QUICK CONTENT LINKS:
1. Let Scripture interpret Scripture.
2. The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph must be derived from the context.
3. Interpret the Scriptures knowing that the goal in interpretation is not to discover hidden, secret truths or to be unique in your interpretation.
4. Interpret the Scriptures literally unless you have good reason to believe that they are figurative.
5. Do not interpret Scripture in light of personal experience but interpret experience in the light of Scripture.
6. When interpreting the Scriptures, investigate the meanings of keywords in their original languages.
7. Interpret the Scriptures bearing in mind that many commands, directives, and duties were made to an individual and not all people.
8. Interpret the Scriptures bearing in mind that Biblical examples are authoritative only when supported by a command.
9. Interpret the Scriptures keeping in mind that Christians are living under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus, not the Old Covenant that God gave to Israel.
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15
Do you want to rightly handle the Word of God? Do you want to understand it correctly? Here are some guidelines and principles to help you do that.
There are some verses in the Bible that can be difficult to understand. Peter himself tells us that in 2 Peter 3:16, when he referred to Paul’s letters and said, “there are some things in them that are hard to understand.” So, what should we do when we encounter a passage or verse that is confusing? Rather than interpreting the text and inventing some doctrine based on an isolated text and maybe an incorrect understanding, I urge you to examine other passages of Scripture that speak of the same topic or issue. Those texts will often shed some light on the text you’re confused about. A correct interpretation of Scripture will always be consistent with the rest of the Scriptures.
When Jesus was fasting for 40 days, Satan came along and tempted Him. We see something interesting in that temptation. Satan knows the Word of God. He seeks to lead Jesus astray from God’s will by quoting Psalm 91:11.
Satan said . . .
“If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.””
Satan left out an important phrase from the original verse. He left out “in all Your [God’s] ways.” According to the psalmist, a person is protected only when he is following the Lord’s will. But Jesus replied by interpreting Scripture with Scripture. He quoted . . .
“You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”
Jesus used Scripture to interpret Scripture when He was tempted by the devil. By doing this, Jesus communicated to us that a passage of Scripture must be understood in the light of those clearer and more expressive Scriptures.
So, if the section of Scripture you seek to interpret seems difficult to understand, seek out clearer passages that speak on the same subject but more thoroughly.
With each of the guidelines I’ll be sharing with you, I’d like to show you how failing to follow the guideline has led to a variety of wrong interpretations. Let’s look at John 10. Notice that in v.15, Jesus said, “As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15). We might conclude, based on what Jesus says here, that the death He died on the cross was only for the sheep. And that is what some have concluded. There are Christians today who believe that Jesus’s death on the cross only paid the price for a select group. They call this teaching “Limited Atonement.” But we need to check Scripture with Scripture. When we do, what do we find? We find that Jesus died on the cross for everybody.
1 John 2:2 says . . .
“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
1 Timothy 2:6 says that Jesus “gave Himself a ransom for all.”
“Then,” someone might ask, “why are not all people saved?”
Because the forgiveness of sins does not occur until a person places his faith in Jesus (Acts 17:30; John 3:16; 1 John 5:12). Christ’s atonement is unlimited, but its application is limited only to those who believe. If a person insists on opposing God and rejecting Him, then what Christ did on the cross for that person will not be applied to him. God will not force His salvation upon somebody who does not want it.
John 3:16 says . . .
“Whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Unbelief is the reason some do not receive the benefits of Christ’s death.
So, be careful not to base your conclusions or build your interpretation of a Scripture on a single verse but on Scripture as a whole. Scripture is the best interpreter of itself. Because that is the case, the first commentary you should consult on a passage is what the rest of the Scriptures have to say on the topic being examined. Commentaries, concordances, indexes in the back of your Bible, and books on systematic theology can be very helpful in pointing out other verses on topics that you may be unfamiliar with.
So, the first guideline or principle for rightly dividing the Word: “Let Scripture interpret Scripture”—incredibly simple and yet so important to put into practice!
