Ever wonder why there are so many different viewpoints, even among people who are reading from the same Bible? Well, obviously there is naturally room for some differences of opinion based on people’s different perspective, experiences and background. However, you begin to wonder when people are coming up with completely opposite viewpoints.
But the real reason there are so many varying interpretations of scripture could probably best be explained by the proverbial story of 3 blind men trying to describe an elephant. One man stands with his hand on the trunk and describes the elephant. The next man stands with its hand on its side/body and says “no, you’re wrong, brother- this is what the elephant is like,” and the thirds blind man stands at it’s tail and said “you’re both wrong- let me tell you what it’s really like” and he describes the tail.
In regard to unseen eternal things, we are like the blind men. Because we can’t see God directly right now and ask him to answer every question, we have to study things out from the evidences he has given us in the Bible and nature. Truth is like the elephant we are trying to figure out. And in order to understand it we must consider the entire body of evidence. We must interpret things according to everything that is said on that subject throughout the whole Bible, rather than just picking and choosing the verses that support a cherished interpretation.
It does violence to the body of truth to cut off a little here and there. Just as it would if you cut the elephant’s trunk off, the poor animal could probably bleed or starve to death. In the same way, if we separate out a few chosen quotes or scriptures to support a certain theory it makes chopped meat out of the words of inspiration. If we leave the message whole we will let it be the living, breathing animal it was meant to be.
Just as living creatures are powerful and can move and do work on their own, truth has the power to work in our hearts. But a dead message doesn’t have the same kind of power. Bits and pieces of scripture cut off, taken out of context and patched together does not have the same kind of beauty and inspiration as natural, whole truth. We have to understand the whole message of truth in order for it to come alive and make sense in our minds.
Jesus’s comparison of the message to grains is also fitting, and it matches the same kind of idea because many people refine out the part they want and discard the rest. This usually results in a kind of “one extreme or another” phenomenon. Some people will filter out an “all bran” interpretation of the Bible and teach works-based religion filled with heavy burdens of obligations and spiritual “tests” that leave people secretly wondering about whether they can ever be “good enough.” Such religion is without the power of the Holy Spirit and lacks the power of a living love relationship with Jesus. It also results in very little natural joy or humor, except for a kind of pasted on, forced smile that is yet another “duty” of goodness instead of something that blooms from a heart that is full of joy.
On the other hand there are so many “white bread” Christians on the liberal extreme, who believe in “grace only” and just want a feel-good message that they can swallow without chewing. This message is based on the idea that you are saved IN your sins instead of FROM your sins. They too have very little true joy because they are still slaves and captives to the power of mental and physical addiction. They serve a powerless God who can’t rescue them from themselves and therefore do not understand the incredible phenomenon of being truly free in mind, heart and spirit.
They may talk of joy and happiness while the lights and colors flash and music pounds in their ears, but what they’re really getting sensory thrills that stimulate brain chemical release that is a cheep substitute for a living experience with God. Just saying God’s name over and over is not enough to prove we are really connecting with him, especially when we are still enamored with sin and deceived by it. This kind of religion leaves you with a let down emptiness when the party’s over, instead of an infusion of renewed strength.
And both of these groups are using the same Bible to prove their opposite viewpoints. What a pity.
What we really need is the whole kernel of truth in order for the Word of God to properly nourish our spirits. We need the grace and mercy of God as well as his justice and admonishment against sin. The mercy and justice of God together lead us to repentance, to turning away from evil.
Now, I’m not trying to say you should never eat anything that is made from white flower or never eat all bran either. But as a general spiritual principle, it teaches us how to find the balance in seeking to understand the truths of the Bible and avoid some of the pitfalls that so many people get caught in. It helps us understand that we need to consider the whole message and everything that is being said on any particular topic in order to come to a proper understanding. Not just of justice and mercy, but in regard to every other doctrinal question as well.
You may be able to quote verses here and there that you’ve chosen to support a certain theory, but if it doesn’t match everything else that the Bible says on the same topic it, or requires discarding large portions of scripture in order to believe the idea, then it cannot be the whole truth. You’ve cut off the elephant’s trunk and separated it from the great body of evidence. You've refined out the part of your choosing…
…otherwise known as cherry picking.
The basis for all doctrines and the only way to accurately understand the Bible is to compare scripture with scripture to let the Bible explain itself. And you must find a burden of evidence through multiple texts in order to confirm and establish any doctrine. A doctrine must never be founded on just a verse or two which seems to say something different than what other verses on the same subject are saying.
The Bible must be approached with the same kind of logic and thorough methodical study that is required for scientific research in order to come to accurate conclusions. But God has said “blessed is he who reads,” and he made his Word available to any ordinary person. You don’t need special degrees or a PhD in theology to understand his word. And many times, those who don’t have any particular special training or degrees are far more likely to come to accurate conclusions when studying the Bible because they don’t have a reputation to protect, and their livelihood doesn’t come from institutions that require them to agree with a previously established viewpoint.
Humble individuals who honestly and prayerfully seek to understand the truth are more likely to understand it than those who have any selfish motivation of wanting to impress others with their higher learning. The example of what happened in Jesus’ time should serve as a warning to those in every generation. The people said in John 7:48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?” Many in Jesus’ day looked to the highly educated leaders and teachers instead of looking to the Bible itself for guidance about what to believe. So, the suggestion was made that Jesus must not really be the Messiah since the leaders, teachers and “experts” had not accepted him.
