Interpreting the Bible
By Prof Harry Buls
If mankind had not fallen into sin evidently human beings and God would have communication with each other somewhat like God and Abraham spoke to each other ( passim Genesis 12-22). If Satan could have communication with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) it stands to reason that God did so too. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God looked for them as they hid themselves. Ever since that time sin has separated everyone from God and the world has become a huge morgue, the land of the dead.
One often hears people say: "I wish God would appear to me and talk to me." God has done that. He has appeared and talked to the whole world. At Jesus' birth the hosts of heaven said: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men."
The Bible gives all glory, honour and credit to God and all benefit to people, especially peace with God and His good will to mankind. Only mankind has an immortal soul, a thinking mind and a communicating mouth. People need words that can be read and understood. And God has filled our need for communication. He give us a book whose purpose is to make us wise to salvation, to have eternal life in Christ's name. His book is useful for teaching, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. This book can and does restore God's image to human beings. Is that really? Yes. See Hebrews 1:1-2.
I. Scripture Interprets Scripture
A. All heresies caused by faulty Interpretation.
But people say: "How can I be sure what God's book says? Everybody claims that his interpretation is the only true one. The Bible only causes more confusion." But that is not true. It is not the Bible's fault, but a person's fault.
For example, there are denominations which teach that only their leaders can interpret the Bible or even add to it when necessary. Then there are those who say that a person need not believe something which he cannot understand. Then again there are those who claim that they have private revelations from God. Then again, there are those who say that God does not come to people by His Word but directly. There are even those who claim to be the Christ, the Messiah.
When the disciples asked Jesus for a sign of the end of the world He said: "Beware lest someone misled you. For many will come in my name saying 'I am the Christ' and they will mislead many." The prophets, Christ and the Apostles constantly warn about false prophets, people who substitute their own teaching for what He says. All false teachings come from faulty interpretation of the Bible.
But the situation is not hopeless. We are surrounded by death. But we can Live eternally. We are surrounded by divorce but we can faithful to our spouses. We are surrounded by fear but we can be unafraid. We are surrounded by false teachers and false interpretations but we can find the true one. God said that we could. See Isaiah 55:6-12. A clear passage.
B. God's Book is not to be interpreted privately.
Read 2 Peter 1:16-21. Peter, James and John saw the glorified Christ on the Matthew of Transfiguration. They heard the Father's voice say: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." We who live since that time have not seen the glorified Christ nor have we heard the Father's voice. But Peter adds: "We have the prophetic word made more sure, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts." Then these very important words: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture (teaching of Scripture) is of any private interpretation." No person or council or pope dare interpret Scripture privately.
That's why John warns (1 John 4:1) "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits; because many false prophets (teachers) have gone out into the world." Who are the "Beloved"? All Christians. They are to test the teaching as to its authenticity. That's what the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). When Paul taught them "they searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so."
The Scriptures are their own interpreter. God and Scripture are often identified. For example at Galatians 3:8: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the nations by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying 'In you all the nations shall be blessed.'" Who preached beforehand? God. See Genesis 12:3. But Paul attributes it to Scripture. When Scripture speaks, God speaks. For a similar example see Romans 9:17.
When God Speaks we are not listening to confusion. He makes himself and His ways plain. True teachers of the Word are only ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). They tell people only and truly what God sent them to say. Jesus told us to teach all nations. We are not His interprets. He interprets His own Word. Paul said: "I decided not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." 1 Corinthians 2:2.
God hides the Word from those who are wise in their own conceit but reveals Himself to babes, that is, to those who take God's own interpretation, not that of people who add to or subtract from Scripture. Matthew 11:25. A preacher or teacher is like a bugler or trumpeter in an army. Paul says: "If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?" 1 Corinthians 14:8. There was danger in the Corinthian congregation - false trumpeters. A false trumpeter can be disastrous for an army. A false teacher can be disastrous. Deuteronomy 4:2 says "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it." That is repeated at Revelation 22:18 "If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book."
