The Gates Are Open


Principles of Bible Interpretation – Part 1

Read carefully these words, written in the 1500s:

“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

—Martin Luther, discoursing on how Copernicus was unbiblical about the Earth revolving around the Sun.

Or perhaps this 1637 declaration will be more biblical than Luther”:

“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must die with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”

— Captain John Underhill, defending how his Puritan friends and he killed the entire Pequot tribe.

Maybe you’re thinking this kind of interpretation shenanigans only happens in the far past. Here is one quote from the 1960s, spoken by the founder of one of America’s most conservative Bible Colleges:

“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in our country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.” 

— Bob Jones Sr., in his treatise against integration titled, “Is Segregation Biblical?”

I could put up quote after quote for page after page. People have defended slavery, racial cleansing, spousal abuse, overt racism, war, ignoring the poor, acquisition of great wealth–all from the Bible!

But most people reading what I have just said will say to themselves, “well, at least those aren’t my problems”. I should hope they’re not. But I believe the mistakes which are made by the people quoted above are made most days when people read the Bible. These mistakes are not errors in their ability to read, but in their ability to interpret.

I’m going to make my signature statement for this article series. And many of you are not going to like it; but that’s the way it is.

You can’t just read the Bible to know what God is saying. You must learn to interpret what is says. And most people do not know or care how to do that. Therefore, most people will do more harm in reading the Bible than if they had never picked it up.

One statement, often uttered in conservative bible churches always makes me cringe: “Well, that’s what the Bible says and I just believe it“. The speakers of this phrase go on to say “I may not be learned like you, but God made things plain in the Bible and I just believe it.” My friends, this statement is so full of error, I cannot begin to tell you how much pain and agony this idea has cost us.

It takes intelligence to interpret the Bible. It takes hard work to interpret the Bible. It takes a person dedicated to walking in the Holy Spirit’s power to interpret the Bible. And not that many people have what it takes to do it properly and consistently.

If that opens me up to a charge of elitism, then so be it. I console myself in knowing that even people with doctorates in theology sometime fail to meet the above qualifications.

But just so you know I do not consider my position on this to be elitist, let me explain.

The Bible was inspired by God, but it was written by people. It was written by people who understood their historical context and were learning where they were in the Story of God. They didn’t understand our modern world, and they didn’t write what they wrote so we could understand it. They wrote down what they wrote so the people of their day could understand it.

Why does that matter? Because they wrote the Bible using languages, cultural references, metaphors, stories, historical challenges etc.  which are foreign to us. If we would begin to understand what they wrote, the Bible must be translated from its original documents. Then, several more steps must be taken to get to the bottom of what we can use in our lives.

Just saying, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is going to get you and others into a lot of trouble. I want to save you and others from that trouble.

In the next several articles, I am going to lay out for you what it will cost for you to learn how to interpret. The practice of Interpretation is called Hermeneutics. I would like for you to practice accepted and helpful hermeneutics so you can both grace your own life with God’s truth and maybe teach others.

Reading the Bible in the Spirit – Part 4

Posted on March 31, 2017

Read Part 1 here:

Part 2:

Part 3:

If a respected teacher and leader warned you about something twelve times in two separate emails, would you get the impression he needs you to pay attention? This is what the Apostle Paul does with his disciple Timothy in the two letters he writes him.

Twelve times, he warns this young missionary/pastor to avoid endless disputes over words, quarreling over the meaning of Scripture and fights over doctrine. Twelve times, he lays out a mentor’s course change for his young disciple. I hope Timothy got the message. I hope we do as well.

The Flesh loves to get its own way, and nothing feels more satisfying than using the Bible to beat another person. Though I can see the value in playing games with kids and the Bible—such as Sword Drills where kids compete in who can look up a reference the fastest, and Bible Quizzing where teens memorize Scripture and then jump off electronic seats to answer questions about those verses—perhaps we are creating little Flesh warriors who use the Bible as their weapon.

We are not wise to use the metaphor of the Bible as a sword too often.

Though it is legitimate to stand up against heretics and swindlers who want to use the Bible to make money or enslave people, most disputes over the Bible are really not about that at all. Speaking as one who has over-used the Bible to destroy other people, I can tell you the real goal is the glee of being right, not correcting error.

Years ago, I had two members of a group most people call a cult come into my home to discuss the Bible. They did not know of my background in Theology, or that I had received high honors for that degree. I could debate the original Greek and Hebrew, and I suspected I knew their doctrine better than they did. I was right. They didn’t stand a chance against my blistering barrage of Bible, doctrine and logic. After a while, they couldn’t even look me in the eye, for I had countered everything they tried to tell me and made it look ridiculous.

At one point, I stopped and said, “Why don’t you just leave these foolish errors and join us? Why would you want to even stay with such a laughable group who believes these things?”

One gal looked up with a fierce gaze and said, “Because they show me love all the time – and all you did today was make me feel stupid.” There it was; Even though I had proven their doctrine was false and their way was wrong, my actions lacked the basic ingredient of love, and this disqualified me.

There is a difference between using the Bible to correct, to train and to guide people, and using it to skewer them and win an argument. It is the difference between the surgeon’s scalpel and the switchblade. It is the difference between the ambulance driver and the drag racers on the Quarter Mile.

It is the difference between Flesh and Spirit.

On Monday, I will finish this series of articles by laying out the three principles we should follow if we truly want to read the Bible by the power and leading of the Spirit of God. As a way of introduction to this, the Bible shows us how to read it by giving us these three ideas:

  1. The Bible is like the Manna of the Old Testament
  2. The Bible is full of examples of spiritual living – both negative and positive
  3. The Bible points us to Jesus, our starting and ending.


Join me on Monday as I lay these three principles out.

Reading the Bible in the Spirit – Part 3

Posted on March 30, 2017

Part 1 can be read here:

Part 2 here:

Early one evening, I received a frantic call from a leader in our church. He had been meeting with a couple in the church who had asked him to come over to answer some of their questions.

First, some background. I had only been part of that church for a few weeks. The woman in question had been a spiritist and palm-reader before becoming a follower of God. When she became a Christian, the evangelist working with her cast several demonic powers out of her. Yes, demons do exist. I don’t like to give them much credit, but they are real and do trouble people even today.

This woman had been a Christian for two years when I met her that night. The leader who called me explained something of her place in that church. Because she had come out of a dynamic spiritual experience before salvation, she remained finely tuned to spiritual things after becoming a Christian. She could see spiritual battles the same way you and I can see a television program. On one person she might see a demon badgering them. On another, she saw lust gripping their hearts.

A side note: This was not necessarily a spiritual gift. As I later learned, the Spirit of God was not giving her this ability, and she certainly didn’t use this ability to the glory of God. She was simply more sensitive to spiritual things than most people and this, unfortunately, impressed some. It was a church that had been starved for spiritual realities, and they were eager to embrace anything that touched on the supernatural. When I joined my friend in talking with her, she explained how frustrated she was with the Bible and God. Specifically, she wanted to know how you could “fold the Spirit.” Baffled, I looked at the church leader for help. He just shrugged his shoulders. So I asked her to explain what she meant, and she turned to the book of Revelation.

Early in the book, it speaks of the Sevenfold Spirit of God. Most Bible commentators feel this refers to seven attributes of the Holy Spirit’s work among the churches. Others feel it refers to the seven messages the Holy Spirit was sending to the Seven Churches of Asia. But when this woman read the verse, she saw a picture of the Spirit of God being folded seven ways. To this, she added something so bizarre, it makes me giggle when I think of it. A few weeks before, she had read a magazine article about properties of mathematics. It said that no paper could be folded more than six times. (Just to satisfy your curiosity, the article is wrong. A woman has now folded a paper 12 times). So when she began reading through Revelation and saw that it spoke of the “sevenfold Spirit of God” she assumed this meant people were supposed to learn how to fold the Spirit inside of them.