A second guideline or rule . . .
The context of a passage is absolutely critical to properly interpreting the Bible. Why? Well . . .
• Every word in the Bible is part of a verse
• Every verse is part of a paragraph
• Every paragraph is part of a book
• Every book is part of the whole of Scripture [Source]
Because that is the case, no verse of Scripture should be divorced from the verses around it.
Ron Rhodes points out that interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze:
– the President’s speech by listening to a short sound bite
– a painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting
– Handle’s “Messiah” by listening to a few short notes [Source]
Every word you interpret must be understood in the light of the words that come before and after it. Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for taking verses out of context. But so are some well-meaning Christians.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Let’s look at Colossians 3.
“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”
This verse is often quoted in studies about knowing the will of God. Why? Well, I’ve heard more than a few times that the word “rule” (v.15) in the Greek means “to arbitrate or to govern.” And that is correct. So, it has been said that we are to let the peace of God arbitrate or govern us as to our decision-making. How do we know the will of God? Some say:
– Having peace about something indicates God’s “green light.”
– Lacking peace about something indicates God’s “red light.”
But, hold on a second, is that what Paul was talking about in Colossians 3? Not at all. Let’s read the verse in its context.
Let’s start back in v.12.
12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”
Paul was not talking about decision-making or discerning the will of God at all! Paul was instructing them about unity in the body!
Notice, he talks about . . .
• “bearing with one another” (v.13)
• “forgiving one another” (v.13)
• “put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v.14)
Having “the peace of God” is to, as F .F. Bruce said, “rule in the sense of arbitrating [or governing] differences that arise in the body.” Rather than warring with one another, Christians are to forgive one another, love one another, and be at peace with one another.
How is that going to happen?
We are to “let the peace of God rule [our] hearts.” That’s what Paul was saying. It’s a mistake to take this verse out of context and use it as a proof text to support the teaching that says, “Having peace about something confirms whether or not something is God’s will for your life.”
Question for you. When God told Moses to go and tell Pharaoh, “Let My people go,” do you think Moses had peace about that? (Exodus 3–9). No. He was quite fearful wasn’t he? Did that mean going to Pharaoh wasn’t God’s will for his life? No.
How about Gideon? Did he have peace as he heard God’s will for his life regarding the Midianites (Judges 6:11f)? No, he was quite fearful, wasn’t he?
How about Jesus’s disciples out on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35–5:1)? Did they have peace about that? If anyone could be sure they were in the center of God’s will, it was those men. Jesus told them, “Let us go over to the other side” (Mark 4:35).
Christians are to have the peace of God that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7), but a lack of peace doesn’t confirm that something is not God’s will for us. A lack of peace may be because of unbelief, lack of faith, or our unwillingness to trust the Lord.
Isaiah 26:3 says . . .
“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.”
A lack of peace may simply indicate that a person needs to trust God or go to Him again in prayer. If Christians only moved out in faith when they had peace about things, I imagine there would be far fewer ventures of faith taking place, not to mention far less evangelism.
Another example of a verse that is often lifted out of context is Isaiah 53:5. You’ve probably heard someone pray something like, “Lord we know that you are going to heal this person because Your Word says, “by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5c).
Well, if you examine Isaiah 53, you’ll notice that it doesn’t have anything to do with physical healing. The passage is about what the Messiah’s death would do for our spiritual condition. He would be “pierced through for our transgressions . . . crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). So again, to rightly interpret God’s Word, you need to be careful to consider the context of the passage (that which has just been said and that which follows).
Another verse that is often misinterpreted (because the context is ignored) is Psalm 2:8 . . .
“Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.”
This verse has often been quoted by missionaries who speak of the conversions they anticipate on the mission field. And it does seem to have something to do with missionary activity. But let’s look at the context. It’s good to read the whole Psalm, but in this case, all you need to do is read verses 7–9 to see that this verse doesn’t have anything to do with missionary work.
Notice verse 9 . . .
“You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.’”
