Author: Ron Graham
This lesson looks at the last three of six simple principles that help us to read, study, and understand the Bible well, and to handle the word correctly.
Sometimes we encounter arbitrary interpretations of Bible passages —interpretations that stem from a person’s own thoughts and feelings instead of comparison with other scripture.
Peter warns us that "No prophecy of scripture is for one’s own private interpretation; for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2Peter 1:20-21).
Those who spoke from God did not speak their own arbitrary thoughts and feelings. Nor should we interpret the prophets’ words in an arbitrary manner; making them say what we wish, rather than what they meant.
One kind of arbitrary interpretation makes distinctions where there's no difference. For example, in Luke 2:22-24, you find the terms "the Law of Moses" and "the Law of the Lord". Are these two laws as some say?
"When the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as it is written in the law of the Lord..." (Luke 2:22-23a).
The commandments for purification, dedication, and offering are all found in the same writings of Moses. The law of Moses was the law of the Lord.
One law: Ezra was "a scribe skilled in the law of Moses... learned in the words of the commandments of the Lord and his statutes to Israel... the scribe of the law of the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:6,11-12).
One law: Ezra was asked to "bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel... they read from the book, from the law of God" (Nehemiah 8:1,8).
Another kind of arbitrary interpretation is reading into a scripture what isn't there.
For example people often quote "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, yes and forever" (Hebrews 13:8) to prove that Jesus still grants special gifts of the Spirit like he did for the apostles and for Cornelius.
The statement "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever" does not imply that Jesus still cooks fish for breakfast as he once did (John 21:8-14). Likewise it does not imply that Jesus grants Holy Spirit baptism today as he once did.
Another example is inserting the word “only” into passages like "By grace you have been saved by faith [alone] " (Ephesians 2:8), and "The just shall live by faith [only] " (Romans 1:17).
In the same chapter that Paul quotes "The just shall live by faith" he also says, "We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith" —not faith only (Romans 1:5).
Comparing scripture with scripture we find James saying that we are, "justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). So the arbitrary reading of “alone” into faith passages produces error.
We have all had the experience of saying something, only to have our words twisted around to mean something we did not mean. Although we expressed ourselves correctly, the hearer took our words wrongly.
Language has to be understood properly. Somebody reads on the honey jar, "If honey has solidified, stand in hot water", so they stand in hot water and burn their feet.
Jokes aside, some people "twist the scriptures to their own destruction" (2Peter 3:15-16). People should use the language of scripture properly so as not to distort its meaning.
Here's an example. Jesus told a story in which a man quotes the scripture, "Eat, drink, and be merry" and yet he is called a fool (Luke 12:17-20). That’s because this scripture was written with irony in the face of futility (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
The last two verses of Ecclesiastes, by contrast, show how we are to approach our lives. "Fear God and keep his commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). The rich fool did not use the language of scripture properly.
Here's another example. When Jesus said, "This is my body...this is my blood..." (Matthew 26:26-28), he was using language in the same way you do when you point to a photo of your uncle and say, "This is my uncle Fred". Is your uncle a piece of cardboard with a picture on it?
Language has figurative elements, and we must not improperly interpret them literally. Language has literal elements, and we must not improperly interpret them figuratively.
Here's one more example. Satan quoted scripture to Jesus, "His angels... shall bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone". (Matthew 4:5-6, Psalms 91:11-12).
This was meant to be an encouragement to trust God, but the devil subtly twisted it into an incitement to test God.
You might observe that those who are quick to give an opinion are often those who have learned the least. Those who have learned much realise how little they know.
Some scripture is "hard to understand" (2Peter 3:15-16), and we should not rush in to interpretations of the hard passages. We should prayerfully study until we are equipped to handle such passages aright.
Paul instructs Titus to "shun foolish controversies" (Titus 3:9). Such controversy is usually one entered into by people who really don’t know what they are talking about, yet think themselves experts.
Paul speaks of the man who "is conceited and understands nothing, but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife..." (1Timothy 6:4).
Again Paul speaks of men who have "turned aside to fruitless discussions... in which they make confident assertions, even though they don't know what they are talking about" (1Timothy 1:4-7).
In contrast, James advises us that "in humility" we should "receive the implanted word" (James 1:21). It follows that we should pass it on to others in a similar humble and gentle spirit allowing for our own weaknesses.