2. How Do You Read

Posted Dec 20, 2017 in Agape

Jesus was the most amazing teacher. When the officers sent by the church leaders to arrest Jesus were asked to explain why they had not brought Him they could only answer:

…Never man spake like this man. John 7:46 

Despite this fact the New Testament records that most people had trouble understanding him.

Speaking to the Jews about his death and resurrection He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought He was speaking about the physical temple in Jerusalem, but He was speaking about the temple of his own body. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again but Nicodemus thought Jesus was speaking about physical birth when Jesus was talking about spiritual birth. When Jesus offered the woman at the well living water she thought He was speaking about physical water when He was speaking about spiritual water. Again, Jesus warned the disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees; they thought He was speaking about physical bread. But Jesus said unto them:

How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Matt 16:11 

When Jesus fed the 5000 He began to teach them about the meaning of this miracle He performed. He explained to them that the bread was a symbol of His Life upon which the world needed to meditate upon and consider. He told them:

Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:54.

These words astounded His listeners. They murmured saying, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” Many of those who were interested in His ministry turned away from Him and followed Him no more.

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  (11)  He came unto his own, and his own received him not. John 1:10-11 

All these things were a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah:

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?  (2)  For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.  (3)  He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Isaiah 53:1-3

The natural reaction of the human heart to the Son of God is to reject Him and His teaching.

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.  1 Cor 2:14 

When the natural man reads the Word of God he does not understand it. The Bible tells us:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.  (9)  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isa 55:8-9 

Unless we are born again by the Spirit of God and we come to the Bible humbly asking for guidance we will misunderstand what the Word of God is saying.

And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. 1 Cor 8:2 

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: James 1:19

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.  Prov 18:13

It is very easy to answer a matter before it is heard. Consider the following example:

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing.  (36)  Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. Luke 22:35-36 

But later He seems to change His mind?

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Matt 26:52 

Did Jesus tell His disciples to buy a sword, and then when Peter uses it he is rebuked? Did Peter use it on the wrong occasion? If so, did Jesus tell him when it should be used and when it shouldn’t? The words, “all those who take the sword will perish with it,” appear to be fairly universal. If that were not enough we add to this a further dimension:

And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Eph 6:17 

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Heb 4:12 

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. Rev 1:16 

The Bible uses the word sword to refer to the Word of God. How do we know when to apply this understanding and when to understand a literal sword? Consider again the example of fire.

And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.  2 Kings 1:10

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,  And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.  (53)  And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?  (55)  But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.  (56)  For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. Luke 9:51-56 

In rebuking the disciples was Jesus also rebuking Elijah? Was it simply that they did not know the right time to call down fire? Again the words of Jesus are fairly universal. He states that He did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them. Does this only apply to when He was here on earth, but He would destroy men’s lives afterwards?

These are some of the many questions that begin to arise when one reads the Bible. It brings before us a crucial question that Jesus put to a lawyer who questioned Him.

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? Luke 10:26 

Jesus didn’t just ask the man what are you reading but how are you reading it? What are the principles that you are using to read the Word of God? This is an important question that needs an answer if we are to harmonise all these apparently contradictory passages.

In the early 19th century a man who was to spearhead one of the largest revivals in North America was grappling with this very question. In his earlier life William Miller had given up on the Bible concluding it to be full of contradictions. Yet after witnessing an amazing American defeat of the British forces that the British should have won easily, he was convinced that a greater power than man was at work, and he came back to reconsider the Bible. This was quite a humbling thing for him to do, because he had taunted several Christians concerning the apparent contradictions in the Bible that they were not able to answer. When he renewed his interest in the Bible he was faced with the very arguments that he had put to others.

“Soon after his renunciation of Deism, in conversing with a friend respecting the hope of a glorious eternity through the merits and intercessions of Christ, he was asked how he knew there was such a Saviour. He replied, "It is revealed in the Bible." - "How do you know the Bible is true?" was the response, with a reiteration of his former arguments on the contradictions and mysticisms in which he had claimed it was shrouded. Mr. Miller felt such taunts in their full force. He was at first perplexed; but, on reflection, he considered that if the Bible is a revelation of God, it must be consistent with itself; all its parts must harmonize, must have been given for man's instruction, and, consequently, must be adapted to his understanding. He, therefore, said, "Give me time, and I will harmonize all those apparent contradictions to my own satisfaction, or I will be a Deist still." He then devoted himself to the prayerful reading of the Word. He laid aside all commentaries, and used the marginal references and his Concordance as his only helps. He saw that he must distinguish between the Bible and all the peculiar and partisan interpretations of it. The Bible was older than them all, must be above them all; and he placed it there. He saw that it must correct all interpretations; and, in correcting them, its own pure light would shine without the mists which traditional belief had involved it in. He resolved to lay aside all preconceived opinions, and to receive, with child-like simplicity, the natural and obvious meaning of Scripture.”  Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (1853) p 68.

