Posts Tagged 'Hermeneutics'

How to become a Bible Scholar, Part 1


The Bible is the most amazing book ever written.  Or, more accurately, it is a collection of the most amazing and influential writings ever compiled.  The laws of entire nations have been based on the Bible.  The Bible changes lives.  It gives comfort during times of sorrow and it gives hope when it seems like all is lost.   According to sales figures, the Bible consistently outsells all other books of all genres, and yet to many who hold it dear and cherish it, the Bible is a mystery; it is viewed as a book of hidden meanings and secret codes.  To some, the Bible is like a supernatural talisman that only the most holy of men can understand; it’s meaning far beyond the grasp of normal people.

Unfortunately, many people who hold these views are Christians, the very people for whom the Bible was written!  But is the Bible a book of mystery?   Not according to one of its most prolific contributors, Paul the Apostle.  He wrote this piece of advice to a young pastor—

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.


This sage counsel is good for other people, too, not just for pastors.  If we are to “rightly divide the word of truth,” we must first study.  To “study” is not necessarily a spiritual activity; it means putting to work our God-given mental faculties in order to grasp the simple, plain meaning of God’s revelation to man called the Bible.  A lazy Christian will never understand the Bible because to “study” means work and effort.  God does not drill a hole in the top of our skulls through which He  pours the Bible.  God wants His people to study; if you don’t study, you don’t learn.  This is a common sense proposition, and God always addresses Himself to our common sense and to our intelligence.  He spoke through the prophet Isaiah—

Come now, let us reason together.   (Isaiah 1:18)

In other words, let’s endeavor to find out what God is saying to us.


The one who is to study the Bible is compared to a “workman,” a skilled professional with the right tools in his hands, building a clear understanding of the Word of God that will meet with God’s approval, bringing him commendation, not condemnation.  A “workman” denotes a profession as well as a professional.  The believer is to devote himself to diligently his primary concern:  knowing what God is saying to Him.

Rightly divide

What is the “workman” to do?  Again, according to Paul, he is to “rightly divide” the word of truth.  That interesting phrase comes from the world of agriculture, and means to “make a straight cut,” and plowing a straight furrow.   If the workman is a mason, he cuts his stones square, if he is a tentmaker, like Paul was from time to time, he cuts his cloth the right size.   For we who are called to study the Bible, it means being able to come up with the correct interpretation and a proper exegesis of Scripture.

Word of truth

Paul refers to the Bible as “the word of truth,” and yet many preachers and teachers handle it in a most deceitful manner.  In 2 Corinthians 4:2, he wrote that he and his colleagues never handled the Bible like that—

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

The phrase, “we do not distort the word of God,” comes from a Greek verb which means “to catch with bait” or “to ensnare,” “to corrupt with error.”  In Paul’s day, false teachers and preachers were constantly distorting the Bible and he constantly had to write letters defending the truthful interpretation he left with the people.  Today, as in New Testament days, it seems like Christians are far more likely to believe a wrong interpretation rather than the right one.  Down through the centuries, false preachers and prophets have come and gone, leaving their destructive teachings behind.

Peter indirectly teaches that only “ignorant and unstable” people distort Scripture—

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.

Notice what Peter says; some of what Paul wrote, though full of wisdom, was “hard to understand.”  No wonder “ignorant” or “unlearned” people so easily distorted it.  Twisting and distorting the Scriptures is a dangerous thing to do, according to Peter.

As we approach the Word of Truth to study it as a skillful workman, we need to lay aside all our preconceived opinions, notions and prejudices, for they have no place in process of study.

1.  Three pitfalls to be avoided

At the outset, we need to point out the three very conspicuous pitfalls every serious Bible student needs to steer clear of:

  • Misinterpreted Scripture.   The classic example is 2 Chronicles 7:14—

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

This verse has been so misused over the years, the average Christian has no idea what it really means; most think it is some kind of promise made to Christians that if they pray for their country, their country will prosper.

While we affirm the power of prayer, and we believe that forgiveness is a Biblical doctrine, and this verse is a powerful illustration of that and it is an excellent example to follow, the fact is this verse was written almost 500 years before Christ was born, it was not written to the Church and America was not the nation God had in his mind.   This verse was part of God’s response to Solomon’s prayer dedicating his temple.  Verse 13 is never read, although maybe it should be, because it is somewhat disconcerting for the modern Christian to comprehend—

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people…

Bad times were coming, and in some respect they had already come, and God’s promise to Solomon was that when He sent these hard times, if the people did what He admonished them to do in verse 14, He would honor them.  This promise has nothing whatsoever to do with us and we have no right to use 2 Chronicles 7:14 in a deceitful manner.

