WORD OF GOD… OR WORDS OF MEN?
The Bible claims to be a unique book unlike any other. The Bible declares itself to be the revelation of God and His Word given to men. It claims to be more than just a book penned by human authors.
Some people find it difficult to believe that the Bible is actually God’s Word. They wonder if it is accurate and reliable. They may question how much of it is actually from God.
When the term “the Word of God” is used, it does NOT mean that every word contained in the Bible is a word spoken by God. Sometimes the Scriptures are quoting the words of men, or angels, or even Satan. For instance, the Bible contains records of many sinful acts, but it does not commend any of these; it rather condemns them.
Scripture even records some of the lies of Satan (i.e., Gen. 3:4). But by including them in Scripture, it is not teaching us that these lies are true; rather, it guarantees that The Bible is a true and accurate record of what occurred and what was said. It does not mean that every word contained in the Bible was a word that God said with His mouth.
However, the Bible is the Word of God in the following way: God, through the Holy Spirit, divinely inspired the writing of it. He was the supernatural Overseer Who directed the Bible’s design and the recording of its contents.
- But is it really the “Word of God”?
- Or is it the words of men with special religious insights?
- Are only parts of the Bible the Word of God – or is all of it God’s holy Word?
- Can we really trust the Bible to be accurate and error free?
THREE FOUNDATION STONES
These questions and their answers are extremely important to any Christian leader. For either the Bible is the authoritative source for guiding our life and conduct, or it is merely a book of good suggestions which we can believe or not. Leaders must be convinced in their hearts of the authenticity and power of the Living Word of God.
In this section of the article, “The Bible – God’s Holy Word,” we will examine three important “foundation stones” of what the Bible teaches us about itself. Having a correct understanding and a firm stance of correct belief regarding these three issues will determine much about your personal walk with Christ and your fruitfulness in ministry.
These three foundation stones are:
Doctrine of Inspiration;
Doctrine of Inerrancy;
Law of Interpretation.
Let’s look at the Doctrine of Inspiration first.
A. THE BIBLE: WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? THE DOCTRINE OF INSPIRATION
KEY WORD: THEOPNEUSTOS
The term “inspiration” as it is applied to Scripture comes from the Apostle Paul’s statement:
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (II Tim. 3:16). Unfortunately, the English word “inspiration” used in this passage does not accurately reveal the meaning of the Greek word it translates. In fact it is somewhat misleading. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin word inspiro which means to “breathe in.” Without a proper understanding of this word, might incorrectly conclude that God breathed into the writings of men, giving them a certain power. This is not what the Scriptures teach, nor what the Holy Spirit wants us to understand.
The Greek word used here is theopneustos and is in a verb or action tense. The word is a combination of two Greek words, theos, “God” and pneustos, which is related to the verb meaning “to breathe or blow.” The meaning of the word theopneustos is, therefore, “breathed out by God.”
GOD-BREATHED WORDS – SPIRIT-MOVED MEAN
When the Holy Spirit spoke through the Apostle Paul and said, “All scripture is given by inspiration [breathed out by God],” he was telling us that God did not breathe a special power into the writing or thoughts of men; instead, God breathed out His words into the minds of men to be written down.
A similar passage in I Corinthians 2:13 emphasizes the same point: “These things we also speak, not in words that man’s wisdom teaches, but that which the Holy Spirit teaches.”
The second significant passage on the divine inspiration of the Bible is II Peter 1:20-21, “Know 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.”
This verse helps us understand further that none of what was written in the Bible was the working or impulses of man. Instead, each writer was moved by (literally “borne along by” or “led by”) the Holy Spirit. But the writers of Scripture were not robots whose minds and hands were controlled by God.
God created man with an intellect and a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. The Lord does not ignore how He designed mankind when He desires to speak through someone.
It is important to note that the Scripture writers certainly did NOT participate in any sort of “automatic” writing that was somehow magical. That kind of activity is NOT from the Holy Spirit! One should beware of any claims that such activity is from God.
Furthermore, according to II Timothy 3:16, the inspiration applies only to the writing, not the writers. It is the Bible that is inspired, not the writers.
So if we combine II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20-21, we find that the Bible is inspired in the following way: “Spirit-moved” men wrote “God-breathed” words. Any of these “words of God” are divinely authoritative for developing a Christian faith and a Christian lifestyle.
TRUTH:GIVING IT. RECORDING IT. UNDERSTANDING IT
Two related and important concepts can help us more clearly understand what inspiration is, and what it is not. These two concepts are: a) revelation and b) illumination.
Revelation is that act of God through which He directly communicates truth not known before to the human mind – truth which could not have been known in any other manner except by revelation of God.
Illumination refers to influence and help given by the Holy Spirit, to all born-again believers, in order to help them understand the truths that have been revealed. Inspiration as defined by the Scriptures, does not deal with either of these activities.
How do Revelation, Inspiration and Illumination work together?
