Perilous Times Primer #24 - Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth-Part One
Preparing for Persecution
Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth—Part One
This is being presented as part of our “Perilous Times Primer” series in the hope that it will aid each of you in your personal Bible study, resulting in a life of greater faith, obedience, and fruitfulness of service. As mentioned at the end of our previous Perilous Times Primer (#22), we will begin a series of steps to help prepare the Body of Christ for the coming persecution. This is step one.
One of the topics pastors around the world often request to be taught is how to study and understand Scripture. Due to the lack of training that exists in many places, it is not possible to go into technical areas such as the original languages. However, the basic principles of biblical interpretation are not grammar- or language-dependent. The careful application of these principles will solve most, if not all, of the difficulties in understanding the Bible.
As our nation continues its slide into greater spiritual darkness, persecution of Christians will increase and intensify. Both society and communications may be disrupted. These principles are intended to aid believers who are unable to find good Bible-teaching churches. The ability to interpret God’s Word accurately is crucial to spiritual self-sufficiency. I will state these principles simply, with examples, leaving the Bible student to seek out the many other passages that support each one.
These principles are stated in simple terms, with examples, leaving the Bible student to seek out the many other passages that support each one.
Note that the first five have to do with the soul of the student in approaching the truths of God’s Word. The last seven are more concerned with the mechanics of interpretation.
Prayer and Bible study cannot be separated. Jesus explained His teaching to His disciples because they asked Him to make it clear (MAT 13:36; LUK 8:9). It is the Spirit of God who “searches the deep things of God,” who is our Teacher (1CO 2:10-13). In the book of Ephesians, Paul first prays for their understanding of divine revelation (EPH 1:15-20), then follows up by praying for their application of the truth they have learned (EPH 3:14-21). If we fail to pray for enlightenment when we study, we may forfeit the guiding ministry of the Spirit (JOH 16:13). Our prayers for insight express submission to the Spirit of God in our search for truth to live by.
Jesus Himself declared that spiritual hunger is indispensable to right understanding of God’s Word. Those who hunger to know and do God’s Word will be satisfied (MAT 5:6). God’s righteousness, as revealed in His Word, is given so that we may, by grace through faith, live it out in our lives. David’s life exemplified the hunger and thirst for truth (PSA 42:1). It is critical that we see the “hunger and thirst for righteousness” not just as a desire to know, but also to do God’s Word. This will be emphasized in the following points.
3. The Law of Faith (Rule of Faith)
This was one of the chief principles utilized by the old Puritan preachers and scholars. Simply stated, if I have one passage that declares faith alone in Christ alone as the key to entering eternal life (JOH 3:16-19), then any other passage that appears to contradict it, such as ACT 2:38, must be interpreted in light of the more clear and simple passage. This method was based on the conviction that the most important truths of Scripture are stated in the simplest terms, and are repeated most often (we will see the law of repetition and the law of non-contradiction later). The law or rule of faith always interprets the difficult passages in the light of the clear and simple ones. For example, the simple truth declared in JOH 10:28 must guide our interpretation of the more difficult passage of HEB 6:1-8. Simply stated, no difficult passage can contradict the truth stated in more simple and clear passages. It is on the simple statements of Scripture that we build our faith, hence the “rule of faith.”
Reinforcing the law of spiritual hunger, this law or principle recognizes that God reveals His Word to those who truly desire to do His will. Ezra, the scribe, sought to learn the Law of God—first so that he could live it, and only then that he might teach it to others (EZR 7:10). Jesus made it very clear that spiritual understanding is given to those who desire to do the will of God (JOH 7:17).
This law is closely related to the law of obedience. If obedience is our goal, then diligence is the means of attaining it. Diligence is defined as “strong inner motivation.” No one else can give this to you; you must supply your own diligence if you are to grow (see 2PE 1:5). Diligence is the opposite of being “dull of hearing” (HEB 5:11). It is diligence that carries the believer from the desire to do well to the completion of it (HEB 6:9-12; 2PE 1:10; 2PE 3:14).
Note: Again, these first five laws have to do with the spiritual condition of the student. The next seven focus more on the mechanics of Bible study.