Our world has not changed. Many people today are not willing to study the Bible for themselves or believe anything other than what their pastors and professors teach as the “official” interpretation. Thus, people trust their souls to erring mortal man instead of to God himself, and they honor man above God. They are just as in danger of missing the messiah as those who missed him the first time. And this is how false doctrines have continually been perpetuated throughout the dark ages of human history.
I’m not suggesting that education is to be discouraged, by any means, or that those with higher education are not able to also humble themselves to learn new truths from the Bible. Education can be a great blessing if truly committed to God and his service. Many of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time eventually did believe in him. And Paul the Apostle, one of the most active Christians who ever lived, was originally a Christian-hating Pharisee who was very well-educated.
But spiritual things are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). You must have a heart softened and humbled by the grace of God through prayer in order to be able to put aside strong biases and tradition-based thinking while studying the Bible. And it takes a strong measure of courage to be willing to take a position that people may not agree or that you could suffer reproach for. But God promises to protect and provide for those who are willing to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Many of the traditional interpretations are solid and should not be thrown out. It’s just that at the same time we hold firmly to those waymarks, we should not become so rigid that we are not willing to accept any new revelations of truth. The Bible itself must provide clear interpretations through comparing multiple scriptures which match to confirm any interpretation. And we must also have a prayerful, humble spirit, rather than seeking to hold onto only those understandings which are in agreement with what we think other people would approve of.
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. John 7:17, KJV
In addition to looking at the whole message, any new doctrine must be in harmony with the other doctrines the Bible teaches and not conflict with light which has been previously established. We don’t have to be bound by previous understandings, but new understandings should make sense in the context of God’s leading in the past.
Studying the Bible is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, in many ways. You have to find the matching patterns, colors and shapes to help you see the real picture emerging. Following are several helpful principles of scriptural interpretation. I have given the principles names to make them easier to remember;
Always assume the Bible will interpret itself. Look for other verses to help explain the meaning of any passage or verse you don’t understand.
Multiple verse principle:
Never build a doctrine on just a few verses. Study everything written on that subject throughout the whole Bible in order to get a clear view of what it’s really teaching. The easiest way to do this is with concordances or online Bible searches that allow you to find the same word or term used multiple times. Also, using the margin or center column references in some printed Bibles can be very helpful in connecting verses together.
Things like numbers, animals and objects have symbolic meaning in the Bible. You can find deeper meaning to many passages if you learn what those symbols mean through looking at other verses that help to explain them. For example, Revelation 17:15 explains that waters in the Bible symbolize “peoples, and multitudes, and nations.” But also remember that if verses seem symbolic, or are in a symbolic passage, they should not be taken literally. By the same token, if the passage is not symbolic it should be assumed to be literal. For example, stories such as creation and the flood are not merely allegories, but were actual events. For more on this topic, see my blog Thin Blue Line.
Original language principle:
It can sometimes help to look at the original Hebrew or Greek words in a Concordance such as Strong’s, which is readily available online. But that’s as far as I would take it – I’m not in agreement with those who seem to think there’s something magical about reading and speaking in Hebrew. What’s important to me is for people to be able to understand things in their native language.
Dual meaning principle:
Many prophecies have 2 or more interpretations, or applications to different time periods. Don’t be so narrow in focus as to refuse to consider that something might mean more than one thing, or that it may apply to more than one circumstance. God had to pack a lot of things into one small book in order to address his messages to all the people from all different ages.
Based on the idea of old photographic positive or negative images, like film strips developed by hand in a dark room. Many Bible stories and prophecies seem to symbolize both something good and something bad, depending on how you look at it. For example, how the marriage of King Solomon to multiple women is polygamy in the negative/bad, but also represents Jesus’ spiritual marriage to many believers in the positive/good. Even though Solomon was disobeying God’s will by doing that (see Deuteronomy 17:17-19) and thus bringing sorrow into his life, in God’s mercy on humanity he still finds a way to bring symbolisms out of that which can show us another beautiful view of Jesus.
In many Bible stories we will find that there is both a positive and a negative view from the very same image, depending on the light shining through it, just like with old photographic film. And strangely, our eyes seem to work exactly the same way (nature did it first). Reading Bible passages in this way is kind of like one of those memes where you stare at a negative image for a few seconds, and then when you look down at the white space below a beautiful positive color picture suddenly pops out at you. Some Bible stories seem to be describing something negative or bad, but if you look at it from a positive perspective you will see a clear picture of the face of Jesus.
The Jesus Principle:
Perhaps the most important principle of all is the understanding that in most of the Bible, in a myriad of different ways, glimpses and pictures of Jesus are hidden all throughout. Just as Jesus himself explained in John 5:39, “Search the scriptures; for … they are they which testify of me.” And how he showed his disciples in Luke 24:27, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Reading the Bible can be an amazing journey that leads us into a closer relationship with God. It’s the only book that by reading it, you get to meet the author. And as the beautiful picture of Jesus becomes more clear, you might even find that he walks off the pages and into your life…
So if you haven’t already, I hope you'll take the chance to embark on the amazing adventure of studying the Bible for yourself.