How to Understand the Bible — Guest Article by Terry Cropper
Did you know when we are reading the New Testament we are really reading someone else’s mail?
We will never fully appreciate scripture until we understand how the original audience understood the background or historical setting behind the letters that was written to them. I hope I do not ruin your love for the Bible, but you need to know that the letters were not written to us. In fact we are reading someone else’s mail.
The more I understand why the letters were written to the original audience the more I appreciate what God has also done for me in Christ Jesus. Yes, all scripture is beneficial to us today how else would we know that the blood of Christ has saved us.
The modern Church has an approach to the letters as if the New Testament letters are written “exclusively to us.” On the other hand some have come up with a “new un-biblical idea” that goes way to far which says no scripture can be applied us today. That’s just plain heresy.
Yes, all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV)
However, there is a big difference between learning from the truths and examples that are recorded in scripture, and insisting that the letters were written solely to us today. That leads to completely taking scripture out of context in which it was originally written to its first century readers,
The top three rules of hermeneutics (the art and science of biblical interpretation) are
Before we can tell how the Bible applies to 21st-century Christians we must first come to the best possible understanding of what the Bible meant to its original audience. If we come up with an application that would have been foreign to the original audience, there is a very strong possibility that we did not interpret the passage correctly. Once we are confident that we understand what the text meant to its original hearers, we then need to determine the width of the chasm between us and them. In other words, what are the differences in language, time, culture, geography, setting and situation? All of these must be taken into account before application can be made.
Audience relevance is another a very important part when trying to understand the letters in the context in which they were originally written. This must not be overlooked also.
For example. The Thessalonians who were living in the first century lived in a different time, and culture, setting, and situation. They were enduring persecutions, and tribulations, and challenges because of their faith by the unbelieving Jews (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4, NKJV): “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, 4 so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure.”
These saints were promised by Paul vindication and relief was coming:
“It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, 7 and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-8)
We cannot just take this letter and apply it directly to us, because this letter was not written to us. The immediate audience is the Thessalonians. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, “To the (church of the Thessalonians) in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:”
Verse 6 opens with a promise. The immediate audience is the Thessalonians. First-century Jews largely persecuted the early church because of a zeal for the Law which Christians often challenged by disrupted their synagogues and declaring that the Law was passing away. According to Paul God would “repay with tribulation those who are troubling the Thessalonians “not us” when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
See Don K. Preston’s “In Flaming Fire” for an in-depth, exegesis, and demonstration of proper hermeneutic.
Another good example is found in Hebrews 10:29. Paul warns Jewish believes not to return to Old Covenant animal sacrifices. To do so was to “willfully sin” and trample the Son of God underfoot, and count the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insult the Spirit of grace!
Here is another common example of interpreting with disregard of the context. Many of the Jewish believers during this time were facing persecutions and tribulations at the hands of the unbelieving Jews as we have seen in Thessalonians. Thus, Paul writes to encourage the Jewish believers. He urges them: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some, but exhorting; and so much the more, as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
Have you ever gone to church and heard the preacher use this verse and say God commands us not to miss the “worship services of the church on Sunday?” I have. This is not what Paul is saying. To make this matter even worse, they don’t usually quote all of the verses together. Many of the Jews were abandoning the faith and returning back under the Mosaic law because of persecution. The primary instruction in verses 25 is let us “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, (as some did) as you see the day approaching.” What day approaching? The Parousia of Christ.
Another common example of interpreting with disregard of the context is John 14:13-14. “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
Reading this verse out of context would seem to indicate that if we ask God for anything (unqualified), we will receive it as long as we use the formula “in Jesus’ name.” Applying the rules of proper hermeneutics to this passage, we see Jesus speaking to His disciples in the upper room on the night of His eventual betrayal. The immediate audience is the disciples. This is essentially a promise to His disciples that God will provide the necessary resources for them to complete their task of preaching the gospel. Jesus would soon be leaving them.
As with all the letters they must be understood in their context and historical setting in which they were originally written to the first century audience.
Biblical interpretation is as much an art as it is science. We must come to grips with how the original audience would have understood the text. And remember, the various letters were written to the people to whom they were written. This is clear by the opening statements of the books themselves.
“The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans.”
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 To (the church of God which is at Corinth), to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:1-3).
“Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me, To (the churches of Galatia)” (Galatians 1:1-2).
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, (To the saints who are in Ephesus), and faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-2).
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, (To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse): Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 1:1-2)
Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, (To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi), with the bishops and deacons: (Philippians 1:1).
“(To Titus), a true son in our common faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 1:4).
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, (To Philemon our beloved friend) and fellow laborer, (to the beloved Apphia, Archippus) our fellow soldier, and to (the church in your house)” (Philemon 1:1-2).
“James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, (To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad): Greetings” (James 1).
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, (To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia). (1 Peter 1).
“John, (to the seven churches which are in Asia): Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (Revelation 1:4).
“(To the angel of the church of Ephesus) write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: (Revelation 2:1)
“And (to the angel of the church in Thyatira) write, ‘These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass: (Revelation 2:18)
The fact is we are reading someone else’s mail. Notice that I am not saying that we cannot learn from the Bible. We can and I do every day. But there is a big difference between learning from the truths and examples that are recorded in Scripture, and thinking that the letters were written directly and exclusively to us today. The authors had in mind the readers of their day.
The Bible provides an example of how to live. It is a “guide” of sorts. And the Bible tells us how God had a plan of salvation for us and all mankind beginning from Genesis to Revelation.
Though we are living in a different time and culture we learn from the lives of those who went before us, and then, with our minds filled with Scripture, and with an understanding of our times and culture, and not neglecting the gentle leading of God, we try to do our best to live our lives within the “stream” or “flow” or “trajectory” of Biblical teaching.
It is time we start doing three things:
1) Stop overlooking the people the letters were originally written to and applying their letters, their language, time, culture, geography, setting and situation personally to us and our day.
2) It’s time to grasp that the NATURE of the Parousia of Christ was a spiritual event not a physical event and applied to the saints who the letters were original written to (for example 1 Thessalonians. 4). We must not go as far to invent “new ideas” like no scripture can apply to us today.
3) Stop applying (the hope) of the first century saints to us. The Bible says in Proverbs 13:12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.
The Lord himself knows that when our desires are put off we become heart sick. The truth is we are not living in the hope of the first century saints. We are living in the blessed assurance that Jesus HAS fulfilled all his promises that he made to his disciples.