Friday, September 20, 2019
   
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Part Three: Illumination, Interpretation

Let me begin by trying to illustrate what happens when we have a lack of Bible study. In two words, people starve!

The vista from the top of Sulphur Mountain, just outside the town of Banff, is one of the most picturesque in the Canadian Rockies. A gondola takes you to the top of the mountain where you stand looking at peak after peak, stretching off into the distance in a virtual sea of mountains. When the sun is shining, and the snow is glistening, it is a breathtaking scene.

On top of the mountain is a tea house, as well as a herd of about 30 mountain sheep who have become very tame and taken to begging handouts from tourists. They love anything salty, and that is the problem. Those sheep are actually starving to death on a diet of peanuts, potato chips, popcorn, hamburger, licorice, and even salty plastic bags. As a result, the herd has been neglecting its normal grass diet; the animals are losing weight, and the females no longer produce enough high-quality milk to nourish their lambs. One of the park wardens has said, "Sheep develop a taste for this kind of junk. It is pathetic to see, but there is really very little we can do about it. I wish people would realize their 'kindness' amounts to cruelty." The sheep have actually become "junk-food junkies."

 

I think you get the connection between the sheep and our subject. Not only four-legged sheep have this nutritional problem. Many of God's spiritual sheep are addicted to junk food, the kind that produces spiritual malnourishment. They have become "spiritual junk-food junkies." Junk food is fascinating stuff. The problem is not that it tastes bad. It nearly always tastes good. Nor does junk food immediately destroy us. The problem is, it has little or no nutritional value, and spoils our appetites. So it is with spiritual junk food, which spoils our appetite for God's solid food and addicts us to what is only superficially satisfying. "The result is spiritual starvation in our own lives and danger to the lives of those who depend upon us." (Gary Inrig, Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay, Moody Press, 1979, pp. 266-267.)

The input many Christians are receiving from the media and their reading is only superficially satisfying, with little or no nutritional value. It does taste good, at least sometimes. It won't immediately destroy us. But it is ultimately leading to spiritual starvation and spoils our appetites. Even some Bible study is so erratic and superficial it is insufficient to provide the nutrition needed.

On the other hand, if Bible study is done right, it will not only taste good, but will deliver people from their addiction to junk food! The Bible doesn't give us a formal description, at least in any one place, about what is involved in studying its pages, but it does give us one picture that offers a pretty good idea of what is involved! The attitude and actions needed for a quality and nutritious Bible study can be capsulized by a vocation alluded to/described in Scripture—that of a miner (Proverbs 2).

This passage in Proverbs gives us a picture of the process involved in mining the truth of Scripture. As miners, we must have the persistence and dedication of those who dig under the earth for ore or metal (Acts 17:10-11; 2 Tim. 2:15). Our responsibility is to search the Scriptures for insight and wisdom (Acts 17:10-11). A good student of Scripture won't be satisfied with superficial observations or the work of others. For example, if we say we are not being fed enough on Sundays or in our small groups to make it through the week, then we give testimony of our inability to feed ourselves and our own immaturity.

We are called to seek the valuable material of the Word with all diligence (2 Tim. 2:15). Spiritual treasures we mine ourselves should bring us all that is necessary to meet our own spiritual needs. Proverbs 2 says we are to look for understanding as if we were looking for silver (vv. 1-11). This is very helpful counsel, and provides us with a good biblical basis for the study of Scriptures. Thereare conditions, however. Notice the "ifs" all the way through. (Circle or underline them in your Bible.)

"My son if you will receive my sayings, if you will treasure my commandments within you, if you will make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding, or if you cry for discernment and lift your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, if you search for her as for hidden treasures. . ."

There are six "if" statements in this passage. What will happen if we fulfill all these conditions as a good silver miner? "Then you will discern the fear of the Lord and then you will discover the knowledge of God" (v. 5). What a promise! We can't enjoy the treasure of the fifth verse if don't work through the first four. If you want to know the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of the living God, you have to roll up your sleeves, dig in, and mine for silver

I don't know how much physical digging you have done, but maybe enough to know that it doesn't take very long to put blisters on your hands, even with gloves. Before long, in fact before an hour's over, you are just about ready to give up the whole process. Digging is hard work, and we should know studying the Scriptures for silver is not any easier. In fact, it can get harder at times and in certain seasons. Even if you have been studying the Scriptures for 20 years, I can promise you that Bible study will be very difficult at times and you will wonder if there is anything in its pages. Or there will be times when the section you are studying will only yield its treasure when you study hard and long.!

