Category Archives: #INTERPRETATION
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)
by Cameron Buettel
It’s been just over a year since the highly publicized and controversial Strange Fire conference.
As a Grace to You employee with a charismatic background, I watched the buildup to the conference with a considerable amount of interest. I am certainly no stranger to the grievous damage caused by reckless false prophecies in the charismatic church. But since none of that spiritual fallout ever touched me personally, my animosity for the movement did not run deep. In fact, the major gripe I had with my old mainstream Pentecostal church was the same gripe I have with the church growth and emergent movements—a failure to rightly preach the gospel.
But as Strange Fire approached, I had the opportunity to study the charismatic movement with much closer scrutiny than before. In particular, I investigated several influential charismatic leaders, consuming an unhealthy amount of their videos and writing.
That investigation revealed a clear pattern that charismatics follow when engaged in debate. It’s almost a codified playbook of sorts for their self-defense (call it Foxe’s Book of Charismatics With Hurt Feelings), and it goes like this:
- Dogged insistence that the gifts of prophesy, tongues, and healing continue to the present day.
- Vague anecdotal evidence in support of the continuation of those gifts.
- Unshakable confidence that the worst charismatic abusers and charlatans represent only the renegade fringe of the movement, and that they wield limited influence among mainstream charismatics.
- Staunch refusal to name, criticize, or publically disavow those abusers and offenders at the supposed fringe of the movement.
- Dire warnings that rejecting anyone who claims to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit or wield His power is tantamount to rejecting the Spirit Himself.
- Total disinterest in discussing or debating any doctrinal or ecclesiological issues other than continuationism versus cessationism.
- Confident assertions about the explosive growth of the charismatic church worldwide, and blithe acceptance that everyone who claims to be a charismatic is an authentic believer.
For many charismatic apologists, their self-defense doesn’t even extend that far. For them, the debate begins and ends with continuationism, so that’s all they ever want to talk about. In fact, most of the responses to Strange Fire have amounted to little more than reviving certain authors’ greatest hits in defense of the continuation of the apostolic gifts.
What’s important about that is this: Strange Fire was not primarily or even significantly about cessationism. Yes, it’s true that one of the keynote sessions made a biblical case for the cessation of the apostolic gifts, while others defended cessationism as the historical position of the church. But it still constituted only one part of a broad response to the charismatic movement as a whole.
In fact, if continuationism was the only issue in the charismatic movement that John MacArthur and the other Strange Fire speakers were concerned about, there likely never would have been a conference or a book to begin with.
Instead, Strange Fire addressed the rampant abuse of the Holy Spirit, the perversion of Scripture, and the danger charismatic teaching and practice represent to hundreds of millions of people around the world. It covered an array of theological and doctrinal issues, and it raised several important questions that charismatics need to address.
And yet a year later, the responses to the conference continue to focus on defending the continuation of the gifts. It makes you wonder whether charismatic leaders are defiant or merely deaf.
So in the interest of advancing the conversation beyond the endless defense of continuationism, let us table that part of the discussion. If it helps, imagine that we’ve conceded that point of debate. (We haven’t, but that’s beside the point at the moment.) There still remains a whole raft of questions and issues that need to be addressed. Questions like:
- Is there any statistical evidence that proves the so-called “lunatic fringe” of the charismatic world is not actually the mainstream of the movement? Compelling statistics were produced at Strange Fire that indicated the prevalence of prosperity theology in mainstream charismatic churches. Can those numbers be contradicted, or is it time to reconsider who is truly on the fringe?
- What is the responsibility of charismatic leaders to police their own movement beyond the walls of their individual churches? Who will be willing unequivocally to call out heretics and charlatans? And why are so many charismatics comfortable with false teachers serving as the face of their movement?
- What constitutes the true, biblical gospel? And what deviations from it qualify as apostasy and heresy? In particular, how do you make sense of the rise of charismatic expressions in the Catholic Church? Is it possible to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit while continuing to reject the biblical gospel?
- Is Oneness Pentecostalism heresy? Or is perverting the doctrine of the Trinity not really such a big deal after all?
- How are manufactured experiences—like seeding air conditioning vents with gold flakes and promoting man-made prophecies—helpful or encouraging for true spiritual growth? Why should the proliferation of phonies give anyone confidence that the real thing even exists?
