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The Net Pastor's Journal, Eng Ed, Issue 34 Winter 2020

Winter 2020 Edition

A ministry of…

Author: Dr. Roger Pascoe, President,
Email: [email protected]

Part I: Strengthening Expository Preaching

Strengthening Biblical Interpretation, Pt. 1:
“How to read and understand the Bible”

Introduction

The principles of how to read and understand the Bible are beneficial for all Christians, whether you are a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, or a small group Bible study leader, whether you want to be able to explain the Scriptures to non-Christians or simply improve your own understanding of the Bible.

Don’t worry if you find these principles a bit challenging to understand. Some of them will undoubtedly stretch your thinking but if you apply them you will find them invaluable. I will try to explain them as simply as I can.

Our conviction in this task

In approaching this task, we must be fully persuaded that:

(1) Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God.

(2) Scripture presents propositional, objective truth.

(3) Scripture can be understood and applied today.

If we are not fully convinced as to the nature of Scripture, we are wasting our time because what we say will have no authority or relevance and we will not approach the task with the diligence and care that it deserves and demands. We will merely be presenting a man-centred philosophy rather than God’s eternal truth.

Our confidence in this task

While we all probably get frustrated from time to time as we wrestle with a passage of Scripture, trying to figure out what the author meant, how its original audience understood what he wrote, and how we should understand and apply it today, nonetheless we rely on two powerful resources:

1. We rely on the ministry of the Holy Spirit

He alone can illuminate our understanding correctly. He alone can use what we communicate to others for the transformation of their lives. We cannot save anyone, nor change anyone’s life, but the Holy Spirit can use what he reveals to us in God’s Word to accomplish his purposes.

2. We rely on the power of God's word

Over and above our flawed understanding and limited intellectual capabilities stands the promise that God’s “word will not return to him void” (Isa. 55:11). This does not lessen our responsibility nor the difficulty of our task, but it does bring us comfort that God is in control of his word and uses it to accomplish his purposes.

This is our confidence as preachers and teachers of God’s word, that though we must be excellent in exegesis, clear in exposition, relevant in application, and powerful in communication, nonetheless, the end result is under God’s control through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

The Bible, like any other written document, is often subject to misinterpretation and misapplication, which, in turn, often lead to conflict among Christians. The problem is that we may understand what the words say, but we may not necessarily understand the author’s intended meaning. This leads to conflicting interpretations and applications.

Since the biblical authors are not alive for us to ask them what they meant, we need some interpretive rules and guidelines to help us in this task. My hope is that by applying good principles of interpretation as you study the Scriptures, you may be able to understand them more clearly, teach them more accurately, and apply them more relevantly.

Despite being surrounded sometimes by an apparent range of interpretive options of a biblical text, I believe that:

(1) There is one primary meaning in each biblical text.

(2) Scripture can be properly understood through the enablement of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10-16; 1 Jn. 2:20, 27), who:

a) inspired the writers of the Scriptures in the first place (2 Peter 1:21).

b) influences the thoughts and heart (i.e. the spiritual “eyes”) of one who studies under the leading of the Spirit to come to a right understanding of the Scripture.

c) directs us to other Scriptures that cast light on the Scripture under scrutiny.

d) employs means such as grammatical analysis, interpretive principles etc. to aid our understanding.

In seeking to read and study the Bible with understanding, our underlying approach requires that we discover what the author was saying and how the ancient biblical instructions (on morality, religious practices etc.) apply to us today.

Three Basic Tasks In Biblical Interpretation1

1. Determine the accurate meaning of the passage (exegesis)

Our first task in this process is to discover what idea, concept, teaching, principle, or truth the original author intended to convey to his original audience (“authorial intent”). That’s what we need to know first and foremost. Not what we (the readers) think it means. Not what this means for today’s society. Not what this means to me (as though it may mean something different for someone else). Not what this means in our culture, since cultures vary around the world. Indeed, if we relied on contemporary cultural interpretations, the Bible would mean many different things depending on what part of the world you live in.

The technical term for this process of discovering the meaning of a passage is “exegesis”. This is the task of investigating and determining the meaning of the biblical text (as best we can), in order to accurately and clearly explain what it means.

What we are doing here is trying to discover the biblical author’s intended meaning as his original audience would have understood it. In this step, we want to understand not only what the text “says” but also, and probably more importantly, what it “means.”