You will be tempted at that point with the thought that the Word is dry and unyielding of any new treasure, that you have mined all there is and maybe another book, newspaper, magazine or media source would be more enjoyable to look at! Junk food will look good to you, or fools' gold and silver will be a great attraction. My advice? Keep mining; there is treasure ahead! Of course, sometimes we open the Scriptures and there before us is a nugget we haven't looked for, and just what we needed. Don't you love those times? Other times we return to old mining spots, reexamine what we have found before, rejoice in the truth and the treasure of those familiar truths. (That's okay!)

Let me remind you, however, there is still more gold in "them thar" hills. There are fantastic veins of silver to be discovered and applied to our lives. Don't miss them!

This verse (Prov. 2:4) says we will need to "seek her [the commands, the wisdom, the understanding, the insight of the Bible's pages] as silver." But notice, beyond the treasure we receive, the reason for this search in Prov. 2:6. The most important reason of all is that as we seek this wisdom, we discover it is the Lord Himself who gives it to us! "From his mouth comes knowledge and understanding."

God waits for us, and He's the Source of all we find! He has those packages of knowledge and understanding put together and waits for our digging, so He can give us these already wrapped, ready-to-be-opened treasures. What a sorrowful moment it would be if we got a peek into heaven and saw those packages ready for delivery, but never called for. I have many unwrapped packages waiting for me, as do you!

With this summary picture in mind, let's return to our series with a review of the big picture of the Bible—especially how God chose to communicate with man. Remember, by studying God's communication with man, we hope to have an understanding of how the Bible came to us, and how we should respond to it. In parts one and two, we saw the process of God's communication as a chain that stretches from the mind of God, to the act and attitudes of man.

 

Thus far we have seen:

  • Revelation—Inspiration: a circular process of receiving and recording the Word of God without any error
  • Transmission: copying as accurately as possible, the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and their copies
  • Translation: seeking the most accurate rendering of the original language manuscripts into our own language
  • Illumination and Interpretation: finding what the author meant by what he said; and by the Spirit, putting the meaning into contemporary expressions
  • Application: using our varied gifts to make the Word of God relevant to man so that behavioral change results

Let's concentrate this time on

Illumination and Interpretation

An overview

Obviously, translation is not all we need to fully comprehend the meaning of what God is saying to us. In the first three links of this chain, we have been dependent on the commitment and skill of others for those parts of the process. With the next two links we will take a more active role, but will still be supervised and illuminated by the Holy Spirit and are, therefore, partners with the Holy Spirit. Interpretation is my part of the link; illumination is God's part. They are circular and overlap each other.

Illumination

Let's focus on illumination for a moment, and how it relates to the study of Scripture. We just saw in Proverbs 2 that Bible study can be hard work. It could even seem dependent on human effort for treasure to be found. But are we in the study of Scripture by ourselves? No, illumination is the other side of interpretation. It is the Holy Spirit's part in the interpretation process.

It is important to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit for several reasons.

He is the author. II Pet. 1:20-21—"Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation 21] For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."

He has come to teach & remind us as we pray for His help. Jn. 14:25-26— 25] "All this I have spoken while still with you. 26] But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." This means we are not alone when we endeavor to come to the meaning and application of a passage. (We don't dig for Scripture alone!) The illumination of the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding and enables us to comprehend what we are studying/digging for.

According to John 16:12-13, the Holy Spirit is present to guide us to all truth. 12] "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come."

That leads to a controversial question: does the illumination of the Spirit imply there are new truths to be discovered outside the Scripture, i.e., truth that has never been revealed? Many people believe that prophecies or even other writings may reveal to us spiritual truth that has not been revealed or known in Scripture. Evangelical Christians don't believe that the Scripture teaches this! The Spirit's ministry is to enlighten our understanding of the truth that God has already given to us in His Word. All the truth that God wants us to know for our spiritual lives has already been revealed to us in the Scripture! Therefore, there will be no new discoveries or revelation of truth. The Holy Spirit is present to teach and enlighten the Word of God to us! Earl Radmacher has said:

"The Spirit is not given to make Bible study needless, but to make it effective. The Spirit and the Word go hand in hand. The Spirit of God without the Word of God is mute. He has nothing to say. The Word of God apart from the Spirit of God is useless. It has no power to act. Or to put it another way, the Word of God apart from the Spirit of God leads to mechanism, and the Spirit of God apart from the Word of God leads to fanaticism."