REVELATION: the giving of truth;
INSPIRATION: the reception and recording of that truth;
ILLUMINATION: the resulting understanding of the revealed, inspired truth.
Revelation of truth, as defined in the Scriptures, can be given only by God to mankind. It is a divine communication from God to man.
Inspiration is the means, or way, in which people chosen by God have received this divine communication and then recorded it so that others might be exposed to it.
Illumination of the mind and heart of man must then occur, so that man will understand what is being revealed by God. This illumination is given by the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17) Who has been sent by God to “teach us all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I [Jesus] said to you” (John 14:26).
Are people getting “inspired” today?
It is true that we use words like “inspired” and “inspiration” to describe anything from a moving piece of music to a beautiful painting – or even a great athletic accomplishment. The music, painting, or other human endeavor may be secular or sacred, but unfortunately we use the same word.
But it is very important to understand that NO human endeavor – including great sermons or wonderful Christian books – is “inspired” the way Scripture is.
Furthermore, no one is receiving new revelation from God of heretofore unknown truth. The fullness of all God has to reveal to men about life and salvation through His Son is accomplished – it is FINISHED! There is no “new” revelation from God. (See Colossians 1:25-27; Galatians 4:3-5; II Timothy 1:8-10; Hebrews 1:1-3).
If people today claim to have a new revelation from God, it means one of two things: a) they have received illumination (a fresh understanding of an already revealed truth), or b) they have been deceived by a spirit other than God’s Holy Spirit.
We should not be quick to condemn or accuse others, but we must carefully “test (discern) the spirits because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1-3). Jesus Himself warned us that there would come many false prophets trying to lead astray the people of God (Matt 24:23-26).
A SOLEMN WARNING
We as leaders must be extremely careful in what we say – because every bit of counsel, every teaching and every sermon must agree with the whole of Scripture. We are not allowed to preach our own opinions and tell others that God says the same. Our preaching and teaching must be fully supported by the Word of God.
If we want to be anointed and used of God, all that we do and say must clearly and correctly represent His Word and be found throughout Scripture.
We are not given the freedom in Scripture to add or subtract from God’s word, under threat of judgment from God. Moses, speaking for God, tells the Israelites: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deut 4:2).
Solomon wisely states, “Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (Prov 30:36).
And in the last book of the Bible, in the last chapter, in the final few verses, we are given a final, solemn warning: “For I testify to every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy City, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev 22:18-19).
Though this passage refers directly to the Book of Revelation, it is clear from this passage and others in Scripture that God’s Word is sacred and must not be altered. The “canon” of the Bible is complete and CLOSED with the 66 books of the holy Scriptures. Not one “jot” or “tittle” can be changed. For an excellent example of God’s judgment upon “taking away” from God’s Word, see Jeremiah 36:20-32.
And just as with adding to or subtracting from God’s holy Word, if we “twist” Scripture to serve our own selfish desires, we will be risking God’s judgment and our own destruction (II Peter 3:16-17).
As God has protected His holy Word in ages past, so He will guard it today!
BREATH OF LIFE
Scripture is inspired by God: This is one of the most important statements about the Bible. It means that Scripture is the result of God’s own creative breath.
The Bible is not words and ideas manipulated by man to try and tell the world about God. God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, was the Author and Designer of the Scriptures from beginning to end. He directly “breathed-out” its formation, to tell us about Himself and His plan for mankind.
As we have shown, this does not mean that the writers were “breathed INTO by God”; it means that the Bible was breathed OUT by God. The Word was produced by the creative breath of God.
Just as God breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7), so He breathed into the Bible the breath of His life-giving Spirit (see John 6:63).
Therefore, because the Bible is God’s own “breath” or “utterance”, it is properly called “the Word of God”.
God’s Word to us is a precious life-giving source (John 6:63), and is living and powerful (ref.). We must treat the Word of God with a holy fear and respect, even as we seek to dig deeply into the depths of the truth it contains through diligent and careful study.
THE BIBLE: CAN WE TRUST IT? The Bible: THE DOCTRINE OF INERRANCY
In the previous section we discussed the foundational truth that God “breathed out” – inspired – the Holy Scriptures. Because the Bible comes from God – and is not the invention, opinions or ideas of men – we can therefore trust in its contents absolutely. Upon this premise we can study the Doctrine of Inerrancy.
TRUSTWORTHY AND ERROR-FREE
What does “Inerrancy” mean?
Inerrancy means this: In the original copies of each manuscript made by the Bible’s writers (those who received the “breathed-out” word from God) there are no mistakes or errors.
Some people use the word infallible instead of inerrant. Infallible means that the Bible is completely trustworthy regarding its fundamental message concerning salvation and man’s relationship to God. Inerrant means that the Bible is free from error.
WE BELIEVE THE BIBLE IS BOTH INERRANT (WITHOUT ERRORS) AND INFALLIBLE (TRUSTWORTHY).
To understand this better, we need to ask three questions concerning a statement of Scripture:
1) Is the writer reporting it as a TRUE statement – or only accurately recording a lie?