Huh? That doesn’t sound like missionary activity! Let’s back up and read verse 7 . . .
“I will declare the decree: the LORD has said to Me, [notice the capital “M”] ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.”
This is God the Father talking to the Son, “His Anointed” (Psalm 2:2, Hebrew: “Masiah”), a reference to the Messiah, or Jesus (see Acts 4:25–26 which quotes this verse), and describes future events when God is going to set His Son upon the Earth as the King who will judge and rule over all.
So be careful to understand the context. That often requires reading a passage more than once.
God has given us His Word in order to reveal Himself.
– It is not a book of dark mysteries and riddles; it is a book of self-disclosure.
– He is not a God of confusion but of clarity.
– He has not spoken to conceal but to be understood and known.
Therefore, when we come to His Word, we need to realize that it’s the plain meaning of the text that we are seeking to understand. We need not look for hidden, esoteric, cryptic truths. God has preserved His Word to speak to the multitudes of ordinary people so that they might be saved. So, don’t pass up the obvious and natural meaning of a text, looking for something “unique” and “deep.”
“Unique” and “deep” interpretations of the Bible—ones you’ve never heard any solid Bible teacher share—are usually wrong. So be careful. It can be tempting for some students to find things in the Bible that none of their friends or pastors have ever seen. But if you’re discovering things like that, you can be pretty sure you’re making the Scriptures say things that were never intended by the original authors. Unique interpretations are usually wrong.
This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that unique interpretation should not be your aim. [Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 14]
Your goal is to discover the plain, simple, straightforward meaning of the text, the meaning the original author intended to communicate.
Throughout church history, there have been people who have believed Scripture has hidden, secret, mystical meanings underneath the plain and obvious meaning of the text. That is, they believe that although the Scriptures say one thing, they actually signify something else, something other than what is written.
Some of the early church fathers (men like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome) believed that every Scripture had two, three, or even four or five interpretations. Their influence led to the widespread medieval belief that every verse of Scripture had numerous meanings.
Many of the early church fathers were influenced in this direction by the Greek philosophers who did this with the writings of Homer and Hesiod. This method (or approach) to interpreting the Bible is called the “allegorical method.” Someone who employs this method will say things like, “In this passage of Scripture, this (fill in the blank) ______ represents ______ , and ______ represents ______, and basically, this whole story is really just a picture of __________.” They turn a passage of Scripture into a spiritual parable, a story with a deeper meaning. There are hundreds of examples of well-known teachers throughout church history who have done this. Here are some examples. Teachers have said . . .
• Jacob’s wife, Leah, represents the Jews, while his other wife, Rachel, represents the church, and Jacob represents Jesus, who serves both (Genesis 29)
• As Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands, it was an Old Testament picture of Christ on the cross
• The twelve stones taken from the Jordan River represent the 12 apostles
• The field in the book of Ruth is really a reference to the Bible. Ruth represents students. The reapers in the field represent teachers
• The Red Sea symbolizes the atoning blood of Christ
• The five kings who attacked Gibeon in Joshua chapter 10 represent the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
Why is allegorizing and spiritualizing the Scriptures dangerous?
First, allegorized interpretations are not based on anything objective. They can’t be verified. They are based solely on the subjective preferences and whims of the interpreter’s imagination. This becomes obvious when you hear another person teach the same passage, and he has an entirely different twist on the story. One person says that such and such a thing represents ______ , while another person says it really represents ______. This is one of the reasons allegorized interpretations are dangerous. There are no guidelines or boundaries. You can get the Bible to say whatever you want! And false prophets do that very thing.
Second, a spiritualization of the Scriptures doesn’t have any authority. I’ve heard some teachers say some things, and I’ve wanted to stand up and say, “How do you know that!? Show us how you’ve come to your conclusions. Show me in the Word.” If it can’t be shown in the Word of God, then the words of a preacher lose their authority.