You have probably been in situations where someone says something to you and you reply: “What do you mean by that?” Or, more often, after the conversation you think to yourself: “What did he / she mean by that?” You understood what they “said” (i.e. the words) but you did not understand what they “meant”. Perhaps there were several possible meanings. Perhaps the tone of voice or body language affected what they meant. Perhaps there was a hidden inference, or the words could not be taken at face value.

If this is a challenge at the contemporary, face-to-face level, how much more is it a challenge when dealing with an ancient text like the Bible? So, for our purposes, discovering what the passage means requires that our study of the text (words, grammar, syntax, context etc.) ends with our best understanding of what the author meant.

2. Apply sound principles of interpretation to the passage (hermeneutics)

In order to accurately discover the meaning of a text, we need a set of principles, guidelines, procedures, and techniques that help us understand the biblical text as the original author intended – i.e. to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The technical term for this is “hermeneutics.”

So, for example, if there are two or more interpretive options for a biblical text, how do you decide which one is not only grammatically correct but also most likely to be what the author intended to communicate? This is where we rely on hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) principles to guide us as to which one is most likely the correct understanding.

Take the phrase “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2 and 12) as an example. What does this mean? It may mean that an elder or deacon must not be divorced or single, and / or that he must be utterly faithful to his wife - having eyes only for one woman. These would probably be the most likely interpretations in North America. But this may also mean that an elder or deacon cannot have more than one wife at the same time (i.e. polygamy). This would probably the most likely interpretation in societies where polygamy is practised.

Even with good hermeneutical rules and procedures, there still will be different interpretations of the Bible, but that doesn’t negate the benefit of having such guidelines and procedures.

It is vitally important, as students, preachers, and teachers of God’s word that we understand the text before we preach or teach it. Following good principles of biblical interpretation will help us gain a fuller, more accurate understanding of the text.

So, in summary, there are two vital study components for understanding, interpreting, and explaining the Bible accurately – exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is the study of the text in order to understand, interpret, explain, and apply it accurately. Hermeneutics is the interpretive discipline (system) that provides us with a framework for making interpretive decisions during our exegesis (e.g. when there is more than one interpretive option). Thus, hermeneutics is the means and exegesis is the end in our task of determining what the biblical text “meant” and “means” in order that we might be true and faithful to the text when we explain it and apply it in our preaching and teaching.

3. Bridge the Gap

An important part of this exegetical process is sometimes referred to as “bridging the gap” between the ancient text, language, culture, and audience on the one hand, and the contemporary language, culture, and audience on the other; between what it meant back then and what it means in today’s context (i.e. its application today). David Larsen explains it this way: “The biblical text comes alive... when correspondence occurs between the situation the biblical writers address and the situation of the modern reader or hearer.”2

To read the text solely from the viewpoint of what it means leads to all kinds of errors of subjectivism. Conversely, to read the text solely from the viewpoint of what it meant makes the whole exercise a study of ancient history with no relevance for today. However, the word of God is “living” and “powerful” (Heb. 4:12) and no more so than when it is taught and preached, so that the written word for God’s ancient people becomes the spoken word for God’s people today.

Therefore, we need to “bridge the gap” by determining what it meant then in order to explain what it means now – i.e. what is its message for us today; how do we explain and apply it in today’s context?

Conclusions

1. By engaging in these three basic tasks, we are able to determine more accurately the meaning of the text and its contemporary significance.

2. Our challenge is twofold:

(a) To discover the author’s intended meaning - what did he intend to communicate to his original audience and how would they have understood him?

(b) To determine the author’s overriding theological focus - what is his universal, abiding, theological point?

3. Our hermeneutical task is to “discover” what the text means, not to “decide” what it means.3

Two Important Hermeneutical Questions

Question #1: Did the O.T. writers know fully what they were writing about?

