How to Study Your Bible: Interpretation
Written by: MacArthur Jr., John Posted on: 04/10/2003
Category: Christian Living
"How to Study Your Bible: Interpretation"
Well, we are continuing in our series on how to study the Bible, or how to get the most out of your Bible. We've laid down a
lot of preliminary things to elevate your confidence and whet your appetite with regard to studying the Scripture. We've
talked about who can study the Bible with effectiveness, who can truly and rightly interpret Scripture and we told you that
the Word of God says that only those who are born again, only those with a strong desire, who are diligent, who are pure
and holy, who are obedient, and prayerful are able to rightly divide the word of truth. And so we depend upon the work of
the Holy Spirit in all of those areas, the Spirit who gives us new life, the Spirit who plants in us the hunger for the truth, the
Spirit who grants to us the diligence and who cleanses us from sin and drives us toward holiness, the Spirit who works
obedience in us, the Spirit who prompts us to pray is behind all of these requirements and qualifications for the study of
Now, given that we understand the importance of the Word of God that it is in fact the Word of God and we've endeavored
to say that in a number of ways in the last couple of weeks, and given that our lives are right before the Lord, we belong to
Him, we have this desire, this diligence, this holiness, this commitment to obedience and prayerfully approach the Word of
God...how are we then to study Scripture? How are we to get a grip on this book? It seems so formidable. It's such a thick
book, such a long book, in fact 66 books make up this one book. There are so many details and since every word,
therefore every phrase and every sentence and every paragraph, every chapter, every book itself is of such vital importance,
how are we ever to be able to grasp the fullness of the Word of God? What format do we use? What approach do we use
for effectively studying the Bible?
And I want to share with you just some of the basic things that are essential in coming to grips with an understanding of the
Word of God. Some of them will be familiar to you and some of them perhaps will be new to you. Suffice it to say by way
of a little bit of an introduction, one of the grave problems in the church today is a misunderstanding of the meaning of
Scripture. As I said to you this morning, we...and even last Sunday night...we expect unbelievers to misinterpret Scripture,
don't we, because they are natural and they cannot understand the things of God. The Bible in its truth is closed to them for
the Bible is only understood by those who are taught by the Spirit of God. And since they are void of the Spirit and void of
the life of God, we don't expect unbelievers to come up with the right answer.
But it is also true that in many cases there are believers who for a number of reasons misinterpret Scripture. They come to
Scripture with their presuppositions and force the Bible to conform to those presuppositions. They come to the Scripture
with their predigested theology and their understanding of doctrine perhaps from the past and they want to force the Word
of God into that. Or perhaps they are enamored by some prominent teacher or prominent writer and they sort of line up with
that individual and they want to affirm what he says or what that group says without regard for a careful understanding of
There has been, obviously, severe damage done to the work of God, severe damage to the church of Jesus Christ by
misinterpretation of Scripture. And there are so many misinterpretations of Scripture under the name of Christianity that most
non-Christian people assume that there is no right interpretation of the Bible. Is that not fair to say? Most non- Christian
people would say, "Well it's everybody's own interpretation, that's obvious because there are so many views." And that is a
rather strange thing because for the most part if you are, for example, a Muslim, you are locked in to a pretty clear cut
common view of Muslim authoritative writings. And they're pretty much universally accepted and understood in the same
way. If you are a Mormon, there are not a lot of variations in how the scriptures are interpreted and what doctrines are
believed. If you are a Jehovah's Witness, the same would be true. If you're in Christian Science, or any other of the quasi-
Christian cults, there is much greater uniformity, even within the Roman Catholic Church there is much less confusion about
what the church teaches than there is in evangelical and true Christianity.
And one of the reasons why during the Dark Ages the Roman Catholic Church didn't want the people to have the Bible, one
of the reasons why they never put the Scripture in the hands of the people for the period of time from say 500 to 1500, the
period known as the Dark Ages, was because they were afraid that if the people got a hold of the Scripture without the skill
and the preparation to rightly interpret it, they would misinterpret it. And we understand that fear because that, in fact, is the
case. While they still had a responsibility to put the hand...the Scripture in the hands of the people, it was a correct
assumption that when given the Word of God people would come up with all kinds of misinterpretations. However, on the
other hand it was an incorrect assumption that only the church could be the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, only the
Roman Catholic system had the right to be the interpreter. That too was a wrong assumption. The right assumption is you
give the Word of God to the people and then you teach the people how to rightly divide the truth. You don't keep it back
from them. But it is true that the Bible in the hands of people can be the source of truth or the source of confusion, even
within the framework of the church.
The church has come up with all kinds of very strange doctrines because of misinterpretations. In fact, bizarre kinds of things
have occurred in the life of the church because of a misinterpretation of the Word of God. Cults have risen, as you know,
throughout history because of misinterpretation. Very often misinterpretation categorically codified and defined by singular
people like Mary Baker Eddy in the case of the Christian Science, or special vision, supposedly, come to Joseph Smith in
the case of the Mormons. And those being then the interpretation or the appropriate interpretation of Scripture. But not just
through those mystical means, there still are today many Christian people who...who offer an interpretation or an
understanding of Scripture that is utterly inaccurate. Their influence varies, some of those people never get any influence
outside their own house for which we can be thankful, to some degree. Others of them have wide influence, they're printed,
they're put in books, their books are widely distributed and the chaos reigns from pillar to post. We really understand that.
