by Jacob Ninan
God is so infinite in His being and ways that we finite created people cannot know or understand Him unless He reveals Himself to us. God has revealed Himself to us in many ways. The vastness, the design, the beauty and the harmony of His creation show us His greatness, intelligence, knowledge and power. His dealings with people reveal His character. He reveals Himself through visions, dreams, angels, prophets, etc. He has revealed Himself the maximum through His Son Jesus Christ coming as a Man on this Earth (Hebrews 1:1,2; John 17:6). God has also revealed Himself through the written form of the Bible, which now serves as the reliable source of truth with which to check all other forms of revelation.
What is special about the Bible?
Its unity. The 66 books of the Bible were written by more than 40 different authors with different backgrounds in different places and in different circumstances over a period of 1600 years (1500 BC to 100 AD) in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) covering different subjects. Yet there is a coherence among these books with respect to the theology, values, principles, history, etc.
Its single thread. A common thread relating to man’s sin and God’s plan of redemption runs through all the books.
Its depiction of God. Different books of the Bible give descriptions of God’s being and character that add up to a unique and grand picture.
Its survival. The Bible has been attacked by a greater number of people than any other book trying to disprove its credentials and also to destroy it from existing. But it has survived.
The worldwide bestseller. This book has been read by more number of people than any other book.
Its power to change lives. Written more than 2000-3000 years ago, the Bible speaks to people’s hearts and changes their lives even now. Hardened criminals have been converted overnight after reading portions of Scripture.
Its claim to be inspired by God. Many religious books teach many doctrines and give instructions. But the Bible claims to have been inspired directly by God.
Fulfilment of its prophecies. Many prophecies in the Old Testament regarding the birth, life and death of Jesus have been fulfilled accurately hundreds of years later, as also many others in the old and new testaments related to events.
Its focus on sin and holiness. Many religious books give a mixture of stories and ideas. But the Bible brings out God’s holiness and man’s need to be saved from sin.
Its validation through archaeological findings. Investigation by secular archaeologists have confirmed the facts given in the Bible regarding location and names of places, important historical events, etc.
a. Inspiration of the Bible
The Bible claims that it has been inspired by God. Paul wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2Tim. 3:16). The word ‘inspired’ is translated from the Greek word ‘theopneustos’ which means ‘God-breathed.’ Peter wrote, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20,21). The Greek word used for ‘moved by’ is ‘pheromenoi’ which means ‘borne along.’ Therefore inspiration by God means that the authors of the books of the Bible wrote them as God breathed into them and carried them along.
Theologians refer to this inspiration as ‘plenary’ (meaning that each and every part of the Bible was inspired by God) and ‘verbal’ (meaning that every word in the Bible has been chosen by God). At the same time we can see that God did not dictate words to the authors but allowed each one to write in his own style.
When Jesus referred to the Scriptures, He was referring to the Old Testament because the New Testament had not been written yet. The way He quoted extensively and verbally from the Old Testament as God’s word shows how He viewed the inspiration of the Scripture. He quoted Scripture to overcome His temptations in the wilderness. In one place He used the tense of the phrase “I am” in the sentence “I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB” to prove that God is a God of the living and not of the dead (Matthew 22:32).
When the New Testament was being written by the apostles, it was recognised that their writings also formed part of the Scripture. Peter referred to the writings of Paul in this way (2 Pet. 3:15,16). Now we also know from the experience of believers throughout the centuries that the words of the Old Testament and the New Testament are “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
We must remember that this process of inspiration essentially took place when the authors wrote the original books. Subsequently, before printing was invented, the text was transmitted down the generations through a process of copying which has caused some discrepancies. However these are few and very minor in nature and not of significance in terms of important truths. We do not assume inspiration for translations from the original language, and we have to be careful in choosing the right version if we want accuracy of text. But since we also have access to several very old manuscripts, possibilities of error have been very greatly minimised.
When we say that the entire Bible is inspired by God it does not mean that everything that is written there is from God. The difference between inspiration and revelation is that revelation refers to the truths God has chosen to reveal to people, and inspiration only refers to the process of telling the authors what to write down. It means that all that is written down through inspiration is not revelation. The Bible reports many things that wicked people have said and done. It also contains many fears and questions expressed by godly men. But inspiration in this context means that God inspired the authors to write down those things as a matter of historic importance. The fact that the Bible gives an honest report of the weaknesses and failures of its heroes goes to further prove its authenticity.
Failure to accept the inspiration of the Bible denies us the certainty regarding the truths given there. This robs us of all the wisdom, comfort, guidance and instruction that we would need for our life. If we think that the Bible is not fully inspired it places us on the slippery path of trying to figure out which part is inspired.