In Acts 2:25-31, Peter seems to affirm that, in Psalm 16, David knew that he was writing prophetically of Christ. But even this is not patently clear, because when Peter says, “For David says concerning him…” (25), this does not necessarily mean that David knew he was writing about Jesus, but that Peter knew he was writing about Jesus. In fact, all Scripture speaks of, and points to, Christ (cf. Lk. 24:27). As John Stott points out, let’s not forget that, through Jesus’ teachings, his disciples (in this case, Peter) would have recognized the O. T. references to “God’s anointed or king, to David and his royal seed, as finding their fulfillment in Jesus… And once this foundation is granted, a Christian use of the Old Testament like Peter’s of Psalm 16 is scrupulously logical and internally coherent.”4

It seems best to understand this prophetic Psalm, like many others, as having both an immediate and future fulfillment – immediately in David and finally in Jesus. As to the immediate fulfillment, it is clear, on a plain and natural reading of the Psalm, that David was speaking about himself. It “seems to have been a plea of the psalmist that God would vindicate him and that he might escape death and Sheol…Verse 27 is the key, in which David is seen to have expressed his confidence that he would not be abandoned to the grave, that God would not allow his holy one to suffer decay.”5 This is the immediate application.

As to the future fulfillment, what David was undoubtedly saying about himself in Psalm 16:8-11 (repeated in Acts 2:25-28), Peter applies prophetically to the Messiah, “seeing in it a prophecy of David that could not ultimately apply to himself.”6 Peter amplifies Psalm 16:8-11 to show that David was also speaking prophetically of Christ in whom the words of the Psalm are fully and ultimately realized. Their realization for David, of course, was still future and to what extent David understood this is somewhat unclear.7

As to the term “holy one”, while it certainly applied to David, Peter sees it as even more applicable to Christ. In vv. 29-31, Peter applies the quote to Christ with the following logic:

1. David is long dead: therefore, the Psalm could not fully and solely refer to him (29)

2. Thus, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David was writing prophetically about his descendant who would sit on his throne forever (30; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-13)

3. Through Christ’s resurrection, he alone is the messianic descendant whom David “foresaw” and about whom he “spoke” (31).

I think we can safely say that, though the truth of the O.T. prophecies is obvious to us, it was not so obvious (at least to the extent that it is to us) to the O.T. writers, whose prophetic knowledge was limited. As Peter himself points out in 1 Pet. 1:10-12, the O.T. prophets knew what they were inquiring into (salvation through the Messiah) but they did not know the details (who, how, where, when) as we do now.

In many (perhaps in most) instances, the O.T. prophets wrote of things more than they knew. Here are some examples to help you work through this:

  • Did they see Christ as the manna from heaven? No. But Jesus said that he was that true bread that came down from heaven (Jn. 6:58). So, even though they didn’t know it, he was foreshadowed in what they wrote.
  • Did they know that the serpent on the pole was a type of Christ on the cross? No. But Jesus said it was (Jn. 3:14).
  • Did they see the tabernacle as representative of N.T. spiritual truths? No. They saw spiritual truths but not as we know them. As the writer of Hebrews makes clear, the tabernacle was an illustration and foreshadowing of N.T. truth (Heb. 10:1).
  • Did they see Jonah in the fish as a type of Christ’s death and resurrection? No.
  • But Jesus said that it was (Matt. 12:40).
  • Did the O.T. prophets write of prophetic events to a degree greater than they knew? Yes. They wrote about the coming of the Messiah and his redemption of his people, but they didn’t know who it would be, when he would come, nor how he would accomplish it (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12). As we noted above, they sometimes wrote of their own experiences not knowing that such experiences were near-duplicates of those that would be true of the Messiah at a later date (e.g. Ps. 22 and 69).
  • In fact, all of Scripture points to Christ, as Jesus said: “Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) expounded to them in all the Scriptures (i.e. O.T.) the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27).

In these instances, we need to distinguish between what the biblical authors knew they were writing about (the immediate referent) and what we, from subsequent revelation, know they were writing about (the future referent). From our vantage point, we have a fuller understanding of what they wrote through progressive revelation and the completed canon of Scripture. Larsen points out that “While it is our purpose to get back to the author’s intention, we must recognize that the human author was not always aware of the full significance of his own inspired utterance (1 Pet. 1:10-12).”8

The O.T. contains great and vital teaching for us today and seeing in it types and illustrations and foreshadowing of N.T. truth helps to make it relevant and meaningful. What we must be careful to do is to differentiate between, on the one hand, the O.T. author’s intended meaning to his audience and, on the other hand, greater light (understanding) that we have as a result of having the completed canon and, thus, a better vantage point. In this way, from our place in redemptive history we see types and shadows of things which at that time were yet to be revealed.

