"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

Category: Hermenutics (Page 1 of 3)

Reading the Orbits Rightly

What do you think of when you hear the word orbit?

Of course you know that our moon has one.  And you know that the earth, along with the other planets of our solar system, follow their own orbits around the sun.  Each of those planets has their own moon(s) that trace an orbit around them.  And you’re aware that all the other planets and their moons do similarly.  These are stellar orbits.  They occur on a macro-scale.

Some of you also think of the orbits taking place at a micro-scale.  Right this instant there are electrons chasing an orbit around their proton in every cell of everything we know as reality.  You and I can’t see these orbits with our natural vision, but we now know that they exist—indeed, have existed from the beginning—and continue on in the reality of their orbits even when we are unaware of them.  These are sub-atomic orbits.

But now we are being told by scientists that there are other orbits taking place on a super-macro scale.  There is evidence to suggest that entire galaxies move together in orbits around a common center.  It staggers the imagination!  These are inter-galactic orbits.

What do Jupiter, the electrons in the atoms of your eye and our solar system all share in common?  Orbits.  As vastly different as those orbits are, they are all alike in that they have a determined course they chart around nucleus.  As greatly as they differ in their speed, span and splendor, each of these circle rhythmically and consistently around and around and around.

Interesting.  But what’s the point?  Simply this – Just as there are consistent, God-created movements at every level of physical creation, so there are divinely inspired, God-breathed movements at every level of Scripture.  And because this is true, we need to read the Scriptures with an eye to all those levels of movement.

Too often we train our eyes to expect and thus to see God’s Word at only one level.  Perhaps we have established the discipline of reading a chapter of the Bible each day.  Wonderful!  We may tend, then, to look for a particular verse that we feel has something to say to us.  We have probably learned to look for the divinely inspired message at the level of the sentence.  Or maybe we’ve learned to think also about how sentences string together and add context and meaning to one another—we’re reading each paragraph for its meaning.  Or perhaps even further we try to comprehend how all those paragraphs relate to one another and we find the message, not only of a sentence or a paragraph, but of a chapter (or sub-section) of a book of Scripture.

Are you starting to see the different divinely-inspired levels of Scripture?  But it goes both smaller and larger than that!  First the larger scale – have you ever tried to see how the Lord has given movement and meaning in how the chapters (or sub-sections) of a whole book fit together to make up one message?  Or how all the books of one particular author (like Paul or Peter) fit together and complement one another?  Did this just happen?  Or did God breathe out this level of meaning as well?  Indeed, He did!  Even consider what God is saying to us in the two testaments of the Bible—Old and New.  God did this as well.  But think also of the more infinitesimal—God breathed out every word of Scripture.  So we need also to examine the parts of the sentence—each and every word is there because of God’s intention.  Indeed, the very tense of the verbs and the number of the nouns carry meaning for us.

Please understand – as we look at all these levels of Scripture we are looking only for what God Himself breathed into the text.  We’re not looking for creativity on our part, but at the revelation on God’s part.  We are only looking for what God actually put into the text of the Bible.  Yet too often we miss a great deal of this because we’ve trained ourselves to only look for God’s message at one level.

Here are some exercises for you.  Use them to train yourself to “see” more faithfully what God is saying to us at every level of Scripture.

Words – What does Galatians 3:16 teach us about the importance of each and every word of Scripture and its form?  Why does the Apostle make the distinction in this verse?

Chapters – What does Isaiah’s twice-repeated refrain (“There is no peace for the wicked,” 48:22; 57:21) teach us about the message of the second half of Isaiah (chapters 40-66)?  Did you notice that these two statements divide Isaiah 40-66 into three symmetrical divisions of nine chapters each?  Why do you suppose that is?  What is the unique message of each of those sections?  How do those three fit together into one entire message for Isaiah 40-66?  How then does that compare with the message of the first half of Isaiah (1-39)?

