Pastor John Samson
Ask a High School student what they did at school that day and the usual response is “nothing.” “Nothing,” according to Jonathan Edwards “is what sleeping rocks dream about.” That’s quite a humorous statement, but have you ever tried to think about nothing? If you have you will know that its hard, if not impossible to think about nothing.
We could think about blackness but blackness is not nothing. We could think about emptiness but emptiness by definition is merely the absence of fullness and what is that exactly? The fact is, we are always thinking about something, even when we are trying to think of nothing. Our minds are not good at grasping the concept of nothing.
But lets think about our universe for a moment: If there ever was a time when there was nothing, all there could ever be now would be nothing.
Leave nothing for 10 minutes or 10 billion years and it will still be nothing. In Latin there is a phrase “ex nihilo nihil fit,” which means “out of nothing, nothing comes.” You can’t get something out of nothing. Nothing is no thing! It is not! Nothing is not a little something.
Yet something exists. That is undeniable.
If there ever was a time when all there was was physical matter, where did intelligence and personality come from? Could matter develop personality over time? Really? How is that in any way possible?
Nothing x No One = Everything
(That’s total nonsense!).
GOD + Nothing = Everything!
(Now that make perfect sense!)
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1
Pastor John Samson
I wonder if you can relate to any of this. One of the first things God the Holy Spirit did for me after I had come to faith in Christ was to give me a deep settled assurance of salvation. Romans 8:16 tells us that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” This inner witness brought me the sure knowledge that despite my many flaws and failures, I was in fact His – His for all eternity. As I read the Scriptures, the wonders of this great salvation become clear – God had saved me, I was His, and Christ did indeed love me and had given me eternal life. Heaven sent joy and peace flooded my soul. I knew I could say, “I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.”
But then, somewhere along the way this settled peace was disturbed. The wonders of His grace, wrought through Christ and His atoning work became obscured”¦ not because I read some book countering Christianity and was swayed by the arguments, but because I came across Scriptures that at least at first glance, seemed to show that my salvation was a lot more flimsy and shaky than I first imagined. Perhaps you can identify with this.
Here’s what I mean: I read Scriptures such as “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8: 39) but then read “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt 24:13)
I read, “”¦whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16) and then read “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” (1 Cor 15:1,2)
I thought, “which is it God? If someone believes, You say that they have eternal life, but here it says that someone can believe “in vain.” How could both statements be true?”
I read about how God started the work in us and would in fact complete it (Phil 1:6) and that “these whom He justified, He glorified” (Rom 8:30) showing me that none of His truly justified saints fall through the cracks, but all end up saved. I cannot for a moment imagine Jesus failing to fulfill the will of His Father, and in John 6:39 He makes clear what the Father’s will actually is: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
These Scriptures, and many others like them gave me great assurance that I was saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, but then I read other Scripture verses that would say things such as, “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14)
That was a verse that terrified me, plaguing my conscience continually. As holy as my life was compared to what it was before, (I now had a great love of the Scriptures and spent many hours each day studying them, even as a young teenager), I knew I never measured up to even my own standards, let alone God’s. If I prayed for 20 minutes, the thought came to me, “if you were a real Christian, you would have prayed longer.”
Where did that kind of thought come from?
I knew it was probably the enemy, but I had little with which to fight those thoughts. If I shared my faith with a friend, my conscience would point out to me that there was a guy walking down the street I could have stopped and witnessed to also. I could never do enough to assuage my conscience.
I heard sermons where the preacher talked about the difference between conviction of the Holy Spirit and condemnation (which comes from the devil) and although understanding this distinction certainly helped, my conscience still screamed that I was not as holy as I should be, and lurking at the back of my mind was the constant pounding of that haunting Scripture “without holiness, no one will see the Lord.”
The poisoned lies of the enemy were like fiery darts that assaulted my mind. The enemy can quote scripture (Matt 4:5). Looking back I can see that he was taking advantage of my lack of knowledge. Verses that were meant to add to me, to bless me, to inspire me and comfort me, became the source of great confusion and anguish of heart.