We always need to remember that biblical revelation is progressive. The O.T does contain the seeds of the N.T. and the N.T. does open up the secrets of the O.T. Hence, we are bound to see things in the O.T. that was not known by its authors. Again, as David Larsen puts it:

“Beyond question we have a biblically authorized basis for preaching the typical significance of Old Testament persons and institutions and events (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11 and the book of Hebrews)…We are facing with greater liberty the explicit types in the Old testament such as Adam, the Flood, Melchizedek, the brazen serpent, manna, the Passover, and Jonah in the fish as a picture of Christ’s resurrection. There are also implicit types that must be used with great caution and care, such as the cities of refuge in ancient Israel, the religious calendar of Israel, and the life of Joseph as a picture of the sufferings and the glory of Jesus Christ.”9

From the examples cited in this quote from Larsen, it is obvious that the biblical N.T. writers saw types, illustrations, and significances in the O.T., which the O.T. writers did not envisage when they wrote. Take, for example, Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 47). Ezekiel’s original intention was to describe the spiritual condition of Israel and their future destiny. But surely it is valid to apply this to the spiritual renewal of God’s people in any age.10

Many other examples could be cited (see chart below) of O.T. characters, events, things, and concepts, which the O.T. writers could not have intended to be (but which are) types, allegories, illustrations, foreshadowings, or representations of N.T. concepts or fulfillments. In the following comparative table, note the N.T. references that we can rely on for a N.T. perspective and interpretation of these O.T. passages:

Comparison: O.T. Referent vs. N.T. Understanding or Usage

O. T. original scene / text

N.T. use / type / allusion / allegory

N.T. reference

Abraham sacrifices Isaac

Type of Christ’s death

None

Esau’s sale of his birthright

Giving up sp. birthright

Heb. 12:15-17

Jacob and Esau

Illustration of God's sovereignty

Rom. 9:10-13

Sacrifice of Isaac

Illustration of Christ’s sacrifice

None

Brazen serpent

Type of Christ on the cross

Jn. 3:14

Jonah in fish’s belly

Christ’s burial

Matt. 12:40

Jonah’s preaching

Christ’s preaching

Matt. 12:41; cf. Lk. 11:29

Manna in the wilderness

Christ as “bread of life”

Jn. 6:32-35ff; 1 Cor. 10:3

Circumcision of the flesh

Spiritual circumcision of the heart

Rom. 2:28-29

Heroes of faith

Examples that we should follow

Heb. 11

Abraham

Example of good works, faith, justification by faith

Heb. 11:8-11; James 2:211, 23; Rom. 4:1-22

Adam

Prefigures Christ as 2nd Adam

1 Cor. 15:22, 45-49; Rom. 5:14

David, Joseph

Christ

None

Hagar and Sarah

Representation of old Mosaic law vs. new Covenant liberty in Christ

Gal. 4:21-31

Days of Lot

Parallel to days of Son of Man

Lk. 17:28-29

Lot’s deliverance/ Noah’s deliverance

Example of God’s deliverance of the godly out of temptation/ judgement

2 Pet. 2:4-9

O.T. prophecies

Fulfilled in Christ

Various

Days of Noah

Allegory of days of coming of Son of Man

Matt. 24:37-38

Noah and the flood

A type (“figure”) of baptism

1 Pet. 3:20-21

All the O.T. Scriptures

Prefigure and point to Christ

Lk 24:27

Passover Lamb

Type of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice

Jn. 1:29 (cf. Gen. 22:8)

The exodus

Deliverance from bondage of sin

Red Sea

Cleansing, separation; baptism to one leader; burial to old life

1 Cor. 10:2

The O.T. sacrifices

Type of Christ’s sacrificial death

Acts 8:32-33 (cf. Isa. 53)

Moses

Forerunner of Christ, the One who would lead God’s people

Deut. 18:15?

Rock in the wilderness

Christ quenches our spiritual thirst

1 Cor. 10:4

Death of Israelites in the wilderness

Warning to not lust after evil things (idolatry); to not be unbelieving

1 Cor. 10:6, 11; cf. Heb. 3:7-4:16

Rest in promised land

Spiritual rest for people of God

Heb. 4

O.T. covenant

N.T. covenant

Heb. 8:7-13 etc.