This allegorical method of interpretation dominated most of Christian history. It was not until the time of the Reformation during the 1500–1600s that there was a major turning away from this approach to interpreting the Bible. Men like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, and John Knox saw the dangers and the problems with this method and took a stand for a literal method of Bible interpretation.
John Calvin said that allegorical interpretations were “frivolous games” and that to interpret the Word in that way was to torture the Scriptures. (Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 47, online source)
Martin Luther strongly denounced this method. He said . . .
When I was a monk, I was an expert in allegories. I allegorized everything. . . . I consider the ascription of several senses to Scripture to be not merely dangerous and useless for teaching but even to cancel the authority of Scripture whose meaning ought to be always one and the same. . . . Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture. (Source)
Martin Luther became a strong advocate instead for a literal method—a method in which the only meaning that one may ascribe to the text is that which the author intended, as one is able to reconstruct it in the historical context and with ordinary rules of grammar.
These men’s rejection of the allegorical approach to Scripture was revolutionary! And it was because of them that the allegorical stronghold on the church began to crumble. And from that point forward, much of the church has gone back to interpreting the Word of God literally.
Now, why do we believe that interpreting the Word of God literally is actually the way God desires that we interpret it?
There are a couple of reasons. The best reason, though, is that Jesus consistently interpreted the Word of God literally. Whether it was the Old Testament account of . . .
• the Creation account of Adam and Eve (Matthew 13:35; 25:34; Mark 10:6)
• Noah’s Ark and the flood (Matthew 24:38–39; Luke 17:26–27)
• Jonah and the great fish (Matthew 12:39–41)
• Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15)
• or the account of Lot and his wife (Luke 17:28–29)
Jesus and the New Testament authors consistently interpreted these stories literally as actual historical events. So, if Jesus and the New Testament authors interpreted the Bible literally, then we must also. There were no esoteric, mystical, allegorical, or spiritualized interpretations!
Now, when we talk about the need to interpret the Scriptures literally, that does not mean we are ignorant of the use of certain grammatical devices (similes, personification, metaphors, symbolic language, etc.)
1 Peter 5:8 says . . .
“Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
It’s clear that Peter is using a figure of speech (a simile). He’s comparing the devil to a lion. It does tell us something very literal about the nature and purpose of the devil.
When Jesus said He was “the vine” (John 15:1) and His disciples were “the branches,” He was speaking figuratively. That’s easy to discern. But there are times when it is less obvious that the author is speaking metaphorically or figuratively. How are we to determine whether something is figurative or literal?
Well, there are usually some clues in the text. And I hope to talk about those clues in an upcoming article.
But don’t read into the text things that were not intended by the original author. Let the text speak for itself rather than reading into the text things that aren’t there.
When you approach the Scriptures, keep in mind that what a passage means was fixed by the author and is not subject to alteration. Your goal is to discover the author’s intended meaning, the only true meaning. A text cannot mean what it never meant. Meaning is determined by an author; it is discovered by the reader.
Robert Stein, author of A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, said this:
To treat a text in complete isolation from its author’s intended purpose is like stealing a patent from its inventor or a child from the parent who gave it birth . . . To take it [the text] and place upon it our own meaning is a kind of plagiarism. There is a sense in which we have stolen what belongs to someone else. A text is like a “will” the author leaves for his or her heirs. It is mischievous to interpret such a will and ignore the intention of its author. [Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Playing by the Rules, p.22]
It is common for Bible study leaders in small groups to go around the circle after reading a passage of Scripture and ask the people, “What does this verse mean to you, Steve?”
Steve says, “To me, this verse means _____.”
And the leader will say, “Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t heard that before. What does this verse mean to you, Lisa?”
Lisa says, “To me, this verse means something entirely different __________.” And she goes on to give an entirely different interpretation.
“Wow, that really blesses me,” someone else says.
Well, the question the leader asked (“What does this mean to you?”) is not a question that really matters. The question that matters is, “What does this verse mean?” Period.
A better question for the study leader to ask would be, “How does this verse apply to you.” There are many ways of applying a Scripture, but there is still only one correct meaning for each passage. That is the author’s intended meaning. That is the meaning that we are after.