So how does our relationship with the Holy Spirit play itself out practically as we are studying the Scripture? How and when should we pray for His help in our study of the Scripture?

  • Pray for His help at the beginning of our study.
  • Pray for His guidance as we study.
  • Pray for His understanding when we come to a difficult passage and cannot understand what it means—Ps. 119:18.
  • Pray for the Holy Spirit's assistance when we are preparing to share our study with others.
  • Pray after we have finished sharing that the Holy Spirit will remind our hearers of His Word.

What must we be careful about when we ask the Holy Spirit to be our helper and guide? It is important to maintain victory over sin, for this is a source of grief to the Holy Spirit and will quench His ministry in our lives (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19; Psalm 66:18-19; Prov. 28:9,13).

If the Holy Spirit is an integral part of our correctly understanding Scripture, can only a Christian come to the meaning of Scripture? In that an unbeliever exercises discipline in allowing Scripture to interpret itself, it is possible that he could make some interpretation of Scripture (this is especially true when it relates to initial salvation). Beyond coming to Christ, however, an unbeliever's interpretations will have limited value, because he/she will be incapable of understanding the implications and application of the Bible to life—1 Cor. 2:14; Matt.16:21; Mark 14:1-2.

.The need to be a believer is summed up in 1 Cor. 2:14: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned." In essence, in order to grasp spiritual truth, we must have spiritual receptiveness. Natural man does not have the capacity to receive spiritual truth, because his attitude is contrary to it: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God..." His aptitude for it is nil, as well; "...he cannot understand..."

The unbeliever's appreciation for spiritual truth is also lacking: ". . .they are foolishness to him." Only the person who has had a spiritual birth has the attitude, aptitude, and appreciation for spiritual truth. Thank God for His Spirit, for He gives us what we need to find the truth. Our challenge is to learn to be sensitive to and listen to Him as we study.

Interpretation

Dr. Radmacher expresses the next needed link this way: "Interpretation is finding out what the author meant by what he said and putting that meaning into contemporary equivalent expression." Interpretation involves the art and science of seeking to determine, as accurately as possible, what the writer meant by what he said. We call this particular discipline "hermeneutics." It is a science because it is guided by principles or rules arranged into an orderly system of approach, but also classified as an art, because it requires skill and sensitivity to complete.

Why do we need interpretation? Consider the following example to answer that question.

"Hey, Jim, let's invite several of our friends over to my house this Wednesday night for Bible study." The night comes and everyone is present and reasonably excited. A passage of Scripture is assigned as the concentration for the evening. After prayer and careful reading of the text, the leader asks the question: "What does that mean to us today"? So the people begin to share. On one verse, however, there are several disagreements. How do they resolve the situation? One way is to try to arrive at a "consensus." If that can't be arrived at, then the statement that resolves the conflict is: "Well, you have your interpretation and I have mine."

Does that sound familiar? This is a very popular way to study the Bible in homes around the world. No one can deny a great deal of benefit does come from such gatherings, but the situation could be improved measurably. This is especially true when a high percentage of people have a "creative" way of reading between the lines to find what they believe is the deeper meaning of Scripture. Of equal concern are those who resist any study, and insist on having a word from God in order to interpret what the Bible is saying to them.

What is the answer to our guesses about interpretation of any given passage? Are there some objective principles which will guide us in our accurate understanding of the text? Thankfully, there are some very sound principles that can help us. Interpretation is a process that applies certain hermeneutical principles to a given text, which in turn enables us to understand exactly the intention of the writer. That meaning is then put into clear, contemporary expressions, so it can be applied to our lives. This will not be easy.

Two principles of interpretation that should help us guard against misinterpretation are the following:

Study the Bible inductively—interpret the narrower context before the wider.

The narrower

A passage must first be understood from its immediate surroundings (context) before it's studied in the light of broader application to the Bible as a whole. Start with the smallest unit and move to the largest (chapter, etc.). A frequent error is to interpret a phrase without seeing it in the light of the verses and paragraph in which it is found. Another is to interpret a phrase by Paul on the basis of its use in John. We must realize that each biblical writer, like each of us, used language differently. In fact, most of us use words differently than we did 10 to 15 years ago.