So what happened to change this ever deepening cycle of despair? My answer came by doing a lot of thinking. “Thinking?” you might say. That does not seem too spiritual.
Perhaps you thought I might say that I had some sort of “experience” – that I went to some conference and experienced a vision of glory – or maybe I was taken up into heaven and given the privilege of seeing my name written in the Lamb’s book of life before returning back to earth. Well that’s not what happened. What happened was, I thought!
I knew that contradiction was not the hallmark of truth but of falsehood. I knew that God was not a liar and that His word was true. That was a conviction that never left me during this whole process. But what I came to understand was that there was a way to reconcile all of these statements in Scripture and make sense of them all.
The remedy came by understanding a simple concept – something I had been taught in school in an English class – the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive.
“What? You are telling me that the enemy was put to flight through an English class. That doesn’t sound too spiritual to me either.” Well maybe so, but the truth became clear to me when I understand that there were two ways of looking at the second set of statements mentioned above. One way left me in great confusion, the other way brought everything into clarity.
The first set of Scriptures are very clear.. the one who believes has eternal life… whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved… and so on. The second set of Scriptures, which talk of the need to persevere, to continue in faith could be viewed as prescriptive (they tell us to do something) OR they could be viewed as descriptive (they describe actions being done). When seen as descriptive, all of them make sense.
Here’s what I mean. Lets take the Scripture “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). We could interpret this as saying “well, you never can have assurance of salvation unless you first endure to the end.. case closed.. no one can ever have assurance. That is one way to read the words and many in fact interpret the verse that way. However, that understanding would set itself in total opposition against the whole reason for an entire book of the Bible, namely First John.
John wrote “I have written these things to you that you might know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5:13) John (and of course God, who inspired the words) wrote to make his readers assured of their salvation.
So again which was it? Is it “no one can know” or “God wants us to know”? The fact that God wants us to know we are saved is a clear statement of Scripture. There was no other way to understand the words. So the way to reconcile both statements became clear. The verse on the need to endure to the end is descriptive rather than a prescriptive.
Yes. A true Christian NEEDS to endure. In fact, he MUST endure.. all the way to the end. But here’s the truth that helped me so much: Saving faith endures, demonstrating it to be supernatural in its origin. The true Christian WILL endure. Matthew is describing the character trait of the true saint, namely endurance. If you see someone endure to the end, it is the evidence of the fact that they are a truly saved individual. The one enduring is a saved person.
The Apostle John made it clear that those who do not continue in the faith were never truly genuine disciples. 1 John 2:19 reads, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Once again we see that the true Christian WILL endure – the enduring one is a saved person.
Oh how this helped me! I could then see that there is a false kind of faith that looks a lot like the real thing but is not genuine. Those who have this kind of “faith” will not last – they endure for a while, but when pressures of life and the cares of this world come, they fall away.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like one of Jesus’ parables? Yes, exactly – the parable of the sower (Matthew 13, Mark 4).
Those who have the word planted in the soil of the heart do endure. Endure they must and endure they will!
This understanding allows me to look at any of the Scriptures and believe them.
“But wait,” someone might say, “you haven’t yet endured to the end, so how can you be sure you will?”
Oh that comes back to the first thing I mentioned.. the settled peace that the Holy Spirit gave me when I first came to Christ. He gave me the assurance that I was His, and now asks me to examine myself to see if I am in the faith.. asking things like, “are you still enduring, even in troubled times?” The answer is “yes” – and the good news is that because He is the source of my faith (its not the product of my own fleshly carnal unregenerate nature) “¦ because it is He who started this work in me, I can be confident of this – He will complete the whole process.
“But what about holiness John – are you as holy as you should be?” Well I have to admit, God’s standards are perfect, and I come short of the mark each and every day I live.
“Well then John, that means you can have no assurance of salvation, right?”
