Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bible Interpretation

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about BIble Interpretation:

Q: When I talk with other Christians, especially those from different denominations, we often have different ways of understanding certain Bible passages. Is it possible to tell who is correct, and how would that be done?

Correctly understanding the Bible can sometimes be a challenging task when we encounter so many different interpretations surrounding us. Because people have their own personal biases and denominations desire to defend certain doctrines, we arrive at varying conclusions regarding the way certain passages are to be understood, but two contradictory interpretations cannot both be true.

First, it is helpful to distinguish between interpretation and application. On one hand, a certain passage may, in fact, have many applications for Christians. A verse which speaks of one thing may be applied by the individual in a variety of ways, depending on their circumstances. On the other hand, there can be no more than one correct meaning or interpretation of a given passage. If several people have different understandings of a passage’s meaning, it is possible that all of them are incorrect, but no more than one may be correct.

Sometimes determining this correct understanding is very simple. For example, when Jesus says, “Every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” there is no doubt about what He is saying. Other times, finding the meaning of a passage takes deeper study. On those occasions, here are a few important principles:

The first principle is to approach the Bible to find out its conclusion rather than simply using it to defend your own. It is important that we let the Bible speak to us rather than attempting to force it to confirm our predetermined conclusions.

Context is always your best tool. Do not look at the verse alone, but look at the verses around it, the rest of the chapter, and even the rest of the book of the Bible in which you find it. Look even to other books of the Bible for passages with similar themes that can help to clarify its meaning. Always start with very clear and straightforward verses and use them to help you understand the more difficult verses—not the reverse.

Be aware what it is you are reading. Some statements are intended to be taken literally, and in those cases we should do so. In other cases (such as Apocalyptic Visions and the Parables of Jesus), the passage is intended to communicate something deeper. Consider what kind of writing it is. Is it a Psalm? A Historical account? An Epistle (or letter)? A parable? A vision? Who is writing and for whom are they writing it? This will all assist in understanding what is meant by the author.

How does the text relate to Jesus? How does a given understanding of the verse relate to Jesus? All Scripture ultimately points to Jesus, so if Jesus is central in an interpretation, it is a good sign. If an interpretation pushes Jesus aside or ignores him, this is evidence that things may have gone off track.

The Bible’s message is always consistent with itself. If a passage seems to contradict a passage which clearly states something elsewhere, further study is necessary. Reconsider your understanding of the less clear passage. It may even be wise at this point to consult a pastor, especially one who knows the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was originally written.

Even after considering these principles, there may be very rare occasions when it is just not possible to find a definite answer. Occasionally we find mysterious passages in the Bible which we simply do not have the capacity to understand. Examples of this include the phrase “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 and some of the more obscure images in the book of Revelation. In these cases, we simply return to the clear passages of the Scriptures to guide us.

Obviously, this is not all there is to Biblical interpretation. The typical seminary course on Bible Interpretation (called Hermeneutics) includes as much as 30-40 hours of classroom study, but these principles, along with a basic understanding of how to read literature in general, are typically sufficient to address the questions which the average Christian will encounter in their daily Bible reading or discussion with their friends and neighbors.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Israel:

Q:  How do the physical locations of Israel/Jerusalem and the physical descendants of the Israelites figure into God's will as expressed in prophecy?  How does this compare to the position of the New Testament regarding the earthly nation of Israel?

When reading any portion of the Bible, there are some important principles to keep in mind.  First, when we encounter a section of scripture that seems unclear or confusing, we first look to the very clear statements found elsewhere in scripture regarding the topic, and let them inform our understanding of the less clear sections.  Secondly, the entire Bible is ultimately about Jesus and everything contained in it points to Him.  A correct understanding of the Bible always centers on Jesus, and any interpretation that does not center on Jesus is defective.

In Old Testament times, there was a physically identifiable area of land, named Israel, which God promised would be the homeland of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The nation of people descended from these men was also named Israel.  

By the end of the Old Testament, we find that Israel, as an independent nation, no longer existed, that both its northern and southern kingdoms had been conquered by outside forces, and that many of their people exiled throughout the Middle-east. 

Based on the promises made to Eve and Abraham in the book of Genesis, we know that God's intention was that Israel would give birth to a certain man who would save the people of all nations from God's wrath.  This descendant was Jesus, and all promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Him.  

Jesus predicted in the Gospels that Jerusalem as it existed would be destroyed, which took place in A.D. 70.  Then, after an unspecified period of time, He would return again to judge the living and the dead—an event which we are still awaiting.  Today, we live in the time between these events.  When Jesus does return, the Bible says that He will raise all the dead and give eternal life to all who have trusted in Him, making a new creation in which they will live.

Jerusalem existed to be the place where the worship of the One True God took place by way of sacrifice.  This sacrifice was not merely the sacrifices of the temple, but more importantly, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice--that of Jesus' crucifixion.  The New Jerusalem, foretold in Revelation 21, will likewise be the place where God is worshipped, but this time apart from sacrifice, because Jesus has already been offered as the final and all-sufficient sacrifice.  There is also no temple there due to the direct and unveiled presence of God in that place which makes it unnecessary.

Biblically, Israel and Jerusalem are much broader concepts than mere physical locations.  Israel, although it had a definable ethnic identity and national borders for a time, was only an initial expression of a much broader reality--the people of God through Christ Jesus, regardless of time or place.  Likewise, Jerusalem, although it had, and still has, a specific geographic identity, is merely a shadow of a greater reality—the gathering of God's people to worship Him, both at the temple in the ancient past and around the throne of the Lamb in eternity, and even today as men and women gather to hear God's Word and receive Him through the Sacraments.  With Jesus at the center, Israel and the Church, Jerusalem and New Jerusalem, are not contradictions, but the worship of the same Jesus from opposite sides of the cross.