5. Do not interpret Scripture in light of personal experience but interpret experience in the light of Scripture.
Your personal experiences—no matter how spiritual they may seem—must be taken to the Scriptures and interpreted, never the other way around. It’s a mistake to say, “Because I have had such and such an experience, the following must be true.” That is not a reliable means of interpreting the Bible.
I have heard some Christians say that everyone should speak in tongues. If you ask them “Why?” a typical response seems to be . . .
“Well, for a long time, I couldn’t speak in tongues, but I kept praying, really pleading with the Lord, you know, to help me to speak in tongues. He answered my prayer, and now I can! And the same thing happened to my friend.”
That person is interpreting Scripture in light of their experience and not their experience in light of Scripture. That person needs to read 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 and conform their beliefs to what the Bible says about the topic, not vice-versa. The Bible makes it clear that the gift of tongues is a gift that God distributes “as He wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11) and that “all do not speak with tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:30).
Or there is the Christian who has had lots of problems financially because he was irresponsible with credit cards. So he cuts up the credit cards, works hard, and pays off all of his debt. He is now free from debt. In his quiet time, he reads Romans 13:8, which says, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”
After reading that, he’s convinced that no one should ever own another credit card. And then, he begins to share his view that Christians should not have credit cards. And to prove his point, he reads this verse and then shares his own story.
Well, he has broken an important rule of interpretation. This man has interpreted the Bible not in light of the rest of Scripture or the immediate context but in the light of his own experience. This verse does not forbid the proper use of credit cards; it underscores the Christian’s obligation to love in all interpersonal relationships. A Christian should never fall short, and so be “in debt” in loving others (see the context of Romans 13:7–10).
So again, this guideline, “Do not interpret Scripture in light of personal experience but interpret experience in the light of Scripture.”
Now, of course, experience is valuable. Personal experiences that line up with the Word are great; They offer secondary evidence that Bible is true. But we don’t want to formulate doctrine on experience. Our beliefs need to be grounded in the Word of God.
There are several excellent English translations of the Bible (e.g., ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV). But if you are teaching the Bible to others and are able to do some in-depth study of the Bible, it will often prove beneficial to spend some time examining the original languages yourself, even if you don’t know Hebrew or Greek. And I’ll let you know of some great books that will help you do that in just a moment. But why is this important?
The meanings of words are sometimes diminished slightly or even obscured when translated into another language.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 2:14 (in the NKJV), Paul says . . .
“But the natural man [speaking of the person who has not been born again] does not receive [some translations (NASB, NIV) say “accept”] the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, [some translations (NASB, NIV) say “understand them”] because they are spiritually discerned.”
There are some Christians who believe, based on their understanding of this verse, that the unsaved are so depraved, so dead in their sin, that they cannot even understand the words of Scripture. You’ve probably heard this verse interpreted that way. Well, friend, that is not what Paul was saying.
Notice the word “receive” in verse 14. It’s the Greek word dechomai, which means “to welcome.” An unsaved person, devoid of the indwelling Holy Spirit, may perfectly well understand what the Bible says, but he rejects its message, refusing to welcome it or act on it.
But you might say, “Hold on a second, Charlie! The text says that he cannot know them [or “understand them” NASB].”
Well, when you look up the word “know” (v. 14), you find out that it’s the Greek word ginosko. It does not mean that a person cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit intellectually; it means that they cannot know the things of the Spirit by experience. The reason the unsaved don’t experience the things of the Spirit of God isn’t because they don’t understand the Word, but because they do understand it but do not welcome it.
So, it’s important to investigate the meanings of keywords in their original languages. How can you do that? Here are some excellent Greek and Hebrew dictionaries and word study books:
• Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words
• Word Studies in the Greek New Testament by Kenneth Wuest
• Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon
• The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates
If you went over to someone’s house and saw a note on the door that said, “Come in and sit on the bench,” what would you do? Would you go in? Probably not. It’s more likely that you’d stand there and wonder, “Are these instructions for me or someone else?”