How did she arrive at such a bad conclusion? I can list a dozen mistakes she made in interpretation, but the simplest explanation is she let her Flesh take over. Anyone who has even a simple relationship with God’s Spirit would know instinctively this was wrong. She erred because she went by her past experience and rudimentary languages skills, and applied these to a very difficult verse. This is how many heresies start.

For those who need closure, here’s how I explained things to her. First, I advised her to let someone disciple her in how to study the Bible inductively, verse by verse, so she didn’t take things out of context. Second, I offered to give her a more modern translation, where word meanings were closer to our modern usage. I explained that the word “fold” here does not mean to actually fold something. It means ‘to distribute’ or ‘to multiply’. She made me explain it several times, after which I had a three-fold headache.

But more than anything, I began working with her on the errors involving her soul. Too many people in that church had encouraged her to walk in something that wasn’t a gift of the Spirit. Her practice of identifying spiritual forces ingrained the habit of independence from God and dependence on her Flesh. She wasn’t an evil person, but this habit caused her to leave the Spirit out of her Bible Study. This often results in heresy.

That’s a mild example, but one I see often with Christians. They develop spurious interpretations because they do not rely on God’s Holy Spirit to help them. They may rely on their own understanding—as this lady did—or on the teachings of others. Some people read the Bible out of context and assume the Bible says what they want it to say. Entire cults and cult-like movements are started this way.

One pastor in the Pacific Northwest affected tens of thousands by interpreting the Bible in the Flesh. And many who should have caught his errors were sucked in because what he taught appealed to their Flesh. I want to be careful not to glorify his heretical teachings or make light of them. He ruined people’s lives and did so in an obnoxious way.

It started simply. He was teaching that in heaven the people of God will not marry. This is an accurate teaching from the Gospel of Matthew. However, because we know so little about the Afterlife, there aren’t many implications we can draw from that. From that flimsy base, he built a foundation of error. First, he noticed that the Kingdom of heaven begins now, which is also a bible truth. He noted that the Church is a radically designed group that is told to throw off many of the strictures of the Old Testament Law. That is somewhat true, but I won’t quibble. Let’s say it is also true. Here is when he looped the drawstring of his error. Since in heaven we won’t be married, and since the Kingdom of heaven begins now, and since we are to be radically different than traditional Jewish beliefs, he began to teach that traditional marriage vows were not valid in the New Covenant.

Rather, he encouraged Christians to make “deep connections” with one another in order to be the Chosen Generation of the Last Days. He encouraged multiple “connections”. To be fair, he never explicitly said to go have sex with all those in your home group, but how could he not know that would happen? His particular church had thousands of members, and they had also planted many daughter churches in several states. Leaders of those churches came to his conferences and he kept teaching this heresy.

I know all of this and its after-effects by harsh experience. Many of the devastated parties of adultery, divorce and broken homes came to me for counseling to rebuild their broken worlds. God allowed me to help them dig out of the morass their souls were left in.

What brought on this disaster? When people heard the teaching, it is possible they were fooled by his smooth delivery and polished logic. But if they spent ten seconds with the Spirit of God, they would have realized how his teaching was false. Church members making out in the back corner with someone they’re not married to will never turn out well.

Not everyone was sucked into this false doctrine. I met a number of couples who had been part of that church who did not ultimately buy into this heresy. They left the church and refused to give in to their Flesh. These are the ones who saved their marriages.

The Flesh loves to be novel and new, to stand out above the crowd. The Flesh loves to have its own way. Unfortunately, even the Bible can be form-fitted to meet those goals if one is not careful. But there are other ways besides heresy that we can use the Bible in the Flesh.




Chapter five of John also describes another way the Flesh can rule the Bible. Jesus healed a crippled man who began to walk for the first time in years. As he walked home with new legs, he carried the small mat he had laid upon. This violated a rule of the Sabbath about carrying certain objects. According to the Pharisees, this man was guilty of not waiting until sundown to go tell his friends and family about his new legs.

We mock out such behavior because it isn’t our favorite legalistic tendency. We would be mortified if someone mocked our legalistic crutches.

The Bible contains many laws, but the Flesh has a different goal for laws than the Spirit of God. The Spirit lays down Laws as boundaries of health. If one stays within these boundaries, it will go well with our lives as far as those laws can define health from a physical or soulish perspective. The Laws are also designed to show us two other things: First, how much we need God’s help in living healthy; and second, the character of God who proposed these laws.

But the Flesh has a different goal for laws. Laws create pecking orders. Those who keep certain laws are better than those who don’t. The Flesh likes to define status by what a person does or does not do. The old adage, “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do” was invoked to separate people so a group could identify who fit in and who did not.

Some groups do this by telling others what day of the week they should worship. Others create pecking orders with food laws. Still others define the in-group by what version of the Bible you prefer, how you dress in church, what music you listen to, how much you give to the Church and how many meetings you show up to.

A friend of mine in high school was one of the only other God-followers I knew. Two years after our graduation, he began dating a girl he worked with. Within six months they were married and within the first year were expecting a baby.

After the birth of their second child, only a year after the first, his wife began to suffer post-partum depression. She decided to self-medicate, going back to her old marijuana habit. In addition to this, she admitted to her husband she had been having an affair with an old boyfriend off and on the entire time they had been married. Four years into their marriage, she became verbally abusive. My friend finally had enough and filed for divorce.

His church removed him from membership because he was getting a divorce. He told them about her drug use, adultery and violence, but they didn’t care about all that. The leaders told him that divorce was the ultimate sin and he had no place in their church if he chose to sever from his wife.

Legalism is the Flesh’s way of saying, “Here is how I am better than you.” Legalism spends Bible Study time looking at ways of separating people into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.


Sloppy Grace


A woman came up to Dr. A.W. Tozer after a lecture series he gave. He had been teaching on the marvelous virtues of Grace, the choice God makes to forgive us and cleanse us through no effort of our own.

She approached him with a huge grin. “Oh Dr. Tozer, isn’t it marvelous. I sin, and he forgives, I sin and he forgives, I sin and he forgives.”

He looked her right in the eye and said, “Young lady, it’s time to stop sinning.”

The Flesh looks for opportunities to get its own way. If Legalism is not appealing, then perhaps Sloppy Grace will work better. Sloppy Grace is the outlook that says nothing can really harm us because God forgives all sins. In order to back that up, proponents of Sloppy Grace like to use the Bible to rationalize their behavior. Instead of developing heretical systems from the Scriptures, they simply pick and choose the verses they like when anyone confronts them on the dangers of their behavior.

More than once I have sat with Christians who have drinking or drug problems and they have quoted this verse to me: “it is not what goes into a man that harms him but what comes out of a man.” This is a convenient plum to pick off the Bible Tree for the enrichment of the Flesh. That verse is not speaking of alcohol or drug use at all: It is addressing the dangers of legalism, of assuming that one is “in” with God because certain food was not eaten at certain times, in certain ways. But as the Flesh is expert at doing, it uses a verse of correction to avoid correcting a deeper problem.

I was counseling a pastor several years ago about his lust problems. He liked to ogle the young women in his congregation and fantasize about having sex with them. He asked me to hold him accountable for keeping his mind pure, which I did.

One morning, he came to me and told me he had solved the problem. Fascinated, I asked him to explain himself.

“It all hit me this morning as I was reading my Bible.” (I had a weird feeling about this: I don’t think any bible verse can bring instant deliverance). “In Acts 10, Peter is told by God that he shouldn’t call clean anything God has called unclean. God made my sex drive and I am not committing adultery. Therefore, I am clean and I shouldn’t accept the condemnation of the enemy like I have been. Doesn’t it say in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”?

“So, bro, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying, I don’t have a problem. The Bible is showing me I don’t have to worry about appreciating the beauty around me and the “clean” girls that God has redeemed.”

Oh dear! His Flesh constructed such a convenient platform to practice Lust from, and used the Bible as the brick and mortar. In all fairness, I am worried that even if he has not committed adultery already, he is heading down that road. But even if he doesn’t, my real contention with him is that he is practicing Sloppy Grace, using the Bible as his source of rationalization.