We know there is much confusion.
In fact, I've told you many times, I don't need to point it out again except to comment on it very briefly, that we live in a time
in the framework of evangelicalism where to say this is the right interpretation and all these are wrong is viewed as
unspiritual, unloving, ungodly because even Christians have come to the conclusion that almost anything goes in interpreting
the Bible. We're supposed to tolerate people who believe on the cross, for example, that Jesus became a sinner and had to
go to hell and suffer for His sins. We're supposed to be able to embrace those people as our Christian brothers and tolerate
that. We're supposed to be able to embrace as Christians those people who believe that one is saved by baptism and apart
from being dunked in water one cannot go to heaven. We're supposed to embrace people who believe that they make a
contribution to their salvation, that it is grace but it is grace cooperating with human works that effects redemption. We're
supposed to embrace those people and call them our brothers and sisters and to do anything less than that is ungodly and
unloving and unbiblical and not Christlike. We're supposed to embrace people who completely misrepresent and
misunderstand the significance of inspiration, who do not understand that the Bible is the end of all revelation and who
misinterpret the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and we're to embrace them unequivocally and without question and to question
their misinterpretation of those things and somehow to undermine the unity of the church. That's the mood of today and it is
not a mood in which careful Bible interpretation is likely to flourish, is it? Because careful Bible interpretation is by nature
divisive because if you come to a right conclusion about the Scripture then everything else is wrong. And so it's not a time for
this from the standpoint of the mood of Christianity today, but it certainly is a time for this from the standpoint of God who
commands us to know His Word and to rightly divide it. We are called to a proper understanding of Scripture so that we
can truly understand God's message, so that we can put it into practice, believe it and live it.
We are also to understand God's Word because when believing it, living it, and putting it into practice we therefore bring
upon ourselves the fullness of God's blessing and we have the opportunity to give Him the glory His name is due. Any
misinterpretation of Scripture, any misunderstanding of Scripture short circuits God's intended purpose for it. And you
cannot justify that on any grounds whatsoever. So we are commended again to the study of the Bible.
Now let's just talk about some basic things that are necessary. And I'll review one that I gave you a week ago and then we'll
go on to others. To understand the Scripture the first thing you have to do is read the Bible. Now that may come as a shock
to you but it's where you have to start. Most people don't know what the Bible means because they don't know what it
says. And maybe there are people who sort of stand at a distance from Scripture and say, "Boy, I could certainly never
figure this deal out so I'm not even going to try." Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps if we asked people who
have some familiarity with the Bible...what would be the most difficult book in the Bible, what would be the hardest book of
the Bible to understand? They would probably say Revelation...probably most people would say that the book of Revelation
is hard to understand. I know many preachers who throughout the life of their ministry would never preach on the book of
Revelation because they don't think they can understand it. That's because they have abandoned the proper hermeneutics to
interpret it because if they interpret it with the right hermeneutics they have to interpret it literally and if they interpret it
literally it goes against their historic theology. And they really don't want to do that so they just don't know what to do with
the book of Revelation and they leave it out. But most people would say it's probably the most difficult book to understand.
Yet at the beginning of this book it says in chapter 1 verse 3, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the
prophecy and heed the things which are written in it for the time is near."
You want a blessing? Read Revelation. Listen to what it says, understand what it says, and put it in practice. Now I believe
that the book of Revelation can be understood, it can be understood if you just read it, it's very clear what it says. It's only
when people get mystical about it that it becomes confusing. Obviously there are some elements of the prophecies there that
we will never understand until they actually come to pass, but that's true of all prophecy, but the message of the book,
exalting Jesus Christ, speaking about the glorification of the saints and the judgment of the ungodly is very clear in the book
You start by reading the Bible. I suggested to you that the way to do that is to read the Bible on a repetitious basis. Turn in
your Bible, if you will, to Isaiah chapter 28 and I want to just set down a principle here that I think is very basic and very
important. Isaiah chapter 28, I suppose that if you were to ask the Jews of Isaiah's day where they were on the scale of
spiritual maturity, they would put themselves fairly high, having received the oracles of God, having the law of God, and
having the various holy writings that had been granted to them and the words of the prophets that had come to them and
certainly included in that is the preaching ministry of Isaiah. The people of Israel would have fancied themselves as students
of the revelation of God, students of the Old Testament revealed Scripture. They would have fancied themselves as those
who had the knowledge of God, and the wisdom of God, and understood God and His truth.
But that was not the way God viewed it. God viewed them not as mature but as utterly immature. He viewed them not as
adults in terms of understanding but as infants in terms of understanding. And so Isaiah speaks to them in that sense in
chapter 28 verses 9 and 10. "To whom would He teach knowledge and to whom would He interpret the
message?...speaking of God...those just weaned from milk, those just taken from the breast. For he says...verse 10...order
on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there. Indeed He will speak to this people."