This is a good question as you study the Bible.
Let’s look for a moment at Matthew 19:21. Jesus told a “young man” (v. 20) “who owned much property” (v. 22) . . .
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
There was a young man years ago in our college and career ministry who was telling people that this verse applied to all of us and that if we weren’t heeding Jesus’s words, we were not “perfect” before God, etc. But, of course, it was a mistake to thrust that upon people as a directive or ideal that all are to live by. Why?
Jesus’s instructions were given to a certain individual and find no other New Testament backing. And we find clear instructions elsewhere in Scripture of what our view of riches should be. Paul tells Timothy . . .
1 Timothy 6:17–19
“Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.”
Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “Go and sell all that you own and give the money to the poor!” A careful student will search the Bible for validation that a command such as this is obligatory for all times and not just for a particular individual.
As you read through the Bible, it becomes obvious that God could not possibly want us to follow all the examples we read about. Why? Well, several of the people written about in the Bible provide us with terrible examples. I think of Samson’s behavior with Delilah, David’s murder of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba, Peter’s denial of Jesus, etc. God would never want us to follow those examples. But what about the better examples in the Scriptures? Are we required to follow those? Not unless there is a teaching or command telling us that we should.
Think about this. Jesus was and is God incarnate, the perfect man. If ever there was a life worth emulating, it was His. As we look at His life, though, we quickly see that it is not necessary to follow all of His examples. Jesus wore a long robe and sandals. He usually walked. When he used a particular mode of transportation other than walking, it was a donkey. He never married. He never left the country of His birth (except when Joseph and Mary took Him on a short trip to Egypt to escape King Herod and a short trip to Syro-Phonecia).
Of course, it is not necessary that we follow these examples. Regarding singleness, the Bible commends marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and even refers to marriage as an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:25f). So Christians need not remain single, even though Jesus was. Jesus’s example of singleness could serve as an encouragement to someone who is single. The fact that Jesus was single is Biblical support that not everyone must be married, but it’s not an example that Christians have to follow.
But what about Jesus’s holiness and love, and compassion for people? Are we to follow those examples? Yes! Why? Because there is clear teaching that this is God’s will for us. Regarding holiness, Peter said . . .
1 Peter 1:15
“Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.”
Regarding loving others, Jesus said . . .
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So, there is clear instruction here and elsewhere regarding holiness and loving others. And the way Jesus lived is a great example to us of what that looks like.
So, as you seek to rightly divide God’s Word, be careful not to turn examples into commandments, as many have done. Just because someone in the Bible does something does not mean that we ought to do it too.
Proponents of homosexuality have often said, “You Christians ignore Old Testament laws forbidding the eating of pork and shellfish (Leviticus 11:7–12) and wearing clothing of mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19). It’s blatantly inconsistent for you to cling to its stance on homosexuality!”
Well, in response to this criticism, it’s not inconsistent at all. Those who raise this objection overlook the fact that certain regulations and laws in the Old Testament regarding diet, the blending of fabrics, holy days and feasts, the priesthood, and the tabernacle (and later temple), were given solely “to the children of Israel” not humanity at large (Leviticus 11:1–2). There is not a single instance in the Bible of God’s displeasure or judgment coming down on a foreign nation for disobeying Old Testament dietary regulations or laws governing temple sacrifices or the priesthood. We never read of an Egyptian, an Assyrian, or a Moabite being condemned for missing Passover or for eating shellfish. And, with the coming of the Messiah, and the instituting of the New Covenant, God has repealed certain regulations and laws governing diet, Israel’s temple worship, and sacrificial system.
