“Interpreting Scripture Like Jesus”

 

Some people think we don’t need principles of interpretation because the Bible just means what it says and it’s plain and clear. But the Bible itself disputes this assumption. Listen to 2 Peter 3:15-16: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Scripture says scripture can be “hard to understand” sometimes, and it can also be twisted, even toward destruction. There are unholy ways of interpreting Holy Scripture. Just because a claim is biblical doesn’t mean it’s right. Therefore, it’s important to have principles that help guide our understanding of Scripture.

In Matthew 4, we see why this is so important. The devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem, has him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and says to him, “‘If You are the Son of God throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge concerning you;’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus replies, “‘On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here, the devil quotes Psalm 91, tempting Christ to interpret Scripture in a way that’s against God’s will. He wants Jesus to jump off the top of the temple. One of the gravest temptations we face is to interpret and apply Holy Scripture in unholy ways.

So, what can do, since even divinely inspired scriptures can be twisted to misguide us? We can interpret the Bible as Jesus does. Notice that Jesus responds to the devil by quoting Dt 6:16. This suggests that Christ-like biblical interpretation can overpower evil and lead us into God’s will.

Since Jesus is our Lord, we seek to follow him in every way, including the way we read, understand, interpret, and apply Scripture. So today, I want us to glean from Jesus seven key principles of biblical interpretation. We can heed these seven principles in order to read scripture in a Christ-like way.

Jesus’ first principle of biblical interpretation is: Read Scripture in the light of Christ. In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus walks the road to Emmaus with two of his disciples. Verse 27 says, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” As Jesus shows them everything the Old Testament says about him, he also shows us how to view all Scripture in light of Christ. Whether reading the Old Testament or the New Testament, whether reading narratives, poetry, proverbs, or epistles, we can focus on Scripture’s witness to Christ.

Sometimes, when reading the Bible, people emphasize a verse here, or a passage there, and lose track of Christ. Then, based on some obscure verse in Leviticus or Revelation, they do or say things that are not Christ-like. It’s important not to allow the Bible to overshadow Jesus as the focal point of our devotion, because the purpose of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. In fact, if we allow the Scriptures to overshadow Jesus, we could miss out on abundant life. In Jn 5:39, Jesus says, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Allowing the Bible to overshadow Jesus also undermines Jesus’ authority. In Mt 28:20, the risen Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” As Bible scholar N. T. Wright observes, Jesus does not say, “All authority in heaven and earth is given to…the books you chaps are going to go and write.”[1]Jesus has all authority. He is the King over all kings. He is the Lord over all lords. He is Ruler over all rulers. And he is the Word over all words—including the words of Scripture. In order to guard against the twisting of Scripture, we can view every word of the Bible as bending toward Christ, subjugated to Christ, and clarified by Christ. The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message puts it like this: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

Jesus’ second principle of biblical interpretation is: Show love for God and neighbor. In Matthew 22, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” It’s a loaded question. Ancient rabbis counted 613 commandments in the Old Testament Law. Many rabbis viewed certain commandments as weightier than others, and they debated which ones were weightiest. Other rabbis argued that all the commandments were equally important. The lawyer is putting Jesus on the spot, asking him to weigh in on a controversial debate, asking him how he interprets the Bible. This was a perfect chance for Jesus to say, “There is no greatest commandment because all scripture is equal.” But strikingly, Jesus does not teach that.

He replies, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The phrase about “the law and the prophets” is shorthand for the Old Testament, the only Bible Jesus had. He is indicating that every word of Scripture hangs on two commands: love God and love neighbor. The fourth century Christian leader Saint Augustine called this the principle of “double-love.”[2] It means that good biblical interpretation exemplifies love for God and neighbor and enhances love for God and neighbor. Any interpretation of Scripture that undermines love for God is off base, and any interpretation that violates love for neighbor is a misinterpretation.

Jesus’ third principle of biblical interpretation is: Interpret Scripture with Scripture. In Mark 10, some Pharisees asked Jesus, “‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” Here, the Pharisees cite Dt 24:1-4, and Jesus responds by quoting Gn 1:27 and Gn 2:24.

He demonstrates how to interpret one scripture in light of another. It’s not best practice to yank a single verse out of context and treat it independently from the rest of the Bible. Rather, we always ask how any one passage fits within the overall witness of Scripture. This way, we can understand each scripture in light of all Scripture.

Jesus’ fourth principle of biblical interpretation is: Read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. In Matthew 5, he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Here, Jesus establishes the Old Testament’s integral role in Christian faith. He does not abolish the Old Testament scriptures, but rather fulfills them by appropriating Old Testament laws and by actualizing Old Testament prophecies.