Now when God went about to speak to His people Israel through the prophet Isaiah, He had to speak to them as if they
were just infants, as if they had just been weaned from the breast, as if they had just been weaned from milk. They were
infants and they had to be treated like infants. And how do you teach an infant? How do you instruct an infant in knowledge?
How do you teach a child when they're in their infancy, when they're just beginning to have the capacity to learn?
You teach them this way. "Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there." The bottom
line, repetition...simple repetition. Repetition, over and over and over and over again is how little ones begin to learn. That's
how God's people have to learn. You come into the Kingdom of God, as it were, according to Matthew 18, if we can
spread this metaphor across to the New Testament, you come in as a child, you are a child of God and you have certain
childlike characteristics. One of them is that you need to learn the truth of God and you have to learn it by repetition. It's true
of anything you learn, you learn it by repetition.
Even as a student in seminary, I go back to the days when I was endeavoring to pass exams in seminary and show my
proficiency in the various course work that I had to do, and perform at a level so that I could get the grade I wanted to get,
proceed toward my graduation. And I found that the only that I could really retain what was necessary to retain was by
constant memorization, constant repetition in my study. That's how we all learn. You learn by repetition, over and over and
over and over.
And as you read the Bible, that is what will happen. I suggested to you that with regard to the New Testament in particular,
you read it repetitiously. Read the same section every day for thirty days. Take about seven chapters or so, sometimes a
little more, maybe a little less if you're reading a book like Philippians that only has four chapters, then read four chapters
every day for 30 days. If you're reading a book like John, divide it into three sections of seven, read seven for 30 days, the
next seven for 30, the next seven for 30. In two and a half years you can do the entire New Testament that way. That
repetitious reading will cause you to remember what you have read.
Now you say, "Well as I go through the Old Testament, do I do the same?" No, just read through it in a narrative fashion.
And when you're done, go back and read through it again. And then go back and read through it again. You cannot
remember the vast volume of detail and the wideness of the Old Testament. But I remind you of this, that the themes of the
Old Testament and the themes of the New Testament are very clear and there are not that many of them. Do you remember
what I told you were the basic themes of Scripture? First of all, Scripture is God's self-disclosure. It tells us about God. So
as you read through the Scripture, you can start at Genesis and read right through the Old Testament, noting in your mind
everything that is true about God. And you'll find things repeated again and again and again, that God is wise and God is
powerful and God is the creator and God is a judge, and God is just and God is merciful and demonstrates loving kindness.
You see it here, you see it there, you see it here, you see it there. And so there is a repetition of that throughout the Old
Testament. Every book doesn't unveil some brand new kind of revelation heretofore never known, but rather unfolds in a
new way in a new environment in a new context in a new experience the character of God so that you are hearing about
God over and over and over and over again.
Secondly we said that the Bible points out that God has a law which man violates and as a result of that he suffers the
cursing of God. Violation of God's law, disobedience to God brings cursing. That is clear in the Scripture. You'll start in
Genesis and you'll see it immediately in the Fall. You'll see it again and again and again and again as you go through the
record of the Old Testament. Everywhere you go you're going to run into the same basic theme, illustration after illustration
Thirdly we said that to those who keep the law of God and obey the law of God there is promised blessing. You will see
that repeated again and again and again. Where there is the honor of God, the worship of God, where the sinner recognizes
his sin and comes to God and seeks to glorify Him and honor Him, believes in Him, trusts in Him, and obeys Him, there will
be blessing. Repeatedly in the Old Testament that record is unfolded.
The fourth great theme of the Old Testament is there is a Savior coming. Man is in desperate need. He is guilty before a holy
God because of his sin. He can't do anything about it himself. Someone must come to pay the penalty for man's sin. That
someone will come and that is the Savior. When you're reading in Genesis, you will read about one who will come and
bruise the serpent's head, you will read about a ruler who will come who will be Shiloh, as it were, who will bring peace. As
you move through you will read about the sacrificial lamb, you will read about a day of atonement. You will read about a
scapegoat that bore away sin. All of that picturing the coming Savior. And then the psalmist will begin to identify the Savior
and even quote what the Savior will say when He hangs on the cross. And then you will read the prophets and they will
predict things about the Savior, about His birth, about His life, about His death, about His resurrection, and so it goes. And
the Savior will be that recurring theme again and again and again and again, the one who is to come, the one who is to come.
And finally, the final fifth great sweeping reality of the Old Testament is that history will end with God establishing an earthly
kingdom in which His glorious Savior will rule and reign. You will find that again and again and again and again. God will
take back the earth. Paradise will be regained.
Those are the five great themes that sweep through the Old Testament, and, of course, through the New Testament as well.
So when you read the Old Testament, just keep reading and reading and reading, you can hang everything you read on
those five hooks. So there is repetition. There are just those few themes in the Bible. Those themes obviously have various
shades and significances and nuances and they break open into a myriad of truths but they all are built around those themes.