Books – Watchman Nee, in his classic exposition of Ephesians, reduced the entire message of that letter to three words: Sit, Walk, Stand.  Can you find from the text of Ephesians why this is a faithful representation of Paul’s intent?  Here are a few clues: 1:20; 2:6; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15; 6:11, 13, 14.

These are just for starters.  As you read and study God’s Word, ask the Author Himself to open the eyes of your heart to see what He has revealed at every level of Scripture and to hear what He says with a view to obedience.  Remember, the point of God’s Word is not to give us trinkets of information for the satisfaction of our intellect.  No, He spoke to us in written form that we might obey Him, be conformed to His image and give our lives to the fulfillment of His great purpose—brining glory to Himself in every arena of created reality!

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 8)

14.    Realize that no one has ever proven a contradiction.

Do you realize that no one has ever proven the Bible to be in error?  Many have claimed to have found error, but later have been forced to admit their own error by new evidence.  Archeology is unearthing much new evidence that sheds light on Biblical texts.  It has been said that no archeological find has ever proven an error exists in Scripture, but many times they have proven that those claiming a supposed error were the ones in the wrong.

15.    Avail yourself of an “intellectual icebox.”

It is fine—even a mark of integrity—to admit when we do not understand something in Scripture.  We should concede that there are “difficulties” in the Bible.  That is the time to place the difficulty in an “intellectual icebox” where we hold it while we await further evidence for the resolution of the difficulty.  Always leave room for God to provide more evidence concerning a difficult passage.

Having reached the end of our journey, what shall we say by way of summary?  When others raise what they label as an error in Scripture, we need to realize that all that is demanded of us is the ability to put forward a possible, rational conclusion to the difficulty.  We are not obligated to prove a possible interpretation is the right interpretation.  Our task is simply to demonstrate that there is a reasonable solution to the difficulty raised.  Since Scripture has proven trustworthy for thousands of years we should declare it innocent until proven guilty of error.  Being made up of sixty-six books, having been written over a span of 1,600 years, on three different continents, in three different languages, by more than forty authors, the miracle is that the Bible has such a cohesive, sound text that espouses one singular theme!

Let us remember the burden lies with the accuser of Scripture.  They must prove the error they claim exists.  Let us never forget that ultimately the real struggle with Scripture is a moral one (John 7:17).  Mark Twain reportedly said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand”!

Update: You may find the entire text of this series here.

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 7)

12.    Assume harmony in parallel passages unless you have good reason to do otherwise.

Both Matthew and Luke record the account of two thieves being hanged on crosses to the right and left of Jesus.  Matthew tells us that both criminals were casting insults at Jesus (27:44), while Luke records only one hurling abuse at Him (23:39).  Which was it?  Common sense says that both criminals had joined in the verbal abuse, but that one had a change of heart and repented, and then began defending Jesus before the other.  W.A. Criswell once said, “God gave us five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing; but we need two more: common and horse.”

13.    Distinguish between “difficulties” and “errors.”

There is a vast difference between admitting that there are some “difficulties” in understanding all that the Bible says and conceding that the Bible contains error.  I join with the Apostle Peter in admitting that sometimes Scripture is difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16), but I do not concede that there are errors within its pages.  “Difficulties” leave room for further discussion, information, and study.  More light on the given “difficulty” will later become available and it would be premature to assume error.  The jury is still out on any given alleged discrepancy.

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 6)

10. Be certain of the original text.

The doctrine of inerrancy claims that it is the original autographs that were without error, not the copies made from them.  It is quite possible that copyists have made some minor errors in transcription.  This might account for some variation among numbers reported in the Old Testament.  1 Kings 4:26 says that Solomon had 40,000 stalls for horses and 12,000 horsemen.  2 Chronicles 9:25 says that he had 4,000 stalls and 12,000 horsemen.  Similarly, 1 Samuel 13:1 says that Saul reigned for 32 years, while Paul says that his reign lasted 40 years (Acts 13:21).  In the Hebrew language numbers were recorded by assigning numerical value to each of the letters of the alphabet.  Letters were then used in combination to record larger numbers; this made for greater susceptibility for a scribal mistake because the letters were not grouped according to a logical linguistic pattern (a word they were used to seeing), but randomly, to record a given number.