For instance, we may truthfully and accurately record a statement that is not true. In Genesis, Moses accurately recorded Satan’s lie to Eve about eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: Satan said, “You surely shall not die!” (Gen 3:4); yet God had already said that such an act of disobedience was punishable by death (Gen. 3:3).
Inerrancy in this case is the accurate and truthful reporting of the deception Satan used on Eve.
2) Is the writer speaking in literal scientific language – or using a popular figure of speech?
Some might say that the biblical writers who spoke of “the four corners of the earth” (Isa 11:12) had a poor sense of geography; or that the phrase “windows of heaven” (Gen 7:11) reflected an inaccurate and fanciful view of the universe. However, when the language is understood in a symbolic or figurative sense – as it was intended – no confusion arises.
We often speak of the sun’s “rising” and “setting.” Scientifically, this is not literally true – since the earth moves, not the sun. But it is figuratively true – since the sun, as seen from earth, appears to rise and set. We do not charge our news agencies with error when they report the times for “sunrise” and “sunset”!
3) Is the author speaking in approximate numbers – or does he mean to give an EXACT count?
If there is a reasonable number given, there is no untruth involved. Our own daily speech is full of such numerical approximations. This is especially common when the exact number is not necessary to the main purpose of the account.
When dealing with the issue of inerrancy, it is important to keep in mind the writer’s intended meaning, his reason for relating the information, and his use of the language expressing Scriptural truth.
EVIDENCE OF INERRANCY FROM INSIDE THE BIBLE
Where does the Doctrine of Inerrancy come from? The answer is – the Scriptures themselves! Let’s look at what the Bible says regarding its own accuracy.
- The Testimony of the Scriptures
a. The Old Testament. In the Old Testament we encounter the phrase “thus saith the Lord” and others like it over 3,800 times! The Old Testament writers were absolutely convinced they were speaking the Word of God! The Psalmist declares that the “Law of the Lord is perfect … the testimony of the Lord is sure”. This is a direct reference to the absolute trustworthiness of the Scripture. And again, “The entirety of Thy Word is truth” (Ps. 119:160), “All His precepts are true” (Ps. 111:7). The writer of Proverbs similarly states, “Every word of God is tested” (Prov. 30:5).
King David declares, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue” (II Sam. 23:2). Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets all record similar statements.
b. The New Testament. The writers of the New Testament also testify to the fact that God was speaking to them. Both the Gospels and the Epistles contain many instances of Scripture validating its own trustworthiness (See Luke 1:70, Hebrews 4:12, Romans 7:12, James 4:5).
When we take all of these statements from Scripture together in light of the Bible’s teaching on the Doctrine of Inspiration, we must conclude that the BIBLE TEACHES ITS OWN INERRANCY. Such a conclusion is in complete agreement with the claims of the writers of Scripture to be speaking and writing God’s Word.
But one of the greatest testimonies to the inerrancy of Scripture is next.
- The Testimony of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, as God the Son, bore witness to the fully divine authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. He specifically confirmed the Old Testament as a whole when He said, “These are the words I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk 24:44). In His confrontation with the Pharisees, He also declared that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). His teaching was based on the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. He declares that, “For assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot [the smallest letter in Hebrew] or one tittle [the smallest stroke in a Hebrew letter] will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt 5:18).
Specifically, Jesus referred to many Old Testament historical events and persons. By referring to these in His teachings, Jesus puts His stamp of approval upon them, affirming that they are completely trustworthy. The following is a list of these references from the Gospel accounts:
- Creation and marriage – Matthew 19:5
- The Flood and Noah’s ark – Luke 17:26, 27
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – Luke 17:28,29
- The destruction of Tyre and Sidon – Matthew 11:21,22
- Circumcision – John 7:22
- The Passover – Matthew 26:2
- The Law – John 7:19
- The Commandments – Matthew 19:7-9
- The Jewish law of divorce – Matthew 19:7-9
- The fact of the burning bush – Mark 12:26
- The type of Jonah and the great fish – Matthew 12:40
- The repentance of Ninevah – Matthew 12:41
- The glory of Solomon – Matthew 6:29
- The wisdom of Solomon – Matthew 12:42
- The Feast of Tabernacles – John 7
- David eating the shewbread – Matthew 12:3
- The priests profaning the Sabbath – Matthew 12:5
- The heavens shut up in Elijah’s day – Luke 4:25
- The story of Naaman the leper – Luke 4:27
- The record of the brazen serpent – John 3:14,15
- The murder of Abel and Zacharias – Matthew 23:35
- The mission of Messiah – Luke 4:16-21
- The mission of John the Baptist – Matthew 17:10-13
- The mission of Elijah – Matthew 17:10-13
- Daniel and his great prophecy – Matthew 24:15
- The Testimony of Prophecy.