Reading the Bible will put you in touch and make you familiar with those themes and the man explicit statements about those
themes, the many illustrations of those themes in the history that God has recorded for us in the Old Testament.
Another thing about the Old Testament in your reading is that the Old Testament is simple. And I say that in this sense. The
Hebrew language is simple. It is a concrete language. It is not an abstract language like Greek. Greek has many abstractions.
Greek is a language of cognition where Hebrew is a language of action. The Hebrew language is very specific, very
concrete, very clear. And most of the terminology has very concrete and obvious significance. You should be able to read
the Old Testament and understand what is going on. You may run across a word you don't understand, you may run across
a ceremony you don't understand, you may run across a historical event that maybe is a little bit confusing to you, but in
general the language of the Hebrew is simple and straightforward. And as you read through the Old Testament continually,
and I would suggest that you read mostly in the same version, occasionally reading a different version for just a little bit of a
nuance of understanding, but mostly in the same version so that you increase your familiarity with the text. Read the
Now as you read, and this is what I've always done, as you read keep a little bit of a log alongside your reading and note the
things you don't understand. Note the things you don't understand. Don't get bogged down in your reading with everything
you don't understand as you're just reading through. Keep reading and start making a list, put down a little list for each book
you're reading, put down the chapter heading and start writing down the things that you don't understand and you'll begin to
sort of feed your curiosity a little bit. That's a very important process to do...read and note the things you don't understand
for future study so that you can go back and dig a little bit more deeply.
Now in the New Testament, as you're reading what I told you to do was take a little three by five card, or some kind of a
card, a little post-it or whatever you want to use, and write down the theme of every chapter...write down the theme of
every chapter. You're reading through 1 John, you're reading through the chapters of 1 John, five chapters, you give a little
heading to each of those five chapters which plants in your mind what's in that chapter. Memorize that the 30 days you're
reading 1 John. Keep it in your memory, go back and rehearse it and you'll always know where things are in the Bible. You
can find them easily. There's no substitute for this.
It's almost impossible to calculate, for example, the number of sermons that someone like John Wesley preached. I've heard
numbers upwards of thirty and forty thousand sermons that he preached. It is recorded in history that John Wesley, of
course, preached all the time. Sometimes he preached from dawn to sunset day after day after day. He preached thousands
upon thousands upon thousands of sermons. In fact, I used to wonder how in the world the man could preach that man
sermons...how did he have that much material in his mind? The answer comes when you understand that every day of his life
John Wesley arose at four o'clock in the morning and proceeded on an absolutely rigorous routine of reading the Scripture
which he did for hours until he was ready to preach in the mornings. And he read the Scripture, interestingly enough, in five
languages. Now we don't expect to be able to do that. He was able to do that. That giving him the breadth, and length and
depth and height and all the nuances possible in the understanding of the Scripture. He was a man literally bursting with the
knowledge of the Scripture which fed this immense capacity that he had for preaching. It all starts with reading the Scripture
One of my...one of my great teachers and a man who so wonderfully influenced me, Dr. Charles Fineberg, who was in many
ways my mentor, is now with the Lord. But he was sort of my spiritual hero when it came to knowing the Bible. Knew the
Bible so well he...if there was any man who didn't need to read it, he didn't need to read it, he knew practically the whole
Old Testament in Hebrew. He had memorized massive sections of it in Hebrew and he had such an incredible mind, I don't
know what his IQ was but he had that familiar photographic memory that sometimes people talk about, never seemed to
forget anything. He had immense mind and yet it was his routine habit to read through the Old Testament and the New four
times every year. And he did that for decades which is why he had such great familiarity with the text of Scripture.
And as I told you earlier, familiarity with the text of Scripture is its own interpretation. As you begin to read Scripture it
begins to interpret itself. It begins to unfold itself because these consistent truths are repeated again and again and the Bible
becomes its own best source of explanation, one scripture explaining another. And you'll be amazed as you begin to absorb
the Word of God, reading as I told you through the Old Testament, and then on a 30 day basis repetitiously in the New, you
do that for a few years and you will begin to marvel at the grasp that you have on the meaning of Scripture because it
becomes so clear just by virtue of the repetition.
And as I've told you before, I just repeat briefly again, I like to interpret the Bible with the Bible. That's the best source of
interpretation. And in most cases you can do that. In other words, nothing in the Bible is so absolutely isolated that you have
to interpret in its own context and not beyond. Everything in Scripture, most everything in Scripture is linked to other matters
in Scripture that assist in the interpretation of that matter itself.
An illustration of that, for example, and there could be many but one that comes to mind. In reading through John chapter 3,
Jesus talks to Nicodemus and Jesus says to Nicodemus, "You must be born of the water and the Spirit." Now somebody
might ask the question...what is He talking about? What does He mean you must be born of the water and the Spirit? And
I've heard people say, "Well the water there means baptism. You have to be Spirit-baptized and you have to be water
baptized." And there are whole groups of people who teach that. That doesn't make any sense since Christian baptism
hadn't been instituted at the time of that conversation. And furthermore, since water baptism is not the means of salvation.
