Often, people get the idea that biblical interpretation is simply an academic or intellectual exercise, that it has little or nothing to do with establishing solid beliefs or a godly lifestyle. This is just plain wrong.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, ignorance or misunderstanding of God's word had led to bad things. God clearly expects his words to be understood to the best of our ability. This is a matter of morality, character and faithfulness. Further, it is important to be able to know what is true and right in the midst of incorrect beliefs and practices around us. Simply following along the incorrect beliefs of others is not acceptable either.
However, Christians must question not only what others believe and teach about the Scriptures. They must also continuously refining their own understanding of the Scriptures. It takes a lot of character and integrity to challenge what one believes about spiritual things. A lot of people never do it.
Let's consider just a few incidents from the Bible itself that show us how important this is.
Jesus expected the Jews of his time to do more than just follow the traditions of their religion, however godly they might have seemed. He expected them to know and understand the Scriptures, and he expected them to make the right conclusions and take right actions based upon them. Even if this meant rejecting traditional practices and teachings. For example:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"
Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' he is not to 'honor his father ' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you.
"'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.' "
Matt 15:1-9 (NIV)
Clearly, Jesus expected people to follow what God had said in the Scriptures, not just to follow along with the crowd's spiritual traditions. Jesus' measure of a "hypocrite" was not simply a spiritual actor or insincere person, but someone who claimed to be faithful to God's commands but followed the crowd instead.
If you are going to know the difference between spiritual traditions and the commands of God, you'd better learn good Biblical Interpretation skills.
Of course, one major issue in the gospels was that Jesus was the Messiah and yet the Jews of his day did not understand it. Jesus did not consider this a mere intellectual matter but a moral one. And their lack of acceptance of him was based upon their misunderstanding of the Scriptures. Many passages illustrate this, let's look at a few of them.
"I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
"I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God ?"But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?"
John 5:36-47 (NIV)
Jesus recognized that they studied the Scriptures but ultimately did not have the love of God in their hearts. And what was the basis of that judgment by him? That they did not understand and believe what Moses wrote about him.
Didn't the Jews claim to believe what Moses wrote? Of course they did; and on that very basis they rejected Jesus. But their understanding and their belief was wrong, and it resulted in a completely wrong action-- the rejection of Jesus. They were too busy adhering to popular or traditional understandings that gave them the approval of their peers rather than adhering to the Scriptures and gaining the approval of God.
The issue of breaking or keeping the Sabbath was a major point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders. Many traditions had grown up around the Sabbath, and The astute reader of the gospels will notice that Jesus provoked the Jews into examining these traditions by deliberately breaking them. He then used the ensuing dispute as a basis to challenging whether or not the tradition was in keeping with Scripture. For example:
Jesus said to them, "I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment."
John 7:21-24 (NIV)
Again, there was no dispute that the Jews believed Moses about the circumcision and the Sabbath. There was no dispute about whether the healings actually happened and were legitimate. But their poor interpretation resulted in beliefs and a tradition that forbade healing on the Sabbath. Thus, they missed the hand of God. This was another bible interpretation error that led the Jews to reject Jesus. This very topic came up again later in the Gospel of John.
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I see."
Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath."
But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided.
Finally they turned again to the blind man, "What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened."
The man replied, "He is a prophet."
The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man's parents. "Is this your son?" they asked. "Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?"
"We know he is our son," the parents answered, "and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."
A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. "Give glory to God, " they said. "We know this man is a sinner."
He replied, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"
Then they asked him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"
He answered, "I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?"
Then they hurled insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from."
John 9:13-29 (NIV)
The interested reader may review the gospels and see how many times Jesus corrects or criticizes his hearers for things that have their roots in bad biblical interpretation. Jesus would address these at a logical and intellectual level, yet there was also a moral component to this as well. He took it as a testimony that one did not really love God if one was not devoted to properly understanding and following what he the Scriptures said, particularly if one just went with the rest of the religious crowd.
To Jesus, proper interpretation was hardly an "intellectual exercise."
After the church began, we read an interesting story about the Christians in Berea.
As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true
Acts 17:10-11 (NIV)
The Bereans were commended for this examining of the Scriptures in light of what Paul was telling them about this. How many religious leaders would be offended if somebody examined the Scriptures rather than just accepted what they said without question?
Now if we're going to practice good biblical interpretation ourselves, we should note that just because somebody did something, it does not mean that absolutely we must do it also. But we can may do what they did if we are in a similar situation. This text shows that the Bereans were capable of examining the Scriptures themselves to check Paul's teachings. To the point we are talking about-- they were heralded for it. This is a powerful testimony to us having that same attitude and skill today.