The final proof of the pudding is in the eating. The fact is that those who believe in the inspiration of the Bible and follow it experience great and miraculous things in their lives which the unbelieving do not find.
b. Reliability of the Bible
The factors given in the earlier section on the special features of the Bible establish the uniqueness of the Book as well as its reliability. But the greatest proof of the reliability of the words of the Bible is seen in the experience of millions of believers who have experienced those words as life-giving and life-changing. All these people testify to the fact that the words of the Bible are ‘living’ and place them in touch with the Living God Himself.
The Old Testament. The oldest complete text of the Hebrew Old Testament is called the Massoretic Text dated around 900 AD. These were prepared by a group of Jews called the Massoretes who were very meticulous in copying Scripture. For example, after copying a book, they would count the number of letters in the book and check if the letter in the exact middle of the book was the same as in the original. Otherwise they would copy it again. Comparison of this text with the earlier Latin and Greek version have shown very little variation in meaning. In 1947 some scrolls from 100 BC were found in clay jars in caves near the Dead Sea. A complete copy of Isaiah was found among them which was seen to be an almost exact copy of the Massoteric Text with deviations mostly involving spelling mistakes and missing letters. A comparison of the Septuagint (also called LXX) which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament also confirms the accuracy of the copying of the Massoteric Text. We can therefore reasonably assume that the text of the Old Testament we have now is practically the same as the original one.
The New Testament. There are more than 4,000 different ancient Greek manuscripts containing all or portions of the New Testament that have survived to our time. The oldest of them contained portions of John’s gospel from 130 AD. Apart from these there are more than 8000 copies of the Latin Vulgate (a translation) and a 1000 copies in other languages dating to 300-400 AD. There are thousands of quotations from the New Testament in the writings of the early church fathers dated 100-450 AD. With these sources we can assume that the text of the New Testament which we have now is almost exactly the same as the original one.
The word of God is essentially a spiritual channel of communication between God and man. They are words that were inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to convey spiritual truths. In order to understand them accurately, we need to go beyond intellectual understanding of the meaning of the written words. While we certainly need to use our head while reading and meditating on the word of God, we must remember that in order to connect with the heart of God our own spirit must be alive and alert to the voice of the Spirit.
There are a few common mistakes we need to avoid when we try to interpret the Bible.
1. Taking the text as a legal document. Even though the Law of the Old Testament was related mainly to external behaviour and was, in that sense, simple, it still proved to be inadequate even with the clarifications provided by Moses and the others. The reason was that instead of understanding the spirit of the law, people looked only at the literal meaning. Jesus pointed this out to those who questioned Him on the basis of literal interpretations of the text (Mk.12:24). The spirit knows no boundaries, and once we understand the principles behind the law we can interpret it correctly in different situations. But the literal text has finite limitations, especially concerning its scope of meaning.
When we come to the New Testament, we find that it is the principles that are stressed and not so much the details. The Bible itself does not make any claim to containing every detail that people need to know concerning life. It says that God has given to us everything that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet.1:3). This everything includes the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the fellowship of other Christians, and many other things.
It is foolish for us to look only at the written text of the Bible, as though it were a legal document, without seeking to understand what God is saying to us through it. It is much better to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal His truths as we read the Bible, and then apply them to our lives. In other words, if we simply go to the Bible and examine it as we would refer to a book of law, it would be possible to misunderstand or miss to understand God’s heart. An extreme case of wrong application of the text in a legal sense is when people conveniently make use of the silence of the Scriptures (that is, the fact that the Scriptures do not mention certain subjects specifically) to say that therefore such and such things are allowed or they are prohibited!
2. Taking the text as a scientific document. When a book on chemistry says that a water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, we can interpret that if a molecule has two atoms of oxygen or one atom of hydrogen in it, it cannot be water. In mathematics, if A + B = C, we can also say that A = C - B. Science is precise! But the words of Scripture cannot be interpreted this way. The reasons are several.
Spiritual words do not have precise meanings. For example, we cannot define the meaning of humility precisely, so that we can know definitely when we are humble and when we are not. Secondly, connections between different aspects of the spiritual life, such as grace and humility, have many dimensions to them which are not all mentioned together in every place. For example, if we understand grace (generally speaking) to mean God’s favour upon our lives and also understand that God gives grace to the humble, can we conclude that the calamities that came upon Job were because he was proud?
3. Taking the Word as a magic password. The present time is one where people are looking for instant solutions to their problems, instant spiritual growth, etc. Therefore people are taught to take hold of different promises of God as if they were mantras which they can utter by which they can receive their heart’s desires from God. This is certainly a distortion of God’s Word. The problem comes when we ignore the contexts in which the promises are given, the type of people for whom they are meant, the conditions we have to fulfil in order to receive those promises, etc.