No, not at all, because I do sense some holiness, I do see growth in sanctification, being set apart to God.. but my standing with God is based on being justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and the wonderful truth is that Christ Himself IS my sanctification – though the process has begun in me of making me more like Him and many times I still fail to honor the Lord as I should, progress is being made.. I do want to be holy, I do wish to live free from sin”¦ yet my standing in holiness is the very holiness of Christ. (1)
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and SANCTIFICATION and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:30, 31 – emphasis mine)
“Lord, make me more like You, help me to hate my sin more each day and love Your ways instead, and draw me closer to You, not to try and gain salvation by my works, but because I am a saved man, wanting, desiring, longing for more of You.”
The saved man endures, strives, presses and perseveres.. He must do so, and he will do so. Why? Because I am confident of this very thing – that the One who has begin the work in me He will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. None of His true sheep will be lost. Hallelujah, what a Shepherd. Hallelujah, what a Savior!”
(1) The root idea of creaturely holiness is not primarily behavior – rather it is being set apart to God’s ownership and His service. To be holy is to belong to God, to be uniquely set apart to Him.
God declares us (true Christians) as positionally holy by virtue of the person and work of Christ (Col 1:2).
Hebrews 10:10 says, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Then, having declared us positionally holy, God makes us personally holy. Hebrews 12:10 “” “For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
This aspect of holiness is a matter of progressively becoming in practice what we already are (positionally) in Christ.
Pastor John Samson
As Christians, we believe our Savior’s name is the Lord Jesus Christ. Its important to understand that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, but rather a title. The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word “Christos” which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. When we say, “Jesus Christ” we are literally saying, “Jesus the Christ” or “Jesus the Messiah.” But are these claims valid? Can we be sure that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah?
Through what we call Messianic Prophecies, God provided a sure and certain way to recognize His Messiah when He came. These are events written in the Bible, hundreds and even thousands of years before they would take place in time. Only God could reveal such amazing detail millennia in advance of the events.
God had declared that His Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham (Gen. 22:18), from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10), and a son of David (Jer. 23:5,6; 1 Chron. 17:10b-14). God had also said that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), in the surroundings of poverty (Isa. 11:1-2), in Bethlehem, the city of David (Micah 5:2). He would be proceeded by a herald (Isa. 40:3-5, Mal. 3:1), be seen riding on a donkey (Zech 9:9, 10) and would be present 483 years after the decree was made to rebuild Jerusalem, after the Babylonian captivity (Dan. 9:24-27). He would be a king (Gen 49:10; Isa. 9:6,7), a priest (Psalm 110:1-7) and a prophet (Deut. 18:15-19; Isa. 61:1, 2).
But there’s more. He would be legally tried and condemned to death and would suffer and die (Isa. 50;4-9; 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22), by means of piercing his hands and feet (Zech. 12:10; 13:7; Psalm 22), His death would be substitutionary (in the place of others), He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb and He would be resurrected from the dead (Isa. 52:13-53:12; Psalm 16:1-11; Psalm 22).
All in all, around 330 prophecies such as these were fulfilled by Jesus in His first coming, and many more will be fulfilled when He comes back to Earth to reign. He will be seen to be the ruler of the Gentile nations (Psalm 2:7-12), and of Israel (Psalm 110:1-7).
More than 30 prophecies were fulfilled in just one day – the day Jesus Christ died!