Later, Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus with the following instructions:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
2 Tim 2:14-15 (NIV)
In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
Titus 2:7-8 (NIV)
Timothy and Titus were urged to handle the Scriptures correctly. They were urged to have integrity in teaching. There is no idea here that the leaders were permitted to get good things done at the expense of mishandling or distorting Scripture. Doing so would compromise their credibility, ultimately damaging the cause of the Gospel itself with shame and condemnation.
Peter told the Christians of Asia Minor that misunderstanding what had been written was a gateway to spiritual destruction.
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:15-16 (NIV)
Some within the Christian community took the teachings of the apostles and distorted them. We don't have a specific example of what Peter is talking about here. We don't know if the distortions were deliberate or innocent. But clearly the church needed to be able to discern between a proper and distorted understanding of these writings.
Many other examples could be cited where the early church was expected to know and understand the Scriptures, and where they were warned against unfounded or distorted teachings that came from wrong ideas about the Scriptures. In fact, many of the New Testament writings were written specifically to correct wrong or distorted concepts.
Further, the Bible writers often discuss complex and deep issues from the Scriptures, expecting their readers to know and understand that which is being discussed, and to be able to understand the teaching being provided.
Paul once told a church that there were fine-sounding ideas that were just plain wrong.
I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments
Col 2:4 (NIV)
The Colossians were exposed to "fine sounding ideas" that were from the Bible but not faithful to the Bible. In such a case, the Bible can be used to justify many teachings and practices, but those things are not really built upon a solid understanding of the Bible. Paul's instructions were to help the Colossians avoid this trap.
Given the wide variance of teaching and practice today in the general Christian world, how much more is this skill needed today!
Zeal can be a highly praised trait. Church leaders and members alike appreciate those who are eager to put their energy into church programs. But zeal is not a virtue. Consider what the Scriptures say.
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge,
nor to be hasty and miss the way.
Prov 19:2 (NIV)
Zeal absent from solid Biblical understanding can just become zeal to "miss the way." That's another word for "sin." Diligence and zeal in following a wrong understanding of the Scriptures got Jesus crucified. Paul was zealous in his persecution of the early church (Galatians 1:14). Is there a greater testimony that shoddy biblical interpretation and misdirected zeal are not half-virtues to be praised but rather dangerous moral flaws to be taken seriously and corrected?
Often, church leaders will praise members or young Christians who are "eager to learn" and do what they are taught. Often the idea of being simple-minded, naive or trusting, especially to leaders, is praised.
Everybody loves to be praised, especially by leaders. But this is the very tool by which we can be deceived into following leaders blindly. One of Jesus' most important teachings about how discipleship works was about "blind discipleship."
He also told them this parable: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.
Luke 6:39-40 (NIV)
Discipleship is often taught in churches, but Jesus warns that a blind person would just lead another blind person astray. The only way to learn from another person is with your eyes wide open, and the first thing to pay attention to is whether their eyes are open too! You might be taught good things, but if your eyes are not open you will never know for sure. And you are being taught wrong or distorted things, you will only know it if your eyes are open.
This desire for the praise from others even kept some from being true to what they knew and believed about Jesus during his ministry.
Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
John 12:42-43 (NIV)
The praise of others is a powerful potion. Our best protections against being deceived by it is desiring to please God first and foremost, good biblical interpretation skills, and the courage to stand by our convictions. The great thing is that if your convictions are based upon solid study of God's word, your study will verify that you are doing the right thing. This is especially beneficial if you are in a minority, if you oppose leaders, or if you are threatened for your faithfulness.
If you constantly challenge your beliefs, you will find that you constantly refine your beliefs. You trim away inaccurate understandings and replace them with more defensible ones. And for those beliefs that withstand the challenges, you confirm their accuracy every time.
It is stunning how little of Scripture has to do with church programs, church meetings, worship styles, order of services, facilities, and the like. These things are all staples of modern Christianity, yet were insignificant or even non-existent in Bible times. That doesn't mean those things are necessarily unimportant today-- but it does show a contrast between what was most important and most focused on then and now. While modern people tend to view people Bible times as being less knowledgeable, less intelligent, less sophisticated-- it is stunning how much more fluent and conversant they were about Bible things than we tend to be today.
Interpreting the Scriptures well is not just a matter of intellect but a matter of character and faithfulness. It will protect against wrong traditions and misguided teachings. It will solidify the foundation of truth and faith. And it will draw us closer to the heart of God himself, who has given us the Scriptures for our guidance in faithful living and a relationship with Him.
From front to back, the Bible is loaded with examples of people who endeavored to understand and follow God's word, and also those who settled for just doing what others told them. Still others did not act on what they knew because of what others might think. One receives the blessing and praise of God, the others receive warning and lament. Which shall you be?