Reading the Bible in the Spirit – Part 2

Posted on March 29, 2017

(You can read Part 1 in the series here)

I have never met an entire group of people who were all bad. As Corrie Ten Boom writes in the Hiding Place, there were even compassionate guards in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where she and her sister were interred during World War 2. If a German death camp worker can have a degree of goodness about him, I’m sure there were some wonderful, kind and gracious Pharisees. But the measure of a group is usually how they acted as a whole, not how each individual lived their lives. And the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were his primary target for criticism.

On the surface, the average Pharisee had a lot to commend him to a religious observer. We don’t know exactly what qualifications one had to have to be a Pharisee, but the consensus is they had to know the Old Testament thoroughly. Some scholars have suggested they had the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—committed to memory. Others have said they probably knew large portions of the Prophets, Psalms and historical books and had committed those to memory as well. Each Pharisee wore phylacteries, which were boxes attached to their wrists and foreheads, containing Scriptures to memorize. Some of the more learned Pharisees would commit large portions of the Talmud to memory—a commentary on the Torah—and others memorized the Mishnah, another rabbinical commentary.

They loved their Bibles. Too bad it didn’t do them much good.

John’s Gospel is laid out very deliberately in an outline of various confrontations. As with the other Gospels, Jesus travels around from place to place, but the real crux of John’s writings is to show the major battles between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Perhaps his most frequent and memorable debates featured the Pharisees.

In John 5, Jesus instigated one confrontation by healing a man on the Sabbath. This provoked anger from the Pharisees, who had hundreds of regulations regarding what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. They claimed biblical authority for all their rules, and they liberally gave their opinion and censure concerning anyone who broke one of these laws or encouraged others to do so.

I think Jesus deliberately did proscribed things on the Sabbath just to make them think about what they believed. I can’t say definitively, but it fits with his program of starting fights for effect.

In John 5:36-38, he explains more about his nature, calling and legitimate right to call himself the Messiah. He begins by building on John the Baptist’s endorsement and then takes the teaching in an entirely new direction:

But I have a greater testimony than John’s, for the works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.

Moreover, the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his appearance, nor do you have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he sent.

In these short declarations, he lays out the evidence for his credentials:

The greatest prophet of our day – John the Baptist – endorsed me.

The works (i.e. miracles, healings, exorcisms) are proof that God is working through me in unique ways.

God spoke audibly in front of many people and told them that I am his Son.

In a Jewish court, these three “witnesses” would stand up as credible and overwhelming. But he isn’t done with his teaching. Now he takes out his big gun and pops them all between their spiritual eyes. “You have never heard his voice…” he begins. He speaks to these veritable champions of Bible Memory Month. He speaks to these Keepers of the Laws, the real “Bible Answer Men”. No one knew the Bible like they knew it. Yet in all that biblical memorization, something was missing: The Voice of God. That strikes me as almost impossible to fathom. How can someone read that much of the Bible, study that much of holy writ, and yet miss the voice of the one who wrote it? I have my favorite authors and even if I had never heard their voice before, it wouldn’t be that difficult to tell it was them in a lecture. A person lets their character flow out in their writing, if they write with integrity. God wrote the Bible, so how could they miss the author as they perused the pages?

Verse 38 explains the problem quite clearly:

…nor do you have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he sent.

That’s an odd thing for Jesus to tell them. I thought the Bible was the Word of God. He never claims they ignored the Bible or deliberately misinterpreted. He says that the ‘word’ never abided with them because they didn’t believe in the one God sent to them. He is saying that if they really abided in the word, then they would instantly recognize that God had become a human being and was living among them.

Years ago, I was in a used book store and picked up a hymnal about 100 years old. It contained songs I had never heard before. Tucked away near the back was a hymn with this title, “Holy Bible, Book Divine.” The writer of the hymn was referring to the Bible as a Divine Book, meaning it ascribed Godhood to a book; in my mind, that was false teaching of the highest order. Someone had made their Bible an idol, and had the audacity to write a song about it.

The purpose of the Bible has always been to guide us to the God who inspired it to be written. It was never meant to replace God or to shove God and his works into a corner. The ‘word’ spoken of by Jesus is so much more than the paper, ink and concepts found in the Scriptures. It includes the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the daily guidance we need to survive another round of walking in a fallen and broken world. “Word” includes the personal voice of God as he takes the eternal truths of the Bible and shows us where, when, how and with whom to apply those truths.

The word “great” is in the Bible. The word “falls” is also there. But if God wants me to go to Great Falls, Montana, I would be hard pressed to read that direction on any page. If I used my Bible as some kind of GPS system, I could only find out God’s will if I agreed to play what my wife calls “lucky Bible”. That consists of asking God a question and then dropping the Bible randomly and just going with whatever verse it falls open to.

What Jesus has already said to the Pharisees would have been scandalous for them to hear. But now, he pushes this confrontation to its climax, with a verbal knife between the ribs:

 You diligently study the Scriptures because you suppose that in them you have eternal life. Yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me to have life.

  Apparently, Jesus is not criticizing their religious work ethic; he admits they study the Scriptures “diligently”. They don’t play “lucky Bible”, they “study” it. He criticizes their overarching supposition; that through studying the Bible they will find some God-life (i.e. Eternal Life) flowing into them. Jesus gives them proof this hasn’t happened because they didn’t use the impetus of the Scriptures to come to him for eternal life.

They read the Bible in the Flesh and because of this, they missed out on the wondrous life of Spiritwalking and following Jesus.

In the next two articles we will discuss other ways people read the Bible in the Flesh and then how to read it in the Spirit.

Reading the Bible in the Spirit – Part 1

Posted on March 28, 2017

I knocked on the door again and again, but no one was home. Glen and I were supposed to play golf that morning but I had no idea where he’d gone. He wasn’t answering his cell phone, so all I could do was wait. Fortunately, I had entertainment.

Glen lived next door to the Bible Sign Guy. On his front lawn, he had over 200 hand-painted yard signs with Scripture verses on them. The first time I came over there, I thought this might be his personal Bible memory verse system. I assumed he was either using the signs as some kind of evangelism/teach-the-world-God’s-Word program, or he just felt comforted having the Truth fill every corner of his property. I was wrong on both accounts. This was his personal inventory showroom. He sold these signs to anyone who’d buy them, and over time I saw that many people in town did purchase his signs and put them on their lawns.

Full disclosure: I have no problem with any of that. There could be a thousand worse ways to decorate your yard and influence your neighbors. What comes to mind are lawn jockeys and political placards.

As I was reading some of his verses, the owner of the property came out with his lawn mower. Before starting it up, he began removing every one of the signs from the grass. This was going to take him a long time to accomplish, so I walked over with every intention of helping him get the job done.

“Good morning… I’m Glen’s friend and I’m waiting for him. You haven’t seen him around have you?”

He looked me over several times and then pleasantly shook his head. “Nope. But I’ve been in the shop all morning. Are you a friend of Glen’s?”

“I am. We are going to play golf this morning and he isn’t here. He’s probably afraid I’m going to beat him again.”

The pleasantness from before vanished. “Golf…phe!” was what he said. Lacking the Gift of Interpretation, I have no idea what “phe” meant, so I moved the conversation along.

“I noticed you were going to mow the lawn. Would you like some help pulling out those signs?”

“Yeah, I guess that would be good.” I could tell he was unclear about my moral standing now that I had revealed I play golf.  In relative silence, we pulled the signs like weeds from his lawn. It took about 20 minutes, but we finally accomplished it, and he began pulling the cord to start up the mower. Apparently, he flooded it and it didn’t start. He had to let it sit for a few minutes before trying again. I pointed at stuff on the mower engine to give the best advice I could, but when he told me he had rebuilt this particular engine three times in the 18 years he owned it, and knew every bolt and wire personally, I scratched around for another conversation topic.

“So, can I ask an obvious question? What’s with these signs?