4. Confusing history and teaching. A large part of the Bible contains historical narrations of things that happened and things that people did. It is very honest about the mistakes of its heroes, and reports some of the foolish things godly people said or did. It would be obviously naive to think that just because something is given in the Bible we should do just as it is written.
The early church started with breaking bread every day, going from house to house (Ac.2:46). The Bible says later on that Paul and some others gathered together to break bread on the first day of the week (Ac.20:7). This is a historical report and not a teaching about when and how often we should meet to break bread. The teaching on the subject only says that whenever we break bread together we should do it in remembrance of Jesus (1Cor.11:25).
On the other hand, some people take teaching to apply only to ‘those’ people or ‘those’ times. Some people think that the Sermon on the Mount applies only to Israel, and others think that many of Paul’s teachings were only for those days or people. Of course we know that all words in the Bible are not for us to obey, but they have something to teach us.
5. Not distinguishing between the old and the new testaments. It was because the old testament (covenant) was faulty that God gave that up and established a new one and made the old one obsolete (Heb.8:7,8,13). It is a big mistake if we do not realise this, and treat them on equal footing or fail to discard what God has made obsolete.
6. Relinquishing the use of commonsense. This is to fanatically hold on to the words of the Bible to the extent of being ridiculous. Jesus overcame the temptation to test God by jumping down from the pinnacle of the temple. But we have people totally avoiding medicine, blaming every calamity that befalls others on sin, etc.
Many think that reason is the enemy of faith, and refuse to think things through. Of course there is some truth in that statement. But the ‘reason’, which is referred to there, is the kind which does not trust in God’s Word but which is based on our natural senses. But the God-given ability to reason, when it is made subject to the revealed Word of God and the direction of the Holy Spirit, can protect us from taking many wrong steps.
7. Majoring on proof texts. This is a very common error among believers, especially those who are used to receiving all their understanding of Scripture from pastors or teachers second-hand. The problem in such cases is that we hear the “It is written” without having heard the “It is also written”. The balance of truth is in holding together all that is written about a subject in the Bible, even if some of the verses seem to be opposing each other, and not just some pet verse.
Some criteria for right interpretation:
1. A willingness to do. God does not reveal His truths to those who are merely curious about them but to those who are eager to subject themselves to those truths (John 7:17).
2. Tremble before God’s word. God looks for those who will stand in respect and awe before His word (Isaiah 66:2).
3. Exercising the intellect. Instead of being moved by emotions or pressure from the preacher, we need to examine the word to understand exactly what it says (Acts 17:11; 1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:19-21).
4. Allow emotions to stir to action. Mere intellectual understanding is not sufficient. We need to be stirred in our heart so that we will follow up with action for ourselves and for (Luke 24:32).
5. Understand the context. We must see what the context is in terms of the situation, the people involved, the cultural background, etc., what the words mean in the context, who said or wrote the words, and whether and how the words relate to us now.
6. Compare Scripture with Scripture. It is not enough to know what is written, but also what else is written. When Satan tempted Jesus with quoting Scripture, Jesus overcame it by quoting other parts of Scripture (Matthew 4:6,7).
7. Check for meaning within the big picture. In order to avoid getting sidetracked by minor issues, we need to always keep the big picture as revealed in the whole of Scripture. Therefore it is very important that we take efforts to study the whole Bible and not just some favourite or easy parts that we like.
d. Personal use.
One of the greatest blessings of the word of God is that He speaks to us individually through it. He speaks directly, specifically and according to the need of the moment. This may happen as we are reading it or listening to it, or the Holy Spirit may bring to our mind something that we have heard before. There are a few guidelines we have to remember in order to hear God rightly.
1. Expect to hear from God. We may miss hearing God if we read the Bible as just another book. We need to want to hear God, and be expectant by faith.
2. Keep our heart quiet. We cannot hear the still, small voice of God if our mind is tossed around with many thoughts. It may help to give Him thanks, praise and worship before we begin reading the word of God.
3. Ask God to speak. Like Samuel told the Lord, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening,” we could also start by asking God to speak to us according to our need.
4. Learn to recognise the voice of God. Other voices trying to get our attention are our flesh, Satan and the people around us. We need to become familiar with God’s voice through practice.
5. Check with the word of God. If we think God is telling us something new, make sure that it is really God’s voice by checking with the other parts of the Bible. God will never go against the written word in the Bible.
6. Check with mature people of God. If we think we have heard something extraordinary from God check with more mature people of God to protect ourselves from error.
7. Avoid looking for confirmation for what we want. Sometimes people make up their mind on what they want to do, and look for verses to confirm it. We may fool ourselves.
Finally, let us keep in mind the principle that we are likely to hear God speaking to us if we are seeking His glory and His will, and are willing to obey whatever He tells us.