Ps. 41:9 – Mark 14:10 Betrayed by a friend
Zech 11:12 – Matt 26:15 Price: 30 pieces of silver
Zech 11:12 – Matt 27:3-7 Money used to buy a field
Zech 13:7 – Mark 14:50 Shepherd killed, Sheep flee
Isa 50:6 – Matt. 27:26-30 Spat on and mocked
Ps 69:19 – Matt 27:28-31 Shame and dishonor
Ps 35:11 – Mark 14:56 False witnesses
Ps 22:18 – Jn 19:24 Gambled for His clothes
Isa 53:7 – Matt 27:13, 14 He opened not His mouth
Ps 109:24 – Matt 27:32 Too weak to carry cross
Ps 69:3 – Jn 19:28 Jesus thirsty
Ps 69:21 – Jn 19:29 Given vinegar to drink
Ps 22:17 – Matt 27:36 They stare at Jesus on the cross
Ps 22:16 – Matt 27:35 They crucify Him
Ps 22:14 – Jn 19:34 Water flows out of wound
Ps 38:11 – Luke 23:49 Friends stand afar off
Ps 109:25 – Matt 27:39, 40 People wagged mocking heads
Ps 22:8 – Matt 27:43 Challenge for God to save Him
Isa 53:7 – Jn 1:29 Jesus the Lamb of God
Isa 53:12 – Luke 23:34 Jesus prays for His killers
Ps 22:1 – Matt 27:46 He cries out to God
Isa 52:14 – John 19:5, 14 A broken man, yet King
Isa 53:4, 5 – Matt 8:17; 1 Pet 2:24 He bears our sins and sicknesses
Ps 22:31 – Luke 23:4 Jesus declared faultless
Ps 31:5 – Luke 23:46 He gives up His spirit
Exo 12:46 – Jn 19:36 His bones not broken
Isa 53:12 – Luke 23:33 Numbered with the transgressors
Daniel 9:26 – Jn 11:50-52 Jesus died not for Himself
Gen 3:15 – Jn 19:18 Satan bruises Jesus’ heel on cross
Isa 53:9 – Matt 27:57-60 Laid in a rich man’s tomb
Amos 8:9 – Matt 27:45 Darkness at crucifixion
The evidence is overwhelming – Jesus is the long awaited Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. The vital question then is this: How do you stand in relationship to Him? Is Jesus Christ your personal Lord and Savior? If not, the time to make Him so is now.
Pastor John Samson
“till we all come to the unity of the faith..” Ephesians 4:13
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” – Augustine
Doctrine divides! It divides truth from error. It divides the true teacher from the false teacher; the spirit of truth from the spirit of error; and the true Christ from the Anti-Christ.
In the Church, Christians hold differing views about important, yet non-essential matters. Let me explain. There are doctrines in the Bible that while very important, are not essential to salvation. For instance, whether or not someone believes in the baptism of infants or whether or not God still heals today, I think are important issues; yet, what someone believes about these is not essential to someone being included or excluded from the kingdom of God. Someone is not a “false teacher” who takes a different position on these issues. The same is true for doctrines such as whether Christians today should tithe on their income as in Old Testament times, or whether someone is “pre-trib,” “mid-trib,” or “post-trib” in their belief about the end times, or for those who take different positions on the millennnium – “a”, “pre” or “post.” Sincere, godly, dedicated believers believe different things about these issues, but it does not mean that one person is saved and another damned because they have a different view.
As Christians, what unites us, vastly outweighs what might divide us. In the essentials, such as the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, etc., we need to be in agreement. As this quote, which historically has been attributed to Augustine states, “In essentials, unity.” We cannot compromise on these major issues of the Gospel. These are non-negotiables. In fact, to depart from these doctrines is to depart from the Christian faith itself.
Knowing the difference between the essentials and the non-essentials takes a great deal of maturity at times. Christians have been notorious for dividing over such minor issues, and the Body of Christ has been less effective because of it. Our track record is not at all good, in this regard. The boundary lines are drawn by the Gospel itself. We must be united in the Gospel for true Christian unity to exist. But where this does in fact exist, let us celebrate it, standing united for the cause of Christ.