“It’s God’s Word.” I was supposed to read volumes in that statement, I guess, but I’m a little thick at times.

“Uh, huh. So what’s with all these signs?”

“Sir, do you know the Bible?” I thought about dropping the existence of my Theology degree on him, but that seemed unfair and excessive.

“I read it regularly” I answered.

“Then you’ll recognize my reason for all these signs.” Then he quoted the Bible to me:  “My Word, which goeth forth from my mouth, shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” So you see why I make these signs?”

“No, I’m still lost. But that was Isaiah 55, right?”

“Yes sir. I paint these signs and people buy them. They put them on their lawns and people driving by read them. God uses these Scriptures on lawns to change lives. “…it shall accomplish that which I please” is a promise from God.

I rushed in where many would have skulked away. “So what you’re saying is that somebody driving by at 45 miles per hour, glances at an obscure King James reference, on a sign stuck by an elm tree fifty feet away, and that will make him go back to his wife or sell all his possessions and move to India as a missionary?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody puts these signs that far back on their property”. I guess the part about India was correct. At that moment, he pulled the mower cord violently and it roared to life. As if we had achieved some kind of perfect cosmic alignment, Glen drove into the driveway at that moment and hopped out of his truck. I waved goodbye at sign guy who barely acknowledged my departure with a slight nod of the head.

“Where were you?” I asked Glen.

“Darrel forgot his lunch at home. I was bringing it to him at school. I see you met my neighbor.”

“Interesting man. He has this superstitious belief in the power of signs.”

“He’s a nut job. Let’s go play golf.”

There are millions who would never believe these signs could produce anything of value. But these same people are superstitious enough that they might even try it themselves at some point. They wonder if perhaps the guy with the John 3:16 sign in the end zone of the Rose Bowl produces converts with his reference. What if a tract left on a Light Rail seat is read by a suicidal teen and it turns his life around? What if one guy in a million is driving off to meet with his mistress, sees “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” on a sign around the corner from her apartment, and decides to go home and be faithful to his wife? The superstitious are among us and sometimes they buy and place signs.

I am not being critical of Bible Sign Guy and his lawn ornaments. As I said, there are worse ways to clutter up your yard, and he certainly isn’t doing any harm. I want to address the harmful concepts behind his signs. These are the false ideals that teach others to approach the Bible in the Flesh, an approach that can limit the ability to be touched by the Spirit of God through the Bible

All this week, we will explore how to read the Bible by the power of God’s Spirit instead of reading them any other way.

10 Mistakes People Make When Reading the Bible

Posted on January 6, 2017

Donita had started reading the Bible two years before. She read it a lot and made copious notes of her impressions while reading. I later learned no one had actually shown her how to read the Bible or what dangers she might run into while reading. That is like telling someone food can be found on the other side of six-lane freeway and then putting a blindfold on them and pointing them in the right direction. They might make it okay, but it’s not likely.

She was frantic on the phone. “Pastor Mike, I am just sick about something. I guess I’m supposed to know how to fold the Holy Spirit, but I really don’t”. Yes, she said “how to fold the Holy Spirit”. I couldn’t believe it either.

“What are you talking about Donita?”

“In Revelation. I was reading along and several times I read about the Seven-fold Spirit of God. I don’t know how this folding works? Do I do it or does someone else?”

I rushed over to her house for what ended up being an enlightening 20 minutes for her. There is no such thing as ‘folding the Spirit’. The phrase ‘seven-fold Spirit’ means there are seven aspects or characteristics of the Holy Spirit regarding His work in our lives. When I explained this to her, she wanted to know what they were. I explained that in the first century, Greek philosophers liked to catalog the various characteristics of the gods of Olympus. The community of John who wrote Revelation had ideas about the various works of the Spirit in our lives. They mention most of these in Revelation. I went through the ones I knew and encouraged her to read the book in light of that understanding.

For several weeks after, I did a short teaching with her on how to read the Bible correctly. To this day, she regards that season as when she really began to appreciate what God gave us through the many authors of the Bible. She was appreciative.

I find people still make the same mistakes with the Bible as they were making a half century ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun. There may be many more than just 10 mistakes, but these cover a lot of the most common ones.

  1. Applying All Bible Promises to Your Life: There is a book called “All the Promises in the Bible” and it catalogs 7400 different promises God made in the Bible to various people. The author of this book has taken all of these promises and listed them under different headings. They have titles like “Promises of Rescue”, “Promises Regarding Healing”, “Promises about Money”, etc. All a person has to do, according to this writer, is look up your need, find out what God has promised, and claim that promise for yourself.There are several things wrong about this approach. First, it ignores the possibility of situational promises. In the Bible, God made promises to people which very clearly apply to the situation there were in. In Acts, Paul promises the Philippian jailer that he and HIS WHOLE FAMILY would be saved. Does this mean that every head of a family who believes will result in their whole family following God? I have heard a number of people claim exactly that. In the book of Joel, the Lord promised Israel after an attack of locusts that every one of the crops would start growing again in great amounts. Does this mean God is promising every farmer that bad crops will be followed by bountiful crops? Does this mean God promises everyone who goes through dark seasons that good times are just around the corner? I know many people who apply this exact situational promise to their lives. It is nothing more than wishful thinking at times.Many times these are conditional promises. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God promises that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, seek my face,  turn from their wicked ways and follow me, then I will come and heal their land.” This may be the most quoted promise from the Bible. But it is a conditional promise. God will not heal a land where the people do not pray, or do not turn from their wicked ways, or do not humble themselves. In Romans 8:28 it says “for we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to His purpose.” People read that and see a shorthand version of it: “We know God works all things together for good.” Or, we shorten it even further, “Good is going to come out of this.” But that is not necessarily true. There are many evil things in this world which God cannot do anything with. The key to the verse is this idea: “To those who are called according to his purpose” This means, God will orchestrate things when, and only when, a person is lining up with God’s will and obeying the next thing God shows them to do. God does this because helping these people also helps God’s plans.

    When reading a promise in the Bible, ask yourself these two questions:  Who was this promise given to?  and Is there a condition attached to this?

  2. Relying on Only One Translation:  Unless you are reading the Bible in the original languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) you are reading a translation. All translations have been done with meticulous care. And though every translator sought to keep their version free of theological and cultural bias, no one can do that perfectly. This is not to say there aren’t better translations than others. Each of us who teach the Bible have our favorite translations for various reasons. But any time you translate a word from one language to another, you will lose some of the inherent meaning. So how can an English reader get the most out of the Scriptures without losing the meaning?The best way is to have two or three translations open when reading. I find it helpful to have one translation which focuses on the common way of saying things (eg. The Message, The Living Bible, The NET Bible) one which focuses on textual accuracy (eg. The New American Standard Bible) and one which seeks to translate idioms best (eg. The New International Version, New Living Translation). You could add an interlinear Bible (the Greek and the Hebrew are right beside the English) or any number of other bibles which have versions in parallel with each other.

    At the very least, if you’re studying the Bible for understanding, have a few different translations to get a fuller flavor of the original words.

