Fulfillment: How to Understand the Bible

People often become discouraged, especially of discussions found on social media about the Bible.  The presence of thousands of denominations and other religious sects only serves the magnify the various areas of disagreement and confusion as to the message and meaning of the Scriptures.  Having a Biblical understanding of Fulfillment as it pertains to God’s “purpose of the ages” (Eph. 3:11) provides the proper foundation through which other areas of theological conflict may be resolved.

Every religious creed, council, and confession claims its faithfulness to what is found in the Bible.  It was Augustine (354-430 CE) in his early treatise On Faith and the Creed who made this observation:

“…we make our own the profession of the faith that we carry in our heart…We have the catholic faith in the creed, known to the faithful and committed to memory, contained in a form of expression as concise as has been rendered admissible by the circumstances…” [1]

Millions of believers since the first century have devised their own sincere “profession of the faith” to the degree in which it was then understood, but shaped and influenced within the historical “circumstances” of their own day.  There is no doubt that Augustine was both sincere and honest in his own “profession of the faith” as he understood it, but suppose his own historical perspective was inaccurate?  Is it not possible that a skewed historical perspective of the message and meaning of Scripture was simply accepted as “tradition” and then passed along generation after generation?  Jesus, during His earthly ministry, warned:  “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?…This people draws near to Me with their mouth and honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  But in vain they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:3, 8, 9).  Having the proper framework for understanding the time, manner, and purpose of what was recorded in the Scriptures is vital to accepting the historical perspective that flows from Genesis to Revelation.

More is necessary than mere “tradition” or the testimony of creeds, councils, and confessions for those today who study the Bible in order to ascertain the truth of its message and meaning.  One author makes this observation:

The Bible can be read, understood, believed, and practiced if there is the heart and the will to do so. It is encouraging to see signs of renewed interest in hermeneutics, and a commitment to scripture rather than to traditions in the search for fundamental guidelines in biblical exegesis. From the close of the apostolic period, each new generation has had to deal with questions and problems pertaining to the interpretation of scripture. This always will be the case and should be.  Faith never must be turned into an inheritance, but ever remain a personal conviction and understanding of truth through constant, diligent study. The complexity and perplexity of any given subject is reduced proportionately to the measure of study that is applied. Herein lies the solution for achieving unity within the perimeters of truth. There is substance to the saying, “when all else fails, read the instructions.” [2]

It was the promise of Jesus to those who believed, “If you continue in My Word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31, 32).  The invitation of the “gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16) was given so that those to accepted the message would “come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4).  Unfortunately, even during the first century, the apostle Paul identified some who were “ever learning and never able to come to the full knowledge of the truth” (II Tim. 3:7).  In order to “come to the knowledge of the truth,” there must be the desire and the willingness of heart to lay aside our previous concepts and ideas and approach the Bible with fresh eyes having the determination to accept whatever the Scriptures actually teach when seen within the context in which they were written.  Thomas B. Warren, in his book Logic and the Bible, discusses the importance of the “total context” in order to ascertain the meaning of Scripture:

In order to properly interpret the Bible, one must both recognize (understand) and honor (by using it correctly) the law of rationality, which says that one should draw only such conclusions as are warranted by the evidence.  This involves a careful gathering of the evidence which is relevant to a particular problem, recognizing that the evidence involves both the “immediate context” (what comes just before and just after the statement which is under consideration) and the “remote context” (whatever else the entire Bible has to say that is truly relevant to the problem under consideration.  Then, having determined the material which comprises both the “immediate context” and the “remote context,” one must recognize that composite as the “total context.”  Then, having determined the “total context” (recognizing that to be the total evidence), one must then correctly handle that evidence.  This means that, recognizing the law of rationality (and thus, drawing only such conclusions as are warranted by the evidence, one will use the laws of logic (the principles of valid reasoning) in order to ascertain when conclusions are warranted and when they are not warranted. [3]

Since “For God is not the author of confusion” (I Cor. 14:33), using the “law of rationality” in “drawing only such conclusions as are warranted by the evidence” is a valid principle that guides our understanding and acceptance of what God said through the agency of Divine Inspiration (II Tim. 3:16, 17).  The fresh eyes one now brings to the text leads to an intimate and accurate “knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4).  One writer observes:

Any method of interpretation is dangerous if it perverts the true meaning of scripture, and of course the ultimate test as to whether the true meaning of scripture has been ascertained, will be in the field of harmony and consistency.  Any principle of interpretation that fails to advance harmony of thought and purpose in every related field of study must be considered as false.  God’s eternal purpose is so constituted and unfolded in the scriptures, that the only right method of interpretation can be advanced entirely free of contradiction, inconsistency, or disharmony.  The right method will not only meet the demands of the immediate scripture or context, but also of every related scripture or context. [4]

OBSTACLES TO UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE

There are many obstacles to understanding the message and meaning of Scripture:

