Author: Ron Graham
Interpreting the Bible
—Symbol and Truth
This lesson is a digest of four articles I wrote some years ago for a church bulletin. Each relates to the theme of scriptural authority and interpretation of the Bible.
1 Our Authority
Our faith and religious practice should not be chosen on the basis of what sounds right or feels good to us. We should not go into the "religious supermarket" and shop for a church with a set of doctrines, traditions, and behaviour patterns that we find appealing.
Rather, we must listen to what the Lord says, and recognise his absolute authority. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).
So we should seek what pleases him, and what is according to his word, no matter what ordinary mortals like us might be inclined to think (Colossians 1:9-10,18). We must have a "Thus says the Lord" for all our beliefs and activities of worship. This may even mean that we must go against our own best judgment, letting the Lord's judgment rule us.
We put aside our own personal opinions, preferences, and prejudices, and say, "Not my will but your will be done" (Luke 22:42). Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for making the word of God of no effect through their tradition. He made a distinction between God's word and the commandments of men (Mark 7:6-13). So should we.
2 Interpreting God’s Word
If the Bible is to be our authority in religion, then of course we must interpret the Bible correctly. For example...
- When the Bible says, "Let God be true, and every man a liar" (Romans 3:4), we would not interpret that to mean that God wants us to be liars.
- Or when the scripture says, "How unsearchable are God's judgments, and his paths past finding out" (Romans 11:33), we would not take that to mean that we cannot know God's will.
- Or when the word says, "God is love" (1John 4:8), we do not take that to be teaching that God is a Principle and not a Person.
- Or when we read, "Fight the good fight of faith" (1Timothy 6:12) we would not take this as a call to make war upon and kill people of another religion.
If the Bible is to mean anything to us and act as an authority for us, then we must apply our minds to what it says to make sure that we have correctly understood its meaning. The authority of the scripture cannot be isolated from that process.
Most Important Principle
The most important principle of interpretation is that the Bible must be interpreted holistically. We treat the Bible as one self-consistent book of God, a contextual unit. Although comprising many different books from various sources and times, it has a consistency such that no part contradicts the other.
Therefore if we interpret any given part so that it harmonises with all other parts, our interpretation will be correct. However, if our interpretation of one statement makes the Bible contradict itself, we know that our interpretation is in error.
3 Messages From God
Since creation, God has been communicating with men and women,revealing his will and purpose for them. He has delivered various messages in various ways to various people at various times and places. The Bible itself is a compilation of such messages.
If God wished, he could communicate individually to every human being. I would receive my own special angel, prophet, dream, or writing. You likewise would receive yours, and others theirs. Each person would have their personal miracle and message from God. But God has not seen fit to do this.
So where do we stand? Either God does not have a message for us all, or he expects us to derive a message for ourselves from the messages he has given to others. It is the latter idea that people are really asserting when they rightly say, "the Bible is God's message to all humankind".
The Bible ties together many messages from God to people in various times and situations. If we think about these messages and situations sensibly, we can reason out what we would be told if God really did send a prophet or angel to us.
Them and Us
Take for example this message: "God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
A lot of people reading that statement, back when it was written, would indeed have been sinners when Christ died. But Christ did not die for you and me "while we were still sinners". We arrived several hundred years too late for that to be true.
Yet we have taken that old message of God's love so much to our own hearts that we quote Paul's words just as if the "we" and "us" literally means us.
We reason that those who were sinners when Christ died, were representatives of all. In demonstrating great love toward them, God demonstrated his love for every sinner, and thus Christ died for all.
We therefore, despite the literal anachronism, make the "we" and "us" refer in principle to all humankind, even ourselves today. We find this interpretation agrees with other statements in the chapter, and with the rest of scripture. Thus a message to the early Christians serves as a message for us as well.
Symbol and Truth
A very important aspect of Bible interpretation is to understand its symbols. There are many symbols in the Bible, such as visions and dreams, types and antitypes, parables, ceremonies, and a rich fabric of metaphor.
Symbols can be puzzling. For example, people who saw visions from the Lord, were often puzzled by them.
- When Peter saw the vision of the clean and unclean animals, "he was greatly perplexed as to what the vision might mean" (Acts 10:17).
- Pharaoh's vision of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows "troubled him in spirit" (Genesis 41:8).
- When Daniel saw one of his visions, he says, "I sought to understand it" (Daniel 8:15-16).
- John saw a vision of a woman drunk with the blood of the saints. He says, "I wondered greatly" (Revelation 17:6).
Why were these seers puzzled by their visions? Why couldn't they interpret the symbols? Let's take the example of Pharaoh. He did not know that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Had he known that, he would have seen the correspondence between that truth and the symbols of his vision or dream, and he would have understood the meaning.
On the handle of my motor mower, there is a sliding control with a cable leading down to the engine. Nothing indicates its purpose, except two little drawings, one a tortoise, the other a hare. If you know that hares run fast and tortoises go slow, the meaning of the symbols is clear.
Symbols Aren't Meant to Puzzle You
When you are aware of the appropriate truths, symbols will not puzzle you. If you see a baptism, and you know about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, the symbolic meaning of the act of baptism is easily grasped (Romans 6).
There are three ways that people approach symbols. Take the rainbow for example. Some would see this symbol as a magical power which they could tap into. Others would see it as concealing a key to truth, perhaps in its seven colours. Others would see it as representing a plain promise of God (Genesis 9:8-16)
Bible Symbols Not Magical
It is a mistake to think that the symbols of the Bible have magical powers or secret meanings. They are simply representations of plain truths revealed in plain language in the Bible.
The plain truth about Jesus's death as an atonement for our sins is symbolized by animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, and by the Lord's Supper and baptism in the New Testament. Likewise, the symbols in prophecies, visions, and dreams, all represent plain truths revealed in plain language.
Symbols and Simple Gospel Truths
When interpreting the book of Revelation, for example, we have to be aware of certain basic truths. There is conflict between the powers of good and the powers of evil. But no matter how much the Christian suffers for following the good way, and being loyal until death, the Christian will eventually have the victory and all the enemies of Christ will be subdued and destroyed.
Those who are faithful to Christ and who confess him as Lord will overcome, because he has laid down his life and shed his blood that evil might be destroyed. Once we recognize simple gospel truths of that sort, we are able to understand the book of Revelation.