16 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
The Bible is the standard God has given us by which we can grow in understanding of Him, His will and His kingdom. There are some basic principles we must follow in order to be able to understand and apply the scriptures accurately.
Rightfully Dividing the Word
15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
– 2 Timothy 2:15 NKJV
The first basic principle is that we must interpret Scripture in its appropriate context. We must understand that the Bible was written to other people, not us. This does not mean it does not apply to us, it just means we have to understand what God was saying to those who first received it before we know how, or if, it applies to us in our situation. We need to do our best to know who the original human author was (Paul, Moses, etc.), who the recipient(s) was/were (the church in Rome, ancient Israel, etc.), what relationship the author and recipient(s) had with one another and what the occasion for writing was. Most of this can usually be found in the particular book (Romans, Exodus, etc) in which it is written. By understanding what was originally communicated we will be better equipped to see how, or if, the truth of the passage applies to us in our circumstance.
When we come to any passage in scripture and seek to understand what it is teaching, we first look at the immediate context. That is, we look at the verses immediately before and after the verse/verses we are considering. The Bible was not originally divided into chapters and verses. Sometimes the division of verses can give us the impression that a particular verse stands alone, but this is not the case. We must seek to understand the flow of thought of the original author. Reading a few verses before and after a particular verse can go a long way to helping us better understand what the author had in mind.
After looking at the immediate context we should broaden our understanding of the intent of the author even more by looking at the context of the book as a whole. Understanding the historical context (e.g. it was written because the church in Rome had divisions, it was written as a historical record of the Israelites leaving Egypt, etc.) and the content of the entire book will make it easier to discern what the particular passage or verse was intended to convey.
The next step will be to understand how the original author communicates in other books he has written. Becoming familiar with the terminology and ways of thinking of a particular author can give us insight into the specific passage we are meditating on. This doesn’t mean that the author always talks about the same topic or always communicates about certain topics in the same way, but it helps us to understand his general style of communication. Knowing the personality, vocabulary and emphases of a particular author can sometimes be helpful when interpreting certain passages he wrote in different books of the Bible.
Lastly we must consider in which testament (i.e. Old or New Testament) is the passage under consideration found. In general, each passage of the New Testament has one proper interpretation. That is to say, the original author was trying to convey a particular thought through in his writing. Though the passage might be applied differently in different circumstances, this does not mean that the passage has more than one interpretation. First we find out what the original author was seeking to communicate; that is interpretation. Then we seek to use the truth of the passage as guidance in any particular circumstance; that is application.
But there are exceptions to the rule that each verse in the New Testament only has one proper interpretation. Namely the book of Revelation, which is apocalyptic literature. This form of writing can sometimes have more than one meaning for particular passages due to its metaphorical and prophetic nature.
The Old Testament also has apocalyptic literature in parts of Daniel, Ezekiel and elsewhere. So it is possible that those passages also have more than one intended meaning and fulfillment. But there is another aspect of the Old Testament that makes it different from the New Testament. Even the passages that are not apocalyptic in nature, but are straight forward historical narrative, poetry or law can have more than one meaning. This is due to the prophetic nature of the Old Testament as a whole. We will clarify this more shortly. For now, let it suffice it to say, the way we approach the Old Testament is different from the way we approach the New Testament.
What has been said thus far should be acceptable to most Bible believers. The context in which a passage is found helps us to discern the meaning of that particular passage. Understanding the bigger sections of Scripture helps us to put the individual passage in its proper place. The immediate context clarifies the verse just as the book clarifies the immediate context of the verse. Understanding the original author helps us to understand all of his individual writings. And the testament in which we find an author helps us understand his writings in their covenantal framework. But there is still one more step that is always needed, but sometimes not acknowledged.
As we come to the Bible we do not come as neutral observers seeking to know that the Scriptures are saying. We come to the Bible with preconceived notions of what it teaches. This is one of the main reasons two different people can read the same text of Scripture and come to radically different conclusions. Though they are each dealing with the same Scriptures, they are looking at it through a different lens. So what we believe the Bible teaches before we even open its pages greatly influences what we will see when we open its pages. For this reason, we need to know the overall message of the Bible in order to properly interpret it. On this blog I argue that Jesus Christ, and the good news of His kingdom, is the central message of the Bible. The Gospel of the kingdom of Jesus Christ is the lens through which I read the Bible.
The Old Testament is about Christ
44 Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” 45 And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. 46 Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
– Luke 24:44-47 NKJV
39 “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. 40 “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.
