Being the geek that I am, I followed with much enthusiasm the European Space Agency’s successful attempt landing the Philae probe on a comet. [Remember when the USA and NASA used to do that kind of cool stuff? Good times]. The entire process took nearly a decade when the Rosetta orbiter was launched, circled the earth three times, took a swing around Mars, and eventually caught up with Comet 67P.
The entire process was really amazing. The photos that are being beamed back are breathtaking. As we look at wonder upon those images, the only way that all happened is that God has created an orderly universe that is governed by His rational laws of logic that give us the ability to mathematically calculate the orbit of an incoming comet from the outer solar system and plan the trajectory of a space vehicle to meet with it and send a…
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by John MacArthur
The period of European history known as the Dark Ages were just that—dark. Mortality rates were exceptionally high. Medical advances could not keep up with the spread of disease. Poverty and illiteracy were pervasive. And on top of all that, the light of God’s Word was monopolized and distorted by the Roman Catholic Church. Only the religious elite had access to Scripture, and most of them manipulated and perverted its message beyond recognition.
That darkness gave way to the Reformation. The Protestant Reformers recovered the gospel and made Scripture accessible to the common man. They rejected the idea of a pope who presumed to speak for God on earth. God spoke through Scripture and the Reformers devoted themselves tirelessly to the labor of making it readily available in the language of the people.
Today, people all over the world can own and study the Bible in their own languages. That great blessing for Christians brings the responsibility to study God’s Word. And from that study, believers have the joy and duty of representing the Creator and proclaiming His message. Over the previous two weeks we’ve looked at several aspects of how to study the Bible, including:
- Placing the proper value on God’s Word.
- Reading both the Old and New Testaments.
- Interpreting a biblical text before it is applied.
- Avoiding common errors of interpretation.
- Bridging the gaps between the modern reader and the original author.
- Knowing the principles of Bible interpretation.
Those fundamentals, when incorporated into your study of Scripture, will progressively grow your knowledge of God and yourself, and cultivate a well-rounded biblical worldview. It is in His Word that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in an intimate and saving way. He owns us, knows us, and holds us responsible to know, understand, and proclaim Him on His terms and not our own.
Scripture is sacred and we should treat it as such by carefully handling its truth. Paul exhorted Timothy to study Scripture as a workman “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The tradesmen of Paul’s time needed to carry out their work with precision and great care. Paul was saying that the same sort of approach is needed when studying Scripture.
God instructed Israel concerning that very issue:
These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6:6–7)
In other words, you ought to have God’s Word running around in your mind all the time. If you’re reading a portion of the New Testament thirty times in a row, as previously suggested, it will penetrate and shape your thinking. It should lead to meditation, which takes all the dimensions of study we’ve discussed and molds them into a unified understanding of biblical truth.
The word meditate can evoke thoughts of empty minds and eastern religions. But it is more likely that Hindus and Buddhists borrowed the term from the Bible and twisted its meaning to conform with their false religions. From the time of Joshua’s military conquest of Canaan, we hear the Lord instructing His people to meditate on God’s Word (Joshua 1:8). So what does meditate mean? Biblically, it means to focus your mind on one subject.
In Deuteronomy, God tells His people that they should bind His words, “as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals to your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8–9). God says He wants His Word everywhere.
David highlighted the role meditation plays in our sanctification when he wrote the first Psalm. The blessed man is one who meditates both day and night on God’s law rather than seeking counsel in the fellowship of unbelievers (Psalm 1:1–3). It is the key to his perseverance and fruitfulness as a child of God.
Meditation is no less needed today. We live in a culture that continually assaults us with distractions through billboards, television, the Internet, and more. God says that we should keep His Word perpetually in front of our eyes, filling our minds and conversations wherever we go.
Paul clarified what our minds should feed on:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Ultimately, our ongoing relationship with God hinges on sound biblical study. He places monumental importance on knowing, proclaiming, and worshipping Him rightly. And Scripture is the engine driving all of those things. The Dark Ages may have ended, but those who neglect to study and meditate on Scripture shun the light of God’s Word and continue to walk in willful darkness.
(Adapted from How to Study the Bible)
by John MacArthur
Cynics love to mock Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. They note supposed absurdities like, the Bible is a sword (Hebrews 4:12); Jesus is a door (John 10:7); and God is a bird (Psalm 61:4). Of course, such caricatures of the process are obvious misrepresentations of proper biblical interpretation.
Serious students of Scripture, committed to its accuracy and authority, follow five basic principles of interpretation in order to understand the Bible how its authors intended.
1. The Literal Principle
When you read the Bible assume God is speaking in normal language, common everyday communication. If it says man, it means man. If it says the man went somewhere, it means he went somewhere. If it says he built a house, it means he built a house. This is understanding Scripture in the literal sense of language.