The wider

This includes the paragraphs, sections, and chapters surrounding your passage. The narrow context must then be related to the rest of Scripture, the book, and the Testament context. The widest context is the social, historical, and geographical setting of the passage being studied. Thus, no part of Scripture can be interpreted in a way that will contradict the teaching of the whole of Scripture or its setting.

Concordance messages/studies that trace one word through Scripture, for example, are often inaccurate because they don't take into account the verses surrounding that word. The summary of this rule is: Scripture interprets Scripture. Not only do we have the Holy Spirit to help us mine and interpret the Scriptures, we have the Scriptures themselves.

"Scripture interprets Scripture has been called a circle. The whole of Scripture can be learned by interpreting its part by part. No man's attention span is so great that he can ingest the whole of Scripture at once. Yet no part can stand in isolation to the whole (or its historical and cultural context). So the interpreter must go from part to whole and from whole to part."—Hermeneutics by Bernard Ramm, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI., 1981, p. 24.

I call the process from part to whole and whole to part "the telescope/microscope balance." We need the close view as well as the big picture, for they balance each other out.

"It is crucial to interpret a phrase first by its use in its own immediate context, then by its use in the broader sphere of the major section of the work, then by its use in the book as a whole (check cross-references). Next, one may check the corpus of works by the same author. Only after that would one check the concept throughout the testament and then in the Bible as a whole"—Handbook for Bible Study, Grant R. Osborne and Stephen B. Woodward, Baker Book House, 1979, p. 154.

One of the most familiar traits of a sect or cult is that it takes an incidental passage of Scripture out of context and builds on it to form one of the cult's "pillars of truth." Let's view a few examples of what happens when we ignore the context, and how understanding it can enrich our interpretation. See the appendix insert for your own study:

The second umbrella principle is:

Important truths are not hidden—look for the simplest interpretation.

This principle is sometimes called the principle of literal interpretation. The definition most often quoted is one by Bernard Ramm.

"The literal interpretation as applied to any document is that view which adapts as the sense of a sentence, the meaning of that sentence in usual, or ordinary, or normal conversation or writing"—Ramm, ibid., pp. 3-28.

Two factors are involved in this principle:

The normal sense

This definition as it is applied to any document means that the interpretation will place its emphasis upon the natural, usual, ordinary, normal, proper and obvious meaning of words as they are used in that language. The literal method makes the assumption the writer is using his own language in a normal manner.

The one sense

Closely entwined with the normal sense is the one sense. This means that when a person has something to say, the expression he uses to convey those thoughts has one meaning. We should continue to emphasize what the 16th-century reformers affirmed. They called it perspicuity: the way of salvation plainly set forth so that the simplest believer may read and understand it for himself. Salvation is plainly available, so that everyone can come to Jesus and find life —John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:15. Martin Luther's assertion that the Bible meant what it said was a tremendous step forward for interpretation.

If we don't remember that important truths are not hidden and we should look for the simplest interpretation, we have the problem of the allegorical method. This method teaches that beneath the obvious meaning of Scripture there lies a hidden, symbolic meaning. It has been practiced in many ways since the medieval period. At one point in church history, in fact, some thought Scripture had four meanings: the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical. Interpretation was launched on a sea of subjectivity that led to some weird ports.

The literal sense of Scripture was defined as the plain and evident meaning. The moral sense was that which instructed men how to behave. The allegorical sense revealed the content of faith. The anagogical sense expressed future hope. Thus passages which mentioned Jerusalem, for example, were capable of four different meanings. The literal sense referred to the capital of Judea and the central sanctuary of the nation. The moral sense of Jerusalem was the soul of man (the "central sanctuary" of man). The allegorical meaning of Jerusalem was the soul of man (the center of the Christian community).

You can see why this one sense rule is needed! When a person has something to say, the expression he uses to convey those thoughts has one meaning. The implications are very important in Bible study—being able to stay away from fools' gold and concentrate on the precious stones of Scripture. We will be kept from majoring on the minors if we adhere to this rule.

This means that major doctrinal truths of our faith are plainly seen in Scripture and often repeated throughout the Bible. The important truths are not hidden in obscure passages or in figures of speech.

"Most people look for complex explanations. This is especially true of those who tend to allegorize Scripture or make fanciful and imaginative reconstructions of simple biblical texts. However, these seldom reflect the actual meaning intended by the writer. And, while this approach may entertain and provoke the audience, its danger is that there are no controls to ensure that the truth is being taught. Spiritualizing a text does not necessarily lead to spiritual truth" —Grant R. Osborne and Stephen B. Woodward, Handbook for Bible Study, Baker Book House, 1979, p. 155.