I believe it was Aristotle who said that one of the chief qualities of truth is that it is, by nature, non-contradictory. Jesus simply said, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (JOH 10:35). For example, it cannot be true that one is saved by faith alone without works (ROM 4:3-5; EPH 2:8-9) and, at the same time, be true that works are necessary for salvation (a wrong reading of JAM 2:14-26). This could also be called the Law of Unity.
Again, by using the law of faith, we interpret the James passage in light of the Romans passage, not vice versa. By comparing Scripture with Scripture (1CO 2:13), we see that Paul is talking about justification before God, where James is speaking of vindication before men. Be careful to note that when Paul speaks to James’ point, he says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (ROM 4:2, emphasis added). James, on the other hand, emphasizes what men can see: “Show me” (JAM 2:18), and “You see then” (JAM 2:22, JAM 2:24). The Bible is the “God-breathed,” inspired Word of God (2TI 3:16) to man and, therefore, cannot contradict itself.
Building on Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction, Ravi Zacharias declared that truth must meet three criteria: first, it must be consistent (non-contradictory); second, it must be coherent (must be understandable); and finally, it must correlate to life as we know it. It is clear that the doctrines of man-made religions do not measure up to these standards.
Often the best definition of a word is found in its first mention in the Bible. We will not stray in our teaching of that topic if we stay close to this meaning. For example, the first use of the word “worship” is found in GEN 22:5. Abraham and Isaac are engaged in the worship of God. Looking at the context, we can see that worship involved believing and acting on God’s Word (GEN 22:1-3), and this obedience involved a cost for each of them.
This idea is behind the insistence of David that he pay for the threshing floor (2SA 24:24; 1CH 21:24). When Paul speaks of offering ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, he calls it our “reasonable service of worship” (ROM 12:1), an idea fully in keeping with the first mention of worship in the Bible.
8. The Law of Repetition, Genesis 1; John 3
When God wants to make a point, He often repeats it for emphasis. In Genesis 1, He tells us ten times that every creature reproduces “after its own kind” (see GEN 1:11-12, GEN 1:21, GEN 1:24-25). This statement is death to the evolutionary theory! What God wants us to “get,” He repeats. For example, at least 98 times in the Gospel of John, He tells us that the only requirement to enter eternal life is faith in Christ. John even tells us that this is the reason he wrote his gospel (JOH 20:31). Yet, still many ignore this obvious truth, looking instead to some obscure and complicated passage to find some additional requirement for salvation.
I have heard many messages on God’s sovereign election of believers from passages like JOH 3:8; EPH 1:4-5; and ROM 9:6-18. Yet, the overwhelming emphasis, based on repetition in the context, is on the necessity of faith, which is mentioned seven times in JOH 3:11-18, (the word “receive” meaning “believe” as in JOH 1:12); in the context of Romans 9-11, the necessity of faith (believing) is mentioned 15 times, and in the book of Ephesians, at least 10 times.
Be careful not to misunderstand the point. Referring back to law #6, there is no contradiction between divine sovereignty and the exercise of faith. In what theologians call the Doctrine of Concurrence, God freely works as God, and man is free to work as man. In the end, the perfect will of God is accomplished. The point here is that if God emphasizes a truth in a given context, we dare not ignore that truth.
It has long been said that “Scripture taken out of context is only a pretext.” Often a difficult passage can be resolved if we would only read the immediate context of the passage. Also, many passages are often used to suggest a meaning never intended by the text that is used. One example is the often-stated goal of teaching God’s Word “precept … upon precept, line upon line” (ISA 28:10). While there is nothing wrong with this idea in practice, it gives a wrong meaning to the text where God is actually rebuking Israel for their hardness of heart. Though He spoke to them in simple terms even a child could understand, “yet they would not hear” (ISA 28:12). It is also worth noting that this is the very passage Paul uses (ISA 28:11) in rebuking the Corinthian abuse of the gift of tongues (1CO 14:21). Paul then declares that tongues was a sign prophesied by the prophet Isaiah to Israel to warn them of the impending judgment of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., concluding that “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers” (1CO 14:22). Paul rightly interpreted the text based on its context.
