The emphasis in most Bible schools and seminaries tends to be on teaching methods of interpreting the Word that anyone can use, regardless of whether the person has any spiritual connection to God or is even pagan or atheistic. This is no criticism of theological institutions. The techniques taught are important and could be called basic or rational hermeneutics. We simply need to understand that there is more to Bible interpretation than this.
As children, we learned to read. This has proved a most valuable skill that we continually draw upon when studying Scripture. Some of us learned to read in a Christian school. Most of us learned in secular schools. It makes no difference, because an ability to read has nothing to do with one’s relationship with God. What we could call basic hermeneutics is like that. It could be taught just as effectively in a secular college as in a theological institution. It’s a valuable skill that we should be using all the time when studying the Bible. But just as one can read the Bible well, without truly understanding it, so one can skillfully employ basic hermeneutics and not understand the spiritual truths of the Bible. The danger is that the more highly trained someone is, the more he might fool himself into thinking he understands a Scripture, when he is actually completely missing or misunderstanding much of the divine message. No matter how great his intellect, when a non-Christian encounters spiritual truths, “ . . . he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
That sounds spooky. We who pride ourselves on our intellect can find it so offensive that we reject the possibility of there being things the finest human minds cannot grasp without a spiritual transformation. It almost takes a divine miracle just to gain the faintest inkling as to why understanding spiritual truth is beyond the grasp of the unaided human mind.
What would it be like to experience the sensations a lizard feels when it detects a sexually desirable lizard or a delicious cockroach? No matter how much ingenious research we did, trying to figure out what it feels like to be a lizard would remain mostly guesswork and we’ll never know how off the mark our presumptions are. The only way to perceive things as a lizard does, is if, for a while at least, we had the mind of a lizard. And even if offered that opportunity, some of us would find the offer too scary to accept.
This is like the impossibility we face in trying to understand spiritual truth. It is something so foreign to human experience that no matter how great our intelligence and how deeply we ponder and analyze it, we cannot perceive things as God perceives them without undergoing a transformation of mind-boggling proportions. The sheer impossibility is reflected in Paul’s almost nonsensical prayer about God’s love:
Ephesians 3:17-19 . . . I pray that you . . . know this love that surpasses knowledge
Learning facts will never do. We cannot understand as God understands without a supernatural transference of God’s mind/nature to our mind. This life-changing experience does not come in a one-off explosive burst, wrecking every neural connection in our brain. It comes one staggering revelation a time throughout the life of everyone who is in intimate union with the divine. It is an on-going process that we can stop or hinder at any moment. This is why Peter urges Christians to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Paul, too, speaks of “growing in the knowledge of God,” (Colossians 1:10) and tells his readers they “have put on the new self, which is being renewed [note the tense] in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:10).
Here’s a fascinating promise:
Isaiah 54:13 All your sons will be taught by the LORD . . .
The promise is not merely that all will have access to Scripture. As important as access to the Bible is, it is like the excitement of being given a seat on a jumbo jet, only to discover that the plane has no pilot. As a telephone is dead unless someone speaks to us through it, so is Scripture, unless God speaks to us through it. Our great need is to be taught by the Lord, as the above Scripture promises. The Almighty usually does this through Scripture, but it is something he must do. If, rather than being taught by God, we are self-taught, we will inevitably miss vital spiritual truths, no matter how diligently we study the Bible.
Proverbs 28:26 He who trusts in himself is a fool . . .
The same is true about looking to human teachers, rather than the Lord:
Isaiah 2:22 Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. . . .
Matthew 16:17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. . . .”
Matthew 16:17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. . . .”
In the previous two webpages (which should be read first – please start here) we began exploring the factors determining our receptivity to divine empowerment to discern spiritual truth. Having commenced this fascinating and critical subject, we now need to uncover still more spiritual factors affecting one’s ability to understand the Bible.
Elsewhere on this vast website I have written much in which I needed to use Scripture to discern God’s heart on various subjects. Sometimes when writing on these matters I thought it helpful to explain various principles I had had to draw upon in order to have any chance of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” So although most of this series of webpages about Bible interpretation is new, there are occasional quotes or adaptations from portions of my other webpages, here compiled to bring together some of the many factors that affect our ability to discern spiritual truth in the Bible. The following section is one such instance.
