My wife and I just moved to a retirement community last Fall. We are the second wave of retirees since the place opened up some 20 years ago. Most everyone else is 15 to 20 years older than we are and face many physical challenges. So when some fresh young blood moved in next door, the association president showed up almost immediately at our door. One of the first things that he asked me was would I like to do his job. He was looking for a replacement, since he had been doing it for years and was in declining health and just plain worn out. I demurred, since I knew nothing about his responsibilities or how the neighborhood operated. But, feeling sympathy for his pain, I offered to help out in any way I could.
So I suddenly found myself on the board. I have helped Tom with chores around the place and in the process met a lot of people and learned a lot about how things work. One of the first things I realized was that everything has to be pretty uniform when you live in a gated community. You can’t just go and plant any shrub you want in any place you want. You can’t put up a three season room or a deck or even landscape stones if you don’t fill out an “Architectural Application” and have it approved. People agree to this this when they move into the community. But once they get established and decide they don’t like the way things look or think they know better, they start changing things on their own.
My wife and I got a great corner lot right across the street from the friend who introduced us to the community. He is the only one in our association who has a flag pole. It turns out, there are rules against having a flag pole, but he was bound and determined to have one, so he put one up anyway.
That didn’t sit so well with Tom, apparently. I guess the two had a big feud that carried on for quite some time, but my friend refused to back down, so he got to keep his flag pole. Even the past association president put stones in an area where only mulch is allowed because the weed whackers used by the groundskeepers could throw them through a window. He also prevailed.
So, although my wife and I are very pleased with the folks who live on our little cul-de-sac, I have come to realize that most people who live around here are determined to do things their own way regardless of what they agreed to when they moved in.
And that is just the way fallen human nature is whether you are talking about association rules or city ordinances or the U.S. Constitution, or the Word of God.
For example, consider the Constitution. It has a Bill of Rights – ten amendments that were added after ratification to guarantee that certain basic human rights are protected under the law. There are protections for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to redress of grievances against the government, and the right to a speedy trial, among others. In addition, the Declaration of Independence grants us the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are individual rights to which everyone is entitled regardless of race, color, class or creed.
But over time these individual rights have given way to special privileges for protected classes of people. So if my freedom of speech gives offense to a gay or lesbian, it can be considered a “hate crime.” Hate crimes apply only to offenses against protected classes, not all individuals. Freedom of religion has been further proscribed to become freedom of worship, meaning it is free only so long as it stays within the four walls of the church. The right to life of an unborn child has been trumped by a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, a right read into the Constitution by the Supreme Court justices just forty years ago. The free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment that forbade the Congress from making any law that might abridge religious freedom or favor one religion over another has been replaced by the notion of “separation of church and state.” These terms don’t even appear in the Constitution. They come from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptist preachers who were afraid their state would discriminate against them in favor of another denomination. Today these words are invoked to justify all kinds of restrictions by the government on public expressions of faith, having the exact opposite of the effect intended by our Founders. And good luck getting a speedy trial today. Suspects can sit in jail for months and even years while their attorneys plan their defense.
This same tendency to alter meaning to suit selfish interests is found among many Bible-reading Christians. Progressive Christians find no prohibitions against homosexuality or gay marriage in the Bible, despite the very clear teaching of scripture to the contrary. Feminists reject the notion that the husband is granted authority over the wife by the same God who gave Christ authority over his bride, the church. The term ‘submission’ is repulsive to them. Those who have been unfaithful to a spouse see no condemnation for adultery in Scripture. Many others rationalize their own disobedience by clinging to the notion that it won’t affect their ultimate salvation, only reduce their rewards. As long as they can indulge their own sinful desires here on earth and still gain heaven, they are content. And they all do it by explaining away the texts that condemn their behavior and reinterpreting other texts to condone their behavior.
I have a friend who teaches middle school. He has done so for many years and is beloved by his students and their parents. He is a professing Christian who finds nothing wrong with the gay lifestyle or gay marriage. He knows the verses of the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but he cannot reconcile them with a loving God who he believes would not condemn someone born with a same-sex attraction. He rationalizes his position by saying that the few verses in the Bible that deal specifically with homosexuality are outweighed by all the other verses that talk about God’s love. So he invalidates the few by invoking the many.