Scripture employs are similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and figurative language throughout. Even sarcasm is employed as a literary device. Those devices are used alongside normal, literal language to help illustrate or punctuate what Scripture is saying to the reader. There is seldom confusion in what God’s Word says or how it says it.
In everyday conversation, if we hear someone say, “That man is as strong as an ox,” no one is confused. That is simply using a simile to make a literal point or statement. We need to be wary of those who claim to unlock the Bible’s secrets by bending and twisting symbolic language beyond its clear intent. There is no need to extrapolate some mystical interpretation out of the text, nor insert one into it.
2. The Historical Principle
History is not only a gap to be bridged, but a context to be understood. What did the text mean to the people to whom it was spoken or written? What was the situation the author and his audience found themselves in? Historical circumstances not only explain what is written, but often why it is written. Ignoring the historical setting often leads to missing the point of a passage.
3. The Grammatical Principle
Very few people enjoy grammar, let alone remember their grammar lessons. But grammar is the key to meaning. Prepositions, pronouns, verbs, nouns—and the other parts of speech—are the bones that support every sentence. Imagine a medical examiner trying to determine cause of death without knowing basic anatomy. The result would be no less confusing and prone to error than interpreting the Bible without considering its grammar.
For example, consider the great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). On first reading, “go” sounds like an imperative (verb) as does “make disciples,” “baptizing,” and “teaching.” But as you study the sentence, you will find that there’s only one imperative—mathēteusate, “make disciples.” “Go,” “baptizing,” and “teaching” are actually all participles which means they modify the main verb. The central command of the great commission is to “make disciples.” How does one make disciples? You go, baptize, and teach. Understanding the grammar makes the fullness of that concept come out in the text.
4. The Synthesis Principle
The synthesis principle is what the Reformers called the analogia scriptura—the Scripture all comes together. In other words, one part of the Bible doesn’t teach something that another part contradicts. So as you study the Scripture it must all harmonize. (By the way, this is another reason a comprehensive Bible-reading plan is critical.)
For example, Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46) cannot be about salvation by works (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner), because Ephesians 2:8–9 tells us that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works. Careful examination reveals that the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 all thought of themselves as believers—they both call Jesus “Lord” (Matthew 25:37,44). Furthermore, this harmonizes with James 2:17 which says that “faith, if it has no works, is dead.” That’s the synthesis principle.
J.I. Packer has wonderfully said, “The Bible appears like a symphony orchestra, with the Holy Ghost as its Toscanini, each instrument has been brought willingly, spontaneously, creatively, to play his notes just as the great conductor desired, though none of them could ever hear the music as a whole….The point of each part only becomes fully clear when seen in relation to all the rest” (from God Has Spoken).
Do you know what that tells me? There are no contradictions in Scripture. What appear as contradictions can be resolved if we have the information, because the Bible comes together as a whole.
5. The Practical Principle
The final question is: So what? As you try to interpret the Bible, how do you find out what it means for your life? Make sure in your Bible study that you find the practical principle. Read the text and find out what spiritual principle is there that applies to you. But remember that you can’t do that until you’ve gone through the other principles first—literal, historical, grammatical, and synthesis. You know what it means by what it says—now you come to how it applies to you.
You must interpret the Bible rightly. Avoid the common errors, bridge the gaps between the biblical text and your modern setting, and apply the proper principles of interpretation. That brings you to the place where you are ready to engrave God’s Word on your heart (Proverbs 3:3) by meditating on the text. We’ll consider that next time.
(Adapted from How to Study the Bible)
by John MacArthur
The Bible has been around for thousands of years. That is a huge gulf of history for the modern reader to cross. How are we to understand what the Bible writers were saying, as well as the various circumstances in which they lived?
One popular answer from modern pulpits to those questions is to transport our modern context into the biblical text. When Scripture tells us that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:6–10), prosperity preachers equate this with Jesus driving a Ferrari to the White House. Equally bizarre, social justice advocates think it is a blueprint for organizing a protest. Neither approach deals with what Matthew is telling us. The faithful shepherd (and Bible student) must lead his congregation across the historical bridge and immerse them in the culture and context of the biblical authors.
There are four interpretive gaps that the bridge must cross:
1. The Language
We speak English but the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and a few parts in Aramaic (which is similar to Hebrew). That language gap must be bridged in order to properly understand Scripture. For example, in 1 Corinthians 4:1 the apostle Paul says, “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ” (KJV). When we think of the English word minister, we think of a prime minister or the minister of defense. Many people refer to their pastor as a minister. A minister is an elevated thing; it’s a dignified term. But the Greek word is huperetes, which means a third-level galley slave on a ship. Paul wanted others to think of him as a lowly slave—someone without power, authority, or rights—for Jesus Christ. You would never get that out of the English term. Why? Because there’s a language gap.