This command and rule was observed by the Prophets and Apostles and especially by Jesus Himself as we will show later. St. Paul once said "Whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope." Romans 15:4. He was referring to the Old Testament which he quoted frequently. The Old Testament was Paul's interpreter. His teaching was not of private interpretation. Likewise with Christ.
C. Scripture is a Clear Book.
Though the Bible is the best seller in many places in the world, many people think that it is a confused and confusing book. And so they want nothing to do with the Bible. That is exactly what Satan wants people to believe about the Bible. Read John 8:12-59. It is an interesting confrontation between Jesus and His enemies, the Jews, people who were highly respected by their fellow men. They absolutely refused to listen to His Word. They denied his testimony. They did not know is Father. He warned them that they would die in their sins. They were of this world. They prided themselves in being Abraham's descendants, but they were slaves of sin. They sought to kill Jesus. Jesus plainly told them they were their father, the devil. They were murderers. Then they accused Him of having a devil. Then Jesus tells them that He existed before Abraham. They were so furious theta they picked up stones to kill Him.
Why all of this? They were walking in darkness. God's Word found no place in them. They were walking the way to destruction. Midst all of this Jesus says: "If you continue in My Word then you are truly My disciples. And you will realize the truth and the truth will make you free." But they would not accept that.
Is the Bible a clear book? Most assuredly. Psalm 119:105 reads "Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path."
Is the Bible a clear book? Most assuredly. Paul says at 2 Corinthians 4:3-6: "But even if our gospel is veiled. It is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus, the Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
Is the Bible a clear book? Most assuredly. Not even Paul interpreted the Bible. The Bible did that. Of course, unbelief veils the Gospel, but that does not make the Bible an unclear book. When Jesus said: "Search the Scriptures" (John 5:39) He proved that it is a clear book.
Is the Old Testament clear? Yes. Read Isaiah 9:6-7 a Messianic prophecy. It's as if the Saviour had already been born, though Isaiah wrote this about 800 years before it happened. Did Matthew consider the Old Testament a clear book? Think how often he said "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet." See Matthew 1:22; 2:5; 2:15; 2:17; 3:3; 4:6; 4:7; 4:10; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14; 13:35; 15:7; 19:5; 19:18; 21:4; 21:9; 21:13; 21:16; 21:42; 22:44; 42:29; 26:31; 27:46. The whole book of Matthew lies in the Old Testament. Someone said:
The New Testament lies in the Old concealed, The Old Testament lies in the New revealed. ( Latin: Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet.)
What makes the Epistle to the Hebrews so clear? It's the forty and more quotations from the Old Testament. The typology of the Old Testament becomes very clear in Hebrews. In fact the seven Old Testament quotes in the first chapter gives us a summary of the person and work of Christ in the New Testament! The remaining twelve chapters of Hebrews grow out of this first chapter.
Is the Bible a clear book? It is the clearest, truest, most trustworthy, eternal book known to mankind. And its main message, Christ and Him Crucified, is the oldest, truest, best known and eternal message known to mankind.
Does that mean that we understand everything in the Bible? Of course not. Do little children fret because they do not understand everything their parents say and do? Jesus said to Peter: "What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this." John 13:7. Paul gave wonderful advise to the Philippian Christians: "Therefore, let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal this to you."
Christians differ in their degree of understanding the Scriptures. They should be patient with each other. Time and further instruction will clarify many things. But even at that with Paul we must confess: "Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." 1 Corinthians 13:11-12. What John says is very comforting: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." 1 John 3:2.
A true interpreter of the Scriptures meets the requirements of Isaiah 66:2: "On this one will I look: On him who is humble and a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My Word." That's the spirit in which Paul penned 2 Corinthians 10:4-5: "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."
A Christian uses his mind when he reads the Bible, but his mind is servant, not master, of the Word. All heresies can be traced to the pride of people who tried to use their minds as masters, not as servants. Here Jesus must be our model: "Whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Mark 10:44-45. Jesus was a servant of the Word. He is my model.
