I want to talk this morning about "Understanding Scripture." I'm sure that you are aware that is not a simple thing to do. All you have to do is look around at all the different churches with all their different beliefs, which they say come from the Bible, and it is easy to see that understanding the Scripture is not that easy.
There are good and godly men who disagree about every doctrine the Bible teaches. Some read the Bible and end up Arminians and others read the same Bible and are Calvinists. Some study Scripture and are Charismatics and others study the same Scripture and are not Charismatic. When it comes to the subject of Eschatology, the end times, we have Dispensationalists, some of whom are Pre-trib, Mid-trib, or Post trib. We also have Pre-millennialists, Post-millennialists and A-milennialists. In the Preterist camp, we have Partial Preterists and Preterists. Wow! They all read the same Bible, and yet they see things so differently. This should tell us that understanding the Bible is not a simple task.
If we are going to understand the Bible, we must have some understanding of Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science of Biblical interpretation. The purpose of Hermeneutics is to establish guidelines and rules for interpreting the Bible. Any written document is subject to misinterpretation, and thus we have developed rules to safeguard us from such misunderstanding.
God has spoken, and what He has said is recorded in Scripture. The basic need of Hermeneutics is to ascertain what God meant by what He said. For example:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. John 14:12-14 ESV
Are we to take these promises literally? This is an important question is it not? What do you think? Are these promises to be taken literally? If you content that we are to take these words of Yeshua literally, then I must ask you whether you are getting all of your prayers answered? I must inquire about what works you are doing that are greater than those Yeshua did. Do you see the problem here? How do we know if these verses are to be taken literally or not. Good question, I'm glad you asked. We all know what Yeshua said. The important question is, "What did He mean by what He said?" How do we determine that? We are to determine what the Bible means by the use of Hermeneutics.
Now, we don't have time to go through all of the principles of Hermeneutics, but I want to deal with two that I feel are not well understood and are critical to a proper understanding of Scripture.
The primary rule of Hermeneutics is called: The Analogy of Faith. This means that Scripture interprets Scripture. No part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. The Analogy of Faith is a safeguard that should help to keep us from reading into the Scriptures something that is not there. If one Scripture seems to contradict another, we must turn to what is easily understood and then continue digging until we have reconciled the apparent contradiction or difficult understanding. God is not the author of confusion, and I believe His word is adequately clear to show us the answers.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states, "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."
Under the principle of the Analogy of Faith I want to bring up an aspect of this point that I have come to believe is vital in understanding the Bible. That point is this: The Bible is one book. Several weeks ago, during the question and answer time, someone asked the question about decoupling or unhitching the Old Testament. And there is discussion today whether the Old Testament is valuable or useful to Christians.
It is my opinion that the designation Old Testament is destructive. We think of something old as outdated and no longer needed. When I get a new phone, I no longer want to use my "old" one. I think that most Christians have the idea that the Old Testament is not needed or useful for believers. This is due in part to confusing the Old Covenant with the Old Testament. Because we connect the Old Covenant and the Old Testament, we can easily come to believe that the Old Testament has passed away because the Old Covenant has passed away. The Old Covenant is fulfilled; we are under the New Covenant. But the Old Testament is not "old." This is why I call the Old Testament the Tanakh. Christians call it the Old Testament, but the Jews do not call it that. They refer to it as the Tanakh, an acronym that identifies the Hebrew Bible. The acronym is based on the initial Hebrew letters of each of the text's three parts:
- Torah, meaning "Instruction" ("The five books of Moses," also called the "Pentateuch").
- Nevi'im, meaning "Prophets."
- Ketuvim, meaning "Writings" or "Hagiographa."
Please understand this: Apart from understanding the Tanakh, you will never completely understand the New Testament. The writers of the New Testament all suppose that their readers understood the Tanakh. Look at Romans 1:
Paul, a servant of Christ Yeshua, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, Romans 1:1-2 ESV
What is Paul saying here? He is saying that the Gospel was promised in the Tanakh. "Through His prophets in the holy Scriptures" is referring to the Tanakh.