We mentioned earlier that the need for this series of webpages becomes frighteningly obvious when we consider the degree to which Christians differ on doctrine and Bible interpretation. What is so disturbing is that these matters divide not just new Christians or worldly Christians or uninformed Christians. We are tempted to think poorly of anyone who disagrees with us, but if we dare look with godly eyes we will find Christians worthy of our highest esteem passionately believing opposite things. We might not know who is wrong, but clearly some of them must be. They cannot all be right! This sends us crashing to the humbling – even scary – reality that whenever we seek to understand such topics we are daring to confront a matter on which numbers of truly great men and women of God have got it wrong.
It is tempting to think that if God allows this divergence of opinion among even the most spiritual and knowledgeable Christians on earth, it must be because the matter is unimportant. If this were so, however, it would become perhaps even more confusing. It would mean that so many fine Christians on both sides are wrong in thinking it is important.
If people more spiritual, knowledgeable, experienced and gifted than ourselves have somehow missed the truth, who are we to get it right? The thought seems enough to send us reeling into defeatism. We feel the same way when hearing the crushing news of a great Christian having a moral fall. If such a person could fall, what chance do we have? Nevertheless, there is one truth with the power to lift us out of defeatism: no matter how much Christians may differ in giftedness, causing some to seem superior to us, everyone without exception is equally dependent upon the grace of God for the understanding of spiritual truth and for every spiritual step we take.
Some of us can leap higher than others but it makes no difference in a quest to reach the moon. To leave earth’s gravity, each of us, no matter how athletic or disabled, is equally dependent upon a power outside of us – a spacecraft. Likewise, in reaching heavenly truth, human advantages or disadvantages make little difference. All that matters is our willingness to yield to a power greater than any of us – the grace of God.
If anyone could be mistaken, it’s me. But if anyone can reveal the truth, it’s God. If it depended on us, we might have little hope, but since it depends on the grace of God, each of us has boundless reason for hope.
If we can stop putting our faith in our devotion, experience, Bible skills and human teachers, and place our faith solely in the Almighty’s power to override all our inadequacies and penetrate our dull minds with his truth, then we have mastered two key factors in receiving divine revelation: humility (“The meek will he guide . . .” – Psalms 25:9), and placing all of our faith in the Almighty, none in our finite, easily deceived selves.
The obvious starting point for discovering God’s truth is, of course, a right relationship with God. The psalmist prayed for the miracle of supernatural insight into Scripture’s wonders (Psalm 119:18) but we cannot expect divine answers while unrepentant sin hinders our relationship with God. “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). Sin must be removed by us trusting in Jesus’ cleansing and by genuinely wanting that cleansing. We are genuine only to the extent that we passionately long for purity and for devoted obedience to our Lord.
Another essential for accurate Bible interpretation is to have such a driving passion to receive the truth from God that we rival the mother of the demonized child who kept refusing to be put off from her quest to receive from Jesus the longing of her heart. Our Lord “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
When Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26) did he roar the words with terrifying, spirit-withering fury? Did his eyes fill with tears or tender compassion? Could the disciples detect a wounded expression on his face or in his voice? Was there a twinkle in his eye or a faith-inspiring hint of a smile? The disciples often had enormous difficulty in understanding what Jesus was saying and yet they had access to invaluable non-verbal information that has been stripped from the accounts we are left with in Scripture. How much harder our task is!
To fully understand the Bible we need information that only God has. Our one hope of regaining what is lost is to be so filled with the Spirit of God and walking so close to the Lord that we know his heart.
Despite the priceless opportunity to read Jesus’ non-verbal signals, the disciples often got it wrong because they were not able to read Jesus’ mind. The ideal would be not just to read Christ’s mind but to open the Bible and read with Christ’s mind. Imagine being able to read the Gospels with Jesus’ understanding and insight into those events; feeling what he felt, seeing what he saw, and knowing what he knows. That would be the ultimate in knowing precisely what Jesus meant.