Augustine went on to say, “in non-essentials, liberty.” Christians need to allow their brothers and sisters room to hold differing positions on some issues without breaking fellowship with them. This takes a great deal of maturity. Church history shows us that the Body of Christ as a whole has not been very good at this. We tend to disassociate ourselves from Christians who don’t have the exact same understanding of the spiritual gifts, the end times, Divine election, or even when a child is old enough to be baptized. These are important issues, of course. In fact, there is only one true biblical position on these issues – not everyone is right! There is a right answer and a wrong answer. In fact, there are many wrong answers. God is not confused on these issues, even if we are. We should note too that God doesn’t ever give us the right to believe false doctrine. If there are two people with differing positions on an issue, at least one of them is grieving the Lord in terms of what they believe. Yet the point is that both people can believe that, disagree on a certain issue with a fellow brother or sister and yet believe the best of the other – that if the other person could be convinced by sacred scripture concerning the truth of the matter, they believe the other one would change their beliefs immediately. But disagreement on these important but non-essential things should not divide us, if we are united in the Gospel.
This is not to minimize doctrine. In a local Church it is entirely right for eldership to state in categorical terms, just what it is that they believe scripture to be teaching. This is part of their function as elders. Yet, in doing so, we must all recognize our fellow brothers and sisters in the entire Body of Christ, and know that God embraces many who hold differing positions to us on some issues.
The scripture commands us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3) “until we all come to the unity of the faith.” (Eph. 4:13). For God to tell us to maintain something, it shows clearly that we already have possession of it. For instance, we cannot maintain a photocopier unless we first have the photocopier in our care. We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This we are to do “until we all come to the unity of the faith.”
Augustine’s quote ends by saying, “in all things, charity (or love).” Let love be chief amongst us, His people. May we unite for the sake of the Gospel, while God, the Holy Spirit continues to lead His people into all truth.
as a follow up to this, here are some scriptures to consider that show that some truths are more important than others – from an article by Dr. Phil Johnson:
Common sense makes it crystal-clear to most people that some truths in Scripture are of primary importance, and other truths are less vital.
For example, most people would agree that the deity of Christ is an essential doctrine of Christianity, but Sabbatarianism is not. (In other words, committed Christians might differ among themselves on the question of whether and how rigorously the Old Testament Sabbath restrictions should apply to Christians on the Lord’s day; but authentic Christians do not disagree on whether Jesus is God.) Again, common sense is sufficient for most people to recognize the validity of some distinction between primary and secondary truths.
Unfortunately, “common sense” is not as common as it used to be. (It’s one of the early fatalities of the postmodern era.) And with increasing frequency, I encounter people who challenge the distinction evangelicals have historically made between fundamental and secondary doctrines.
Some rather extreme fellows have begun a quasi-Christian cult located not far from where I live, and they actually teach that all truth is primary and every disagreement is worth fighting about and ultimately dividing over if agreement cannot be reached. Either agree with them on everything, or you are going to hell.
Others equally extreme argue, in effect, that “truth” isn’t primary at all; relationships are, and therefore no proposition or point of truth is ever worth arguing about with another professing Christian. The latter position is gaining adherents at a frightening pace.
Does the Bible recognize a valid distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines? How would you refute someone who insisted that all truth is of equal import? How do you answer those who claim no truth is worth arguing over? Could you make a biblical case for a hierarchy of truths, or for recognizing a distinction between core doctrines and peripheral ones? If so, how do you tell the difference? Do you have biblical guidelines for that? What if we disagree on whether a particular doctrine is essential or secondary? How is that question to be settled?
Those are questions which in my opinion have not been pondered seriously enough by contemporary evangelicals. You have to go back a couple of centuries to find writers who wrestled with such concerns in any depth. Volume 1 of Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology includes a section discussing this subject (starting on page 49). Herman Witsius also deals with it near the beginning of vol. 1 of his two-volume work titled The Apostles’ Creed.
It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture. But I think the distinction is still very clear. Here, briefly, are five biblical arguments in favor of making some kind of distinction between primary and secondary doctrines:
Jesus Himself suggested that some errors are gnats and some are camels (Matt. 23:24-25). And He stated that some matters of the law are “weightier” than others (v. 23). Think about it; such distinctions could not be made if every point of truth were essential.
