A Matter of Interpretation?

Bible says

A young mother had been too busy to visit her elderly neighbor, who was ill. She said to her small son, “Johnny, run over and see how ‘old Mrs. Smith’ is.” Within a few minutes, the boy was back. “She says it’s none of your business how old she is.” (1001 Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, Michael Hodgin)

Johnny must have interpreted his mother to say one thing but she meant it another way. This sort of thing happens all the time, doesn’t it? We say something to someone but they interpret it another way. Usually, it results in confusion and, sometimes, strife.

It is no different when Christians have opposing views on the Scriptures. I remember oftentimes discussing a specific Bible verse with someone and the person will say, “It depends on how you interpret it.” In other words, that person is saying it doesn’t really matter what the truth is but what you think about it that counts. But will that kind of attitude bring us any closer to the true meaning of a Bible passage? And won’t that just bring confusion and, perhaps, strife over it?

Yes, we can agree to disagree just for the sake of maintaining love, civility and mutual respect. But there can only be one truth and, therefore, one faith for building the kind of unity taught in God’s Word (Ephesians 4:1-6). In fact, wasn’t this the goal of the early church leaders? The Apostle Paul said to the church of Ephesus:

…till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ… (Ephesians 4:13-16).

Whenever we study the Bible, and want to come up with the truth of a word or passage, we need to be very careful not to let our own bias or personal preferences interfere with the meaning. What we want to believe about a certain teaching or subject and what it is actually saying has to be closely considered whenever we search the Scriptures. There is such a thing as “interpretive bias,” as author, Michael Hodgin, has illustrated:

Whenever we interpret Scripture, we tend to lean toward our own bias. We need to recognize the reality of such biases that we all have. I like the story I read in Sunday Sermons about the driver of a tour bus in Nashville, Tennessee. The driver was pointing out the sights of the Civil War Battle of Nashville. He said, “Right over here a small group of Confederate soldiers held off a whole Yankee brigade.” A little farther along he said, “Over there a young Confederate boy, all by himself, fought off a Yankee platoon.” This went on and on until finally, a member of the tour group asked, “Didn’t the Yankees win anything in the battle of Nashville?” The bus driver replied, “Not while I’m the driver of this bus, they didn’t.” (ibid.)

It is imperative that any student of the Bible not allow outside influences to distort the actual meaning of Scripture. What you’ve always been taught by your parents, or your church’s creed, or your Sunday School teacher, or college professor, or even your preacher or priest has to be weighed against what you are reading and studying for yourself. It may just be that what you are discovering through your own studies may not agree with the traditional views others have given you. Remember what it says in Second Peter 1:19 through 21. Scripture must interpret itself.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible that I’ve used as a guideline for interpreting Scripture is Second Timothy 2:15, where the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth,” (King James Version, KJV). The Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC) puts this verse in context with verses 14 and 16 and states the text this way:

(14) Remind [the people] of these facts and [solemnly] charge them in the presence of the Lord to avoid petty controversy over words, which does no good but upsets and undermines the faith of the hearers. (15) Study and be eager and do your utmost to present yourself to God approved (tested by trial), a workman who has no cause to be ashamed, correctly analyzing and accurately dividing [rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth. (16) But avoid all empty (vain, useless, idle) talk, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness. (vss. 14-16)

I cannot over emphasize the need to study God’s Word on your own and see if you come up with same conclusions as others. This is what the Berean Christians were commended for. In Acts 17:10-12 it says,

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. (New American Standard Bible, NASB)

As I’ve pointed out, when studying God’s inspired Word, one must approach it diligently and allow it to speak for itself. This includes going to the original languages in which it was written (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic), understanding the culture, customs, and history of the time, and taking everything into context what was written. It’s also advisable that you use Bible translations which come closer to the original text rather than paraphrases which are basically modernized versions of what translators think it says. Commentaries are okay to an extent but I believe you must still be somewhat objective with a little bit of skepticism added in until you can see proof of what is being asserted.

All of this might sound too overwhelming for some. But you don’t have to have a degree in Theology or a be an expert in linguistics to understand God’s Word. There a many more resources to consult now that we have access to computers and other technology tools in addition to books. And be assured. God has revealed his Word in such a way that even the most simple-minded person can read it and absorb it into one’s life. In Psalm 119:130 it says, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.” Through Christ, God wants us to know his truth so that we can apply it for our spiritual growth as we serve him and prepare for his Kingdom (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 4:1-8).

Here’s Amy Grant singing, “Thy Word”: http://youtu.be/M_3Ad3Q4Rrk

Good News to YOU!
Pastor Michael

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