For example, Jesus declared “all foods clean” (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:15). Paul said nothing is to be viewed as ceremonially unclean if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4). Holy days have been rendered optional (Romans 14:5–6). The entire sacrificial system centered around the temple, with priests and sacrifices, has been superseded (Hebrews 7:1–10:18). Why no more sacrifices? Why no more temple? Because they’re not necessary. Jesus was humanity’s “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10) final sacrifice for sins. All the Old Testament sacrifices were “only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1)—a foreshadowing of what God would accomplish through His Son’s death. With Jesus’s death, God tore the curtain open in the temple, signifying a new way of relating to Him that no longer involves daily sacrifices, the temple, the priesthood, and so on. Hebrews 8–10 and Galatians 3 make that clear.
So those are a couple of the reasons why we are at liberty today to eat shellfish and pork:
• Certain regulations in the Old Testament were never binding on Gentile nations
• Jesus ushered in a new covenant wherein He declared all foods clean
So, knowing this, the student of the Scriptures, the pastor-teacher, must be careful when teaching through the Old Testament not to put people under Old Covenant obligations. The results could prove fatal!
I was recently reading the Book of Deuteronomy, so this is an example that jumps to mind. Deuteronomy 13:1–5 states that the Israelites were to put false prophets (that arose among them) to death. Read it sometime. That is clearly what the passage indicates and what God commanded. But someone who is unfamiliar with how to rightly handle (or divide) the Word (2 Timothy 2:15) could mistakenly encourage Christians today to put false prophets to death. And what a mistake that would be!
There is no New Covenant instruction commanding us to put false prophets to death. According to New Testament instruction, we are to submit to the governments we live under (Romans 13:1–7), and it is unlawful (in most places) to put people to death for religious disagreements. And under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus, Christians are commanded to defend the religious liberty of others (see Jesus’s parable of the tares and the wheat in Matthew 13:24–30, where the servants are told by the landowner to leave the tares alone until the judgment). God will deal with the false prophets.
Lewis Chafer and John Walvoord, former Dallas Theological Seminary professors, who are now with the Lord, rightly said . . .
Only those portions of the Scriptures which are directly addressed to the child of God under grace are to be given a personal or primary application. . . . while there are spiritual lessons to be drawn from every portion of the Bible, it does not follow that the Christian is appointed by God to conform to those governing principles which were the will of God for people of other dispensations. (Chafer and Walvoord, Major Bible Themes, 127)
Someone might ask, “Then why do we teach through these Law passages in the Old Testament?”
Well, of course, “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). So, there is tremendous value in studying the Old Testament.
And even those laws that were never intended to govern Gentiles or the Church provide us with valuable insights and lessons that we can apply to our lives today. For example, the passage in Deuteronomy 13:1–5, where the Israelites were instructed to put false prophets to death, reminds us that God hates lies that mislead His people. It clearly communicates to us that false teachers are dangerous, and if that is the case, we should be careful not to allow false teachings to influence us. How? By stoning false teachers? No. The apostles countered false prophets by proclaiming and defending the truth (Philippians 1:16; Jude 1:3–23), warning the people about them (2 Peter 2:1f; 1 John 4:1f), and not allowing false teachers to have any influence inside the churches (home congregations mentioned in 2 John 1:7–11).
So again, this hermeneutical principle: “Interpret the Scriptures keeping in mind that Christians are living under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus, not the Old Covenant that God gave to Israel.”
I’ll continue to add to this article as I have time. There are more guidelines I’m excited to share with you.
CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL
is an itinerant Christian apologist, the founder of ABR, and the author of several books and videos, some of which include:
• Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
• One-Minute Answers to Skeptics
• Dakota Knox & the Archaeology Thief + Dakota Knox: London, Love, & Terror + Dakota Knox: Nightmare at the Museum
• The Bible’s Scientific Accuracy and Foresight
• Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
• Evidence for God
• The Case for Christianity
• Answering Atheists
• The Case for the Resurrection
• If God is Loving, Why is there Evil and Suffering?
• Homosexuality and the Bible: Answering Objections to the Biblical View
• Teaching and Preaching God’s Word
• Apologetics Quotes
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Charlie Campbell speaks at churches and conferences throughout the year. If you're a pastor and would like him to speak at your church or event, please contact ABR here and let us know.