- Is the prosperity gospel biblical? If not, doesn’t it fall under the curse of Galatians 1:8–9?
- When it comes to Scripture’s instructions and prohibitions for life in the church—for example, Paul’s clear teaching about female pastors, or his admonition for only one person at a time to speak in tongues—how seriously do we need to take those things today? Again, are these matters worth dividing over?
- Does the gift of tongues as practiced in charismatic churches today bear any resemblance to the supernatural events on the Day of Pentecost, or any other expression of the gift of tongues found in the book of Acts? If not, why is the dramatic difference acceptable for continuationists?
- If today’s prophets are not held to the biblical standard of one-hundred percent accuracy, what standard is there for people who make false prophecies? Or is modern prophecy nothing more than a crapshoot?
- Finally, in the immediate aftermath of Strange Fire, Phil Johnson made an appearance on Dr. Michael Brown’s radio program. Phil issued Brown a challenge—which Brown accepted—to produce any audio of Mike Bickle or someone of similar influence in the charismatic movement making a clear presentation of the gospel. We’re still waiting for that audio.
We want to see someone—anyone—from the charismatic side take up those important issues. Until then, the persistent debate over cessationism and continuationism feels like little more than a deliberate diversion.
If the charismatic movement were truly as vibrant and Spirit-filled as charismatic apologists claim, John MacArthur would never have needed to host the Strange Fire conference or write the book. The issues he and the other speakers raised at Strange Fire should have been dealt with decades ago by charismatics who were faithful to the biblical gospel and recognized the need to address the many perversions that were gaining traction.
Our preference still is for those faithful believers within the movement—who hold fast to Scripture and love the truth—to step up and clean house. Consider these our suggestions about where they might want to start.
Evangelist & Web Minister
For her physical appearance, the Great Prostitute is described as having emblazoned across her forehead a tattoo that says: “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth.” The woman is dressed in purple and scarlet and glitters with gold, precious stones and pearls. She holds a golden cup in her hand filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.
As for her actions, she commits adultery with the kings of the earth. She intoxicates the inhabitants of the earth with the wine of her adulteries. She rides upon a seven-headed, ten-horned, scarlet beast which is covered with blasphemous names and sits on many waters. She is found drunk on the blood of the saints who proclaim Jesus Christ.
A Blog Poll
Every month on The Christ in Prophecy Journal Blog atwww.lamblion.us, we poll our readership on a topic related to Bible prophecy. In November 2008’s blog poll we asked, “Who or what is the Great Prostitute of Revelation 17?” The purpose of the question was to determine the views of people on who or what they thought the woman is who verse 5 calls a “Mystery.” The results are in the graph depicted below.
Who She Is Not
A Woman — The Great Prostitute is not a yet unrevealed woman. For one, no individual can sit upon many waters (verse 1). Secondly, she is called a “great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” Cities in the Bible are often used to represent people groups, empires, or systems. As much as some would like to point to the pop singer Lady Gaga or a particular female politician, neither they nor any other single woman fits the bill.
UN or EU — The Great Prostitute is not the United Nations or European Union. The Beast, we are told, is the future one-world leader who is handed over power to rule what ten future leaders of the earth will control (verses 12-13). While the Antichrist and ten kings will make war against Jesus and certainly kill many of Jesus’ followers (verse 14), they hate the Great Prostitute and by God’s prompting participate in her destruction (verse 16-17). Since these political systems will give rise to the ten kings,neither can they also be the Great Prostitute because they hate and kill her.
Hollywood — The Great Prostitute is not Hollywood. While Hollywood certainly spews its licentious garbage upon mankind who thirstily drink it down, it cannot be accused of the mass murder of believers in Christ (well, at least not physically).
Babylon — The Great Prostitute will not be a newly constructed city called Babylon. Babylon was certainly a great city like verse 18 states, but it is a city cursed, never to be rebuilt. Isaiah 13:20 makes it very clear that Babylon would cease to be inhabited forever. In accordance with this prophecy, Babylon was conquered by the Medes and then it began a long decline that ultimately resulted in its abandonment to the forces of nature. By the time of Christ, one eyewitness reported that the city was nothing but “mounds and stones and ruins.” Even Saddam Hussein was unable to rebuild it into more than a paltry tourist spot. Why then is she also called “Babylon the Great?” Because Babylon has always been credited as the source of world cultic spiritual evil which will hold a dominant presence during the Tribulation.
