
- We are governed by the New Covenant, which is basically the New Testament (minus those things that applied specifically to first century people).
This is important because not everything that is written in the Bible is something you and I have to do today.
- GOD doesn't care if you eat pork now.
- GOD doesn't care if you get a tattoo (whereas tattoos were banned under the Old Covenant - see Lev. 19:28).
- You don't have to keep the Jewish feasts, such as Passover (see Col. 2:16).
Many non-believers (and even some believers!) like to ignorantly point to certain Old Testament Scriptures and say, "See! You/We're not following what the Bible says about this!" They don't understand the basic principles of the two covenants. And it's very sad. Some even blaspheme against GOD because of this.
The truth is that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses (see Matt. 5:17). That's why He could replace the old covenant (with its law and priesthood) with a new covenant (with its law and priesthood - see Jer. 31:31; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8:7-13).
The Law of Christ—known as simply the new covenant—remains in place forever.
Do not think that the Old Testament is unimportant to us today, however. Far from it. The Old Testament should be studied for numerous reasons, including understanding man's origins, sin's origins, how idolatry spread and works, the promises GOD made to Abraham (which were only partially fulfilled physically—they had spiritual components too), as well as the history of Israel.
"That's great, Tim, but how do we actually interpret the Bible?"
Now that we've laid this foundation, here's how...
Commands and Examples
So we've established that Old Testament Scriptures don't directly govern our lives.
When we read a command in the New Testament, we must determine if that command applies to us today or if it was given to a specific person or group by the writer.
For example, in Romans 16:3, Paul commands the reader to greet Priscilla and Aquila. Obviously that command isn’t intended for us today because Priscilla and Aquila have long passed from this life.
By contrast, the command of 1 John 4:21 to love our brother was obviously intended for all Christians to obey. So we must follow that to the best of our ability.
The New Testament Scriptures also record historical events from the first century.
The accounts reveal what happened, the result(s) of the event, and often the circumstances surrounding the event.
These records provide invaluable examples of the types of behavior and activities that were both accepted and unaccepted by GOD. If there is an example that was accepted by GOD, that means we can (and often should) follow that example if the need or situation arises today.
Subjects GOD Didn't Address
GOD didn't specifically address most of the situations we encounter in life.
I often think that it would be nice if we could ask GOD about specific situations "on demand" and have Him answer us by voice.
How do we know what to do when we face a situation that the Bible doesn’t specifically address?
2 Tim. 3:16-17 teaches that GOD's Word contains everything a person needs in order to be thoroughly equipped for every good work. In other words, the Bible tells us everything we need in order to live righteously, pleasing GOD.
Therefore, when we face a situation that GOD hasn't specifically addressed, we must exercise the brain He gave us in order to properly apply ("rightly divide," per Tim. 2:15) the principles taught in the Scriptures in order to make the best possible choice.
Consider two practical examples to illustrate.
- GOD has not spoken regarding whether I can attend a college football game and cheer for my favorite school. Yet I know of no principle in the Bible that my attending the game will violate, therefore I conclude that it is perfectly acceptable to GOD for me to attend the college football game.
- Conversely, GOD has also not spoken specifically about visiting a nightclub. However, when I consider the activities that go on at a typical nightclub, I can see that a number of them are listed in Gal. 5:19-21 as "works of the flesh." Therefore I conclude that going to a nightclub is not wise or acceptable to GOD, so I don't do that.
It's a really simple process to follow, which I appreciate. The key is to know what GOD has spoken so that I can rightly divide it.
The truth is that you and I individually make decisions frequently on issues and situations that the Bible doesn’t specifically address. We engage in some; from others we abstain. Our individual goal is to conform ourselves to the image of Jesus by following His example as closely as possible (see Rom. 8:29).
Being Specific is Different than Being Silent
One common problem I see among believers is a failure to differentiate between when GOD is specific versus when He is silent. Let's consider a few examples to illustrate:
- GOD told Noah to make the ark out of gopherwood (Gen. 6:14). Is it true that GOD was "silent" (said nothing) about Noah using pine wood to build the ark? Yes, GOD didn't say anything about using pine. Was GOD silent about the wood Noah was to use? No, He was specific. Use gopherwood.
- In Lev. 10:1-3, Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire from GOD because they "offered profaine fire" before Him. Was GOD silent regarding how the priests were to approach Him? No! He was very specific about what they were to do and how they were to do it (see Lev. 1-9).
- GOD told Naaman, commander of the Syrian army who had leprosy, to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be cleansed (2 Kings 5:10). Was GOD silent regarding the Nile River here? Yes, but He wasn't silent about which river. He was specific.
- Jesus said that he who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). Was Jesus silent about babies being baptized? Was He silent about sprinkling? No, He was specific. Only the believer who is baptized will be saved. The very word Jesus used, "baptizo," means to immerse or submerge.
You get the idea.
There are things about which GOD has been specific and those must be obeyed.
At the same time, countless life situations arise about which GOD is silent. (For example, GOD didn't say anything about getting a college degree, eating ice cream or playing video games.) GOD's silence doesn't inherently mean we mustn't do something. Rather, GOD's silence means we must apply the principles He has given us to live godly and make wise choices.
What about Church Decisions?
First, we must have a proper perception of what Jesus' church really is.
The process for the church is identical to that of the individual.
The New Testament provides us with a pattern for how the church should work together, and what to avoid. (Remember, the church is Christians...not a building you pass on the way to work.)
Follow the commands that apply to the church.
Follow approved examples as those situations arise.
Imitate the New Testament pattern as closely as possible.
Don't Bash Your Brother
Lastly, we must acknowledge that, in situations where the Bible hasn't spoken, we are required to use our judgment.
Any time human reasoning is involved, people are going to disagree and reach different conclusions. The Scriptures openly acknowledge that such disagreements will occur as well as how to respond when they do (see Rom. 14).
When there are disagreements over matters where GOD hasn't specified, we can try to reason with others regarding the conclusion(s) we reached, but we need to avoid attacking, belittling, labeling or dividing from them for holding a different point of view. (Obviously, this does not include matters about which we have clear and specific teaching in Scripture.)
Above all, let us love one another.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
(John 13:34-35 NKJV)
Paul provides us with a list of things about which there must be consensus for anyone to be in the faith:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Eph. 4:1-6 NIV)
There must be agreement on the "one's" in these verses.
Beyond these, we must use our best judgment and let love prevail during disagreements.