This is exactly what he did. During a period of two years he studied the Bible from cover to cover.

"I determined to lay aside all my prepossessions, to thoroughly compare Scripture with Scripture, and to pursue its study in a regular and methodical manner. I commenced with Genesis, and read verse by verse, proceeding no faster than the meaning of the several passages should be so unfolded as to leave me free from embarrassment respecting any mysticisms or contradictions. Whenever I found anything obscure, my practice was to compare it with all collateral passages; and, by the help of Cruden, I examined all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion. Then, by letting every word have its proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty. In this way I pursued the study of the Bible, in my first perusal of it, for about two years, and was fully satisfied that it is its own interpreter. Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (1853) p 69.

During this time he developed a system of rules by which he was able to harmonise all the contradictions that he had formerly faced. Here is a summary of the rules that he used:

  1. Every word must have its proper bearing on the subject presented in the Bible.
  2. All Scripture is necessary, and may be understood by a diligent application and study.
  3. Nothing revealed in Scriptures can or will be hid from those who ask in faith, not wavering.
  4. To understand doctrine, bring all the Scriptures together on the subject you wish to know; then let every word have its proper influence; and if you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in error.
  5. Scripture must be its own expositor, since it is a rule of itself. If I depend on a teacher to expound to me, and he should guess at its meaning, or desire to have it so on account of his sectarian creed, or to be thought wise, then his guessing, desire, creed or wisdom, is my rule, and not the Bible.
  6. If a word makes good sense as it stands, and does no violence to the simple laws of nature, it is to be understood literally; if not, figuratively.
  7. The most important rule of all is, that you must have faith. It must be a faith that requires a sacrifice, and, if tried, would give up the dearest object on earth, the world and all its desires, - character, living, occupation, friends, home, comforts and worldly honors. If any of these should hinder our believing any part of God's word, it would show our faith to be vain. Nor can we ever believe so long as one of these motives lies lurking in our hearts. We must believe that God will never forfeit his word; and we can have confidence that He who takes notice of the sparrow's fall, and numbers the hairs of our head, will guard the translation of his own word, and throw a barrier around it, and prevent those who sincerely trust in God, and put implicit confidence in his word, from erring far from the truth."

These rules of interpretation spawned a message for one of the greatest revivals the world has seen.

We note carefully that in order to understand a teaching we need to take all the scripture we can find on it and bring it together before we form our conclusion. Every word is to have its proper place and influence. This is something that is not easy for many people because we want to get answers quickly, but it takes effort and discipline to search out all the passages on a subject. Take for instance the Greek word monogenes translated as begotten in John 3:16. Many people believe this word means unique but what does the Bible say for itself?

…behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, Luke 7:12 

Only born child

For he had one only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she lay a dying. Luke 8:42 

Only born child

And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child. Luke 9:38 

Only born child

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:14 

Only born child

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. John 1:18 

Only born child

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Only born child

He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. John 3:18

Only born child

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Heb 11:17 

Only born child to his true and legitimate wife.

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 1 John 4:9 

Only born child

 There are only five people mentioned in the New Testament as monogenes or only begotten. Five texts refer to Jesus as the Son of God. There is one reference to Isaac and then the other references apply to only born children that Jesus healed. In the cases of the other children where the word is used the meaning is plain that it means the only born child. In respect to Isaac we know he was not the only child of Abraham but he was the only born child of Sarah who received the promises with Abraham. When we put all these texts together we see that this word when applied to Jesus must mean the same thing, the only born child of the Father.

Added to this is the rule listed as number six above which states that we should take the literal meaning of the text unless it does violence to nature. It does no violence to Scripture to understand that Jesus is the only born Son of the Father. So through this process we can establish the meaning of the word monogenes without seeking a definition from a commentary or someone else, the Bible, itself, is its own expositor.

We will need to carefully apply these rules as we seek to harmonise the life of Jesus with the many violent stories of the Old Testament. It will take earnest effort to prove true the claim of the Bible: that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, (Heb 13:8). Therefore, during His ministry on earth He was the perfect revelation of His Father.