This is no pipe dream:
1 Corinthians 2:16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” . . .
We feel like plunging into defeatism again. What chance has anyone with a three figure IQ to understand the infinite Mind? How can we, with eyes fogged by selfishness, prejudice, self-justification and impurity, see as God sees? There’s no possibility for those not spiritually connected to the Lord. Yet for us, the verse continues in the most thrilling, staggering manner:
But we have the mind of Christ.
Access to the mind of Christ is the right of everyone in genuine relationship with Christ. The outworking of this, however, is a progressive experience that requires our cooperation. This is why Paul had to urge Christians:
Philippians 2:5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (KJV)
Had this been automatic for Christians, Paul would not have had to mention it. Again, he told Christians:
Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
And he reminded other Christians:
Ephesians 4:22-23 You were taught . . . to be made new in the attitude of your minds
We have the mind of Christ to the extent that we have died to selfishness and let Christ live his life through us and think his thoughts through us.
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” refers not to academic knowledge but to a radically changed, otherworldly mindset even to the extreme of willingly submitting to voluntary suffering for the glory of God (Philippians 2:5-8).
“ . . . be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is prefaced by, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).
This is worthy of careful reading:
Ephesians 4:17-24 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
The Bible is divinely designed to be understood only by people indwelt by the very Spirit who experiences the actual feelings and deepest secrets of God. Please read this prayerfully:
1 Corinthians 2:6-13 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Although every Christian has the Spirit of God, our ability to grasp biblical truth is proportional to our willingness to let the Spirit have his way in our thoughts and actions. Scripture provides a practical way of measuring how much the Spirit is illuminating our understanding:
Galatians 5:16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
We are filled with the same Spirit who inspired Scripture, to the degree to which we are victorious over fleshly or selfish desires. Lack of temptation is not a measure of our walk with the Lord. What counts is not what assaults us, but whether we resist.
What hope have we of seeing as God sees if lust, bitterness, greed, envy or any other ungodly attitude clouds our eyes? How much we see as God sees depends on how much we yield to God’s longing to kill every ungodly attitude within us. Dying to self is far more exciting and fulfilling than we dare hope. There is a valuable link about this at the end of this series of webpages.
No matter how much we study the Bible, we cut ourselves off from biblical revelation to whatever extent that the Spirit of God is not having full sway in our lives.
We let the Spirit rule in our lives and understanding by, wherever there is conflict, trashing human wisdom and treasuring God’s wisdom; despising our own wishes and delighting in God’s will; killing ungodly desires and birthing godly ones. This is not attained by human effort. It is a divine miracle. Almighty God manifests his love, however, by not abusing his fearsome power by forcing godly attitudes upon us. Instead, the King of kings waits for our cooperation.
This section is adapted from a webpage of mine about the unforgivable sin.
Suppose a parent warns a child, ‘Disobey and I’ll kill you!’ The correct interpretation of those words depends entirely on the person’s character. It will mean radically different things if the parent is loving and gentle, with a sense of humor, or is harsh, or is quite capable of murder. To know for sure that we have correctly understood someone’s words, we must know that person exceptionally well.
To understand what God means in his Word, we must get to know God as deeply as we possibly can. We must know his heart and character and values. Related to this: a key way of knowing how someone will react in a new situation is to observe over a long period how he handles similar situations. So to understand how God will react to someone blaspheming the Spirit, let’s look at how he acted previously, after issuing other dire warnings:
* The Law of God said no Moabite could ‘enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation’ (Deuteronomy 23:3) and yet Ruth, David’s great-grandmother, was a Moabite and became God’s chosen ancestress of the Messiah.
* God’s law said that everyone guilty of adultery must be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22; John 8:5). David the adulterer repented and, despite God’s anger, he was not only allowed to live but to continue to reign as king with God’s full blessing (2 Samuel 12:13).
* The prophet Micah prophesied in the days of King Hezekiah, saying, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.”’ Hezekiah sought the Lord, and God relented (Jeremiah 26:18-19).
* King Hezekiah was terminally ill. The great prophet Isaiah said, ‘This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.’ Hezekiah prayed and another prophecy hit the dust (Isaiah 38:1-5).
* “But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). The same Greek work here translated “disowns” is used several times in the original Scriptures to describe what Peter did to Jesus and twice to describe what the Jews did to Jesus (Acts 3:14-15) and yet full forgiveness was offered to them all (John 21:17-19; Acts 3:19).