  • Misapplied Scripture.  This was very common during the early Church, when the early Church Fathers had a curious tendency to spiritualize portions of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  They gave “spiritual” meanings to verses that were totally different than the clear and literal sense.  Generally, they taught that God  had cast of Israel and replaced Israel with the Church and that all the promises made to Israel now belong to the Church.  In other words, “Zion” is a spiritual term for “the Church.”   The “Church” is the spiritual “Israel.”  This kind of sloppy exegesis seems be very popular in pentecostal/charismatic circles and, though called the “spiritualization of Scripture,” there is nothing spiritual or godly about it.
  • Dislocated Scripture.  Peter writes about the great earth changes that will occur sometime in the future in 2 Peter 3:10—14.  Terrible and awesome things will happen when the earth is changed by fire, resulting in a new heaven and a new earth completely inhabited by righteousness.  But when will this happen?  Some Bible teachers make the mistake of placing these events right after the present dispensation of grace.  However, that is a glaring dislocation, for it gives no place for the Millennium, the restoration of the Jews, and the reign of Christ on the throne of David.  Yet despite the plethora of Old Testament prophecies to the contrary, large segments of the Church hold to the erroneous view of 2 Peter 3:10—14.

2.  Literal, Figurative, or Representative?

As we study the Bible, we need to learn how to distinguish between language that is literal (that is, we take what we read at face value) and that which is figurative and/or representative.

Passages that should be taken literally should be read in a plain, common sense obvious manner without searching for deeper or hidden meanings.  Luke 1:31—33 is an example of a literal portion of Scripture; there are no hidden meanings or deeper, hidden spiritual meanings in it.  These three verses teach in a matter-of-fact way that Jesus Christ was to be born of a virgin, He would be called the Son of God, He was to be the heir to the throne of His father David in the flesh, and that He would reign on that literal throne over the descendants of Jacob.

In contrast to that, there are other passages in the Bible that are not to be taken literally.  These portions of Scripture use a kind of language that is not literal, but rather figurative or symbolic.  For example, in Hebrews 4:7 we read this—

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

That verse does not mean that we can literally make our hearts hard, but it is a warning to make sure our “inner man” is kept open to the moving of the Spirit of God.  In John 10:9, Jesus refers to Himself as “the door.”  We know Jesus wasn’t a door, but a man.  What He was teaching was that He was the entrance into the realm of eternal life.  In John 6:48, Jesus called Himself “the bread of life,” which of course does not mean that Jesus is a literal piece of bread, but it was a way to say that His followers are sustained by Him as we feed, in a spiritual way, on Him.

These are all examples of figures of speech intending to convey a special meaning to the reader.  The “hard heart,” the “door,” and the “bread of life” are all figures of speech placed alongside a literal object or person for the sake of comparison or representation.

3.   Three classes of people

If we want to understand what is being said in the Bible, we need to understand that there are only three classes or groups  of people to whom God addresses Himself in Scripture—the Jew, the Gentile, and the Church.  This is born out in 1 Corinthians 10:32—

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God.

Nobody else is ever addressed in the Bible, so as we read it, we need to see what group of people is being addressed in particular.  Once we determine that, very often the meaning of the verse or passage of Scripture becomes obvious.

4.  The three offices of Christ

Often, understanding Scripture may be as simple as understanding what office Christ is occupying at the time that particular passage was written or is addressing.  The Bible teaches that there are three offices in the ministry of Jesus Christ:

  • He was a prophet, from Eden to the Cross.  As far back as Deuteronomy, we read a marvelous verse about the coming of a prophet greater than Moses—

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.  (Deuteronomy 18:18)

Throughout the Old Testament, there are references to a being called “the angel of the Lord,” “the angel of his presence,” etc.  This being appeared to the likes of Abraham, Jacob and Gideon, and was worshipped as God and spoke for God as God’s messenger or prophet.  This being was the Son of God, who from time to time would appear in bodily form to personally deliver a word from God to certain individuals.  Christ’s prophetic ministry continued in the New Testament when He came in the flesh permanently in His Incarnation.

  • He is a priest, from His Ascension to His Second Coming.  Right now, today, Jesus Christ is our great High Priest; He is our priestly representative in Heaven at God’s right hand.  Hebrews 8:1 says,

The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven.

  • He will be a King during the Millennium and beyond.  Revelation 19:16 tells us—

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:  KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

He is not right now, but Jesus Christ will be when He returns.  During the Millennial age, Christ will rule earth from Jerusalem where He will sit on the throne of His father David.  Words of prophecy imply that Christ’s role as King will never end—

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.    He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.  (Isaiah 9:7)

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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