Paul likewise speaks of truths that are “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3)””clearly indicating that there is a hierarchy of doctrinal significance.
Certain issues are plainly identified by Scripture as fundamental or essential doctrines. These include:
doctrines that Scripture makes essential to saving faith (e.g., justification by faith Rom. 4:4-5; knowledge of the true God Jn. 17:3; the bodily resurrection of Christ 1 Cor. 15:4; and several others).
doctrines that Scripture forbids us to deny under threat of condemnation (e.g., 1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10; 1 Cor. 16:22; 1 Jn. 4:2-3).
Since these doctrines are explicitly said to make a difference between heaven and hell while others (the “gnats” Jesus spoke of) are not assigned that level of importance, a distinction between fundamental and secondary truths is clearly implied.
Paul distinguished between the foundation and that which is built on the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11-13). The foundation is established in Christ, and “no other foundation” may be laid. Paul suggests, however, that the edifice itself will be built with some wood, hay, and stubble. Again, this seems to suggest that while there is no tolerance whatsoever for error in the foundation, some of the individual building-blocks, though important, are not of the same fundamental importance.
The principle Paul sets forth in Roman 14 also has serious implications for this question. There were some differences of opinion in the Roman church which Paul declined to make into hard-and-fast matters of truth vs. heresy. In Romans 14:5, he writes, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” That clearly allows a measure of tolerance for two differing opinions on what is undeniably a point of doctrine. As an apostle, Paul could simply have handed down a ruling that would have settled the controversy. In fact, elsewhere he did give clear instructions that speaks to the very doctrine under debate in Romans 14 (cf. Col. 2:16-17). Yet in writing to the Romans, he was more interested in teaching them the principle of tolerance for differing views on matters of less-then-fundamental importance. Surely this is something we should weigh very heavily before we make any point of truth a matter over which we break fellowship.
Pastor John Samson
Does your Bible Study offend God?
Did I get your attention?
What!!? God can be offended when we study the Bible?
Yes, if we’re talking about the average Bible Study that takes place today. Let me explain:
Jesus, in the preamble to quoting a verse from the Old Testament said, “…have you not read what was spoken to you by God…” (Matt. 22:31). The testimony of Jesus and of the Bible is that “All Scripture is God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, when we open up a page in our Bibles, we are treading upon holy ground. The Bible, although a book, is also unlike any other book. It is not simply a book giving facts about God. The Bible is a book written by God. Certainly, human writers were involved, but the text of Scripture is inspired or breathed out by God Himself.
Just having this concept in place would greatly help us in our Bible studies. What do I mean by that? Well, many people view the interpretation of God’s Word as “no big deal” really. To them its nothing more important than the reading of any other book, at least in their methodology.
The Jews would wash their hands before touching the sacred scrolls, because these scrolls were seen as Divinely inspired. Though we do not need to become superstitious about the physical book called the Bible, so as to wash our hands before picking up or opening the book, the text of the Scripture is the very word of God Himself. We should approach the Word of God humbly, and with the utmost reverence and respect.
And that leads us to talk about how we interpret the Bible. When we recognize that we are handling the very truth of God, we should not be quick to come to conclusions about what it means. What do I mean by that?
Well, if the Bible is God’s holy word, we should seek to gain the correct interpretation of what it means before we attempt to speak for God.
I can’t think of a more holy assignment that to be called to preach or teach the Word of God to the souls of men. Therefore, before someone stands in a pulpit to preach or teach the Word of God, he needs to make sure he has interpreted the text correctly. The preacher’s job is not to merely entertain the crowd or to tell a few stories that will connect with people. Don’t misunderstand me, God gives no prizes to boring preachers who can’t connect with people! But we must always remember that the goal of preaching is the honor and glory of God in accurately proclaiming the word of truth. It is a serious and holy thing to be responsible to proclaim God’s truth and it should never be done lightly, whether heard by thousands, or simply by one precious human soul.