Others have suggested and I've heard this preached that what it means, you must be born of the water and the Spirit is you
must be born physically, that's the water, you know, the water breaks and then the baby comes, and so that's the water that
is part of human birth, you must be humanly born and then you must be born of the Spirit. The problem with that is the Jews
didn't refer to that as water.
The right answer is simply available to you if you read Ezekiel because in the prophecy of Ezekiel chapter 36 Ezekiel says,
"There's coming a New Covenant and in that New Covenant God is going to take away the stony heart of your flesh and
He's going to give you a heart of flesh, a tender heart, He's going to put His Spirit within you and He's going to sprinkle
water upon you and wash you." And if you further read back into the New Testament you're going to find that it is the
washing of the water of the Word. That's what it's talking about. The Scripture gives its own explanation, you don't need a
medical explanation or a clinical explanation and you don't need some kind of ecclesiastical explanation...the Bible itself is its
own best interpreter.
I remember when I was going through Peter's epistles and was talking about a very interesting phrase in 1 Peter...1 Peter 1:2
that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood. And I read that phrase and I thought what in the world
does that mean...and I started reading in commentaries and I couldn't find anything that satisfied me, I had all kinds of
explanations. What does it mean to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus? That's not a term used anywhere else in the New
And as I began to study I found that same concept in the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus. Because I was familiar with
Exodus said, went back to Exodus chapter 24 verses 3 through 8, found a whole ceremony there, a ceremony when the
people of Israel declared their obedience to God and that they would be faithful to the Word of God, and at that particular
time Moses splattered blood all over them as a symbol of their declaration of obedience. And that's precisely what Peter
who was a Jew would have in mind as he was writing to Jews. He would be saying to them that when you acknowledge
Jesus Christ as Savior, you are like those of old, affirming your obedience...and in a symbolic sense being sprinkled with His
blood rather than the blood of a sacrifice in the case of Exodus 24. I don't need to go into any more detail other than to say
Exodus 24 gives a clear understanding of what 1 Peter 1:2 is talking about.
So to be a student of the Bible, first of all, is to grasp the sweep of Scripture by repetitious reading.
END OF SIDE ONE
Now let's go a second feature and that is to interpret the Bible. And we'll have to spend a little time on this. You've read it
and hopefully as you've read it you've kept a little bit of a log of the things that interest you and you're going to spend some
extra time each week going back to some of those issues that you wrote down because you didn't understand them. And
this is what I've done through the years. Those things that I don't understand become the priority list for my own personal
study in depth. Again, this has to go beyond devotions. And as I mentioned this morning, just sort of reading the Bible as a
little bit of a daily exercise of fifteen minutes and then reading another passage the next day and another one and never really
understanding the depth of what you read is not life changing, it's sort of like popping one aspirin a day, you know, it may
have a little bit of effect in the long run, but it's not going to change your life.
The Ethiopian eunuch was asked the question, "Do you understand what you're reading?" To which he replied to Philip's
question, "How can I except some man should...what?...should guide me." I have to have some help. I'm reading it but I'm
not sure I really understand it. And that's going to be true as you study the Bible. That's why when you go back to
Nehemiah, go back for a minute to Nehemiah chapter 8. In Nehemiah chapter 8 the word of God had been found and Ezra
the scribe read the Word of God to the people. Verse 1, they all gathered as one man at the square which was in front of
the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Ezra
the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding on the first day of
the seventh month.
"And he read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning till midday in the presence
of men and women, those who could understand and all the people were attentive to the book of the law."
Now they were there for at least six hours, standing in the open square listening to six hours of Bible reading. That tells me
they had an attention span that our culture doesn't know anything about. And they were attentive the whole time.
"And Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium," that's where these came from, I guess, these pulpits, "which they had
made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, and the rest." And verse 5, "And Ezra opened the
book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people and when he opened it all the people stood up."
So they stood up for six hours in the open square and listened to him read.
"Then Ezra blessed the Lord the great God and all the people answered, `Amen, Amen!' while lifting up their hands," that
was the start, I guess, of what still goes on when the Word of God is proclaimed, people say Amen. "They bowed low,
worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." And those who were assisting Ezra are listed there in verse 7. Look at
the end of the verse, "Explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place and they read from the book,
from the law of God, translating or interpreting, or explaining to give the sense so that they understood the reading."
That's the second aspect of Bible study. You listen, you hear, you absorb what you can and then you go beyond. What does
the Bible say? First question, what does the Bible say? Second question, what does it mean by what it says? What does it
mean by what it says? This is dividing the truth rightly. This is cutting it straight. And this is absolutely necessary if it's going to
fit together. If you don't cut the pieces right you can't put the whole thing together.
We were having a discussion the other night in the elders' meeting which I thought was a very helpful discussion about
theology. And there are many people who would say, "I reject systematic theology and I accept biblical theology." Well, I
want to be known as a biblical theologian, in that sense your theology...your theology unfolds from the text, your theology is
unleashed from the text. Your theology rises from the text of Scripture. You don't want to develop a system of theology and
then impose it like a grid on the Bible. You want to be a biblical theologian. And that is to say that the theology arises out of
the text, it arises out of the very verses themselves.