  3. Not Asking Holy Spirit to Help You:  Even highly trained people can make mistakes reading the Bible. I think it is best for a Christ-follower to ask the indwelling Holy Spirit for guidance. He inspired the Bible to be written, and He understands what it means. I believe if you start any time of reading the Bible with a short prayer asking Holy Spirit to give you understanding, your time with the Bible will be rich and more fulfilling.
  4. Reading the Bible Only in Small Amounts:  Here is a pattern I am seeing more often in this busy world. People are reading no more than 2 or 3 verses in the Bible at a time. Or they may read one Psalm, a few proverbs and a small portion out of the New Testament. Though that certainly isn’t a bad way to start, especially if you find it hard to fit Bible reading into your life right now, there is a mistake inherent in this. With the exception of Psalms and Proverbs, the rest of the books of the Bible were meant to be read in one sitting. They were not meant to be chopped up into little pieces. The only reason there are chapters and verses is to make it easier to find where you left off your reading. They do the same thing with Chaucer’s works and Shakespeare’s plays.I advise people to have at least one or two times a week where they practice “chunk reading”. During this time, you read entire books of the Bible or very long sections. Rather than having a time limit, keep reading so you get a bigger picture. Though the majority of Christ-followers have never read through the Bible even once (yes, you read that correctly), even those who have do it over such a long period of time they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. The Bible actually does have a unified theme, which is hard to see if you only read little chunks. Even a relatively slow reader (i.e. 200 words a minute) can read the entire bible straight through in about a month if reading 2 hours a day. Give chunk reading a try and see if it doesn’t open up a broader understanding of the Scriptures. More about this in a moment.
  5.  Over-Reliance on Tradition When Reading:  Most cult leaders tell their people, “Don’t read the Bible for yourself. Instead, rely on my interpretation of it.” That insistence on listening only to one viewpoint is a hallmark of all cults. However, many churches, denominations and church traditions can do the same thing. This is one reason I’m not a fan of so-called “Study Bibles”. These are bibles which have commentary at the bottom or on the side of every page. If you rely upon those notes too much, you will only see one theological point of view as you read. This can be true of those who grew up with certain creedal traditions, who rely on certain liturgies to understand the Bible or who follow certain commentaries when reading the Bible. 1 John 2:26,27 is pretty clear we should not rely on any man to teach us the Bible. This means, we should  not lean too heavily on one point of view when reading the Bible.
  6. Under-Reliance on Tradition When Reading: The opposite is also true. When you read the Bible and rely solely on your own understanding, you will probably come up with very novel and interesting interpretations. This can be helpful occasionally, but often leads people into very dangerous territory. This is the mistake Donita made when she was worried about “folding the Spirit”. When you are reading the Bible and you see something which seems to teach something very radical or dangerous, you should rely on tradition to help you. This is what commentaries and other bible teachers are for. If you’re the only person in the world who has a particular interpretation of the Bible, you ought to be careful of walking it out in real life. I remember a guy who called me and asked about the verse in the Sermon on the Mount regarding sexual temptation, where it talks about “cutting off your right hand”. He thought this literally meant disfiguring himself. I had him come by my office and we talked at length about figures of speech like hyperbole and why we need to understand the purpose of them. He left my office and to this day has two  hands (I think).
  7. Errors in Applying what you read:   The best teachers of the Bible have said there are three steps to studying the Bible:   a) Observation (what does it say; b) Interpretation (what does it mean); and c) Application (what do I do with it). There are many people who read the Bible who don’t do anything with it. For them, the Bible is a magical book which makes them feel better just for reading it. This is not enough. The Bible was written so we can observe what is written, understand what it means and then live it out in our lives. But the application must be built on careful study beforehand. You don’t just read a verse and then jump out and start living it a few seconds later. As opposed to a self-help book, the Bible needs to be meditated upon and prayed through before leaping.I remember a young man who read in the Bible how a rich ruler was told by Jesus to go sell all he had and come follow him. This man owned several parcels of land. He believed he needed to follow this advice and do the same. He came in one day and wanted to give all the money to the church. As the pastor, I was quite willing to take the money. After all, we had a number of projects we were working on which would be much more easily financed through this money. But I asked him what led him to do this and he told me about the Bible verse. I asked him if he and his wife had prayed about it. He didn’t even tell his wife what he was doing. I had a little talk about how to stay alive in marriage and sent him on his way. A few weeks later, he made a gift to the church–a much smaller gift than before. He did talk to his wife and he did scale back some of his enthusiasm. This was wisdom.
  8. Treating the Bible as an Academic Book:  My undergraduate degree is in Theology. I took over 60 credit hours in studying various books of the Bible. I took four different theology courses. In the final course, one of my professors, Dr. John Dahms warned us at the beginning of one class: “Be careful young bible scholars you don’t misconstrue the intention of the Bible. It wasn’t compiled and inspired by God to be studied like a textbook. It is a living thing. God moved men to write it, God moved people to translate it and he moves you to study it. But it is all about God and man. In this, you should end up finding God. In this, you should end up finding yourself. Don’t miss God and don’t miss yourself here as you parse verbs and argue over predestination.”Those are wise words. It is not the intelligent who inherit the earth; it is the meek. The meek are those who know they don’t know it all, and keep searching to learn true meaning to things. If you seek God as you read the Bible, then you will find him if you search with all your heart.
  9. Failing to Recognize the Cultures to Which it was Written: There are many, many things mentioned in the Bible that only mean something when you consider the background of the culture. This is not easy to do, but it is so necessary. Almost every book in the Bible contains references to practices, beliefs, and reference points which are foreign to us. This is the value of not jumping to conclusions when you read the Bible. When you look at issues like slavery, place and roles of women, role of government, idol-worship, demons, head-coverings, sinful practices, etc. it is necessary to know what the people of that day believed and how God was trying to guide them. Then, when you have seen that, look for a universal principle to apply.One very common example should help. In the city of Corinth at the very southern tip of Greece, they practiced many, many strange sexual acts. The temples of that city were devoted to prostitution. Those prositutes, know as the Melissae, were experts at certain types of sex. They were the only women in Corinth who went around town with their  heads uncovered. For the most part, women in Corinth did not leave their homes because they didn’t want to be accosted. That’s how many prostitutes were in that city. If they did go out, they wore full head coverings, similar to the burkas worn today in some cultures. If a woman went out without one, she was declaring herself to be a prostitute. For some reason, some women in the church in Corinth taught that since they were free in Christ, they could go to church with their heads uncovered. Therefore, Paul told them to cover their heads when they went to church. Otherwise, they would bring great shame on their families.

    This is a strange teaching to apply today. Certainly, there are cultures which still require women to wear head covering, and other cultures which attach specific meaning to head coverings. The dominant culture in North America of course, is not one of those. We have other standards which we could apply here. We have both male and female expectations regarding clothing, jewelry, perfume/cologne etc. which may be violated by Christ-followers. The key when translating truth from one culture to another is to learn what a Scripture passage meant to the culture. Once you have done that, then strip away the culture from the Scripture and see what the universal truth may be. Ask God how you might apply that universal culture to your life.

  10. Failing to Read the Bible as One Story:  As I mentioned earlier, the story of the Bible is one story. When you only read your favorite parts, or only read small little sections, the bigger story is not clear. In a nutshell, here are the Cliff notes for the Bible. You only get this when you have read it all through in a short period of time.

    God created everything. God, being perfect, wanted to create a being who could choose to know Him and love Him. In order to make this choice a real choice, he gave mankind the ability to choose freely. This choice God gave them was to follow what God directed them to do, or do it their own way. The first humans, when they became aware of what God wanted, chose to do it their way. They walked away from God. And every generation of their children has been selfish, godless and destructive. God spends centuries looking for individuals who would seek after Him. He found one. A man named Abram. That man trusted God and followed as best he could in faith. God decided to use his family and descendants as a people-group to introduce God to the rest of the world. But Abram’s family went back to being conceited, violent and godless. Occasionally, there were members of that tribe who followed God and obeyed God. He used some of these people to write down truths. Eventually, through that family, God decided to be born as a human being. His name was Yeshua, a variant of Joshua. We today call Him Jesus. He lived as a human, even though he is God. Many people followed him and believed in him. In the 33rd year of his life, he gave his life as a sacrifice. He was killed by some of the selfish children of Abram because he claimed to be God–which He was and is. Then, He rose from the dead a few days after dying. Because of this, He is able to pay for all the selfishness all humans have done or will ever do. God allowed the punishment that Jesus suffered to be enough for humans. For this to be effective, each person has to accept this death and resurrection as real and want forgiveness. Many people did that and became a new family of God. That family included many from Abram’s family and many from other tribes. From that day until today, the followers of Jesus in the Christ family have been spreading the news that anyone can be in a good relationship and standing with God. Then, at the end of the book, God tells us how things are all going to end. Selfishness will battle the Family of Jesus and then Jesus will return to start a new age.