Weighing The Truth
I call this method of Bible interpretation the “weighted scale” approach. You “weigh” those verses which seem to promote one position against those that promote an apparently contradictory position and throw out the “lighter” ones. You consign them to insignificance. Utilizing this approach myself, I did a little word study and produced a “Word Cloud” to compare the frequency of words the Bible employs to explain God’s justice and his love. Here is what I came up with:
This simple visual tells us that references to sin occur more often than any of the other words. Sin outweighs love and kindness, and the Bible classifies homosexuality as sin. But Jesus still expressed his love and kindness towards homosexuals by bearing God’s wrath against their sin in his own body on the cross. In so doing, he spared the homosexual the condemnation he deserved. So there really is no contradiction between God’s love and his intolerance of homosexuality. But the point my friend misses is that only those homosexuals who repent of their sins receive this saving grace. A homosexual cannot receive the love of Christ if he does not forsake his homosexual lifestyle.
First Corinthians 6:9-11 makes makes it clear that God loves the homosexual who repents of his sin, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
The expression of God’s love comes not through absolution, but repentance and faith. Christ did not save us so we could continue in sin, but find freedom from sin through him. As Paul said in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
What Does This Verse Mean to You?
Another popular approach to Bible interpretation is the “what does this verse mean to you?” approach used so often in Bible studies and small groups.
If you were going through the papers of a family member and you found a letter written to another relative, would you interpret those words as if they were written to you? Of course not. They were written at a time and in a place and situation that did not include you. Applying them to yourself would make no sense. And yet people pick up a letter written thousands of years ago by a Jewish author to a Jewish audience who were suffering intense persecution by ancient Roman authorities and read it as if it somehow had something to do with the dispute they just had with their boss or their spouse or whomever.
The very best Bible teachers take great pains to reconstruct the circumstances under which that letter was written in order to understand what the writer was trying to convey to his readers and then draw the application that most accurately fits the situation of believers today. If done correctly, they will never come up with a health and wealth gospel, for example, because none of the believers in those days were particularly healthy or wealthy by todays’ standards. They were so poor and oppressed that they were focused almost exclusively on the ultimate blessings of faith that come not in this world but the next.
How to Interpret the Bible Correctly
It is important to keep a few things in mind if you want to understand what the Bible really means and not what you want it to mean.
Number one. Set aside your own agenda. The Bible was not written by feminists for feminists nor by hedonists for hedonists or by progressives for progressives. It was written by men of God who were moved not by their own passions, but by the Spirit of God. Second Peter 1:21 says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The human spirit is totally captivated by its own sinful desires, so it cannot produce a word from God.
Number two, the Bible never contradicts itself. The main theme is redemption – God stepping in to undo the damage man has done to himself and the creation at the fall. Everything relates to this. Not temporal blessings but eternal blessings that are imperishable and as yet unfulfilled. The book of Ephesians calls these “spiritual blessings in heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). Jesus calls them “treasures in heaven where neither rust nor moths corrupt or thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 6:19)
Number three. It’s not all about you. It’s about the plan God set forth in eternity past to gather a people to worship him and provide a bride for his Son Jesus Christ. It’s about God glorifying his own name by revealing the depth of his grace and mercy in sacrificing what was most precious to him – his only Son- to redeem utterly worthless and unlovable human beings who cruelly killed that beloved Son. So rather than looking for the answer to your latest dilemma whenever you pick up the Bible, learn what you can about God’s marvelous character and attributes.
Number four. Strive to understand what the writer meant given his own circumstances, culture, and times. Research the original language and history. Learn about the players and their roles. Study the places and their significance in those times. Then you will better grasp what the author is really trying to say.
Finally, use a consistent theological approach. This is not the prosperity gospel. It is not a feminist or progressive manifesto. It is the word of the living God written from his perspective, not ours. He has one purpose and one message he is trying to convey. It is the same whether you are reading the Old Testament or the New Testament, Psalms or Proverbs, Genesis or Revelation. It is about a “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him [Jesus Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Jesus is at the center of the gospel. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Rom 11:36).