Though there may be other legitimate explanations for these numerical differences, it is possible that we have a scribal error made in transcription.  If such minor errors do exist, they do not harm the doctrine of inerrancy, nor lessen our confidence in the accuracy of our Bibles.  There are not many of these kinds of difficulties in the Bible.  It is said that our current text of the New Testament is 98.33% pure from copyist error.   Of the few slight variations not one affects any major doctrine.

11. Face the possibility that you may have misinterpreted one or both passages.

If it appears that the difficulties of a passage are insurmountable, consider the possibility that you have misinterpreted it.  Just after I came to faith in Jesus Christ as a Junior High student, I began to read my Bible regularly.  Starting at the beginning of the New Testament, I soon came upon Matthew 5:29, “And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” I was stumped.  I wanted to please Christ, but this request seemed too harsh!  How could I gouge my eye out?  How could I handle the pain?  How could I explain to my parents what I had done?  Fortunately I waited for further information and came to see that I was taking literally what Jesus was using as a literary technique to make a point.

Not long afterward I came to Matthew 16:2-3: “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is read.’  And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is read and threatening.’  Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?” My conclusion?  I understood this to mean that it was wrong to attempt to predict the weather; therefore, I thought I had to stop watching the weather forecast with my father each evening before going to bed.  I wanted to do what Christ commanded, but the command, as I interpreted it, seemed a bit arbitrary.  I sought further input and discovered that I had misunderstood the point of what Jesus said.

Dealing With Apparent Contradictions (Part 5)

7.    Realize that most New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are taken from the Septuagint (LXX).

On occasion someone will cross-reference from the New Testament, where they have just read the Biblical writer quoting from the Old Testament, to the Old Testament reference being cited.  They will notice that the quotation may not match exactly what their Old Testament records for that verse.  What is going on?  We need to realize that the New Testament writer may well have been quoting from the Septuagint.  The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was completed in the mid 200’s B.C.  This translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was widely used at the time the New Testament documents were being written.  So the author of Scripture in the New Testament may have been quoting form a Greek translation of the Old Testament and when we compare that with our English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament it may not be phrased exactly the same.

Beyond that, it is more than possible that the New Testament writers did not always attempt to quote verbatim when they referred to the Old Testament.  Suppose we would make a tape recording of the conversations taking place during a small group Bible study and then compare what we quoted as Scripture with what our actual English versions say.  Would the differences invalidate what we said in the Bible study?  Would we be found to be liars when we heard ourselves say, “Psalm 35:4 says …” and then discovered it did not match exactly with our version of that passage?  No.

8.    Realize that when the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, God, as the ultimate Author, has the right to give His own meaning or interpretation of what He wrote in the first place.

Scripture makes clear that it is of divine origin.  This means that God has the freedom to explain what He has said.  “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).  “All Scripture is God-breathed …” (2 Timothy 3:16).

9.    Use the fuller of two accounts to explain the shorter account.

Consider the Biblical accounts that describe the conversation of the Apostle Paul.  The actual event is described for us in Acts 9:10-19.  Paul’s testimony of it before the Jews in Jerusalem is recorded in Acts 22:12-16.  Upon reading the two accounts it becomes clear that 9:10-19 is the fuller account and 22:12-16 is an abbreviated account (little wonder Paul abbreviated it, read Acts 22 for the context in which he gave this testimony!).  It would only make sense to allow the fuller of the two accounts to explain the shorter one.

If we go to the movie theater and see a film and then try to relate it to someone who later asks us to tell them about it, we don’t tell them the entire story.  We give them the bits and pieces of the movie that will explain the basic story line.  Although we have only reported small portions of the plot, when that person goes to see the movie they find us later and say, “It was just like you described it!”

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