—The End—


A Better Way to Pray

Posted on June 18, 2015

Jim had prayed and asked God for a particular request almost every day for ten years. He rarely varied from the way he worked his prayer. He prayed using the same words with the same intensity day after day, month after month. I spent time with him every couple of weeks in a prayer group, and I noticed the repetition of this particular prayer request. Why was he repeating the same prayer over and over?

I finally asked him why he did this. By way of answer he threw a bible verse at me:  “Luke 11:8. Look it up. I’m being persistent.”

Here is that verse in the New American Standard Bible:

“8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.”

So I looked it up. And I read more and more about it. Because I teach on prayer regularly, I sought to understand that verse, and the entire parable that precedes it. What I found years ago changed the way I pray. It also helped me to see the key reason we are to pray. Up until that point in my life, I had externalized it, made it into a thing instead of what it is: A relationship.

First, let’s look at the entire parable and see the key point. (For the sake of understanding, let’s say something about parables. The stories direct the hearer to a key truth. The details of the story are only relevant as they direct the focus to the main point. People make errors in interpreting parables by trying to make every detail have significance). So let’s observe the parable in another translation than the one mentioned above.

5 Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.

Key points are often discerned by looking for key words. These can often be the word repeated most often. This is the case in this parable. The word “friend” repeats over and over. This tells us that though parable is teaching a truth about prayer, it is also about friendship. The details of the story will draw together the connection.

It is important to read this story with the mindset of those who originally heard Jesus tell the story. They lived in a dangerous part of the world. One did not travel at night because it was too unpredictable. Thieves, wild animals, crumbling and decaying roads all made a nighttime journey a bad idea. So when Jesus begins his parable with the description of a man taking a journey in the middle of the night, everyone’s ears perked up. For anyone to travel at night, the need must have been urgent and immediate. A few sentences into the story we also learn that the man needs some food and is going to keep traveling. This underscores the urgency of his need.

Additionally, no one disturbs a friend in the middle of the night unless there are no other choices. The original hearers could tell this man was desperate. The only person you can impose upon at that time of night is a close friend. Only a close friend will overlook all the inconveniences and understand the need.

This parable is about friendship and prayer. We must tie those concepts together to understand the conclusion.

The story takes an interesting twist at this point. The guy on the nighttime crisis journey picks a friend who is all out of bread. So that man, not wanting to abandon his friend in need, thinks to himself “Who can I call on to help us out?” The answer is obvious: A friend. Confident he can approach his friend even at night, he knocks on his door and asks him for bread.

Remember, it is still the middle of the night.

The answer from inside is not surprising. This is a different situation altogether. The one knocking on this door is not a man journeying on a desperate race against time. This is the guy down the street. And in homes of that time, people slept everywhere  in the house. Getting up and answering the door, getting out the bread and all that entails would wake all the children up. It is no surprise that he turns down his neighbor’s bread request at first.

But the man persists. He explains to his neighbor-friend why he needs the bread at that hour. Any Jewish person of that era would hear the urgency as Jesus tells the story. So, because his friend asks with so much urgency, the man gets up and gives his neighbor bread.

Now, this is where Jesus draws a conclusion that many people misinterpret. He tells his hearers that the key here is the persistence of the friend to keep asking that turns the tide. So bible teachers will see this and say “This is the key to prayer. Keep asking and don’t stop. Keep storming the gates of heaven until God answers. This is what Jesus wants us to do.”

But think how this paints God. God seems reluctant to help us. Until we bug God enough with our prayers, God is unwilling to do what we ask. Only when the volume of our annoyance reaches to the right amount will God answer us. The key, according to this teaching, is to be persistent.

The New American Standard uses the word “persistence” in verse 8. The NIV translates that word “shameless audacity.” The Greek word is Anaideian. It literally means to be “without shame.” Shamelessness is often equated with “boldness” and “audacity”. Usually, when all emotional hindrances are removed, boldness and persistence rise up. But that can be deceiving in this instance.

First, we don’t see this man coming back hour after  hour to ask his neighbor for bread. He presses the issue, yes, but he keeps pushing because they are friends and he wants his friend to see why this is a special situation. We would all do the same. Second, though the verse tells us he gets up not primarily out of friendship, it does note that friendship is part of this equation. A friend in need, who can express that need to his friend, will get bread. That is what Jesus’ hearers took away from this.

Friendship is the key to this parable. At every stop along the way, this is an enterprise that only takes place because of existing friendships. There are no strangers or casual acquaintances involved. Now, the climax of this teaching comes in Jesus’ immediate application of the truth.

He tells them, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.”

In the original Greek text, the verbs, “ask”, “seek” and “knock” are all formed in the Present Imperative tense of the verb.  In lay terms, this means this is a continual command. It would mean “keep on asking, seeking and knocking.” This is not a one-time event.

What distinguishes our friends from our casual acquaintances? Many elements go into friendship, but two are consistent. First, friends spend time together. And second, friends communicate at a deeper level with each other than with acquainatnces. If you do not have these two things, you can’t call it a close friendship.

Prayer is all about friendship with God. God designed prayer to be a two-way conversation with God. Many times prayers are not answered because, as James says “we want to use the answer to prayer for selfish reasons.” If we treat prayer as a conversation with our friend Jesus, then if our motives are wrong, he will correct us. Then, when we pray a corrected, edited prayer, God is much more willing and able to answer it.

For years, my mother suffered from a damaged heart that had through Rheumatic Heart disease. She ended up having four open-heart surgeries. Each time she went under the knife I plead with God to keep her safe. Each time, my friend Jesus gave me assurance that he was going to rescue her. Twice, her heart gave out as they began the surgery and both times the doctors brought her back from death. God does answer those prayers.

One afternoon, my mother’s husband called and told us Mom went in to the hospital with pneumonia. But he assured me that it was not that serious and she should leave the hospital soon. I went and talked to God about how to pray for her. I didn’t get what I expected from that conversation. God showed me that He wasn’t going to save her this time. As I fought the tears, I asked God what I should pray. He showed me to pray for my own heart, for her husband, for my brother and sister. I spent an hour praying for all these people. I had just finished praying when the phone call came. My step-dad told me that Mom had passed peacefully, though unexpectedly, into the presence of God.

I had shameless audacity every time I prayed for Mom. And many times, God answered by healing her. The last time, He answered by changing how I prayed. This is how our friendship with God works when it comes to prayer. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 reminds us that he begged God three times to remove his “thorn in the flesh”. Finally, after the third time, God told him not to ask any more. And then God added, “my grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, Paul, you can ask me to help you live successfully with this thorn in your flesh, but I’m not taking this one away.”

Are you a friend of Jesus? If you are, can you see prayer as a conversation and not a platform by which you get all your whims realized?

Interpreting Difficult Bible Passages (Teachers Part 2)

Dr. Bruce Waltke was one of the lead translators of the New International Version bible. I attended a seminar he hosted back in 1994 on the subject I am dealing with in this article. He asked us to give him any passage of Scripture and he would apply rules of interpretation to that passage. Then he looked at us and said, “I am going to disqualify one verse. I refuse to explain 1 Timothy 2:15”.

Of course, from that point on, we kept begging him to return to that verse. After dealing with about 20 troublesome passages, he finally looked at us and said “There is a reason I don’t want to tackle 1 Timothy 2:15. We don’t know enough to take it on. Every explanation that has been given through the ages falls flat and does not satisfy the most elementary of hermeneutical principles. We may never know what it means. But these principles you learned today will work on every other part of the Bible. Of that I can assure you.”

So, since that day, I have tried to disprove Dr. Waltke’s theory about 1 Timothy 2:15. I have come to find out he is correct. There is no good explanation for it. But the following five principles will work in interpreting difficult or archaic passages of Scripture. These are laid out in the order I perform them.

  1. Use Jesus as Your Arbiter. In Hebrews 1:1 we read, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom also he made the universe.” As we saw last time, it is important to note contrasts in Scripture verses. This verse is laid out in two ideas that contrast with each other:
    1. In the past – that is, in the Old Testament.
    2. But now – that is, since Jesus lived on this earth.