  • Vertical vs Horizontal — Failure to follow the Biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation with respect to the redemptive-historical elements of what God was doing with the people, time, place, and circumstances described in the immediate context.  Making ‘personal application’ of various Scriptures without due consideration as to whom the passage was written and the intended purpose at that particular time.  From the ‘horizontal’ (historical) the ‘vertical’ (personal application) is properly understood.
  • “Proof-Texting” — Taking a passage out of context in order to “prove” an argument is true.  This is a common mistake made by ‘cults’ used to convince a person of the validity of certain doctrines.  Even those who have a true and accurate understanding of the Scriptures are in danger of the misapplication of a passage to “prove” a point is valid.  The apostle Paul warned Timothy, “Study earnestly to present yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (II Tim. 2:15).  The Greek word “rightly dividing” (ορθοτομουντα) used by Paul meaning ‘cutting straight’ as understood in agriculture of plowing a straight furrow in the ground. [5].  
  • Deduction without Induction —  Inductive Bible Study requires that attention be given to the observation of what is happening in the text and asking Who?  What?  When?  Where?  Why? and How? before drawing conclusions as to the meaning and application of the text under consideration.  From the inductive evidence, certain deductions about that evidence can then be made with accuracy.
  • Topical Study vs. Exegetical Study — It is a natural tendency for one to want to better understand specific topics or subjects (faith, grace, salvation, redemption, resurrection, etc) and using a concordance to gather all of the verses where a particular word is found is quite common.  In fact, virtually every Systematic Theology written is divided topically.  However, the inherent danger is that of ignoring the immediate context in which a particular word is found and exactly how it is being used by the inspired writer at that particular time in redemptive history.  The exegetical study involves understanding the people, place, time, and circumstances of the passage under consideration, not simply finding a particular word in the verse to use with other verses where the word is found.
  • False Narrative Read INTO the Context —  While various applications of Scripture are possible, it is an unwise practice to ‘read into’ a passage a narrative foreign to or unintended by the inspired writer.  For example, while it is true the apostle Paul discusses the Sovereignty of God in Romans 9-11, it is not necessary nor exegetically accurate to read what the Reformers taught about the Sovereignty of God into that section of Scripture.
  • Objective TRUTH or Subjective Application — The is the inspired revelation of God’s objective truth.  How that revelation is then applied is the subjective application of that truth.  One must infer what God has implied.  Any and every application is through implication and inference since no person living today is specifically mentioned in the text.  There is nothing written in the Bible where the reference is personally addressed to someone living today by name.
  • Dangerous Speculation — There are statements found in the Scriptures that provide no information other than what is stated.  Here is what is stated about an encounter of Jesus:
    • There was a “man” (John 3:1) — His gender is stated.
    • He was “of the Pharisees” (John 3:1) — His religious affiliation is stated.
    • His name was “Nicodemus” (John 3:1) — His name is identified.
    • He was a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) — His status is stated.
    • He “came to Jesus” (John 3:2) — His desire is stated.
    • He came to Jesus “at night” (John 3:2) — The time of his visit is given.
    • Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? — NOT STATED.  People will spend hours in speculation with passages such as this in trying to provide reasons why Nicodemus visited with Jesus “at night’ and many of them are “good and possible.”   However, since the Bible is silent as to the reason Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night’ anything else said apart from the testimony of Scripture is simply speculation and must be avoided.  If it had been vital information, God would have revealed it in the Scriptures.

PRINCIPLES FOR UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE

There are many principles that help in our understanding of the Scriptures:

  • The genre of Language — The Bible contains a historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverbs, etc and it is important to carefully consider the style of language being used within a certain context as to whether or not it is to be understood literally or in a figurative sense.  The Bible uses various figures of speech and taking the time to study how these are used will prevent drawing the wrong conclusions, especially in the relationship between the natural and in what is spiritual in contrast with each other.  This is also true of whether or not the inspired writer is speaking on a corporate (community) level or to the individual separately.
  • Exegesis BEFORE Hermeneutics — It is essential that one do proper ‘exegesis’ of a passage before making the determination of the ‘meaning’ of the passage for the present application.  “A verse cannot mean what the verse never meant” [6] is an accurate principle that says any interpretation or application of a passage in the present time that is foreign to the meaning of the passage in its historical and redemptive context simply cannot be valid.
  • Audience Relevance — This corresponds with keeping the vertical application of a passage within the confines of the message and meaning of its redemptive-historical context.
  • Humble Attitude — Approaching the Bible with prayerful humility of heart and mind and the desire to allow God to speak to the innermost part of the being is essential to arriving at a proper understanding of the Bible.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this short article was not to provide either a detailed or comprehensive presentation of how to understand the Bible but to provide the means for personal reflection in order to ponder where we might be in our own personal journey.  Unfortunately, social media has served to widen the distance between some honest and sincere people whose desire to understand or to teach from the Scriptures is tarnished or sacrificed upon the altar of pride or feeling the need to somehow “prove” the level of intellectual insight over and above someone else whose viewpoint differs from our own.  In the quietness of our personal moments of prayer and Bible study may we allow God to reach deep within us and to change and transform our lives from the inside.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if any wicked way is in me; and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psa. 139:23, 24).

“And you shall seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

 

ENDNOTES

  1. Augustine, On Faith and the Creed 1 (NPNF-I 3:321).  Quoted by Jarsloav Pelikan in his book, Credo:  Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, (Yale University Press: 2003), 36.
  2. Max R. King, Old Testament Israel and New Testament Salvation (Parkman Road Church of Christ, Warren Ohio: 1990), 4-5.
  3. Thomas B. Warren, Logic and the Bible (National Christian Press, Jonesboro, Arkansas:  1982), v.
  4. Max R. King, The Spirit of Prophecy (Parkman Road Church of Christ, Warren, Ohio:  1971 edition), 27.
  5. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Christian Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, MI).
  6. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth p 26.

 

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