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Bible study: Interpretation practice

HERMENEUTICS COMES from a Greek word that means “to interpret.” Therefore, hermeneutics refers to the study of biblical interpretation, determining the meaning the writer intended for the original reader. We interpret the Bible using the “historical-grammatical” method of interpretation. Historical means that we take the Bible in a historical, literal sense that is consistent with the text. Grammatical means that the words are understood according to the obvious sense they convey in normal language usage.
As the Q&A article stated, the Bible gives us one correct interpretation. Imagine that you took a British literature course and you studied Shakespeare’s plays. After taking the essay test, you receive a D because you did not correctly interpret the author’s meaning. Do you think it would work to say to the teacher, “I think you should change my grade because you may have your interpretation, but this is my interpretation”? No, the teacher would insist that you got it wrong! You are still getting a D. It does not work in British literature, and it does not work with the Bible.
The principles we use to interpret other works of literature are the same principles we use to interpret the Bible, with one exception. We approach biblical interpretation with the presupposition that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word and that the focal point is Jesus.
  • Consider the immediate and wider context
  • Take the Bible literally according to its genre
  • Let Scripture interpret Scripture
  • Ask, “How does God get the glory?”
Below are seven common interpretations of various passages. Using each of the four principles of Bible interpretation for each example, give an answer for why those interpretations are incorrect. You may need to do some searching in your Bible to find the parallel passages that apply. I have given you a passage reference so that you can dig into the immediate context.
  • Acts 16:31 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Therefore, faith is something you need to do.
  • Revelation 20:4 talks about believers reigning with Jesus for one thousand years, so we know millennialism is correct.
  • Revelation 7:4 talks about 144,000 going to heaven—the number is fixed.
  • Matthew 25:35 says that Jesus will look at our good works to determine whether we will be in heaven or not. Therefore, we are saved by good works.
  • 1 Peter 3:21 is simply saying that Baptism, like the flood, are symbols. Symbols don’t actually “do” anything.
  • Genesis 1 is just a story to help us understand our world. It didn’t happen in six days. It took billions of years.
  • Jesus was merely using a figure of speech when he said, “This is my body/blood” in the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-28).

Some possible answers:

  • Acts 16:31 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Therefore, faith is something you need to do!

Consider the context. The jailor asked, “What must I do?” Paul and Silas’ answer was to say that you don’t need to “do” anything, simply cling to what has already been done by Jesus! Scripture interprets Scripture. Ephesians 2:8,9 rules out works for salvation and calls it a gift. Even faith is a gift. 1 Corinthians 12:3 says that faith is the work of the Holy Spirit. Finally, God is robbed of the glory of giving us the gift of faith.

  • Revelation 20:4 talks about believers reigning with Jesus for one thousand years, so we know millennialism is correct.

The genre is apocalyptic literature and full of figures of speech. This teaching would contradict Scripture. The clear sections on the Last Day (Matthew 24 & 25 and 1 Thessalonians 4) rule out this interpretation. The immediate context is important here as well. Read Revelation 20:1-6. Watch for a more complete discussion of this chapter next month.

  • Revelation 7:4 talks about 144,000 going to heaven—the number is fixed.

Look at verse 9. Suddenly John couldn’t count this number (immediate context). In addition, this is apocalyptic literature and is figurative, including the numbers, as is evidenced from the listing of the 12 tribes (which is unlike any listing in the Old Testament) in verses 5-8.

  • Matthew 25:35 says that Jesus will look at our good works to determine whether we will be in heaven or not. Therefore, we are saved by good works.

Romans 3:28 (and many others) make it clear we are not justified by our works. The immediate context is important here. Notice what Jesus doesn’t list in the believer’s list: no mention of sin. Why? Because we are cleansed in the blood of Jesus. When I wake up and get my kid something to drink, half of me does it because I love Jesus and my child, but the other half does it so I can go to sleep. That “good work” was tainted with sin, but Jesus washed that sin away so that all that remains is the good work. This is simply evidence of faith as James says. I can’t “see” faith except by what I do. Notice the unbelievers never did a good work. It’s not that they didn’t feed and give water to their kids. It’s only the sin that remains, making the work evil. “I was hungry and you didn’t give me something to eat.” Plus, God gets robbed of the glory of accomplishing our salvation from start to finish.

  • 1 Peter 3:21 is simply saying that Baptism, like the flood, are symbols. Symbols don’t actually ”do” anything.”

Titus 3:5 shows clearly that Baptism saves. This passage, too, shows the power of Baptism. The symbol is not Baptism, rather the flood is a symbol of the cleansing of Baptism that saves us! Plus, God gets robbed of the glory he wants to give in Baptism.

  • Genesis 1 is just a story to help us understand our world. It didn’t happen in six days. It took billions of years.

The genre is clearly narrative and should be read as history. Where does the history start if this is figurative? What is the marker? Jesus accepted the six-day creation (context of Scripture). Finally, why couldn’t God have done it in six days? To say he couldn’t robs him of glory.

  • Jesus was merely using a figure of speech when he said, “This is my body/blood” in the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-28).

1 Corinthians 11 speaks of the Lord’s Supper as Jesus true body and blood (context). This was Jesus’ last will and testament as he was about to give his life the next day. The whole point of a will is to speak clearly. A lawyer wouldn’t let you put figures of speech in your will! Again, God gets robbed of the glory of giving us himself for our forgiveness in this sacrament.

Author: David Scharf
Volume 108, Number 8
Issue: August 2021

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David Scharf

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