But, listen very carefully, that is not in conflict with systematic theology. It may be in conflict with the classic concept of
dogmatic theology which is an ecclesiastical theological system imposed upon the Bible and people. It may be in conflict with
dogmatic theology which is a technical term for that. But it is not in conflict with systematic theology.
I'll tell you what I mean. When you have gone through the Bible and it has yielded all of its truth and it has said everything
God wants to say, when you're done that will be a perfect flawless non-contradictory system of truth. It has to be systematic
because God is a God of absolute order. So as we were saying the other night, it is simplistic to say you reject systematic
theology, you can't say that. You can say I reject a non-biblical theological grid or dogmatic theology developed by some
ecclesiastics or some people or some person and imposed upon the Scripture. But when you have done...all your work on
biblical theology, what it yields is a perfect harmonious ordered theology with no contradictions which is what a perfect
system is...achieving and accomplishing everything that is perfectly reflective of the nature of God. So we are...we're trying
to come to such a clear and comprehensive and complete understanding of what the Bible teaches from Genesis to
Revelation that we can say...Here it is in its perfect order and perfect harmony, perfect interrelation without contradiction. In
that sense we acknowledge systematic theology. It is not the interpreter of Scripture but it is the result of a proper
interpretation of Scripture. When you go to the Word of God with the exegetical tools, with an expositional approach and it
yields its truth, in the end it will be perfectly harmonious. And that's part also of believing in what we call analogous scriptura,
that is to say the Scripture is consistent within itself, analogous to itself and non-contradictory in any sense. There are
mysteries, yes we don't understand, there are things that are apparently contradictory to us but they are not in reality
contradictory at all because God is a God of order not a God of confusion.
So it is necessary then for us to carefully interpret Scripture so as to come up with what it says and in the end so that it
perfectly comes together in order and harmony without contradiction. Now if you mess up the interpretation on the way, you
can't have that ordered system at the end. It's absolutely crucial that we rightly divide the Word of God. That's why I've said
through the years, the only person who really has a right to be a theologian is an exegete. Somebody who interprets
Scripture has a right to say I'm a theologian, somebody who does not interpret the pages of Scripture can say he's a
theologian but he is a theologian by borrowing from somebody else. The purest theology rises out of the text itself.
Now misinterpretation of the Bible has created many, many, many problems. Let me give you some illustrations. Some have
since the patriarchs in the time of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs practiced polygamy so may we. Who says
that? The Mormon church.
Others have said since the Old Testament sanctioned the divine right of the king of Israel, all kings have divine rights. Europe
had lots of kings that exercised what they thought was a divine right...somehow borrowed from Old Testament Israel.
In America even there was this interesting viewpoint back in Massachusetts.
Since the Old Testament sanctioned the death of witches, we should kill them all too. Because some Old Testament plagues
were from God, we should avoid sanitation. Now there's an interesting view. If you start getting...if you start getting too
sanitary you're going to cripple God. Because God uses plagues to destroy ungodly people we ought to avoid sanitation.
Here's another interesting viewpoint that has arisen. Because the Old Testament teaches that women suffer in childbirth as a
divine punishment, no anesthetic should ever be used. That's an interesting thought, isn't it? Since part of God's curse on
humanity is that women have pain in childbearing, anything that mitigates that pain is against the will of God.
And I told you about the one that I ran into in Rumania some years back and it's also true in Russia. Since women are saved
by childbearing they should never do anything of a contraceptive nature and if they ever do they're liable to lose their
Now some people look at the Bible and they see all of this and they just sort of scratch their head and say, "I don't know
what to do with all of this." I remember talking to a very prominent man who was a pastor, who was a former fellow student
of mine, eventually went on to attend seminary, graduated from seminary, was a pastor of a church and I was talking to him
one time at a conference at Hume Lake where both of us were speaking. And he was speaking on interpreting the Old
Testament. And he just openly said to the people, he said, "You know, I..I've just decided to take everything for
everybody." Everything in the Old Testament for everybody? That's a...that's a pretty amazing statement.
And so when I saw him after some of the sessions I said to him, I said, "I wanted to ask you about that thing you said last
night, you said that you decided that trying to sort it all out in the Old Testament was pretty complicated, you just decided to
take everything for everybody." I happened to catch him too at the time while he was eating a hot dog and it was not an
all-beef frank. What do you mean you take everything for everybody? When did you slaughter your last lamb? And how
come you cut your sideburns and haven't wrapped them around your ears? I mean, why are you eating that hot dog?
You can't say that. You have to interpret the scriptures. You can't come up with a blanket concept. People often ask me,
"What is the key to interpreting the Old Testament in order to understand what was for the Jews in their time and what is for
us?" Answer...the context of every passage. There's no singular formula that you can just dump on the whole Old Testament.
Now, in accurately handling the Word of God three errors have to be avoided. I'm going to give you these three errors to be
avoided, and then next Sunday we're going to talk about how to get it right. Three errors have to be avoided.