But what is true for the preacher is also true for all of us as Christians. When we sit down and start reading the Bible for ourselves we need to remember that though there may be a thousand applications of Scripture, there is only one correct interpretation – the one the Holy Spirit meant when He inspired the sacred words of the Bible. We should be prepared to do some serious study to seek to understand what the Holy Spirit was and is communicating to us.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. James White when he writes, “Remember when you were in school and you had to take a test on a book you were assigned to read? You studied and invested time in learning the background of the author, the context in which he lived and wrote, his purposes in writing, his audience, and the specifics of the text. You did not simply come to class, pop open the book, read a few sentences, and say, ‘Well, I feel the author here means this.’ Yet, for some odd reason, this attitude is prevalent in Christian circles. Whether that feeling results in an interpretation that has anything at all to do with what the original author intended to convey is really not considered an important aspect. Everyone, seemingly, has the right to express their ‘feelings’ about what they ‘think’ the Bible is saying, as if those thoughts actually reflect what God inspired in His Word. While we would never let anyone get away with treating our writings like this, we seem to think God is not bothered, and what is worse, that our conclusions are somehow authoritative in their representation of His Word.”
To some people it would seem to be “un-spiritual” to invest time in studying the historical backgrounds, the context of a text or passage in Scripture, or the original language… no, many today want to “feel” something about a passage… or better still, just want the Holy Spirit to whisper His interpretation in their ears supernaturally. This tends to become highly subjective… and the hard labor of study of the Scriptures is thrown out of the window. Every impression, vision, prophecy, needs to be subject to Scripture, and we are not permitted to subject the Word of God to our impressions or feelings about it.
Its fine to play marbles with marbles, but not with diamonds. Handling the word of God is a priceless duty and delight, not a trivial passion or pursuit.
We would never consider someone qualified to practice as a medical physician after reading just one paper containing a dozen rules on being a good doctor. Though knowing these rules would be helpful, I’m sure we would agree that there’s far more that is needed. Certainly, before a medical board would certify a person as competent to practice medicine they would need to know far more than a few rules for good health. In the same way, there’s so much more that could and should be said about how to study the Bible. Yet, with this qualifier, here are a some simple rules of interpretation (hermeneutics) which should at least get us started. May God use these brief words to encourage you as you search out the truths of God’s word, for His glory:
1. Consider the Author – who wrote the book? (what was his background, language, culture, vocation, concerns, education, circumstance, what stage of life?)
2. Consider the Audience (why was the book written? who was the audience? what would these words have meant to its original recipients?)
3. The Meaning of Words (this has become a lot easier in our day with all the information and technology at our disposal. The computer program Bibleworks 8 is especially recommended).
4. Historical Setting (avoid anachronism – trying to understand the past while viewing it wearing 21st century glasses – will not help toward understanding the original meaning of the author).
5. Grammar – (how things are being expressed – imperative is a command, a subjunctive would be “would you like to do this?” – two quite different meanings result)
6. Textual Issues – (are there any questions about the earliest or most authoritative manuscripts in comparison with others of a later date – and how does this influence our understanding of what was originally written)
7. Syntax – this refers to words and their relationship with one another. For example, Romans 5:1 says “Having been justified (a past tense action) by faith, we have peace with God.” It would be incorrect to think that we have to gain peace with God before justification takes place. The syntax is clear that it is a result of first being justified that peace ensues. Correct syntax is a vital component of sound interpretation.
8. Form of Literature (we should interpret the Bible literally, but that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that parables are parables, and that to interpret them correctly, we interpret them as literal parables! Historical narrative is historical narrative, nouns are nouns, verbs are verbs, analogies are analogies)
9. Immediate Context (a text out of context becomes a pretext. It can be made to say something not intended by the author). Always check the immediate context of a verse or passage to determine the correct interpretation.
10. Document Context (in Romans, there is a certain argument Paul is pursuing, and this helps us to determine what is meant in isolated verses when we know the purpose for what is being written. Always keep the author’s broad purpose in mind when looking in detail at the meaning of texts). This, like the others, is a very helpful rule.