Jesus is the one who gives us the complete revelation of God. When the Old Testament says one thing and the New Testament contradicts that, the life of Jesus and the testimony and teaching of Jesus are the arbiter to determine how to interpret. For instance, the Old Testament says that everyone is to keep the Sabbath day (Saturday) and set it apart as special. But Paul says that every day can be treated alike. And Hebrews tells us that the Sabbath is a picture of the sanctified life in God. How are we to determine which is true? Jesus shows us in his life. In Jesus’ actions, he worked on the Sabbath. He healed on the Sabbath. He traveled on the Sabbath. He did all the things the Law forbade on the Sabbath. Finally, when he was confronted, he told them “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He is claiming that his authority supersedes that of even a commandment.

Colossians 2:16-17 says this:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

All of the things that Paul mentions in verse 16, he then calls “shadows”. Unfortunately, this is the problem with interpreting portions of the Old Testament. They are not even the fullest revelation of God. They are shadows of what is to come. And what was coming is Jesus Himself. There is no meaning to the ceremonies of the Law if Jesus did not become a man. They are just empty ceremonies without him. But his life fulfilled all of these things. Only those aspects of the Law that Jesus gives meaning to should be kept. For instance, we are told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus declares all foods clean. This was a radical departure from the Old Testament. There are people today who cling to Old Testament teachings to base their Christian lives upon. This is foolish and shows poor hermeneutics.

At the same time, Jesus does help us keep certain truths in tension. The idea that God is gracious and compassionate, but still is the Judge of the Universe seem to present conflicting ideas. But Jesus held onto both ideas and only in his life do we see how that tension plays out in a godly way. If you study Jesus and make Him the focus of theology, then all difficult bible passages take on a clearer perspective.

  1. Determining Cultural Context. Sometimes a Bible passage is difficult for a good reason. Within that passage, there are references to things that are culturally discerned and rooted. A good example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 11:1-6. This is the part about head coverings for women. If you don’t understand some elements about Corinthian culture, you can make the mistake of pulling something out of one culture and making it mean something completely different in another place. In Corinth, the only women who didn’t wear a shawl were temple prostitutes. In addition, in secular Greek culture, when a woman married, she was not really allowed to leave her home or the grounds of her estate. But the church began to free women up from this homebound rule. With this newfound freedom, women were going to church and leaving home quite happily. But some of them took this freedom one step too far. Many of them reasoned that since the Gospel freed them up from the strictures about staying home, they could uncover their heads as well. This probably came from the defiant attitude that was common in Corinth in the ancient world. Therefore, these women could easily be mistaken for temple prostitutes. Paul’s solution was easy. Wear a head covering and don’t disgrace your husband and family by parading around like a hooker. Once you know that background, this becomes an easier passage to wrestle with. More about this passage in a later rule. Bible Dictionaries, commentaries and other books of this sort will help you find the background material you need. A wonderful resource is William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible. Though he himself struggled with his faith, he did an admirable job of researching the archeological background of so much of Scripture. When determining the cultural context, keep in mind the following:
    1. The time period they lived in
    2. The cultures dominant at that time
    3. What the original readers of this Scripture would have heard when it was read.
  2. Decide on the Universal Truth. There are some bible interpreters who completely miss this stage on purpose. They believe that everything the Bible says should be taken at its face value and should not be interpreted any further. They use this approach to justify ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, slavery, abuse of children, archaic practices in worship services (such as snake handling, head coverings and silence of women). When you are studying a passage, it is good to prepare a mental summary of the inductive observations. For instance, you may study the passage about head coverings and conclude that Paul is teaching that wives need to honor their husbands by wearing a head covering when they’re in public. Is that then the final truth? Hardly; although there are Mennonite groups that believe it is. A good teacher will take the Inductive Truth and determine the Universal Truth. You do this by stripping away any cultural or time period anachronisms and then decide how this truth can apply to all peoples at all times. In our day, head coverings are mostly meaningless. But there are many other things which are meaningful. A woman should not flirt with other men. A man should not kiss other women on the lips. These are things in our culture which would be unacceptable for a married person to do in public. This then would be the final Universal Truth of that passage: “don’t do anything which would dishonor your spouse in public.” If you are working through difficult passages, always keep the Universal Truth forefront in your approach.
  3. Just as it is important to determine what is being said in a difficult passage, it is just as important once you’ve determined that to know what to do with it. There are many teachers who take an academic approach to the Bible. They want to find all the nuances and vagaries of the text without realizing the main purpose of our teaching is to change lives. And you change lives by suggesting ways the listeners can live out what they’re hearing. This is true even of difficult passages. It is often the point where the most revelation comes to you as a teacher when you begin to ask “How can someone live out this truth?” In our example above, how does one live out the truth about the head coverings? If the Universal Truth is that we ought to honor our spouses in public, it is essential that we ask ourselves “what ways might we dishonor our spouses?” As I thought about this a while ago, it occurred to me I was doing something that did not honor my wife. That passage, through its thorough study, led me to change a habit I had developed. The best Bible teachers always have the application in mind. If you can’t apply a Scripture, you haven’t done enough work on it yet.
  4. Theology and Historical Doctrine. The church has been studying the Bible for 2000 years. Though we haven’t always got it right, there are insights and conclusions that people have drawn which will help in interpreting the Bible. I saved this one for last, because we need to do the other work first before resorting to tradition and traditional explanations. I know my Reformed, Orthodox and Episcopal friends will disagree with putting this rule so far down on the list, but I believe this is where it belongs. I think the Creeds of the Churches—and there are many of them—do give us things to reflect upon that help us interpret difficult Scriptures.


If, after reading this list, you feel like despairing of ever understanding what the Bible says, keep a couple of things in mind. First, Paul makes it clear that not everyone should ascribe to be a teacher. Teachers will be held to a higher standard than the average person in Church. These rules of hermeneutics show that this is hard work and is supposed to be so. Second, would you trust an engineer, a doctor, an airline pilot, a bus driver, a lawyer, a nurse, a policeman who didn’t know all the details of their job? Of course you wouldn’t. Then why trust Bible teachers who don’t do the work necessary to teach good and helpful doctrine? I read a lot of Christian books, and I am becoming agitated at how flippantly many authors give their interpretations of what the Bible says when they have not taken the time to do even the most elementary of studies.

I challenge my readers, if you want to be a good and healthy teacher, to do your work. Or, if these sound too hard, to consider those who do this work as worthy of respect.

Principles of Bible Interpretation for Teachers

I was sitting with a group of Christians at a conference a few years ago, and we were encouraged to gather in small groups to pray with each other. The five of us who shuffled our chairs randomly to somehow gather together introduced ourselves. Then one very dear saint reminded us before we started praying: “We don’t need a big group. After all, the Bible says that “if two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

I started to open my mouth and then quickly closed it. It wasn’t worth it. But I so wanted to instruct this person that they were using a Bible verse completely out of context. But the reason I didn’t bother is that they were just trying to encourage us, and their point was well taken, even if they were misusing the Bible to do it. After all, it isn’t like they were teaching a congregation.

But when I hear Bible teachers misuse the Bible, I don’t keep my mouth closed. I watched a video two years ago from a Sunday evening service in a large church in America. The pastor and his wife were answering questions from the congregation. One young man sent his question to the pastor and it basically sounded like this: “My wife and I just had a baby earlier this year. We decided that she should continue working and I would stay home with the baby since her job pays twice as much as mine. Did we do the right thing?”

This pastor and his wife spent the next twenty minutes tearing this guy to shreds. They told him (he was anonymous in his questioning, by the way) that if they ever found out who he was they would remove him from membership. Then, as a basis for this drastic action, they quoted a verse from one of the books of Paul to Timothy: “If a man does not take care of his own family, he is worse than a heathen.” I was already angry at the foolish way they were addressing this sincere question. But when they taught this, I started to sputter and shake my fist at the computer screen.