Don't ever come to a conclusion at the price of a proper interpretation. Don't ever come to a conclusion or make a point at
the price of a proper interpretation. Don't use the Scripture to support your viewpoint. You come up with a neat idea, you
think it works, so you just push the Scripture into it. I mean, this gets real bizarre. This rather frantic writer was preaching
against women putting their hair up on top of their head because he thought that since a woman's hair was her covering her
glory it ought to be all over the place all the time. So putting it up on the head was a breach of Scripture. And supposedly
the verse used was found in Matthew 24, "Top not come down." Now you know the verse, don't you? It's talking about the
time of Tribulation and it says, "Let those on the housetop not come down."
It's like the preacher who went visiting one day and knocked on the door of his parishioner's home wanting to give them
some spiritual counsel. He banged and banged, he could see the television running, the lights were on, bang, bang, bang,
bang, no one came. So he wrote out, "Behold, I stood at the door and knocked, if any man had heard my voice and opened
I would have come in and supped with him." Stuck it in the doorknob. Sunday a lady came by and handed him a note, said,
Genesis 3:10, "I was naked and hid myself."
Well, I suppose there are such bizarre uses of Scripture. That's a bizarre way to illustrate the point. Scripture gets clumsily
used, that's one thing. Scripture gets inappropriately used, Scripture gets manipulated. I remember reading about
interpretation Jewish, this is not just germane to us but Jewish interpreters of Scripture of long ago when writing about the
Tower of Babel wrote some pretty bizarre things. Rabbis wanted to stress concern for people, there were some rabbis who
were very concerned that the folks in Israel didn't care and show love toward people. And so they took the story of the
Tower of Babel an they said that the reason God changed all the languages and scattered the nations all over the earth was
because you remember about them building this tower and they were building it higher and higher and higher...the rabbis
concocted this amazing story about guys who were the hod carriers, you know, who had to carry the mortar and the bricks
clear to the top. And as the thing got higher they had to go higher and walk up and walk up this scaffolding higher and higher
and higher. And according to this rabbinical insight many of them fell off the scaffolding and died. It took many, many hours
for a man to carry a load of bricks to the bricklayers at the top and, of course, if a man fell off the tower on the way down,
no one paid attention. But if he fell off on the way up, they lost their bricks. And so they were mourning because the bricks
were dropped and that's why God confounded their language because they were more concerned about bricks than they
were about the death of people. And that's how the rabbis interpreted that passage to get their point across. Good point,
you should care more about people than bricks, but it's not there.
Don't take scriptures out of context. Don't make a point at the price of an interpretation that is accurate and true. This
requires diligence, careful study, thoughtful study, so that we rightly divide the word of truth and therefore do not need to be
ashamed, 2 Timothy 2:15.
Second, avoid superficial interpretation...avoid superficial interpretation. One of the common problems in interpreting the
Bible is this little phrase, "This verse means to me...." so forth and so forth and so forth. Let me tell you something. It doesn't
matter what it means to you, the question is what would it mean if you didn't live? What would it mean if you didn't exist?
What does it mean period is the issue, not what does it mean to you.
Sometimes you'll hear people get together and supposedly have a Bible study which is a little more than a pooling of
ignorance. People say, "Well, I look at this verse and I feel this verse is saying..." It doesn't matter what you feel. That has
nothing to do with it. It's not a matter of how you feel about the verse, it's not a matter of what you think it means to you.
Avoid adlibbing in Bible interpretation. Avoid free wheeling in Bible interpretation. Haphazard handling of God's Word.
We all want to acknowledge the priesthood of the believer...yes, we all want to acknowledge that we have anointing from
God, the Spirit of God who dwells within us and the Spirit of God who dwells within us is the teacher who teaches us. We
all want to acknowledge that. But that is not justification for flippancy dealing with Scripture. That's why in 1 Timothy 5:17 it
says, "The elders who work hard in the Scripture are worthy of double honor." It is hard work. Avoid superficial
interpretation. Avoid "this means to me." That is not a statement that should preface any interpretation of Scripture. The
question is, what does it mean if you don't exist? What did it mean before you were born? And what will mean it after you're
dead? What does it mean to people who will never meet you? What does it mean period, is the issue.
And then thirdly, another thing just to mention by way of avoidance...avoid spiritualizing or allegorizing the Bible.
Spiritualizing or allegorizing the Bible. This is that which gives to the Bible some kind of mystical meaning. In other words,
what is on the surface is not the meaning, but what is hidden becomes the meaning. This is very popular. We could talk
about allegorizing, it's quite...it's not quite as popular today as it used to be, although it's finding a resurgence. Allegorizing
means to say that the historical meaning is not the real meaning, and in fact may be nothing but a fabrication. The historical
meaning is not the real meaning, the real meaning is the spiritual meaning hidden beneath the surface. And once you say that
something in the Bible is an allegory, that is it is only a symbol of the reality, you have just made it impossible to know what
that reality is because if that reality cannot be discerned through the normal understanding of language, how can it be
For example, a book was written a number of years ago called If I Perish, I Perish, it was purported to be a commentary on
the book of Esther. And in it Esther, it was allegorizing the book of Esther so that Esther became the Holy Spirit and the
whole story of the book was the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer in the battle between the flesh and the
Spirit and spiritual warfare and so forth. Much of what was in the book was true New Testament truth but it had absolutely
nothing to do with the book of Esther so it therefore convoluted the meaning of Esther and no person reading the book of
Esther ever would have understood that meaning. No normal understanding of Esther would have yielded that.