The fact of fulfilled prophecy in Scripture is a powerful testimony to the Bible’s inerrancy. No unconditional prophecy given in Scripture about events – even events up to the present day – has gone unfulfilled! Many of these predictive prophecies were given hundreds – even thousands – of years in advance!
Some Bible scholars have concluded that a total of 333 prophecies concerning the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ have been fulfilled. The probability of that many predictions concerning a single individual coming true by chance is calculated at 1 out of 83 billion! The chance of one person fulfilling only eight prophecies relating to God is incredibly slim. This would be like covering the entire country of Zimbabwe two feet deep with coins, then telling a blind-folded person to pick up a specially marked coin on his very first try. Imagine the phenomenal miracle of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfilling over 300 prophecies. Truly, the Bible is Authored by God alone, Who knows the end from the beginning (Revelation 1:17-18).
Most prophecies concerning Christ were given hundreds of years (some over a thousand) before His birth — and yet ALL were fulfilled! Other prophecies – such as the education and communication explosion (Daniel 12:4), and the restoration of Israel as a nation (Is 61:4) – are being fulfilled in our times.
There are some other religious writings that claim divine authorship, but none contain predictive prophecies. Clearly, the prophecies contained in God’s Holy Word are not of human authorship. Only the God who knows the future and directs the course of human events can give – and then ensure fulfillment of – such specific prophecies.
EVIDENCE OF INERRANCY FROM OUTSIDE THE BIBLE
Because the Bible contains much historical data, its accuracy can be verified. There are two types of evidence that can be used to verify the Bible’s accuracy:
- a) The evidence of archeology; and
- b) The evidence of ancient written documents.
EVIDENCE FROM ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDINGS
It is important to note that no archaeological finding has ever proved a Bible reference wrong. In fact, well over 25,000 sites have been located and documented that confirm the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Scriptural accounts of events, people groups, chronologies, etc. Archaeological research continues today; many archeologists actually use texts from the Bible to help locate historical sites!
EVIDENCE FROM ANCIENT DOCUMENTS
Several decades ago, a young shepherd boy discovered several large urns filled with ancient documents. These documents became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among them were several manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments. They were in excellent condition. And when they were compared with the thousands of already existing manuscripts, no important differences were found! What made this discovery so significant was the fact that the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were 1000 years older than any other complete manuscripts for both the Old and New Testament already in possession.
Simply put, there is more ancient written evidence for the Bible than for any other secular classic. The Bible is the best documented book from ancient times. It can be easily said that the Bible is the most completely trustworthy and reliable of any book or writings from antiquity. The Bible has remained unchanged and dependably accurate for thousands of years!
TRUTH WITHOUT ERROR
These evidences from archaeology and ancient documents give indirect yet substantial verification of the Scripture’s claim for Divine inspiration. Certainly, the confirmation of the Bible’s accuracy in these factual matters lends credibility to its claims regarding spiritual matters.
Regarding the doctrine of inerrancy and biblical trustworthiness, it must be remembered Who we are dealing with when it comes to a discussion of truth. Whatever God speaks is the truth without error. This is true because He is preeminently “the God of truth” (Is. 65:16) Who “cannot lie” (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Therefore, since God is true (John 3:3, 17:3), His Word is also truth (John 17:17) and a completely trustworthy guide for our faith (belief in God) and practice (life and behavior).
C. THE BIBLE: HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND IT? THE LAWS OF INTERPRETATION
So far in Chapter 2, we have discussed and established the following points:
1) All Scripture has been given to us by God Himself (God-breathed) and is not the invention or opinion of men . . .
Therefore . . .
2) The Word of God, the Bible, is free from error, in whole and in part (inerrant) and is conclusively and totally trustworthy for all that we need to know for salvation and the Christian life (infallible).
Since these two foundational principles are true, we must approach the Bible – and its application in our ministries and our personal lives – with a proper perspective.
God has made great effort to give us His Word over the centuries. And certainly He has given it to us for a particular purpose that is very important to Him and for us. Therefore the study, the proper understanding, and correct application of His Word to our lives and those to whom we minister must be of highest priority to us.
MAKE THE EFFORT!
Imagine if you had an important letter from someone you loved very much, and it was sent to you at great pain and sacrifice. Even if that letter was written in another language, you would make great effort to understand what was written in it, wouldn’t you?
How much greater effort should you make, then, to understand the Bible – the very Word of God, with all its life-giving truth for your life!
Unfortunately, many people interpret the Bible in many different ways. This has caused phenomenal heartache and confusion to thousands of people. We must not interpret Scripture just to suit our own opinions or ideas!
KEEP TO THE ROAD
Scripture commands that we as leaders in the Body of Christ must “be diligent to present [ourselves] approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). The phrase “rightly dividing” is used for the Greek word orthotornounta, which literally means “cutting straight”. This word was used to describe a furrow being plowed in a field, or a road that was being built.