Animal sacrifices

Christ’s sacrifice

Heb. 10:1-10

Priestly duties

Christ as our high priest

Heb. 10:11-18

High priest’s entrance once a year prefigured Christ’s atonement for us as our High Priest

Heb. 9:8-9; cf. 4:15

Tabernacle, holiest of all

God’s presence

Heb. 10:19

Stones of the temple

Spiritual house of living, holy people

1 Pet. 2:4-5ff.

Isa. 61:1-2, spoken by Isaiah about himself

Spoken by Jesus about himself

Lk. 4:18-19

Psalms – e.g. 22, 69

Prophetic of Jesus

Matt. 27:46

Question #2: Did the N.T. writers know fully what they were writing about?

Moises Silva points out that, even in the case of the N.T., the original audience would probably not have deduced the full meaning that we can today:

“In the process of determining the meaning of a specific word or sentence in the letters of Paul, interpreters often ask themselves, Would the original readers of the letter have grasped such-and-such a meaning? Not infrequently, a particular interpretation will be rejected precisely on the grounds that those readers could not have been expected to come up with it. Probably all scholars, however, acknowledge that some of the apostle’s richer or subtler nuances would have been beyond the reach of his original audience.”11

Indeed, even the apostle Peter admitted that Paul wrote of “things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Note Peter’s warning: Don’t “twist” Scripture to make it mean what you want it to mean. He says, that’s what many “untaught and unstable people” do – twist hard passages “to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (16b).

We need to take Peter’s warning very seriously. While the Holy Spirit’s role in teaching us the meaning of Scripture includes opening up our understanding of its teaching and application to our lives today (so that we do not relegate it to the historical junk pile), at the same time we are not authorized to go beyond what we know from Scripture. Don’t think that because some of the biblical writers wrote of things beyond what they knew that this gives you licence to interpret or apply Scripture any way you want. Don’t claim that the Holy Spirit taught you things that Scripture does not support. That is purely subjectivism and an abuse of Scripture. We are only authorized to interpret and apply Scripture in ways that Scripture, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, indicates.

I believe that the best approach is:

1. To search for the meaning intended by the original author as his original audience would have understood it as best we can (admitting that we may not always be able to have absolute certainty of this).

2. Then, to search for any expanded understanding, interpretation, significance, or application we may have as the result of:

(a) Subsequent revelation (not subjective interpretation).

(b) Our fuller understanding of Scripture because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

3. Assess whether the text can be legitimately used as an obvious illustration or type or allegory even though it may not be explicit in Scripture (e.g. the story of Joseph).

Take Jonah as an example of this method. First, the author’s theological point to his audience was the sovereignty of God in salvation. Then, we gain a fuller understanding from the N.T. that Jonah was a type of the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Matt. 12:40-41; Lk. 11:30-32) – i.e. the means by which God in his sovereignty saves.

In my next issue of this journal, I will continue to discuss other important aspects of how to read and understand the Bible that will help you in your study and teaching of the Scriptures.

Part II: Sermon Outlines

To listen to the audio version of these sermons in English, click on these links: Link 1 - Rev. 2:8-9; Link 1 - Rev. 2:10; Link 1 - Rev. 2:10-11

Title: Letters to the Seven Churches: Smyrna - Suffering But Faithful

Theme: Suffering for your faith

Point #1: Jesus knows all about your bitter troubles (8-9)

(1) Jesus knows all about your bitter physical afflictions (9a)

(2) Jesus knows all about your bitter financial pressures (9b)

(3) Jesus knows all about your bitter spiritual opponents (9c)

Point #2: Jesus speaks words of sweet encouragement

(1) Jesus’ words of sweet encouragement address our fears (10a-b)

(2) Jesus’ words of sweet encouragement strengthen our faith (10c)

(3) Jesus’ words of sweet encouragement energize our hope (10d-11)


1 Some of this material adapted from Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 10-12, and David Dockery, “Preaching and Hermeneutics,” in Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, ed Michael Duduit, (Nashville: B & H, 1992), 142-150.

2 David L. Larsen, Telling the Old, Old Story (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1995), 79.

3 Ibid., 81.

4 John Stott, The Spirit, The Church, and The World (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1990), 76.

5 John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 113.

6 Ibid., 113.

7 See I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 76-77.

8 Larsen, 85.

9 Larsen, 88.

10 Larsen, 88.

11 Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1990), 237-238.

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