To understand the words of the New Testament, we must understand the words of the Tanakh. For example, the new believer begins to read the Bible and starts in Matthew:
The book of the genealogy of Yeshua the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew 1:1 ESV
In the first verse of the New Testament, we have to ask, Who is David? Who is Abraham? Where do we get the answers to those questions? We have to go back to the first three quarters of the Bible, the Tanakh.
Speaking of Mary, Matthew writes,
She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins." Matthew 1:21 ESV
What did Mary call her son? Yeshua! Let me say here that Mary never called her son by the Greek name Iesous or the English name Jesus. Our Savior's name when He walked this earth was Yeshua. Matthew 1:1-16, makes it clear that He came from Hebrew decent through the tribe of Judah. In other words, He was Jewish. He was born to and raised by Jewish parents who raised Him under Jewish culture. He spoke Hebrew. Yeshua is the name that all the apostles would have known Him by and what His mother would have called Him. In the Greek, the name Iesous, (which can be translated into Latin as Jesus) has no meaning. These Greek and Latin terms are simply names. But the Hebrew name, Yeshua means "Yahweh saves."
Who are "His people?" They are the Israelites! Matthew then tells us that this was in fulfillment of prophecy from the Tanakh:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Matthew 1:22 ESV
Then He quotes from Isaiah:
"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:23 ESV
One of the things that I really like about the New American Standard Bible is that it puts quotations from the Tanakh in all caps.
"BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD, AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated means, "GOD WITH US." Matthew 1:23 NASB
So, the Virgin Mary’s giving birth to Yeshua was foretold in the Tanakh. Then in chapter two, this is said of Herod:
and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: Matthew 2:4-5 ESV
Then He quotes again from the Tanakh, this time from Micah:
"‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’" Matthew 2:6 ESV
It seems that we can learn a lot about Yeshua from the Tanakh. In verse 14 Matthew again quotes from it:
And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son." Matthew 2:14-15 ESV
Let me make a couple of comments about this verse. Peter states:
For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 1:21 ESV
God is the ultimate author of the Bible, and this important truth has implications for how we understand it.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. Hosea 11:1 ESV
Who is the author of this passage? According to the first verse of Hosea, it is the prophet by that name. But how can we know what his intention is in the passage? First, we know approximately when he lived. We also have the broader context of the whole book, and it gives us a fuller idea of what Hosea intended to say in this one verse. When we study his text in the context of his entire book, we find that Hosea is referring to the Exodus described in the book of Exodus.
But as we have just seen in Matthew 2:15, the writer applies Hosea 11:1 to Yeshua as a youth returning to Judea from Egypt. This reference does not seem in keeping with the intention of Hosea. It is here we must remember where the meaning of a text ultimately resides—in the intention of its author, God Himself. And as we read the Scripture in the context of the Bible as a whole, we see that He has made an analogy between Israel, God's son, being freed from Egypt, and Yeshua, God's Son, coming up from Egypt; a pattern that runs throughout Matthew's Gospel. "Out of Egypt I have called my son" is Exodus typology where Yeshua is the New True Israel.
If we do not know the Tanakh, we will never see this Exodus typology in Matthew. Let's briefly look at this typology. The setting for the New Testament’s story is the return to the desert, or wilderness, for Israel. The 40 years between A.D. 30-70 can be directly compared to the original wilderness wandering of Old Covenant Israel.
Like Moses, Yeshua will grow up in Egypt. Like the story of Moses, Herod slaughters the male children (2:16-18). Like Moses' exile to Midian, Yeshua's exile to Egypt will end with the death of Herod-Pharaoh. And then we have a New Exodus foretold: "Out of Egypt I have called My son."
Yeshua is baptized (Matthew 3:12-17). As Yeshua emerges from the water, we hear, "This is My beloved Son," which evokes a related image:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, "Let my son go that he may serve me." If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’" Exodus 4:22-23 ESV
Israel was adopted and became God's son at the Exodus from Egypt at the crossing of the Red Sea, and so this is New Exodus typology in which New Israel is born.