Paul’s idea in this passage is that a truly dedicated “worker” (from the Greek word ergon – “toil”, “effort”) must be accurate and clear in his presentation of God’s Word to God’s people. God’s leader must keep to the “road” of living according to God’s Word, and help others do the same through his teaching and example. To “divide” the Word does not mean to cut it into pieces. It means to discern the truths and principles he finds there, apply them in his own life, and then give it faithfully to others.
STUDY… AND APPLY!
- But how can we be sure we are “rightly” interpreting Scripture?
- How can we avoid the misinterpretations of Scripture that have led to heresies and cults?
- How can we truly understand the Scripture, apply it to our lives, and teach others to do the same?
In this section we will discuss how to Interpret the Bible. This is known as hermeneutics – the science of interpretation.
Studying the various doctrines about the Word of God has only a little value – unless this study leads us to practically applying the truths of Scripture to our daily lives. Then we can begin to experience the awesome power and anointing that saturates God’s Word!
In order for us to properly understand and apply the Word of God to our lives, we must focus on three important essentials:
- We must approach the Scripture for what it is – the Word of Almighty God that speaks authoritatively and sufficiently to all of life.
- We must develop a Biblical style of hearing – which means to heed and obey.
- We must establish practical principles by which we can carefully interpret the Scriptures.
Let us now look at these points in more detail.
RESPECTING GOD’S WORD
- The Authority of the Bible.
All of us look to some final authority when we make decisions about how we will live. That final “authority” we feel we must please may be personal feelings, the opinions of others, or even our own experiences. But we all yield to someone or something as an authoritative source telling us how to conduct our lives.
God knows that we need objective, clear and relatively easy-to-understand guidelines and truths to help us know how to live on earth. Because we are finite (limited in intelligence, power, lifespan), we humans cannot be the source of ultimate truth. Our wisdom is insufficient; our scientific learning and technological achievements have only gotten us into more trouble. Our fleshly desires lead us into conflict and often get in the way of making right decisions.
Therefore, God has given us His Word – the Bible – which is the final and ultimate authority over all people of all times. It is the final Law and the only absolute truth that we can properly live by.
Over and over again the Lord of the universe speaks to us through His Word, giving us His objective revelation as to Who God is and what His will is for us. As we have seen earlier in this chapter, the Scriptures make claim to that place of authority as the revealed and inspired Word of God. (For further study see Isaiah 1:2, 8:20; Jeremiah 11:3; Ps. 119:120; Matthew 5:17-20; II Peter 3:2).
Jesus Himself accepted the full authority of the Scriptures. He quoted them frequently throughout His ministry – which shows He had a great respect for the Scriptures as the authoritative voice of His heavenly Father. This also meant He was very familiar with the Word of God! Our Savior also guided His life in obedience to the Word of God, thereby living a life pleasing to God.
Our own Christian walk must be filled with a similar acknowledgement of, and respect for, the absolute authority of the Scriptures. The Bible is the only set of unchanging truths that can teach us how to know God and live for Him. This recognition of the divine source of Scripture with all of its authority is vitally important. For through it we will grow in that healthy, awesome respect which the Scriptures call the “fear of the Lord”. Such “fear” is the “beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:10) and is a “fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27).
Truly, there can be no fear of the Lord which does not include a profound respect for and obedience to His Word. God’s Word is the “lamp unto our feet and the light unto our path” (ref.) that shows us how to walk in this life.
- The Sufficiency of the Bible
The Bible does not contain all knowledge in the universe. But it does contain everything humans need to know regarding salvation, life and godliness.
Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is not only inspired by God, but is also “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim 3:16-17).
Specifically, the Scriptures contain all we need to know to come to Christ in salvation and to live a fruitful and effective Christian life. The Scriptures reveal the Creator God of the universe, His desire to know us, and His will for every living person. Within the Scriptures, we can find time-proven and divinely- authored answers to every human question, and provision for every human need.
Search the Scriptures! For it is in them that you will discover truth, life, hope, freedom and joy! When we look deeply into God’s holy Word, we will discover a mirror reflecting the state of our own soul (James 1:23-25). But we will also see the resurrected Savior Who shed His blood on Calvary for you and me! And if you look closely you will see the eyes of your heavenly Father looking back at you. For He is watching over you with tender love and infinite care for your every need, and reveals His great love for you through His Word.
Truly, the Bible is an amazing Book worthy of a respectful approach. But we do not worship the Bible – we worship THE Word of God, Jesus, Who gave it to us, and our Father God, Who gave us Jesus Christ!
HEARING GOD’S WORD
Hearing something may seem like an easy thing to do. But how many times do we hear something without really listening to what we are hearing? Sometimes we treat our children that way. Even our spouses! Shamefully, we may treat God and His Word the same way.
My wife and I have served in large and small churches in a variety of pastoral roles for the past 24 years and now are serving World MAP. Many times I would observe people not really listening to the Word when it was read, or used in counseling. They would hear words being spoken, but were not letting the Truth bring conviction or change in their hearts.
When they ignored God’s Word, they did so to their own destruction.