This overview helps us see the heart of God and know what he really means by harsh statements that seem to give no way out. Their very harshness is intended to move people to seek God so that he could relent.
Here’s a verse that seems to give no hope to anyone found guilty:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
If we panic, however, it is because we have ripped such verses out of the Bible; reading them in isolation, without adequately considering the rest of Scripture. In this case, the answer is in the very next verse:
1 Corinthians 6:11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The importance of the context in which a verse appears is often emphasized. The latest example highlights the value of this. In the earlier examples, however, we found a key verse for understanding a Scripture in a quite different part of the Bible.
It makes no difference whether the interpretive key to a Scripture is in the next verse or a thousand verses away; a verse is taken out of context not only if surrounding verses are overlooked but whenever a passage is divorced from the full biblical revelation of God. Look at how Jesus responded to the devil’s attempt to tempt him by distorting Scripture (Luke 4:9-12). Jesus did not search the Internet for the opinions of highly acclaimed theologians on that Scripture. Neither did he say, “Well, devil, if you look the preceding verse . . .” Or, “If you look at the historical context . . . And the ancient Hebrew means . . .” Jesus didn’t in the slightest analyze or argue about the Scripture the devil quoted. He merely quoted another Scripture that to him was indisputable and contrary to what the devil was implying. That was enough for Jesus.
Furthermore, a verse is also taken out of context if it is interpreted as if it were spoken by someone of different character to that of the true God. The Lord is neither fickle, nor a liar. He sticks steadfastly to what he means; never to anyone’s misunderstanding of what he means. The only way to avoid misunderstanding God is to never underestimate his merciful, loving heart, and how an offender’s change of heart and faith in Christ’s sacrifice frees God to forgive as he longs to, and suddenly the impossible becomes possible. Of course, if a person does not respond the way God hopes, the dire statement remains in force.
To understand what God means by, for example, an unpardonable sin, it is essential to interpret it in the light of God’s forgiving heart, and his ability to forgive through Christ, and his inability to forgive outside of faith in Christ. If, however, instead of reading the Bible in sync with God’s heart, we read it while letting ourselves be dominated by a condemning conscience or by fear that Jesus is not ‘able to save completely those who come to God through him,’ (Hebrews 7:25) we will repeatedly get it wrong.
Although the full revelation of Scripture helps us see the heart of God, there are spiritual and psychological factors that can hinder us. For example, feeling sure of God’s forgiving nature is particularly difficult for people who themselves are harsh and unforgiving. Sadly, it is also difficult for some people brought up by harsh, judgmental parents or suffering psychological afflictions such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (free-floating anxiety can be misinterpreted as being unable to be freed from guilt), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (which can cause a condemning conscience and/or uncontrollable, blasphemous thoughts), major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or delusional disorder. And not everyone suffering from such an affliction has been diagnosed. Treating such illnesses and correcting spiritual problems will help people read the Bible in a way that is closer to how God intends it to be understood.
The Word of God often identifies a “hard heart” as the reason for people failing to perceive spiritual truth. This, along with its implications for Bible interpretation, is worth exploring. Since the findings are somewhat similar to what we have already discovered, however, I’ll place it in a separate webpage: Bible Interpretation: The Heart of the Matter. For those who wish to move on, I’ll just cite one of its conclusions: how much our eyes are filled with God’s tender compassion for those we are tempted to despise is an indication of how likely we are to see biblical truth through God’s eyes.
If part of us craves assurance that we are not disobeying God, and part of us yearns to do something contrary to God’s will, we will be subjected to strong psychological pressures to interpret Scripture in a manner that assures us that we can go our own way without displeasing God. In an attempt to silence the screams of a nagging conscience, intelligent people concoct cunning and persuasive manipulations of truth to try to pervert Scripture into excusing their sin. So if, for example, you believe you are sentenced to lifelong sexual frustration and deprivation if Scripture says a certain practice is morally wrong, there are ready-made “clever” arguments waiting for us to be impressed by their logic and references to Greek/Hebrew, rather than believe what Scripture actually says.
2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears . . .
Without us realizing what is happening, our yearnings, fears, prejudices and presumptions can cry so loudly within us as to drown out the Spirit’s whispers.
2 Peter 3:16 . . . His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Truly, we need to pray:
Psalms 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me . . .
Our only hope is to be so aware of our potential for self-deception that we don’t trust our own perceptions and thinking processes, but instead put all our faith in God’s grace – his willingness to forgive and reveal truth to us, despite our unworthiness. To trust in our own intellect, our purity of motives, our faithfulness, or our ability to hear from God is like trusting a computer programmed to give the occasional wrong answer in an unpredictable and undetectable manner. By definition, no one knows when they are deluded.
How vital it is that we take seriously this Scripture:
Proverbs 3:5,7 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; . . . Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
And how important it is that this Scripture does not apply to us:
Matthew 15:8 These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
We all have the tendency to explore the Bible, not so much to find the mind of God as to find proof texts of what we have already decided to be the answer. Far too often I come to an understanding through reading portions of the Bible and from then on I lose objectivity. No longer am I without bias and humbly open to whatever my Lord may reveal. Instead, I absorb Scripture through the filter of what might be a too hastily reached conclusion. Although barely aware of what I am doing, my mind is probably trying to make the rest of the Bible conform to my own belief, rather than honestly yielding to the full teaching of the Bible and letting Scripture shape my belief.
We all tend to develop a theory, or a preference, or are handed a doctrine by someone we rightly respect. From then on – often without realizing it – we end up wrestling Scripture into submission, making it confirm our theory, rather than passively submitting to the Bible, freely allowing it to modify our theory.
Unless we resist the urge to use the Bible to prove ourselves right, we will most likely end up – while barely aware of what is happening – twisting Scripture to suit our own purposes. To do so is to open the door to delusion.
It has rightly been said that the Scriptures we most need are the ones we haven’t underlined in our Bibles. They are the parts most likely to kill our theories and threaten our narrow thinking.
Our motive in searching the Scriptures should always be to boldly find God’s truth, no matter how much that truth clashes with our hopes, fears and presumptions.
Since we all have blind spots that we are quite unaware of, we need to keep praying for an openness to any revelation that is truly from God that we might unknowingly reject because it “does not compute,” as it is incompatible with our current mindset. It is essential that we maintain a humble dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s illumination. We desperately need the grace of God to avoid reading his Word through glasses colored by our expectations, or pride in our human ability to interpret Scripture, or a longing for a soft life.
We must delve not just into God’s writings, but into God’s heart. The Lord himself – not our interpretation of experience, nor our human interpretation of Scripture – must be our authority.
It takes humility to remain open to the possibility that even though we have strong biblical support for a belief we hold dear, our view could still be distorted because we have not yet discovered the full truth. What if, for example, we consider ourselves more spiritual and more biblically correct that Christians who differ from us, and we have no idea that those we look down on have seen another aspect of biblical revelation that we have failed to grasp? As I have written elsewhere:
One of the greatest dangers for us Bible lovers is not blatant error but oversimplification. Certain glorious truths shine so brightly that we let them blind us to other, equally vital, biblical truths. Liked chocolate-coated poison, oversimplification is a particularly sinister form of error. We come to trust oversimplification because in easy situations it works but just when we are most vulnerable, it lets us down. Even worse, we are then tempted to imagine it is God or his Word that has failed us, when the real cause is letting a shallow reading of the Bible entice us to jump to false conclusions. Half-truths are as exciting and addictive and deceptive and dangerous as the early stages of heroin addiction.
For so many of us, what we rather proudly think of as our theology or doctrine would better be called a set of presumptions.
For so many of us, what we rather proudly think of as our theology or doctrine would better be called a set of presumptions.
Here’s an ancient prayer of uncertain origin that stirs me deeply:
From cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
from laziness that is content with half-truth,
from arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
O God of Truth, deliver us.
To have that prayer answered is a huge step towards receiving divine revelation as we read the Word of God. Nevertheless, there are even more matters to be considered, so let’s proceed to the next page.
Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2005. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net These writings may be freely copied provided they are not placed in a webpage, nor in anything that is sold and provided this entire paragraph is included. For use outside these limits, written permission is required. Freely you have received, freely give.