According to Jesus, the Old Testament is indispensable, but not ultimate, because Jesus himself is the final authority. Thus, we are to prioritize the New Testament and read the Old Testament in its light. This is not to pit the New Testament against the Old Testament, because there is beautiful continuity between the two. But it is to say that we should read the Bible backwards as well as forwards: forwards because the Old Testament is chronologically first, and backwards because the New Testament is theologically prioritized. It is also to affirm the famous saying, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”

Jesus’ fifth principle of biblical interpretation is: Major on the majors and minor on the minors. In Matthew 23, he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” According to Jesus, the major themes of Scripture such as justice, mercy, and faith must not be compromised for the sake of minor details such as how to apply tithing laws to tiny little garden herbs. When the church de-emphasizes justice, mercy, and faith because of a verse here or a passage there, we embarrass Jesus and taint the gospel.

For example, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, many Christians focused on a few verses that say, “Slaves obey your masters.” The focus should have been on the foundational story in Exodus 14 in which God liberates slaves. The focus should have been on the theme of justice for the marginalized which pervades Scripture and is highlighted in passages including Isaiah 1, Amos 5, and Micah 6. The focus should have been on Jesus’ own mission statement in Luke 4 to bring release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. The focus should have been on justice, mercy, and faith. This devastating misinterpretation of the Bible in relation to slavery could have been avoided by majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors.

Jesus’ sixth principle of biblical interpretation is: Interpret Scripture in accordance with the Golden Rule. In Matthew 7, he says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Jesus suggests that the Golden Rule encapsulates biblical ethics and shapes our understanding of Scripture. If our interpretation of Scripture treats others in a way we would not want to be treated, we have misinterpreted. We are throwing scriptures at others in a harsh way, and we would not want others to do that to us, we have misinterpreted.

We are also off-base if our interpretation of Scripture produces indifference or inactivity. Many non-Christian iterations of the Golden Rule formulate it negatively: don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.[3] But Jesus phrased the Golden Rule positively so that the imperative is a “do,” not a “don’t.” Reading the Bible in light of the Golden Rule leads us to act on behalf of others. In this way, we become doers of the word, as James 1 says. We are interpreting Scripture like Christ when Scripture comes off the page and into our minds, into our hearts, into our hands, and into our deeds, so that we treat others well.

Jesus’ seventh principle of biblical interpretation is: Read Scripture in light of the resurrection. In Mark 12, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, broached this subject with Jesus. Their problem, says Jesus, is that they did not know the Scriptures or the power of God. He says to them in verses 26-27, “As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” It’s important to know that when God spoke to Moses at the bush in Exodus 3, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been dead for about 500 years. Yet God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” God said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Jesus uncovers the assumption here that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive. He finds the promise of resurrection in God’s word to Moses. This shows us that in order to understand the Scriptures and the power of God, we always keep the resurrection in mind. As Bible scholar Richard Hays puts it, “Authentic knowledge of the Scriptures depends on a hermeneutic of resurrection, the ability to discern in Scripture a witness of God’s life-giving power.”[4]

This reminds me of a story that Pastor Kenneth Chafin told about his grandmother, which I read in a book by Christopher Church. Pastor Chafin’s grandmother was an Oklahoma hillbilly who loved to read mysteries. When Chafin was young, she encouraged him to read, and she often asked him to bring her books. He noticed that whenever he brought her these mystery books, she would always read the last chapter first. It drove him crazy that she previewed the end of the story before she started reading the beginning of it. She noticed that this upset him, so one day she explained why she did that. She said that, at her age, she didn’t want to waste time on stories that she didn’t like the endings to.[5] She would read the end of the story first because she wanted to know where the story was going.

Likewise, to read the Bible like Jesus is to know where the story is going. It’s hard to truly understand the beginning or the middle if we do not understand the end. The Bible does not end with suffering but with joy. The story does not end with tragedy but with triumph. The gospel does not end with the cross but with the resurrection. The Scriptures do not end with death but with life. When we read Scripture as Christ does, we can see that history and creation and all of existence are caught up in God’s life-giving power, and we can see that every word of Scripture leans toward resurrection, toward everlasting life, toward flourishing in God’s new creation.

Indeed, in the last couple of pages of the Bible, we read, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

With an ending like that, the rest of the story is surely worth reading. Let’s be sure to read it as Jesus does.

 

Dr. Noel Schoonmaker

Senior Pastor

Second Baptist Church, Richmond, VA

[1] N. T. Wright, Surprised By Scripture (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 28.

[2] “Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1.86.

[3] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, trans. Wilhelm C. Linss (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 426.

[4] Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 226.

[5] Christopher Church, James (Macon: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2004), 416.