We found that it was often people who were very familiar with the things of God and the truths of Scripture that had the most resistant hearts. As a young pastor long ago, I was tempted to be condemning towards these “lukewarm” Christians. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit dealt with me and showed me where I, too, was not really heeding the voice of God in an area of my life. Then a great insight took hold of me:
What if the people of my flock were “hard of hearing” because I was also?!
When this realization came through to me, I repented immediately and things began to change.
We as leaders can be the most easily deceived into thinking that being familiar with the Scriptures and being able to teach them is enough. We may become very excited about the illumination the Holy Spirit gives us, and teach the Truth with great zeal. But if the Truth does not change our own hearts and behavior, we have missed the most important lesson of all. Sometimes leaders are the ones who need a “hearing check-up”!
Jesus said, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you, and to you who hear more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him” (Mark 4:24-25).
Jesus is revealing a principle of spiritual growth. When we hear (take heed, receive) the Word and put it into practice (obey), our capacity for more knowledge and understanding will increase. Those who are hardened in their hearts and indifferent to the Word will eventually stop growing spiritually and lose whatever capability for spiritual understanding they once had.
“Hearing” the Word of God in the biblical sense means that we heed His Word, attend to it, learn it and put it into practice. As Paul told Timothy: “give attention to reading [the Scriptures] … to doctrine. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (I Tim 4:13, 15-16).
Hearing the Word also means that we obey its principles by putting them into practice. We especially need to live according to the Word in our relationships with others. The Word will teach us the ways to related as:
- people to God
- husband and wife
- children to parents
- the pastor and his church
- citizens and rulers
- even our actions and attitudes towards those who hate and persecute us.
We are truly hearing God when His words are more important to us than our happiness, comfort, and personal desires. And we can obey joyfully because we can trust the one Who wrote it; for He knows far better than we do the path to true joy.
INTERPRETING GOD’S WORD
Many people feel that the Bible is too difficult to understand. Many times in history, the church leadership denied people access to the Bible because they thought it would confuse them. Thus, the interpretation of the Scriptures was reserved for only the very educated theologians of the church.
But God has never intended His Word for only a select few! He wants every person to know and understand the Scriptures.
Being able to understand the original languages the Bible was written in, as well as having a knowledge of the culture of biblical times, is helpful. But neither are essential, because the basic truths of salvation and our walk with our Lord and Savior can be understood by all. And this is support by the Scriptures themselves.
For instance, Scripture tells us that the people themselves had the responsibility to judge prophetic utterances (I Cor. 14:29). And this they were to do on the basis of the truth they had received (Deut. 13:1-5; Gal 1:89; Acts 17:10-12). God’s Word was given to all peoples of all times.
Therefore, in this section we will look at ten key principles for studying and interpreting the holy Scriptures.
- Study your Bible thematically.
Choose a topic or a word in the Bible and look up every reference you can find using that word or idea. For instance, the word “redeem” is used many times in Scripture. If you have a concordance (or a copy of The Shepherd’s Staff) look up the Scriptures that use the words “redeem,” “redemption,” “redeemer,” etc. Seeing the many times and places a word is used in the Bible will give you a larger understanding of a biblical theme or word.
- Let Scripture Interpret Scripture.
Individual passages of Scripture do not exist in isolation from other passages of Scriptures; they are part of the whole revelation of God. Therefore, each passage of Scripture must be interpreted in relation to the truth of the whole Bible. Though the Bible was written over many centuries, it is still a unified, harmonious book. This is because it was authored by only One Author – the Holy Spirit of truth.
For instance, the “mark of the beast” mentioned in Revelation 13:16-18 is subject to a great deal of speculation as to what it might be. Some think it will be a computer chip placed in our hand or forehead. Others describe it as a tatoo.
But when we look at the whole of Scripture, we see that when “forehead” is mentioned, it often represents our will and our thinking. “Hand” in the Bible often represents our work or activities. To receive the “mark” is not something that can happen accidentally, or because we are ignorant of it. To receive the “mark” we would have to worship the beast (Rev. 13:15) by a willful choice made in our minds and shown in our actions. The choice will be clear enough that everyone will see it for what it is.
The “mark of the beast” is more than a technological device. It will involve the loyalty and allegiance that we give to the Antichrist, or instead reserve only for God. We do not know exactly what the “mark” will be – but the whole of Scripture helps us see that believers will be not taken by surprise.
- Look at the surrounding verses.
When studying a particular verse of Scripture, it is very important to look at the verses just before it and just after it. This often helps answer such questions as:
- Who is being spoken to?
- What larger issues or situations are being addressed?
- Is this verse more clearly explained by the other verses around it?
It is dangerous to pull a verse, or a phrase from a verse, away from where the Holy Spirit put it and apply it to another situation. This can lead to a serious misinterpretation of the verse being studied.