But even though a Christian does not understand everything, though he often acutely realizes that in this life he is only a pilgrim and stranger, he confess with Paul: "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that day." 2 Timothy 1:12. Or with Job: "I know that my Redeemer lives---whom I shall see for myself." Job 19:26. Or again with Paul: "I am persuaded that nothing in creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:38-39. The believer is certain because the Word is clear and certain. It says: "God has given us eternal life." 2 John 5:11.
D. The Principles of Interpretation Come From Scripture.
At the time of the Lutheran Reformation scholars spent much time and energy refining what we call the Principles of Interpretation. To this day students who study theology in preparation for the public ministry must learn these principles.
The study of these principles goes back to the work of scholars in the early centuries of the New Testament era. These principles were not imposed on the Scriptures. They arise out of the Scriptures. For example, when Jesus said: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19) Scripture explains immediately: "But He was speaking of the temple of His body." (verse 21).
When Jesus was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4) He used only Scripture to battle Satan. When Satan tempted Him to misuse His divine power Jesus proved the source of true power for living from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 8:3. Again, when Satan misapplied Psalm 91:11-12 Jesus answered again with "It is written." And finally when Satan falsely made promises to Jesus, Jesus answered him from Deuteronomy 6:13.
Another example: When the Pharisees (Matthew 19) tried to misuse the Old Testament to their own advantage Jesus told them that the basis for marriage lies in Genesis 2:24 and not in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. And by doing so, Jesus revealed their impenitence.
Another example: The word day used in Genesis 1 six times must mean "day" because it is described as "evening and morning." That is corroborated at Exodus 20:9-11 where the six days of creation are compared with the six days of the working week. False teachers tell us that in Genesis 1 "day" means "a thousand years" because of Psalm 90:4. But at 2 Peter 3:8 we read: "With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." If they insist that "day" in Genesis 1 means "one thousand years" I can also insist that Jesus was born only two days ago.
The point we are making is that the principles of interpretation arise out of Scripture itself. Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 describe the timeless character of God, not the length of a day.
Just one more example: At Psalm 16:10 we read "You will not leave my soul in Sheol nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption. " Peter quotes this at Acts 2:27 concerning Christ: "You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow Your Holy One see corruption." Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek must be understood in their context. When Jesus died He commended His soul to His Father. He did not go to hell to suffer. Therefore both the prophecy in Psalm 16 and the fulfilment in Acts 2 speaks of the state of death only. Hades can in other instances mean "hell," but not here. Psalm 16:10. Cf. Luke 16:23 What are we saying?
The Principles of Interpretation arise out of Scripture itself. They are not man-made rules. From this point on we shall discuss these principles.
E. The Principle of Law and Gospel.
Now and again we hear people say that the Bible confuses them because it contradicts itself concerning how a person is saved. Does the Bible say that Christ alone saved us? Or, does it say that we can save ourselves? Or, does it say that salvation is a combination of Christ's work and my own? On the one hand we read: "By grace you are saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works." Ephesians 2:8-9. And again: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself." 2 Corinthians 5:19. On the other hand we read at James 2:24: "You see then that a person is justified by works, and not by faith only." Or again at 1 Corinthians 13:2: "If I have all faith but not love, I am nothing."
One can understand why someone is confused. But it is that person, not the Bible, that is confused. The passage from James 2 does say that works save or that salvation is a combination of faith and works. The context (verse 26) clearly says: "Faith without works is dead." A faith which is fruitless is no faith. Jesus clearly explains at John 15:2. And the passage at 1 Corinthians 13 speaks about Christian living, not how a person saved. Luther once said aptly: "Faith alone saves but faith is never alone." (Sola fides justificatio seed fides numguam sola est)
A pastor must be able to distinguish and apply law and Gospel, or his sermons will only confuse people. Paul says at Romans 3:19-24: "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
The law always accuses and condemns a sinful person. The Gospel always comforts and saves the confessing sinner. This in the heart of the Bible. The Bible is very clear on law and Gospel, sin and grace, hell and heaven. The proper use of law and Gospel is a principle of Biblical interpretation.
