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)