There is a funny story about a young person looking for a “word from God.” He sat down with his Bible and began to flip the pages. When he stopped flipping pages, he put his finger on the page and read whatever his finger happened to be pointing to. The first time, he read “Judas departed and went out and hanged himself” (Matt 27:5).
The young man was startled by this “word,” so he tried it again. This time his finger landed on “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37)!
The young man was now frightened, and thought he would try it just once more. So he flipped many pages (but not in Matthew or Luke!). And when he stopped, his finger pointed to John 13:27 which said: “whatever that thou doest, do quickly.”
The young man threw down his Bible and ran out of his room screaming.
We can laugh at this silly story, but there is a serious point here. Satan is a religious spirit and has had thousands of years of exposure to both the Scriptures and human nature. Satan knows how to twist Scripture, and wants to play upon our human ignorance and selfish desires. He tried it with Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-6) and succeeded in bringing about the Fall of mankind. He also tried it with Jesus (Matt 4:1-11) – and fortunately he was defeated!
We need to know our Bible! We need to use it correctly, and not mix or match verses to suit our own desires.
- Look for repetition in Scripture.
When God says the same thing over and over, it means that it is very important and worthy of our attention. Most often the infrequently mentioned in Scripture should yield to, or be interpreted by, the most frequently mentioned.
For instance, in the passage in I Corinthians 15:29 Paul states: Paul states, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then were they baptized for the dead?”
What could Paul have meant?!
This is the only place in the whole Bible where baptism for the dead is mentioned. There are a variety of interpretations that could be discussed, but we do not have the space to do so here.
Let it suffice to say that we should not take a single isolated Scripture with an uncertain meaning and build an entire doctrine out of it. Paul’s discussion in I Corinthians 15 is about the validity of the physical resurrection of the dead – not about an unclear baptismal ritual. Many scriptures give us a clear sense of direction about the Believers’ baptism in water (see Matthew 25:19; Acts 8:35-38; Romans 6:3-6; etc.). These scriptures, plus others, provide a solid basis for a born-again person to be baptized.
- Look for clarity in Scripture.
Sometimes we encounter a passage of Scripture that is difficult to understand. For example, justification by faith is a clearly repeated theme in Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. However, when you read James 2:14-26, it may seem that James is telling us we are not justified by faith alone, but need “works” also in order to be justified.
James, however, is not setting works against faith; rather, he is showing us two kinds of faith. One kind is a dead faith that is merely an empty claim or acceptance of a creed (even the devils “believe” — James 1:19)! The other kind is a saving faith that produces an obedient life out of love for the Savior.
Our “works” show the genuineness of what we profess to believe; they are the fruit of our faith (see James 2:17,19,26; John 15:1-8,16; Romans 6). Scripture emphasizes over and over that true faith is not religious deeds done in order to earn salvation without a born-again heart. But true faith results in good deeds to the glory of God the Father (Matt 5:16).
- Use a literal interpretation.
God did not inspire the writers of the Bible to write in some cryptic mysterious language. Nor are the events recorded in Scripture just stories that have some deeper, mysterious meaning. Rather, the Doctrine of Inspiration teaches us that God used natural human language to communicate His supernatural truth, and that we have an accurate historical record of real events that actually occurred.
a) Concerning Language. The goal of interpretation is the “plain meaning” understood by the original recipients of the teaching, prophecy, etc. We should interpret a passage in harmony with its meaning in the time of the author. This means we must pay close attention to the meanings of words and how the words are used. Ordinary language uses words in a variety of ways. This is also true in the Bible. We must sometimes differentiate between a literal or a figurative use of language. This was discussed under “The Doctrine of Inerrancy.”
b) Concerning Historical Events. Likewise, the historical events recorded in Scripture were also actual events that occurred. These events took place in our world, experienced by real people living at that time.
In seeking a literal interpretation of Scripture, we must not leave out the supernatural!
Just because the Bible records events that have not occurred in recent human experience does not mean they are not true. The great worldwide Flood of Noah’s time, the confusion of languages at Babel, the plagues on Egypt at the time of Exodus, the virgin birth of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead – all these are miracles that the Bible records with truth and accuracy!
If God is Who He says He is, then any or all of the miraculous events of the Bible are not beyond His ability to bring to reality, for “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14).
- Biblical “Types” and “shadows” should remain consistent.
A “type” or “shadow” is a person, object or event that is prophetically symbolic of someone or something yet to come. This biblical “foreshadowing” is similar to, or has characteristics of that person or event.
For instance, the Passover lamb of Exodus 11 and 12 is a “type” or foreshadowing of Christ. The redemptive and protective role of the blood of that Passover lamb prophetically displays the redemptive role Christ would fulfill when He died for the sins of the world. The Old Testament type – Passover lamb – foreshadows the New Testament fulfillment – Christ, the Lamb of God.
Another example is the Old Testament laws of God, which are described in Hebrews 10:1 as only “having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.”
Because of what Christ has done, there is no more need for continual animal sacrifices for sin. What Christ has done is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin and is sufficient for the salvation of all people everywhere for all times who receive Him (John 3:16; Heb 9:11-12, 23-28, 10:10; 1 Pet 3:18).
