Human beings have devised what I’d like to call ‘carnal methods’ of trying to interpret and clarify scriptural texts, and among all those methods; I always like to recommend the method of interpreting the bible in the context.
How do you interpret the Bible in context?
Interpreting the Bible in the context means that you must read the whole passage or portion of the bible that contains the whole story of a particular verse you spotted out.
This simply means that if you pick out any chapter or verse from the book of Romans; you must ensure to read the whole 16 chapters or the whole verses of the main chapter you picked out.
And after doing so, you will understand the mind of the writer; and how he arrived at whatever point you want to study.
For example, when anyone misquotes Romans 3:10 to tell you that no one on earth is righteous.
And you realize that the bible says in 1 John 3: 7; that we should not allow people to deceive us because anyone who practices righteousness is righteous just as Jesus is righteous.
All you have to do is go back and read through the whole of Romans chapters 1 to 16.
Or the whole of the main Romans chapter 3; and when you get to verses 9 and read through to 20, where the context of the point we see above is found.
It is then that you will discover that the writer was making reference to those who do not worship God but practice evil.
Limitations to interpreting the bible in the context.
You will find the limitations in interpreting the bible in the context of the following facts:
- Passages continue or are concluded in another passage.
- The use of parables.
- The use of symbolism.
- Synoptic gospels.
1. Passages continue or are concluded in another passage.
First and foremost, the bible has countless passages that stop halfway to continue in another or another passage. And so many times these passages bridge the gap between books or authors.
For instance, Romans 10:17 written by Paul states that “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God”. And it goes on to conclude in James 1:22 written by James, the Lord’s brother. “but be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves”.
Thus, if the reader of the scripture does not discover the latter passage and link it up with the first; he will never understand that if he only stops at hearing the word but fails to put it into practice; he is just deceiving himself.
When I saw this portion in the book of Jeremiah, where Jeremiah asked God why the wicked and dishonest people; who pretend to be God’s followers seem to prosper.
(Righteous are you, O LORD, when I plead with you; yet let me talk with you about your judgments.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?
You have planted them, yes, they have taken root; they grow, yes, they bear fruit.
You are near in their mouth but far from their mind).
I was so eager to know the answer that God gave to Jeremiah.
So I got down to read Jeremiah in its entirety; but was disappointed when I found nowhere that God provided Jeremiah with the answer to the above question.
But a few days later the Spirit led me to Micah 6:10-16; where I discovered that those people who prospered and pretended like God’s followers are nothing but the wicked who cheat; use violence and lie, to get their wealth.
So we can see how God failed to provide the prophet Jeremiah an answer to his question but rather did so to another prophet Micah.
2. The use of parables.
Secondly, the scriptures contain parables which the dictionary defines as: “a short narrative illustrating a lesson (usually religious/moral) by comparison or analogy”.
While Jesus Himself shows us that the reason He applies parables to His teachings is so that; those who seek to study the scriptures without accepting to become His disciples; might not be able to understand it as Jesus revealed in Luke 8:9-10.
In Mathew’s account, (Mathew 13:13-15), Jesus reveals to us that the prophecy about speaking in parables was long spoken of by God; through the mouth of His prophet, Isaiah.
Please note that the reason these people; (referring to both the traditional Jews who rejected Christ and the modern-day unbelievers, who do not accept Him, could not see was and is because they refused to repent of their sins and become Christ’s followers or disciples.
(Jesus parabolically refers to this as “lest they should understand with their heart and turn”). In order to receive their salvation (which Jesus again parabolically refers to as “so that I should heal them.”).
Thus, parables require allegorical approaches to their interpretation, which of course is impossible to do carnally.
A perfect example is in Mathew 13:1-9, where Jesus relates the parable of the sower. And in verses 18-23, He allegorically interpreted it.
For us to know that Jesus Himself has also given the power to His followers to interpret parables.
Let us in our second example examine the parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus Himself as found in Luke 10:30-35:
Let us move on to examine an allegorical interpretation of this parable as given by Augustine of Hippo.
Allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower by St Augustine.
Augustine said the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho refers to Adam.
Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace from whose blessedness Adam fell.
Jericho means the moon and stands for human mortality, for the moon is born, waxes, wanes, and dies.
The thieves who attacked Adam are the devil and his angels. They stripped him of his immortality and beat him by persuading him to sin. They left him half dead.
The priest and Levite who passed the man are the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament; which cannot bring salvation.
The term Samaritan is taken to mean Guardian; thus it refers to Jesus Himself. The binding of the wound is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope, and wine is the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast on which the man was placed signifies the flesh in which Christ appeared among men. Being set on the beast means belief in the incarnation of Christ.
The inn to which the man is taken is the church; where persons are refreshed on their pilgrimage of return to the heavenly city.
The two pieces of money that the Samaritan gave to the innkeeper are the promise of this life and the life to come; or else the two main sacraments.
The innkeeper is the apostle Paul.