God is not trying to hide His truth from all but the wisest and the most diligent seeker. His purpose is to reveal, not conceal. The implicit, then, is to be interpreted by the explicit. That which is assumed to be implied in Scripture is to be interpreted in the light of passages that are fully developed and formulated.

In summary, we are to interpret the obscure in the light of the clear. R.C. Sproul says: "The basic rule is the rule of care. Careful reading of what the text is actually saying will save us from much confusion and distortion. No great knowledge of logic is necessary, just the simple application of common sense"—Knowing Scripture, R.C. Sproul, I.V.P., Downers Grove, IL, 1977, pp. 78-79.

Here's an example:

I have read many references to the fact that angels are sexless. Where does the Bible say that angels are sexless? The passage used to support this teaching is Mark 12:15, where Jesus explains that in heaven there will be no marrying or giving in marriage, but that we will be like the angels. That implies that angels do not marry, but it does not imply they are sexless. It is possible the angels could remain unmarried for other reasons than that they are sexless. We can't build a teaching on a possible implication, especially if the rest of Scripture does not confirm it.

Obviously this is not to say that the study of the text is unimportant. There are riches to be acquired for the diligent student, that will elaborate on and enhance the major teachings of the Scripture. Just keep everything in the light of the context. The passage can't be saying something the author did not intend. He had one meaning and one sense behind what he said.

 



Small Group and Personal Reflection Questions

  1. When your Bible study is dry, hard and seemingly unproductive, how can the words of Prov. 2:1-5 be an encouragement/challenge to you? Share a little silver you have mined from the Scripture, e.g., a favorite verse or section of Scripture that continues to bring you wonderful treasures.
  2. When you begin your study of Scripture, how do you relate to the Holy Spirit? If you are not pleased with your answer, how should you be relating to Him? Give Scriptures to bolster your answer.

Interpretation Section

Answer as many of the following questions as you have time

  1. One of the principles of interpretation is: interpret the narrow context before the wider. How does the parable of Matt. 18:12-14 relate to the wider context of Matt. 18:15-20 and vice versa? How might Matt. 18:23-35 relate to Matt. 18:12-22? Think of what might have sparked Peter's question in 18:21. What does this whole section, Matthew 18:12-35, say to you about God and His church?
  2. John 3:5 has caused a lot of controversy. Some have seen this verse as proof that a person must be baptized in water before they can be saved. Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." The principle of interpretation is that important truths are not hidden; look for the simple interpretation. Look at the context of John 3:5. What precedes and follows this verse? What is the simple explanation of what the water in verse 5 represents?
  3. The context of Mark 12:25 is that Jesus is explaining what heaven will be like. He says there will be no marrying or giving in marriage, but we will be like the angels. (Read the verse in context.) Some have used this reference to say that angels are sexless, but is that what this verse is saying? Looking for the simplest interpretation, what do you think this passage is saying about angels and us?
  4. The traditional interpretation of the Song of Songs/Solomon is that it is a picture of the relationship that exists between Christ and the church, His bride. Do you agree? How would the principle of the normal sense and the one sense impact the traditional approach to the Song of Songs? If you changed your interpretation from the traditional view, what value does the Song of Song have to the church/individuals today?

With Proverbs 2:1-5 as an encouragement to you, share a little silver you have mined from the Scripture, e.g., a favorite verse or section of Scripture that continues to bring you wonderful treasures.


Appendix

What Can Happen If We Ignore The Context?

  1. "A little child shall lead them . . ." Is. 11:6. What is the standard interpretation of this phrase? What does the context tell us?
  2. "The Lord watch between you and me . . ." Gen. 31:49 (KJV). What is the standard interpretation of this phrase? What does the context tell us?
  3. "No eye has seen, nor ear heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him"—1 Cor. 2:9. What is the common interpretation of this phrase? What does the context tell us about when this will take place?
  4. "For when two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them"— Matt. 18:20. What's the standard interpretation of this phrase? What does the context tell us? Note: Reason or cause is introduced by the word "for."
  5. "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my father in heaven"—Matt. 18:19. What's the standard application of this verse? What does the context tell us? What clues do "again" and "two of you" give us? Where does the context of verses 19 and 20 begin? What can we learn about the whole process listed in verses 15-17, if we see verses 18-20 as part of the same context?