When we come to Matthew 4:1-11, which describes Yeshua's temptation in the wilderness, if we are familiar with the Tanakh, we will see this pattern again. When we read that Yeshua, the Son of God, spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, this reference may remind us of the Israelites' 40-year trek in the wilderness. But the comparison goes beyond the number 40. The Israelites also were tempted in the wilderness in the same three areas in which Yeshua was tempted: (1) hunger and thirst, (2) testing God, and (3) worshiping false gods. Yeshua, however, shows Himself to be the obedient Son of God whereas the Israelites were disobedient. Indeed, Yeshua responded to the temptations by quoting Deuteronomy, the sermon that Moses gave the Israelites at the end of their 40-year sojourn.
What does Yeshua do next in Matthew?
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Matthew 5:1-2 ESV
Yeshua went up on a mountain like Moses had and gave New Torah—the "Sermon on the Mount." Yeshua is the New Israel, and this typology can only be seen if we are familiar with the Tanakh.
Over and over Matthew says that all this information about Yeshua is from the Tanakh. Let's look at one more example in Matthew.
That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "He took our illnesses and bore our diseases." Matthew 8:16-17 ESV
I think you get the point. Over and over Matthew quotes from the Tanakh. Let me say again what I said earlier. To understand the words of the New Testament, we must understand the words of the Tanakh. Let me try to demonstrate this to you. What does the new believer think when he reads the Gospel of Matthew and comes to chapter 24?
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Matthew 24:29 ESV
How does he understand "sun, moon, and stars?" He would most likely think in a literal way of the heavenly bodies. But if he is familiar with the "Tanakh," he would have a different idea. Let's go to the Tanakh and see how sun, moon, and stars are used other than in a literal way. Where do we start? How about Genesis?
Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." Genesis 37:9 ESV
Is Joseph's dream about the literal sun and moon and stars bowing to him? How would the sun bow? This may confuse us, but Joseph's father knew exactly what he was saying.
But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?" Genesis 37:10 ESV
Jacob, Joseph's father, interprets this dream as referring to himself, his wife, and their sons, who were the heads of the twelve tribes identified as the sun, moon, and stars, respectively. They represented the foundation of the whole Jewish nation. When Yeshua, therefore, spoke of the sun being darkened, the moon not giving its light, and the stars falling from heaven, He was not referring to the end of the solar system but of the complete dissolution of the Jewish state. The destruction of a state and government is often spoken of in language which seems to set forth the end of the world. At the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple, the false gods of the nations, who are called "stars," were also judged.
This apocalyptic language is common among the Hebrew prophets. This idea is seen clearly as we look at passages where mention is made of the destruction of a state and government using language which seems to set forth the end of the world:
The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. Isaiah 13:1 ESV
In this chapter, God is talking about the judgment that is to fall upon Babylon. The word "oracle" is the Hebrew word massa which means "an utterance, chiefly a doom." This introduction sets the stage for the subject matter in this chapter. And if we forget this, our interpretations of Isaiah 13 can go just about anywhere our imagination wants to go. This is not an oracle against the universe or world but against the nation of Babylon.
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come! Isaiah 13:6 ESV
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. Isaiah 13:9-13 ESV
Now remember that although he is speaking about the destruction of Babylon, the words sound like worldwide destruction. The terminology of a context cannot be expanded beyond the scope of the subject under discussion. The spectrum of language surely cannot go outside the land of Babylon. If you were a Babylonian, and Babylon was destroyed, would it seem as though the world had been destroyed? Yes! Their world had been destroyed.
Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. Isaiah 13:17 ESV
This is a historical event that took place in 539 B.C. When the Medes destroyed Babylon, the Babylonian world came to an end. In verse 6, this destruction is said to be from the Almighty. The Medes constituted the means by which God to accomplished this task. This is apocalyptic language. This is the way the Bible discusses the fall of a nation. This is obviously figurative language. God did not intend for us to take it literally. If we take it literally, we must conclude that the world ended in 539 B.C.