3. The use of symbolism.
Thirdly, the actions or stories surrounding Jesus in the bible were always symbolic and therefore requires one to interpret them.
For instance, when you read the story of Zacchaeus as found in Luke 19:1-8, you will agree on the interpretation below with me.
Allegorical interpretation of the story of Zacchaeus.
Jericho here means the earth, the abode of mankind while Zacchaeus is the mankind.
The crowd signifies the abundance in life i.e. riches and pleasures; and other worldly activities which goes against the will of God.
Zacchaeus short stature signifies the love for these earthly things or generally a sinful lifestyle; which obstructs the human being from being able to see Christ.
And not being able to see Christ means the restraint to salvation.
The sycamore tree signifies the wooden cross that Christ died to redeem mankind, and in running to climb it Zacchaeus showed the zest or the yearning for salvation.
Christ going to pass that way signifies the gospel message which is being preached everywhere to bring mankind to salvation.
Zacchaeus willingness to see Jesus means to believe the gospel message; and because of that willingness Jesus saw him and called on him to come down because He was going to stay in his house that day.
The interpretation of Jesus going to stay in Zachaeus house can be found in this bible passage: (Jesus answered and said to Him, “if anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make Our home with him. John 14:23).
The people who murmured signify the self-righteous Christians who will down look and gossip about a well-known sinner whom they have seen converted.
Zacchaeus decision to give back what he got dishonestly signifies the born again Christian’s decision to give up his sinful lifestyle because he knows that (“for if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17).
That was why Jesus concluded in verses 9 and 10 of that story:
(And Jesus said to him, “today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.)
The cursing of the fig tree.
Another example of this illustration is the story about the cursing of the fig tree; which is found in Mark 11:12-14.
It is sad that so many people have alluded to this story about the humanity of Jesus evidenced in the hunger that moved Him to place a curse on a tree whose season of bearing fruit had not even come.
Let us outline that passage first before we go on to uncover its analogy.
Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And His disciples heard it.(Mark 11:12-14)
Interpretation of the cursing of the fig tree.
Jesus hunger symbolizes His desire for mankind’s salvation which will move him to do good works.
The fig tree is mankind and its leaves the tendency of mankind to do those good works.
The fruits or figs are the results of those good works that mankind must do. The season here means the set time for man to do good work.
Now the message Jesus was trying to pass across to us here is that; mankind must not be like the fig tree that waits for a particular season before it bears fruit.
That is to say, he must not have a set time or place or people he does well too. For when He (Jesus) comes and finds any mankind not doing good works He would curse him to wither just like He did to the fig tree.
Jesus parable of the fig tree summarizes this point better for us.
He also spoke this parable: “a certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. “Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” “but he answered and said o him, ‘sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. ‘and if it bears fruit, well, but if not, ‘after that, you can cut it down”.
4. Synoptic gospels.
Fourthly, if you study the first three gospels in the New Testament i.e. Mathew, Mark, and Luke, you will discover that they tend to tell the same stories but with differences and similarities.
However, these differences and similarities, as the Spirit reveals; are there because God wanted them to be so. So that people will not depend on one of the gospels and neglect the others.
And secondly, He uses it to test people who truly study the scriptures in the Spirit.
But in religious scholarship, we call these differences and similarities ‘synoptic problems.’
And many hypotheses have been propounded in their trying to solve them.
And one of the scholar’s discoveries is that the writers of these gospels; even though they were at times borrowing their stories from the same sources.
(For instance the Q-Source – refers to the common source used by Mathew and Luke but is now lost.
They had to substitute or add certain things to suit the customs of the people they were writing to.
Therefore, for one to understand and interpret these three gospels in the bible, one must ensure that he compares any particular story he picks from one of them with the remaining two; to see how things were either substituted or added.
Comparing Mathew 11:12 and Luke 16:16.
For instance, we see in Mathew 11:12: (“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.)
If you literally apply the word violence and force to the above passage; you will see the means of taking God’s kingdom as an action intended to cause destruction, pain or suffering, or widespread violence.
And also figuratively imagine God’s kingdom to be full of injustice and wrong.
But when you study Luke 16:16 to examine Luke’s account of the same story: (“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.)
You will come to the understanding that this violence or force is not literal; but rather the urge for one to rise up and free willingly believe the gospel.
Since no one will be forced to either obey the teachings of Christ; or be punished for disobeying them, as was done in the days of the law and the prophets.
Comparing Mathew 6: 19-20 and Luke 12:33.
In our second example, some preacher might want to make merchandise of you by misinterpreting this passage from Mathew’s account; to tell you that the heaven you are told to lay up your treasures is the church.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.(Mathew 6:19-20)
But if you have the knowledge of Luke’s account; you will get to understand that the means of laying up your treasures in heaven is by giving to the poor and needy:
“Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys.(Luke 12:33)
5. Hidden messages in literal contents.
The fifth point is that the hidden messages in the scriptures are buried in their literal contents which is often represented by objects and symbols.