These Old Testament types are not complete in and of themselves. God purposely intended it to be this way, for these types only foreshadow what was to be completely fulfilled in the New Covenant established by Christ.
It is important for us to not try to interpret every tiny detail of the “type”, but keep to a more general interpretation. Remember also that types should be used only to illustrate a doctrine – not invent one!
- Is an Old Testament type given new meaning in the New Testament?
God’s dealings with His people changed throughout history as His plans for mankind unfolded. The Mosaic Law with its many regulations was given to Israel to prepare them for God’s Son to come. Galatians 3:24-25 says, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (see also Romans 7:6). It would be wrong to insist that the specific regulations designed for the good of Israel at a particular time in history be imposed upon Christians today.
An example of this would be the dietary laws of Israel. They may actually be beneficial to a person’s health, but to insist that they are God’s law for all time would be a serious misinterpretation. Paul states in Colossians 2:20-23 that the regulations about what we eat cannot save us, and that only justification by faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation. (Also see Acts 10:9-16; 1 Cor 8:8, 10:3.)
Another example is the set of Mosaic laws regarding the necessity of regular animal sacrifices in order for forgiveness to be given by God. In the book of Hebrews, chapters 9 and 10, we are shown the absolute supremacy of Christ’s sacrifice over the “blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer… how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the Living God?” (Heb. 9:13-14)
It is very important to understand that God in history was progressively revealing His plan of salvation. The ultimate result of this predetermined plan of God was the sacrificial death and resurrection of His Son.
This does not mean that the eternal principles of the Old Testament are done away with. Rather, these principles of the Old Testament have been built upon, to lead us to God’s most important revelation – His Son Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament “type” of the repeated sacrifice of lambs is given new meaning in the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God – Jesus Christ.
Let us rejoice in all the Biblical record preserved for us, for “all these things happened to them as examples and they were written for our instruction.” (See I Cor. 10:1-11)
- Understand the cultural and historical context.
It is helpful to have some knowledge of the various customs of biblical times and their relation to spiritual truth. Such knowledge can help us sort out a temporary cultural expression from the eternal truth that God is speaking to us.
An excellent example of this is when Paul requires women in the Corinthian church to wear veils. His statements occur in I Corinthians 11. In the Corinthian culture, a woman who appeared bareheaded in public was considered to be immoral. Uncovered hair or a shaved head could symbolize an immoral or unclean condition (Num 5:18; Lev 14:8-9) in the Jewish culture.
However, the essence of Paul’s statements does not concern a temporary cultural expression like a veil or head-covering. Rather, it concerns a women’s inner submissive attitude, especially to her husband.
Understanding the cultural and historical setting of a Scripture passage – i.e., to whom was it written, and when – can help us avoid confusion. However, our goal in studying the Bible is not just to gain a knowledge of the cultural and historical background. Our greatest priority should be to discover what God is saying through a particular text. For this to take place, we must be constantly seeking the guidance and illuminating power of the Holy Spirit.
- Prioritize the Bible’s Purpose
It is essential to remember that the Bible is not primarily a record of the history of Israel and the early church. The Bible is first and foremost a witness to divine revelation, a witness that points beyond itself to a supernatural reality. This means that the eyes of our understanding must be opened by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.
It is very difficult to find something if you don’t know what you are looking for! This is especially true when studying the Bible. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind the main purpose of the Bible.
Simply put, the main purpose of God’s Word is to teach us. That means that the “teaching” portions of the Scriptures (the Law, the prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, the New Testament) should be the primary focus of our studies.
Can we learn a great deal from the historic books? Of course! And we should study them as well. The historic books are indeed inspired, and they accurately report historic events. But the historic books, by themselves, are not the foundation upon which to build doctrine. Rather, the historic events recorded in the Scriptures should confirm and illustrate the doctrines in the teaching portions of Scripture.
We find an excellent example of this in God’s covenant promises of blessing and cursing, as recorded in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. God promises to bless the Israelites abundantly, overwhelmingly if they will obey His laws and statutes. But He also promises to judge them if they disobey and are disloyal to God!
If we keep in mind these two teaching chapters from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we can read Kings and Chronicles – and the prophetic books as well – with a much deeper understanding. (See I Kings 9:1-9; II Chronicles as:1-2; Daniel 9:1-19, as just a few examples.)
The Bible is not a random collection of various stories, teachings, events and sayings. It is a unified whole dealing with one problem – man’s sin and separation from God; and offering one solution – salvation through Christ and restoration of relationship to God!
We hope that, having read this chapter, you have received a greater insight into the trustworthiness of Scripture. We hope you have gained not only a deeper appreciation for God’s Word – but also a growing skill in “rightly dividing the Word of Truth”. We hope that you will appreciate the tremendous power and blessing contained in the Living Word of God! And we hope that you will teach others the same.