When Matthew talks about the "sun, moon, and stars" falling from the sky, he is not talking about the end of planet earth but rather about the end of Israel (the Old Covenant). This understanding is critical! But if we do not understand the language of the first three quarters of the Bible, we will never understand the last quarter (i.e. the New Testament).
The Bible was written in a time far removed from ours and in cultures quite strange to us. As we try to discover the author's meaning, we must learn to read his writing as one of his contemporaries would have. To do this, we must understand the Tanakh as they did. Let’s use the following example.
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. Revelation 1:7 ESV
We have all kinds of strange ideas as to what this means, but if we are familiar with the Tanakh, we know that the Lord is often depicted as riding a cloud (Psalms 18:7-15, Psalms 68:4; 104:3; Nahum 1:3). As we place the Biblical image in the light of the ancient Near East, we realize that God's cloud is a chariot that He rides bringing judgment.
An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. Isaiah 19:1 ESV
We know from chapter 20 that Yahweh used the Assyrians as instruments of His wrath on Egypt, yet it says that "The LORD is riding on a swift cloud…, Egypt will tremble at His presence." Yahweh came to Egypt. Did He physically come to Egypt? No. How did He "come" to Egypt? He came in judgment. His presence was made known in judgment. But it was the Assyrians who were literally present.
Likewise, when the New Testament talks about Yeshua riding a cloud, we understand that this is not a white, fluffy cloud but a storm cloud that He rides into judgment. The more we understand the Tanakh, the better we will understand the language of the New Testament.
Yeshua said that the Tanakh spoke of Him.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, John 5:39 ESV
"Scripture" here it means the Tanakhhe only Bible Yeshua ever had, the only Bible the disciples ever had, the only Bible anybody in the New Testament ever had was the Tanakh. And the Father in the Tanakh gives testimony to Yeshua the Christ.
Paul, when standing before King Agrippa, said this:
To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: Acts 26:22 ESV
According to this verse, what was the content of Paul's preaching? It was the Tanakh! Does this help you understand the importance of the Tanakh? Do you think we should unhitch it from our Bible?
Now let me share with you another rule of Hermeneutics that will greatly help us to understand Scripture. This second rule of Hermeneutics is audience relevance. This means that whatever a passage meant and whatever words spoken in Scripture meant, they had direct application to the original intended audience.
To demonstrate that many do not understand this principle notice what one pastor wrote. "You know the Bible is timeless. Let's look at these scriptures as though Paul had just sent an e-mail to our Church."
Holding this view will keep you from understanding the Bible. I think that most Christians view the Bible this way—as though it just arrived in the mail for them. But we must understand that if we disengage the original audience from the Scriptures, we can make any passage mean whatever we want it to mean or make it apply to whomever we want. Whenever we read the Scriptures, we must first ascertain whom the author is directly addressing. We must remember that the Bible is a collection of personal letters and history books written by real people, to real people, in real time, and with real time contexts. For instance, in the book of Philippians the Apostle Paul wrote the following:
I hope in the Lord Yeshua to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. Philippians 2:19 ESV
Does this verse teach us that we are supposed to be still waiting on Timothy today so that he can take word back to Paul on how we're doing? No! Why not? Because we correctly understand audience relevance and that this was a personal letter from Paul to a real church in Philippi in A.D.62 about an event (sending Timothy) that was imminent to them and not to us. We correctly understand the time and place context. The Philippians are the intended audience of this book.
All time statements in the Bible must be viewed through this same lens of audience relevance. The books of the Bible are not mystical letters written nebulously to Christians throughout eternity so that all time statements are free to be extracted and applied to whatever generation we wish. No. Each book was directed to a specific audience. Scripture is more than adequate to show us who that audience was.
This may shock many people, but in keeping with the subject of audience relevance, there is not one book in the Bible that was written TO anyone living today. Every single book in the Bible was written FOR us for our application and understanding, but none was written TO us. Every book in the Bible is a personal letter, a history book, or writing by a prophet to particular people at a particular time and for a particular reason.
