In this apostolic age, it is very important and needed to use the correct rules of interpretation. A lot of new impressions and so called revelations are springing up like mushrooms and often it sounds like a great thought at first glance, but when we look more critically to them, in the positive sense of the word, we discover that these interpretations have no ground and should not be tolerated.
Standard of the Word
First of all, we must remember that we should not allow any “private interpretation” of Scripture, without respecting the unity of the Word. This is also what Peter says in 2 Peter 1: 20 “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”. Hence we must discover the correct context and meaning of the writer and we should NEVER take any concept or Scripture out of context. It happens too often that people like to use a scripture to sustain their conviction. Someone says once “every heretic finds his Scripture”. When we twist Scriptures, we can always find one verse or more, which suit our saying. Peter warns though that this is not what we should do, because Holy Spirit inspired most of the written word of God and therefore the same Holy Spirit gives it to us and transmits the truth, within the correct context of a passage or a book.
One thing is sure: God will never contradict His own word. What He has declared in His word, is truth and will last forever. God’s revealed will as declared in His Word does not change. We do well though to realize that we speak about the original documents and not about the translated documents, which are here and there translated according to the translators’ own conviction. As ministers and teachers of the Word it is hence indispensable to have a reasonable knowledge of the original languages in which the Bible was written.
Rules for interpretation
The Bible is written in various styles. There is clear language through which truths are displayed and these passages are clear and easy to follow. Other passages are for instance written in parables, or symbols are used, which cannot be understood just like they are, and therefore these require we make a more thorough study of these. On the other hand, there are also passages, which were written to people of a certain generation and which should be understood literally for the time in which they lived, but in the second place, these passages could also have a spiritual meaning for the church today.
There are rules, which have been set in order to guarantee a safe interpretation of such passages of the Bible and we cannot just apply any meaning at random, while the rules of hermeneutics do not allow such an interpretation.
Hermeneutics is the art and science of Biblical interpretation. Through the ages, people have built in all kinds of safeties in order to avoid the misuse of Scriptures.
When we study the Bible, we discover that often the Bible itself gives explanation on certain symbols used. So the white robes are the righteous deeds of the saints (see Revelation 19: 8) and the golden bowls full of incense, are the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5: 8).
The meaning of a passage must always be in line with the context of the message. What do we find immediately before or immediately after the passage? The context of a sentence is a paragraph; the context of a paragraph is a series of paragraphs, then a chapter, and a book and ultimately the canon of the whole Bible.
The importance of the context
We must avoid taking a Scripture out of context and hence twisting the meaning of the text. We must always take the whole line of thoughts and never just a sentence or even a part of a sentence taken out of the context. The books, which were written, were meant to serve as a complete message and were read as such. The divisions in chapters and even the titles placed above the passages have been inserted later but were not found in the original manuscripts.
Depending on the style of writing, it will determine how we should interpret the text. We must always ask ourselves the question whether it concerns a story, or a legal principle, or a poem, or a prophecy and/or wisdom.
Literal interpretation or spiritual interpretation
A text, which is written in prose, must first be understood literally. The spiritual interpretation comes as second. That interpretation must be viewed though on the basis of the whole passage.
Not all details are suitable for a spiritual application or interpretation. A story may entail a spiritual principle, but not all details may be spiritualized.
David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17: 48-49)
The five stones of David in conquering the giant are not meant as symbols of the fivefold ministry or any other meaning. It is simply David’s tool with which he slew the lion and the bear. Hence he was very handy in the use of the sling and the stones and, by the way, he only used one stone.
Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17: 12)
The story of the widow is about the woman who was going to cook a cake for her and her son and in order to do so she went to get some sticks of wood. Then Elijah came along and gave her the commission to first make a cake for him. The sticks are simply her tools to prepare the food and they do not represent any other symbol. They do not represent the apostle or the prophet! They simply serve to make the fire allowing the cake to be cooked.
When can we transpose a symbol spiritually?
First of all it must clearly concern a symbol and not an element out of a story. We take for instance the two pieces of wood, which Ezekiel had to take and on which he had to write “for Judah and for Ephraim”. Then he had to take these sticks and put them together as one. Here we have symbolism. Why? Because Judah represents the tribe of the worship and of the prophetic ministry and Ephraim, as second son of Joseph, is taken to the front as the firstborn and hence he becomes a type of the apostle. Read Ezekiel 37: 16-19 and also Jeremiah 31: 9, where Ephraim is called the firstborn while he was Joseph’s second son. The first is symbol of the apostle. See 1 Corinthians 12: 28 “And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles…”
When we speak about a parable, like Jesus uses in the Gospels, we find out that Jesus Himself often gives the explanation with it. We find this for instance in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13: 1-9 and 18-23.
