In my previous post we began to consider the issue of how to understand various Scripture portions when they appear contradictory to one another. Beginning here I will share a series of interpretational principles to help us make our way through the confusion and fog of such moments. These principles do not apply merely to instances of apparent contradiction, but more broadly to all Biblical interpretation. Yet we’ll focus our thoughts on these kinds of issues.
1. Be certain you are dealing with identical events in both passages.
Jesus said and did similar things on different occasions. On two different occasions Jesus cleansed the temple (John 2; Matthew 21). There are many similarities between the two accounts, which could lead a person to believe they describe the same event. If it is not recognized that they occurred at two different times a person may believe the differences in the accounts to the contradictory. However, if they are distinguished as two separate events, the differences present no problem. There appear to be two different records of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6). Yet one is significantly shorter than the other. It is quite likely, as commentators have shown, that the shorter record in Luke 6 is actually a description of a second delivery of the same basic message delivered by Jesus previously.
Robertson McQuilkin is certain that if Jesus did not specifically refer to the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 as separate events, someone would have concluded there was an error in recording the numbers. (p.206)
2. Carefully study the context of each account.
Do you know that the Bible says “there is no God”? In fact the Scriptures make the declaration twice (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). Does that frighten you? It shouldn’t because, if you look at the context, that phrase is part of a larger sentence: “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’” In any study of Scripture the context must be king! We use this principle when we read any piece of writing. It is only logical to interpret words in their context. Not all issues of context are as simple as the one just cited, but all are just as important.
Every passage of Scripture has a context in which it must be read. There is a historical context that must be examined. There is a cultural context as well. We must also consider the physical context in which it was written. Also there is a literary context that cannot be passed by. Any given assertion is made in several contexts, all of which aid in informing the reader as to the intent of the writer. Sometimes hard work is required to determine which of these contexts is most essential to understanding the passage.
Perhaps you have heard the old story about the man who was discouraged and decided to look to the Bible for guidance. He prayed and asked God to guide him into what to do. “I’ll open my Bible and place my finger down, whatever it says is what I will do!” he declared. Flipping open his Bible and placing his finger down he read, “Judas went out and hung himself.” A bit nervous about his findings, he tried again, “Go thou and do likewise”! Once again he tried, “What thou doest, do quickly”!
Context must be king if we are to make sense of anything we read, how much more if we are trying to rightly understand what God intends to communicate to us through His Word.