The context of any passage includes the immediate context (surrounding chapter and verses), the extended context (the entire book), and the ultimate context (the Bible as a whole). Part of the consideration of context must include whether we are in Old or New Testament passages. This will be dealt with under law #11, the law of dispensation.
An extension of the law of context is the law of continuity. All too often, we allow chapter and verse divisions to disrupt the flow of the passage. When we do this, we may lose important connections having powerful implications. For example, John 7 ends with the words “and everyone went to his own house.” If we stop reading at this point, we miss the connection to JOH 8:1 which says, “But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” The contrast between the religious leaders, who had homes to go to, and the Son of Man, who had “nowhere to lay His head” is lost (MAT 8:20).
Again, in JOH 13:37-38, we have the boast of Peter “I will lay down my life for Your sake.” To which Jesus replies, “the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.” We wonder just what the attitude of Jesus was when He said this to Peter. But if we read on, in JOH 14:1, He continues, “Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in Me.” Granted, the “you” here is plural, addressing all the disciples. But it certainly includes Peter, who before the night is over will have the most cause to be troubled. Making this connection from one chapter to another reveals to us the gracious and forgiving attitude of our Savior to one who would betray Him. What a precious truth for those of us who have also, in our own way, betrayed our Lord!
It is critical that we understand that the Old Covenant is not the New Covenant, and the Old Testament dispensation is not the New Testament dispensation (see GAL 3:19-25 and HEB 8:7-13). We know that God never changes, but His way of dealing with men does change according to the light and revelation given to them. Since God’s revelation in the Bible is progressive—from Genesis to Revelation—we see that God holds men accountable to the revelation that is given.
With the coming of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God reached its fullness (JOH 1:1-4; COL 1:16-19; HEB 1:1-4), to be recorded in the New Testament Scriptures by His eyewitnesses (HEB 2:3-4; 1JO 1:1-4). Because of this, anyone who uses the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” whether they realize it or not, is making a dispensational statement. They are acknowledging a difference in covenants, as well as of two separate ages.
When Jesus spoke of “old wine” versus “new wine” (MAT 9:16-17), this is what he was talking about. He said that the “old wine” (O.T. truth) must be kept in “old wineskins” (the Mosaic covenant given to Israel), and that “new wine” (N.T. truth) must be put into “new wineskins” (the new covenant given to the Church). Note that the goal was to preserve both so that nothing would be destroyed (MAT 9:17). When we study the New Testament, we do it with the background of the Old. When we study the Old Testament, we do so in anticipation of the New. But we must be careful to distinguish between the two, recognizing not only the timeless truths, but also the new things revealed following the coming of Christ into the world.
This last law has to do not so much with the study of the Bible, but rather with how we should teach it. Again, referring to the old Puritan preachers, theirs was a methodology of simplicity. Scripture was to be read, explained, illustrated, and then applied.
In ECC 12:11, we can draw three great points for the Bible teacher. The picture is of someone driving a nail securely in place. From that figure comes the need to make each Bible class a “well driven nail”:
a. Have one primary point—what truth are you trying to convey?
b. Drive home that truth with repeated “blows”—your outline.
c. Conclude the message with a “goad”—a statement designed to move people to action (as the goad does to the ox).
Since the truth to be conveyed is “given by one Shepherd,” we must strive to be faithful in our interpretation, and always point to Jesus Christ the Savior.
We can see the same methodology being used by the Apostle Paul in ACT 17:1-3. First, he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures,” letting God’s Word speak to them. Then he “explained” the meaning of the texts he had used. This is what we call “exegesis,” bringing out what is contained in the text. Finally, he was “demonstrating … this Jesus … is the Christ.” He kept the focus on the Person and the work of Christ, and how faith in Him transforms our lives.
If we take care to be accurate in our interpretation, make Jesus Christ the central focus of all that we teach, and show our listeners how this applies to our lives, we will never go far astray in knowing the truth and presenting it to others.
My goal in sharing these laws is that we would “be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2PE 1:8).