11. Author’s Context (this refers to looking at all of a person’s writings – John’s writings, Paul’s writings, Luke’s writings, etc.).
12. Biblical Context (the broadest context possible, the entire Bible; allowing us to ask if our interpretation is consistent with the whole of Scripture. Scripture is never contradictory to itself.
13. Understand the difference between prescriptive and descriptive statements in the Bible. Is the verse telling us to do something, or does it describe an action someone does?
Matthew 24:13 “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”
Question: Is this verse prescriptive or descriptive?
If prescriptive, (if it telling us something to do) then no one can be sure of their salvation, for the simple reason that no one presently reading or hearing the statement has, as yet, endured until the very end. If prescriptive, it would negate the wonderful assurance of salvation that the Holy Spirit wishes us to know (1 John 5:13).
Certainly, this is a descriptive statement – as it describes the actions of a truly saved person – such a one will endure, for the nature of the kind of faith God gives to His people is one that endures to the end. A saved person is one who endures to the end – a principle made clear in other passages such as 1 John 2:19 – “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”
14. Build all doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences. A necessary inference is something that is definitely taught by the text. The conclusion is unavoidable. It is necessary. A possible inference is something that could or might be true, but not something actually stated by the text.
This is often a lot harder than it might first appear because it means we have to take a step back and analyze exactly why we think a verse teaches something. In other words, it means testing our traditions and doing a lot of thinking. Yet this is something we should do constantly. Paul exhorted Timothy to “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (2 Tim. 2:7)
All of us should be prepared to hold up our preconceived notions to the light of Scripture to see if these assumptions are valid or not. The result of this process often involves the killing of some sacred cows, but that’s a good thing, if what we have held to be true cannot actually be supported by the biblical text. We all have our blind spots and traditions but we are not always aware of them. Therefore, the serious Bible student asks questions of himself and of the text constantly in order to determine what the sacred text actually says and then he builds his thinking on that.
Here’s one text as an example: John 20:19 says, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Many people read this text and conclude that Jesus walked through the locked door in order to present Himself to His disciples. But does the text actually say that? No, it does not. The text might be teaching that. It is certainly a possible inference drawn from the text, but by no means a necessary one. There are other possible explanations.
Concerning this verse the ESV Study Bible says, “Some interpreters understand the doors being locked to imply that Jesus miraculously passed through the door or the walls of the room, though the text does not explicitly say this. Since Jesus clearly had a real physical body with flesh and bones after he rose from the dead”¦ one possibility is that the door was miraculously opened so that the physical body of Jesus could enter, which is consistent with the passage about Peter going through a locked door some time later (see Acts 12:10).”
To state the principle again: we should build all doctrine on necessary rather than possible inferences. All else is speculation.
15. Interpret the unclear passages in Scripture in light of the clear. Though all Scripture is God breathed, every passage is not equally clear (easy to understand). Even the Apostle Peter struggled with Paul’s writings at times, as he found some of it “hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16)
When determining what the Bible teaches on a particular topic, find the passages which CLEARLY address the issue at hand and make this the starting point of your doctrine, rather than an obscure (or less than clear) passage. Once that which is clear is firmly grasped and understood, then proceed to study the passages which at first seem to be unclear, using the above rules.
16. Think for yourself but not by yourself. We are not at all wise when we isolate ourselves. God has gifted others with tremendous insights, not only in our own day, but throughout the history of the Church. These teachers are Christ’s gifts to His people (Ephesians 4:8-12). Use their help.
Here are four helpful quotes in this regard:
“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.” – Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?”
“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” – C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries
“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” – J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today
“Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.” – R. C. Sproul
“Exegesis (correct interpretation) involves much more than the bare analysis of words. It involves context, train of thought, historical considerations, situational considerations, cultural considerations, etc. The analysis of words is merely the starting point.” Eric Svendsen