– John 5:39-40 NKJV
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
– Colossians 2:16-17 NKJV
14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. 15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. 16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
– 2 Corinthians 3:14-16 NKJV
I noted above that when we read the New Testament (except for those parts that are apocalyptic) each verse only has one correct interpretation. It means what the author originally meant it to mean when he wrote it. But the Old Testament has more than one meaning. It has the historical meaning which the original author had in mind, but it has a secondary meaning. This is so because the Old Testament has a prophetic meaning that the original authors were not always aware of.
This means that the Old Testament was not merely about the nation of Israel, the Law of Moses, David’s kingdom and other such things. But it was all pointing to a reality that was yet to come. What is it that was being hinted at in the pages of the Old Testament? The answer is, Jesus the coming King! The Scriptures were all about Him! Who He is. What He would do. How His kingdom would come. How His kingdom would spread. Who would be allowed into His kingdom. The Old Testament contains all of this, though the original authors usually had no idea they were writing about such things.
When we read the Old Testament we need to understand the historical context and what the original authors had in mind as they were writing. But we also need to understand the divine message hidden under the surface of that history. We need to understand that God was sovereignly guiding the Old Testament history and writings. He was communicating something that would not be understood until Christ came and opened up the Scriptures to His people. In the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms God was revealing His Son! When we read the Old Testament we should understand the historical context, and from that place of understanding God, by His Holy Spirit, will open the eyes of our understanding to see Christ. When we read the New Testament we are reading the apostolic revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Through the apostolic Scriptures we are able to see Christ in the Old Testament. The New interprets the Old.
Christ Preached the Kingdom of God
14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
– Mark 1:14-15 NKJV
19 “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.
– Matthew 13:19 NKJV
14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
– Matthew 24:14 NKJV
Jesus is the central figure of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments. And the good news of His kingdom is the core message which He announced, the prophets prophesied, the apostles proclaimed and the epistles applied. If we do not understand what Jesus Christ came to announce we will not understand the overall message of the Bible. If we do not understand the Gospel of the Kingdom, we will not be able to accurately interpret and apply the Scriptures.
The Gospels are the Gospel
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
– Mark 1:1 NKJV
19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
– Matthew 28:19-20 NKJV
3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,
– Hebrews 2:3 NKJV
24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.
– Matthew 10:24 NKJV
The four Gospels are four perspectives of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not a set of spiritual principles set out in an orderly arrangement like the book of Romans. The Gospel is the Person, work and teachings of Jesus Christ. This Gospel, the Gospel of the King and His Kingdom, was laid out for us by the four evangelists. In them we have the inspired apostolic witness to the coming, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ.
When we come to the four Gospels we come to the very heart of the Scriptures. It is here that the Master sets forth His teaching in His own words. The apostles and their companions faithfully presented Him, His message and His deeds in the four Gospels. It is here that we learn from the best teacher that ever lived. He spoke the words of eternal life directly from His Father. His words are the rock of which He spoke in Matthew 7:24-27. It is by His words that we will be judged.
Because this is so, all understanding and proper interpretation of the Scriptures as a whole begins with the four Gospels. The common practice of the Reformation was to focus on the epistles, particularly those of Paul and through them seek to understand the Gospels and the Old Testament. But there were those in the Reformation, the Anabaptists, that put the first emphasis on the doctrines presented by Christ in the Gospels. The Gospels were their Scriptural starting point for interpretation. When we follow their lead we will come to see that the teaching of Christ makes all things clear. Through Christ’s words as revealed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we will come to see how faithfully the apostles kept to the precepts of their Master in their epistles. Through the message of the four Gospels the Old Testament Scriptures will become a clear revelation of Christ and His eternal kingdom!
Following such a method of interpretation is what we mean by Kingdom Theology. We do not look at scripture through dispensations as the Dispensationalists do, nor through a “covenant of grace” as Covenant Theologians do. And we certainly do not follow the Judaizers in their error of interpreting the whole of Scripture through the Law of Moses. We look at Scripture through Jesus Christ and His gospel of the kingdom. We see this kingdom which He proclaimed, and brought, as the fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures, and therefore the lens through which we must understand the Scriptures.
And neither do we start with the epistles, as Reformation Theology does, and seek to interpret Jesus’ words through them. Instead we start with the apostolic record of Jesus’ life and teaching in the four Gospels and make those the foundation for understanding of Jesus and His doctrine. This emphasis and methodology leads to different conclusions than Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology in particular, and Reformation Theology in general, and what a blessed difference it is!