And with this point, you will understand that if God wants any inspired writer to set an example with any object or symbol; it will of course lead him to do so with what is in his own culture or any other culture he has foreknowledge of.
What He expects the readers to do when they come in contact with such texts is to substitute the object or symbol used; with what corresponds to that of their own culture or the culture they know in order to accurately understand the text.
But this particular point poses a lot of problems to biblical scholarship; because they maintain that biblical stories or historical facts in the bible are true but not exact.
For example, they claim that Adam, which is the Hebrew word for man; generally refers to mankind and not a literal first human created by God as we see in the book of Genesis.
Thus biblical scholars are teaching themselves to ignore the literal side of biblical stories.
But rather look for the moral lessons we can derive from them.
For instance, in the book of Genesis, teach us to believe that the world and human beings were created by God. But the events did not happen exactly as recorded.
Let me hereby pause to give you a more perfect example of what I’m trying to say; by outlining what scholars propose about the flood story found in Genesis.
The flood story (In Genesis and Babylonian history)
“The tradition of a great, world-destroying flood has been handed down in at least 10 separate Babylonian sources.
The most complete and best known of this is in the Gilgamesh Epic; which is basically the same as that of Genesis, having these points of close contact:
- A divine decision to send a flood.
- A revelation of a coming flood is divinely made.
- One man and his family are the survivors of the flood. (Noah/Utnapishtion)
- A ship of refuge is constructed according to divine specifications (450x75x45) ft.
- Animals as well as men are taken aboard.
- The end of the flood was determined by the flight of birds.
- The ship of refuge comes to rest on the mountain. (MT Ararat/MT Nisir)
- A pleasing sacrifice concludes the story.
At the same time, there are so many variations in details that no one today would argue for a direct dependency of Genesis on any of the Babylonian flood stories.
Rather, it would seem that both the Genesis flood and the Babylonian flood stories; go back to some common Mesopotamian tradition.
Therefore, there was an ancient cataclysm that gave rise to these stories. What the dimensions of that cataclysm were and when it actually occurred is not easy to say.”
Were biblical writers inspired by God?
So therefore, we can deduce from the story above that what scholars are trying to pass across to us is that biblical writer were not inspired by God as the scripture tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
But rather they borrowed stories from or amended stories that already existed in other religions and or cultures.
But even if this story already existed in those places, can’t we be wiser to understand that God might have also chosen to reveal these things to those people before He did so to our biblical writers?
Because no one can swear to the loss of his life that it is only our biblical writers that God chose to inspire. That there weren’t other people from other religions and cultures that had a good standing with God to the point of also being inspired by Him to uncover certain stories and sources about His creation and creatures?
It is rather unfortunate that our religious scholars go on to claim that though our biblical writers were inspired by God, they also had to look into other cultures as well and formulated ideas to make the biblical stories interesting.
For instance, they say the author of Genesis used the serpent to vent his contempt in the misleading of our first parents to disobey God because; ‘serpent worship’ was common among the Canaanites and other Gentile peoples and as such was seen as a taboo among the Hebrews.
But if the culture of the Genesis author saw the serpent as an evil creature; can’t we respectively use any creature seen as evil in our own culture and substitute for the serpent in order to understand that story better?
Variations in biblical stories.
However, scholars are not wrong about the fact that most of the biblical stories are not exact since as we already know God has given us the power of imagination which we can use to foresee the reality ahead.
For instance, when the scripture tells us that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness (Mathew 4:8).
A wise person will understand that the devil was causing all this to happen in Jesus imagination; same as he always makes our so-called ambitious young men and women imagine living in skyscrapers and driving around in flashy cars, which will then push them into all manner of sin; rob, lie and cheat, deal and kill, in order to make those things they imagine come to reality.
Secondly, Jesus Himself used parables just as the ancient prophets also did. For example, it was a parable that Nathan used to make David realize his sin of killing Uriah to take his wife. (2 Samuel 12:1-14).
But isn’t it possible that God is able to make the stories told in parables become a reality in his own world?
Is God not capable of destroying the world with flood, fire, or whatever catastrophe he chooses?
Haven’t we already seen cataclysms – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc?
This goes to prove that God is able to do anything in His world.
Are we as Christians not waiting in hope for the final destruction of this present earth?
Which the scripture shows us will melt with fervent heat in order to usher in a whole new earth ( perfect and free from all agents of cataclysms, even our ancient old enemy “death”) which will come down from God?
If we are truly Christians who have the right answers to all the questions above; why then should we disbelieve or rather hold any other conviction about whatever the scripture tells us that it happened?
Therefore, what scholars should tell us is that all biblical stories are true; but then we should not depend only on the literal messages but rather look for the spiritual and moral messages behind those stories.
For as food cannot reach the stomach if it doesn’t see the mouth of the human being; one cannot understand the spiritual message if he doesn’t understand the literal message of the scriptures.