One of the benefits of newer or updated English translations is that modern translators are able to bring together the best understanding of ancient words with how English words are used and understood today. For example, the New American Standard translates “minister” as “servant” in that text. Thankfully, many Greek and Hebrew words translate well into English, but even modern translations can’t always convey the full meaning of the ancient words.
That’s why it is critical to study the words in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. What tools do you need for this kind of study? In addition to a good modern translation and a good concordance, you should get W. E. Vine’s An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Moody Press, 1985). It’s very helpful for someone who doesn’t know Greek. You can look up every English word, and it will tell you the Greek meaning. It will be a great help to you as you study the Bible.
2. The Culture
Ancient cultural differences is another gap that must be bridged in Bible study. If we don’t understand the culture of the time in which the Bible was written, we’ll never understand its meaning. For example: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What does that mean? Why didn’t he say, “In the beginning was Jesus”? Well, he used “the Word” because that was the vernacular at that time. To the Greeks the term Word was used to refer to a kind of ethereal, spatial energy that was floating around. John said to the Greeks that that floating cause, that thing which caused everything, that spatial energy, that cosmic power, is none other than the Word that became flesh (1:14).
To the Jew, the term Word was always the manifestation of God, because “the Word of the Lord” was always God emanating His personality. When John said “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” he was identifying Jesus Christ, the incarnate Christ, as the very emanation of God. In the text, therefore, he meets the Greek mind and Hebrew mind with the right word that grabs both at vital points.
This continues all through the Bible. If you don’t understand the religious ideas of Gnosticism, you’ll miss a lot of meaning from Colossians and 1 John. If you don’t understand the dynamics of Jewish culture in Gentile cities, you’ll miss the reason for Paul’s strong language against the Judaizers in Galatians. If you don’t understand the Jewish mindset, you’ll miss significant aspects of the book of Matthew. There must be cultural comprehension to fully understand the Bible.
Some books that would help you in this area are The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Eerdmans, 1974) and Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series by William B. Barclay (Westminster, 1975). Barclay’s insights into culture are very good in spite of his bad theology.
3. The Geography
Geography places a major role throughout the Bible, and therefore joins language and culture as another gap that must be bridged. Understanding directions, distances, terrain, the size of cities and their strategic importance can make a significant difference in your understanding of a particular text. Geographical details will rarely, if ever, change the meaning of the text. However, they add rich color and depth to an otherwise flat and black-and-white page.
The dirty tepid water that flowed into Laodicea was no match for the famous hot springs in nearby Hierapolis, nor the clear cold mountain streams of Colossae. Just that basic information helps bring vivid detail to Christ’s announcement that he would spew the lukewarm Laodiceans out of his mouth as they were neither hot or cold (Revelation 3:14–16). The Mount of Olives, where Jesus prayed in the garden, is where the glory of the Lord ascended after departing from the temple (Ezekiel 11:23). When Jesus returns in all His glory He will descend and His feet will touch down on that very mountain (Zechariah 14:4). Geographical details not only enable us to visualize many passages, they also help us to make connections otherwise hidden. A good Bible atlas is an invaluable reference tool that can help you comprehend the geography of the Holy Land.
4. The History
Finally, knowing the history behind a passage will also help your comprehension. In the gospel of John, the key to understanding the interplay between Pilate, the Jews, and Jesus is based on the knowledge of history. When Pilate came to power in Judea, he infuriated the Jews by bringing what the Jews perceived as idolatrous images into Jerusalem. Sometime later the Jews reported him to Emperor Tiberius when he antagonized them by a similar act. Tiberius was less than sympathetic with Pilate. In an attempt to avoid another confrontation with the Jews, Pilate let Christ be crucified. Why was he afraid? Because he already had a rotten track record, and his job was on the line.
Space doesn’t allow me to go into detail, but a fascinating study that will greatly enrich your understanding is the history between Jews and Samaritans. The history between these two groups will help you understand why any intersection between Jesus and Samaria was scandalous to the Jews, and why a Samaritan village refused to host Jesus and his disciples, prompting James and John to ask Jesus permission to call fire from heaven to consume the village (Luke 9:51-56).
The Bible is a book of history, but there is a lot of history outside the Bible that directly affects what is written in the Bible. A growing understanding of history will open the meaning of the Bible. One excellent source is The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan, 1976).
To interpret the Bible means closing those four gaps. As you interpret the meaning of Scripture by using the various sources, you will close the language gap, the culture gap, the geography gap, and the history gap. With those pieces of information in place, you will be ready to apply the principles of Bible interpretation. And we’ll examine that next.
(Adapted from How to Study the Bible)