Yes, we do glean truth and understanding from these books today, but that is far different from saying that these books were written TO us. To put it another way, we are reading other people's mail. Whenever someone today says "Here's what this Scripture means to me," we should be the first to say that it doesn't matter what it means to you. It only matters what it meant to the original audience. That is where we find out what the Bible truly means. Only after we do that can we then apply it to ourselves. For example, many believers like to claim the following verse for themselves:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 ESV
Great verse, but whom is it written to? Back up one verse and you’ll see.
"For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. Jeremiah 29:10 ESV
God was speaking to His people who were in Babylonian captivity. He was going to bring them back to their land in Jerusalem.
Believer, I've got some bad news for you. It is found in my third point in understanding the Bible—it takes a lot of time and hard work to gain understanding. Yet far too many Christians who claim that they want to understand the Bible are lazy and very casual in their approach to it. Their attitude is depicted in the following verse:
The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. Proverbs 13:4 ESV
Let me see if I can illustrate this for you. Who do you think was the highest paid professional athlete in 2006? Tiger Woods. He earned an estimated $100 million from winnings and endorsements. Golf Digest predicted that Woods would become the world's first billionaire athlete in 2010. But in November of 2009, Tiger Woods ran his car into a fire hydrant at the end of his driveway, triggering a cascade of scandalous revelations that forever altered the way tens of millions of people around the world viewed him.
Today Woods is ranked sixth of the 15 best golfers in the world. When did Tiger Woods start working on learning golf? Did he start in early adulthood and work on it one hour a week? Isn't that what most Christians do with Bible study? And tragically, that one hour a week for most Christians is not much of a learning time. It is more of a story time. Tiger began at two years old and worked hours upon hours. There is no doubt that he is an extremely gifted man, but he is what he is because of a lot of hard work.
In our studies we have seen that the Jews from early childhood worked on memorizing the Scriptures. By the time a boy is 12, he has the Torah memorized. That is a lot of work. So why do we think we can listen to one message on the Bible once a week and read it maybe once or twice a week and come to understand it? Why are we so arrogant and lazy that we spend no time in the book and yet get frustrated and even angry when we can't understand it?
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. Proverbs 2:1-5 ESV
Do you cry out to God for Biblical understanding? Do you search the Scriptures with the same diligence that drives you to earn money? Understanding the Bible takes a huge TIME commitment. Is God worthy of your time?
One of the greatest problems in the church today is ignorance. There are some people who have been Christians for ten or twenty years but know next to nothing about the Bible. God doesn't tolerate ignorance.
The Nineteenth century English preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon, was right when he said: "We're to eat into the very heart of the Bible until at last we come to talk in Scriptural language and our spirits are flavored with the words of the Lord, so that the very essence of the Bible flows from us!"
What are you doing right now to assure that you develop a thorough knowledge of God's Word? The range of possibilities is wide. You can commit yourself to a daily Bible-reading schedule, take notes during Bible study meetings, read good Christian books, be discipled by a mature Christian, take classes or a correspondence course with a Christian college, or listen to good Christian teachers. Make sure you are receiving nourishment daily from God's Word using one or more of those avenues for learning. The best way to make sure you make progress is to meet regularly with a good Christian friend to share with each other what you're learning so that you may "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Yeshua Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18).
You might ask why it is necessary to exert so much effort on Bible study? I'll tell you why. It is because Scripture is the self-revelation of God. In it the mind and heart of God is laid bare on many matters. With a knowledge of Scripture, we learn who God is and what He values. In the Bible God reveals Himself.
If we are going to understand the Bible, we need to understand the rules of Hermeneutics and apply them to our study. Scripture interprets Scripture, and along with this we must realize that the Bible is ONE book. We must also apply audience relevance. And we must be willing to devote much time and energy to the Bible. Again I ask you: "Is God worthy of your time? Does your commitment to Scripture demonstrate that He is worthy of your time?"