Special Topic: Law and Gospel
In his 1535 Commentary on Galatians Luther said: "A Christian is at one and the same time a saint and a sinner." The Christian will be a sinner until he dies and is in constant need of forgiveness. Romans 7:14-24. But he is a forgiven sinner, declared righteous for Jesus' sake, and an heir of eternal life. Romans 7:25; 8:1-2.
Luther 's Essay on The Freedom of a Christian, written in 1520, has called his greatest work. This essay is based on two theses:
In his 1535 Commentary on Galatians, Luther says with reference to Galatians 5:13-14: "Christian freedom in Christ from sin, death, and the devil stops in the conscience. From there on, all is obligation and servitude." These obligations are carefully stated in the Russian Lutheran Catechism on pp. 29-32.
All of Christian teaching, preaching and counseling is about these two subjects: faith and love. All of Christian living is about these two subjects. What difference is there between the Law and the Gospel?
For the salvation of people the Bible contains two kinds of teaching. The following is taken from the Russian Lutheran Catechism, pp. 123-126, questions and answers numbers 142-144:
Both Law and Gospel are found in both Testaments. But there is a difference. In the Old Testament (Genesis 12:1 to Malachi 4) God made His Covenant with the Hebrews (Jews). In the New Testament God makes His Covenant with all, both Jews and Gentiles. In the Old Testament we have three kinds of Law:
But in the New Testament we have only the Moral Law, the Ten Commandments, which are all people, Jews and Gentiles. Matthew 5:17-42; Matthew 22:36-40; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 16:1-2; Galatians 5:14; Ephesians 5:22-6:9: Colossians 3:18-25.
Read Galatians 3:23-25. These verses describe both the Old and New Covenant Children of God. Here "faith" means "fulfilment of the prophecies about Christ." "Law" means "the Law of Moses" found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteromony. The Law imprisoned people to make them realize that they could not save themselves. Only Christ and His Gospel can save mankind. What happened to the Jews historically, happens it the believer many times daily. We are no longer under a slavemaster, the Law. We are free. Now read Galatians 3:26-29. Read Romans 10:4.
Where do we find the Gospel? In the Word and Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Read Romans 1:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Matthew 26:28. To the promise (Genesis 17:7) God added His oath (gen. 22:16-18; Luke 1:73; Hebrews 6:13-18) to save mankind. It is accomplished! The Gospel is found first at Genesis 3:15 and then repeated and made clearer hundreds of times in the Old Testament through prophecies and types. Read. Hebrews 1:1-2. It is God's best and most well-known message to mankind. All of God's promises are valid in Christ. Read. 2 Corinthians 1:20.
Law and Gospel compared:
1. The Law:
2. The Gospel:
3. Law and Gospel are similar in some respects:
4. Law and Gospel differ in some respects:
How Law and Gospel are confused:
A proper understanding and application of Law and Gospel is an important principle of interpretation. The Bible itself explains this. It is not a human invention. The pastor's sermons and the life of a Christian are much involved in law and Gospel.
Messianic Prophecy and Fulfillment
Even people who do not believe that Jesus has saved them have heard about Him. He is the best know person in history. And He will be acknowledged eternally. See Revelation 5:12-13. And, of course, He is the best-known person in the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament. Peter said: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things." 1 Peter 1-10-12, and "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Acts 10:43. Jesus said: "Search the Scriptures for in them ye think ye have eternal life and they which testify about Me." John 5:39. For the two men on their way to Emmaus "He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself." Luke 24:27. At Jeremiah 31:31-34 the coming of the New Covenant was foretold. It is quoted at Hebrews 8:8-12 and again at 10:16-17. What was the most important item? The forgiveness of sins. Who attained that? Jesus Christ.
And now we list the Old Testament Messianic Prophecies and their fulfilment in the New Testament This is an important principle of Biblical Interpretation.
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