Islam — The Great Prostitute is not Islam. Women are often used in the Scriptures to symbolize religious systems, and Islam is certainly a religious system. It has caused the bloody martyrdom of countless Christians in its 1,400 years. But, by the time of the Tribulation, Islam will be just another false religious system that will be wiped out. Islamic battles against Israel in Psalm 83 and Ezekiel 38-39 will bring about the demise of Islam as a power.
What She Could Be
Because women are used in the Scriptures to symbolize religious systems, the Great Prostitute is indeed a religious system. The three remaining religious systems on the survey are the Apostate Church, a One-World Religion, and Humanism (which at its core is the worship of self).
Which religious system the Great Prostitute is can be interpreted by where she sits. The text says she sits in four places — on the beast (Antichrist), on seven hills, on seven kings, and across the nations and peoples of the world.
Apostate Church — The majority of voters (47%) voted for the Apostate Church. These voters could be correct based on the sitting reference in verse 9 to seven hills. Two major cities that rest upon seven hills are Rome and Istanbul (formerly Constantinople named after the Roman Emperor Constantine), and both were centers of government in the Roman Empire at different points in time. Istanbul can be discounted, though, for at the time of John’s writing Rome was the commanding city of the known world, and John would have recognized it as such. Also, Istanbul loses any future prominence due to the elimination of Islam as a world religious system, as mentioned earlier. John was clearly looking towards Rome as the city on seven hills. Rome is the heart of the revived Roman Empire, which the world today is seeing grow out of the European Union.
Rome also houses the Vatican, which is the seat of Roman Catholic papal authority. This authority reaches across the“peoples, multitudes, nations and languages” of the world as verse 15 states. In its history, the Roman Catholic Church has the blood of countless Protestant believers and the victims of crusaders and inquisitors on its hands.
Also, after the Rapture, the only “Church” left will be the apostate followers of Christ who, as 2 Timothy 3:5 states,“have a form of godliness but denying its power.” While many true believers will come out of the Catholic Church and be raptured as part of the Bride of Christ, the overall heretical structure will continue to exist during the first half of the Tribulation to give credence and support to the other apostate Christian denominations left in the world. The Vatican after the Rapture will be the universalistic banner to which all the Christians in name only will rally to.
One-World Religion — The second largest voting bloc in the poll (28%) believe the Great Prostitute will be a one-world religion. These voters could be correct based on her sitting on the seven kings of verse 10. Five of the kings fell before John’s time, so they must have been pivotal to world rulership in relation to Israel. The sixth “one is” to John would have been Caesar. The seventh king who “has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while” is the Antichrist, called so in 1 John 2:18. “The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king” and “belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction” could only be Satan himself ruling through these seven human rulers throughout history, as there are no other kings after Jesus Christ once Jesus sets up His Millennial Kingdom. These kings extend over a time period much longer than the 2,000 years the Church has been around and cover all the world’s peoples.
Humanism — A small minority (only 2%) voted that Humanism in all its flavors such as Cultural, Modern, Religious, but particularly Secular, will be the religion of the first half of the Tribulation. I myself voted in this group for this reason — all false religion stems from man’s belief in Satan’s lie from the Garden of Eden where Satan said “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). All expressions of worship not towards God are flat out rebellion against the Creator. Even if we personally are not the object of our own worship, by setting ourselves up in our own religion we are worshiping self, so therefore it is Humanism.
The Old Testament is overwhelmingly filled with God’s stated hatred of spiritual harlotry. He chastised Israel again and again for running after foreign gods in rebellion. Be it an apostate form of what God truly wants, or a deviation from all norms that God has established for worship — man’s rebellion is about the worship of self.
By the midpoint of the Tribulation when Satan indwells the Antichrist, whatever flavor of humanistic self-worship the people adhere to, all will be made to cease to exist. The Antichrist, False Prophet, and the Ten Rulers will be sure to take the Great Prostitute of human-willed spiritual harlotry and the institution in which she is enshrouded and “bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire” (verse 16). Only one religion will be allowed to exist 3 1/2 years into the Tribulation by the Antichrist’s demonic master, and that will be the worship of Satan through his Antichrist “messiah.”
Praise be to Jesus Christ who returns 3 1/2 years later to doom that “beast” to eternal destruction and set up His kingdom of peace and righteousness!