Yes, I realize how silly that probably looked. But I was so angry. This is a so-called Bible teacher completely taking that verse out of its context to back up his stupid bias. The verse is speaking of families that will not provide for their widowed mothers, choosing instead to rely on the church’s help when they could just as easily provide it for her. This is NOT talking about whether men or women should be the primary breadwinner.

I wish I could say this was the only incident. But because bible knowledge as a whole is diminishing among Christians, bible teachers are getting away with these sort of egregious errors.

It is one thing to study the Bible for your own edification. You don’t necessarily have to know all the rules of interpretation to enjoy the truths of the Bible. But perhaps it would be good for all of us to know the rules of biblical hermeneutics (the rules of interpretation). Yes, these can get technical, and yes, this does take work. But if  you want to really know what the Bible says, these are the accepted rules that all good teachers follow when they study the Bible.

1. Begin with Inductive Study.  I highly recommend the book by Kay Arthur “How to Study Your Bible”. In that book, she lays out the principles of Inductive study quite clearly. Summarizing, the method teaches to ask the five W questions (who, what, where, when and why) and How in order to get a systematized view of what the passage is saying, In addition, you should note contrasts (using the words “but” or “rather”) and conclusions (using “therefore” and “knowing that” etc.) If you do an inductive study of a passage of the bible, you at least can teach with certainty that you have looked at the evidence of what is being taught clearly.

2. Context Within the Chapter. Every book of the Bible has a train of thought that runs through it (with the exception of Proverbs, which are a collection of pithy and spiritual sayings). Therefore, to understand a verse or a series of verses, you should read the entire chapter to get an idea of the train of thought. That would have saved the little old lady in my prayer group. What she thought was referring to worship or prayer was actually referencing times of confrontation. Study the chapter and find out what the author is getting at. It will make the verse you want to teach more understandable.

3. Background of the book and writer. Once you have understood the chapter that your passage comes from, it is then good to spend a few moments learning the name of the writer, their historical place and why the book was written. Most authors of Bible books give statements as to why the book was written. John’s Gospel, for instance, tells us that “these things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” It would be good to know that Paul wrote Philippians in jail or that John wrote Revelation while he was imprisoned on an island. It will help you to interpret some of the teachings.

4. Other Places in the Bible. When you are interpreting a difficult passage of the Bible that is hard to understand, you might need to go to other places in the Bible to help you understand it. This can be done in three ways.

a. A Word study. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (with a tiny bit in Aramaic). It would be helpful to get a Word Study book that contains all the original words and look up where some of the more difficult words of your passage are found in other parts of the Bible.

b. Theme Study: A Bible dictionary can tell you where certain concepts can be found in other places in the Bible. So can commentaries and Bible encyclopedias. These helps can aid you in seeing the bigger picture for your passage.

c. Other books by the same author. The most powerful resource to help understand one book is another book by the same author. The five books of Moses for instance, carry certain themes and therefore it is good to get an entire picture of Moses when looking at difficult truths. Paul’s letters, Luke’s Gospel and Acts, John and Revelation. Each author has similar truths they are putting forth, and to read other places where that author writes can shed light on the passage you are studying.

If you follow these basic rules of interpretation, you should be able to interpret about  95% of the Bible accurately. But what do you do with the other 5%? In the next article, I will lay out what resources you can use to work through hard teachings.

God Our Partner – Old Testament Benefits Part 3

Posted on August 18, 2014

Old TestamentLast summer, I spent about a hundred hours editing and perfecting my book for publication. One afternoon, I was in the library of a missionary training center and there was only one other person in the room. She asked me what I was working on and I asked her the same question. We enjoyed listening to each other’s answers.

At one point, she asked me why I had wanted to write this book. “Originally, it was just a short paper on the subject of hearing God’s voice. It ran about 80 pages and I was very satisfied with it when I finished. But the more I thought about it, something didn’t fit. So one afternoon, I went for a walk and asked God for His input on the book. He suggested to me that what I had written could fit into a larger context. I began to see how Hearing God was really only one skill involved with walking in the Holy Spirit. So I decided to broaden the book to deal with that subject instead.”

“You say God ‘suggested’ it. You mean God commanded you to change it?” she asked.

“No God didn’t command it. God rarely commands me to do things. Well, of course, there are the Ten Commandments, and there are times when I am led by the Spirit to go places and do things that were not my idea. But a great deal of the time God simply suggests things as part of our walking, interacting friendship.”

This is a concept God has taught me throughout the Old Testament. In this series on coming to appreciate the value of the first part of the Bible, I wanted to share a theme that runs throughout. God desires to act in partnership with us. In fact, a lot of what God does really happens in partnership with people.

I am not a Calvinist or a neo-Calvinist. That means I don’t think everything that happens is under God’s control. I believe that some things are absolutely the result of the sovereign actions of God. But I have also seen incredible evidence in the Bible and Church History of how God acts in conjunction with the partnership he forms with people. Let me give four very quick vignettes from the Old Testament as a teaser for your own searches.

The Man of Wisdom:  In 2 Chronicles chapter 1, God appears to Solomon at the beginning of his reign as King of Israel and has a question for him. He asks Solomon what Solomon wants from God. Instead of wealth and power, he asks God for heavenly wisdom to rule the nation. Even God is impressed with this answer and tells Solomon he will be the wisest King of all time. In addition, God chooses to give him wealth and authority also. This is so much more than Solomon bargained for. I mention this scenario because it is indicative to me of how God works in our life. If we will seek God first and invite God to be an interactive part of our ventures, God will give us what we need and often will give us what we have not asked for as well. In this partnership, God more than holds up His end of the bargain.

The Gardeners:  In the fullest account of creation in Genesis, God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word for “garden” means a “walled-off garden” and the word “Eden” means “delights”.  In that walled-off garden, God gave Adam authority to arrange it any way he liked. He could call the animals found there by any name he liked. Naming something in ancient cultures meant someone had authority over the ones he named. God had given Adam and Eve authority over this limited territory. As far as we can tell, God did not interfere in their activities until they sinned. God was a good partner. He gave them freedom, but still set the boundaries upon their actions.

That Foreign Woman:  When Israel’s Secret Service squad went into Jericho, they were welcomed by a brothel owner to stay secretly with her. They were scouting the city to see its weaknesses. This woman, Rahab, not only fed and housed them, she helped them escape when word got out they were there. As they were leaving, she asked them to promise her life would be spared by God and by Israel. Acting on behalf of the nation and God, they promised her that she and her family would be saved if she put a scarlet banner outside her window. Notice that God allowed them to speak on his behalf without checking in. They were there on his assignment and they acted to honor God and her. What astounds me even more is that Matthew’s list of people who were Jesus’ ancestors, Rahab is one of them! God decided to partner with this brothel owner for his glory.

Fish Food:  Jonah was swallowed by a gigantic fish and was digested for three days. After this, he was much more compliant to God’s wishes. God had commanded him to preach repentance to Nineveh and Jonah didn’t want the assignment. God forced him to be in the location, but he could not make him speak. Jonah had to do that. And when Jonah preached, the people responded. Afterward, Jonah sat down on a hill outside of Nineveh to see if God would change his mind about destroying that wicked city. In those days on the hill, God showed Jonah that he had the right to care about a city even though there was wickedness there. But the most remarkable aspect of all of this is that God even had this conversation with Jonah. Not only did God care about Nineveh, he also cared about Jonah. He didn’t want his partner to be lost in his resentment and anger. He interacted with Jonah in order to bring him around to the truth. The Spirit of God is the God of Truth. When we know the Truth, it sets us free. In our partnerships with God, he never leaves us to fend for ourselves. Even when we want God to leave us alone, He pursues us. This isn’t only for the purpose of getting God’s chores done. He also wants us to have a changed heart. This is what happens all through the Old Testament. God changes those who come into partnership with Him.

Why not spend a few weeks reading the stories of the Old Testament and notice the difference between those who partner with God and those who don’t.

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