Patricia and I were at a Bible conference back in Lake Geneva and I was there with another speaker, another preacher. I'll
never forget the occasion because he was preaching, and then I was preaching and we were alternating and having a good
time doing that. And I said to him, we were having some lunch or a snack in this little cafe place there at this conference
center, George Williams College on Lake Geneva. And I said, "What are you going to preach on tonight?"
And he said, "I'm going to preach on the Rapture of the church."
I said, "Oh, that's great, that will be wonderful, I'm sure and folks will be encouraged." I said, "What's going to be your
He said, "John 11."
And I said to myself, John 11? The Rapture is John 14, 1 Thessalonians 4, 1 Corinthians 15...what is John 11? I said, "John
11 is the resurrection of Lazarus. It's all about Lazarus being raised from the dead, Mary and Martha and..." I said, "How is
it that you're going to preach on the Rapture from John 11?"
He said, "Oh, you'll have to come tonight."
I said, "I guess I will." So he preached on the Rapture from John 11. Now I can't remember, it was really clever and people
were saying, "Deep, deep, wow," you know, they don't know, it just.... And Lazarus was the church and him coming forth
was the dead saints being raised and I think Martha was the Old Testament saints, and Mary was the living New Testament
saints. And the thing went on for an hour and it was very cleverly done. It just wasn't there. And when it was over we met
again and he said to me, he said, "Had you ever seen that in John 11?" And I said, "No one has ever seen that in John 11."
And the next day when he got up to speak. He said, "You know, I got a wonderful compliment yesterday. John MacArthur
said no one before me had ever seen that in John 11."
Now I believe in the Rapture of the church. It's not in John 11. There are things in John 11 that ought to be preached. But
once you tell me what it says is not what it means, then you can tell me it means anything. Because if I can't get the meaning
out of the normal use of the language, how in the world can I get the meaning?
I listened to a series of eight tapes, a study...a study of the book of Nehemiah. And I remember this so vividly because we
were in a dialogue in some counseling when Jerry Mitchell was on our pastoral staff years ago, and Jerry came to me and
said, "I had a very strange counseling session this morning, John, maybe you can help me with it. I counseled with a young
couple, they're going to get married. They decided to get married. And I started to ask them why they want to get married
and the only good answer they had was that it was a sermon their pastor preached." It was the same pastor that had put this
series out that I had been listening to.
And I said, "Well what did he preach on?"
He said, "He preached on the walls of Jericho."
I said, "What do you mean he preached on the walls of Jericho? What does that have to do with them getting married?"
He said, "Well, it went like this. You claim something and then march around it seven times and it will fall to you. So it was
applied that if you see a girl that you really believe is God's choice, just find some way to march around her seven times and
the walls of her heart will fall down." And it was on the basis of that sermon that they had determined to get married. And
Jerry said, "What do you think our counsel ought to be because we had an interesting discussion."
I went from that to the series on Nehemiah in which Nehemiah was the Holy Spirit. The king's pool which is in the city, you
know, when they were building the wall, he mentions the king's pool, was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the building of
the wall, the mortar between the bricks was tongues. And the whole point of Nehemiah is that God wants to send the Holy
Spirit to baptize you with the Spirit and build the fallen walls of your human personality through speaking in tongues.
Now, you see, if you're going to do that with the Bible you can't get that from the text. It's pure fantasy. But it goes on all the
time and I've often said...sometimes I say to our pastors, "You don't need the Bible for that, if you're going to do that you
can use anything...you can use anything." You can preach Little Bo Peep, you could...you could start off by saying...Little Bo
Peep, oh she was only little but God can use the little ones. And her name was...her name was Bo Peep...what a name of
insignificance, what a name of ridicule, but God uses those who have been ridiculed. Little Bo Peep, she lost her sheep, all
over this world sheep are lost. Doesn't know where to find them. The only part I couldn't figure out was what you do with
wagging their tails behind them.
It's a very dangerous thing to allegorize or spiritualize Scripture. What it means is what it says when rightly understood in its
historic context. Well, that's enough for tonight, next Sunday I'm going to tell you how to do that. Okay? Look how the time
went, sorry. Let's pray.
Father, help us to have a love for Your Word developing in our hearts to the degree that we will study it faithfully and
diligently. Thank You for giving us Your Word, thank You for the gift of language which conveys Your truth simply and
directly. Lord, show us the truth as we diligently study Your Word, may we rightly divide it so that its truths can transform us
and bring You glory in Christ's name. Amen.
c 1997 Grace to You
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