The meanings of symbols, like the sun and the moon, the stars, the trees or the seas, are found using the principle of comparison. In other words, we compare the use of the symbol in various passages of Scriptures and through it we discover the meaning of the symbol. Books have been written concerning the interpretation of such symbols and it is important to be careful and make sure that we can give a certain meaning to it. Often we find the meaning in the first mention of a symbol. This gives us keys for insight in the meaning of the word. We find for instance that the sun and the moon were first mentioned in Genesis 1: 14-18. Here the sun is considered as the greater light for the day and the moon as the lesser light for the night. These two lights separate the day and the night. Then in 1 Corinthians 15: 40-42 Paul refers to the earthly and the heavenly bodies, which are characterized by their various levels of glory and he compared these to the earthly body and the resurrected body. “There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption”.
The difficulty arises about the meaning of these symbols, which are often looked at in a literal way but we must consider the context to see that these natural elements are used as types of spiritual realities. Therefore when it states in Isaiah 13: 10 “For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine’, we must be careful not to interpret this literally but to understand the passage in the light of the announced judgement that would come on Jeruzalem. Jesus quotes this Scripture in Mark 13: 24, referring to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The whole passage of Isaiah, like chapter 14 also speaks about the fall of Lucifer, hence clearly dealing with spiritual powers and the consequences of their fall being “like” the natural elements, which would loose their light of brightness. It is therefore a natural example, giving us insight in the spiritual impact of the event.
Sometimes a name of a place is mentioned as symbol for an event, which had great impact in history. In Jude 7 we read about Sodom and Gomorrah and we have to go back to Genesis 13: 10-13 in order to understand the event, which happened there.
What did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 11: 6-16 quoting the veil for a woman (look especially at verse 16, which shows that Paul does not want to be contentious about the custom) and 1 Corinthians 14: 34 concerning the woman, who has to be silent in the church? Cultural influences must be correctly understood. These passages must be placed within the right historical and cultural context. We cannot just transpose them to the church of today and draw wrong conclusions from them, because these contradict the rest of the Scriptures whereby the New Testament clearly called both men and women (See Galatians 3: 28).
In 2 Thessalonians 2: 5-6 Paul speaks in dark saying about “the one who is restraining” and nobody can declare with certainty what Paul exactly meant there. This verse has caused lots of controversy. We must be careful with these kinds of interpretations.
In 1 Peter 2: 24 Peter uses the word “tree” and in the context we understand that he speaks about the stake on which Jesus Christ suffered for us.
One meaning only or several meanings
Is it possible to find more meanings of a passage or can we only find one possible explanation?
It is impossible to know the intentions of the writers, but we do know that Holy Spirit, Who inspired the writers to write the Bible, is also now present in us in order to enlighten Scripture to us. In order to be safe with an interpretation, it is advisable to consult several different theological works. The Spirit of God witnesses with our spirit and reveals truth. A private interpretation and an isolated “revelation” could be dangerous and lead to heresy. Like we must test prophecy, so we must also test revelation and hold fast to that which is good.
It is possible to find several meanings of a passage. We must also realize that God’s revelation is progressive and hence a concept will grow from the Old Covenant into the New Covenant. Think for instance on Jesus in John 1: 17 of whom John testifies that the Law came through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Jesus came therefore with a higher value, which surpassed the Law of Moses. Joel 2 prophesied on the outpouring of Holy Spirit but Acts 2 shows the actual outpouring with the tremendous results following. Jesus quoted Isaiah 61: 1-2 in Luke 4: 16-21 and announced that this Scripture was fulfilled in front of their eyes. Jesus also explained to the disciples in Luke 24: 25-27 that Scriptures beginning with Moses and the Psalms related to Him.
The Bible was written in the first place for the people of that time and generation and for them there was mostly a literal interpretation. For us today, we have the principles of the Word of God and in many cases we will have to find a spiritual meaning. Depending on the context, this will be either possible or impossible. If impossible, we have to stick to the literal meaning.
Church traditions have established various meanings but these are not always truthful to the Bible. Compare for instance the baptism of small children with the Biblical commission to those who believe to be baptized. Baptism means going under water and yet the church fathers have found arguments to defend the sprinkling of water and put this form of baptism as a replacement of circumcision. These two subjects have nothing in common with each other!
Hence we must reconsider these concepts, like baptism, and check them with the Bible, understanding the true meaning and thereby receiving clarity and rediscovering truths.
In this apostolic time there is a great danger to draw conclusions too quickly, to choose interpretations, which sound great but which have no ground. No interpretation or explanation may contradict the Biblical message. Everything must be in line with the message of Scriptures.
Words also have more than one meaning and we must therefore read the context in order to find the correct meaning of the word and not just take a meaning at random because it suits our theory!
This is especially true when people use a Hebrew or Greek dictionary, without having a thorough knowledge of these languages and then they choose an interpretation, which suits best their conviction. The grammatical context determines how we can correctly translate a word. It is therefore not about the things, which we are presuming to discover, but what is reliable, correct and substantially defendable based on a good knowledge of the Biblical languages and the grammatical constructions in which the words occur.
May God richly bless you in reading and correctly interpreting the Bible.