Can I Really Trust My Interpretation of the Bible?
Each of us is a Bible interpreter. Each of us is trying to interpret and understand the meaning of God’s word accurately. So how do I know if my Bible interpretation is accurate or if it is false? It’s another great question from a listener to the podcast. This listener did not give us his or her name. But here is the email: “Pastor John, hello! Paul tells us ‘the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.’ That’s 1 Timothy 1:8. So the Bible is good if one uses the Bible biblically. So how can I know if I’m using my Bible biblically or using the law rightly?”
I would say that there are two ways to go about answering this question. One is you could gather together — and I will gather together — some biblical pointers that give guidance to how the law, or biblical teaching in general, is to be handled. That may be what they’re asking: “Show me some biblical pointers for how to handle the Bible or the law.”
Secondly, the other way to answer this question is to realize that there are people who insist that even the pointers that I give could be questioned, and then we’d have to deal with that problem. I could give, for example, five biblical pointers to how the Bible says we should handle the law. And a certain kind of person could say to me, “But how do I know that I’m reading those pointers correctly?” And I could give an explanation of the pointers and how they work. They could say, “But how do I know that I’m interpreting your explanation correctly?”
Then a Roman Catholic might chime in and say, “You can’t. You can’t be sure of any of those things, which is why Protestants are so divided. You should let the church, the Pope, ultimately decide what everything means and let him instruct you.” To which the person could consistently say, “But then how do I know when I’m reading what the Pope wrote in his encyclical that I’m interpreting the Pope correctly?” And so on, ad infinitum.
“There are spiritual and moral preconditions for a true handling of God’s word.”
There is a kind of person that is like that. You can see that those are two very different kinds of problems. The first person is simply asking, “Could you give me some biblical guidance for how to understand the law in the Bible and to help me know I’m interpreting it correctly?” The second person has a much deeper problem and is basically calling into question whether a human being can know anything. There are skeptics like that. They’re wired to be so suspicious and so skeptical about their own interpretations that they never come to a knowledge of the truth.
Handling the Law
Let me take these one at a time. Here’s the first one: What are some biblical pointers for how to handle the law — I’m thinking Mosaic law first and then Old Testament more generally — correctly?
1 Timothy 1:6–11
Let’s start with the context of the text they’re asking about, 1 Timothy 1:8, where it says this:
Certain persons, by swerving from [a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith], have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless . . . [to indict] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:6–11)
Here are some pointers for how to handle the law in that context:
Don’t swerve from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith because there are spiritual and moral preconditions for a true handling of God’s word.
The prohibitions of the law are not mainly for people whose hearts are right with God and are led by the Spirit under the law of love.
The law is mainly for the lawless who need to be shown that there’s an authority outside of them to which they will give an account.
A right use of the law accords with healthy doctrine, which, Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:11, is in accord “with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” Make the gospel of Christ crucified the touchstone for the right use of the law.
Here’s a second cluster of pointers from Romans 3:19–20. Paul says,
We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Here we get pointers like these:
Though the law is given to Israel, it stopped the mouth of the whole world.
It will never be the instrument of justification. No one gets right with God by law-keeping.
Through the law comes the knowledge of sin. That is, the law confronts us with our sin. It’s not the solution to the sin problem. It points away from itself to Christ. If we read the law rightly, we will see that the law points away from the law to Christ.
Here’s a third cluster of pointers from Jesus. He says, for example, in Matthew 5, that the law is misused by the Pharisees because they don’t take it deep enough. “The law says, ‘Don’t kill.’ ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ But I say to you — and I’m getting at the real purpose of the law — ‘Don’t get angry’ and ‘Don’t lust.’” There are clues for how you handle the law in Matthew 5 (see Matthew 5:17–48).
“If we read the law rightly, we will see that the law points away from the law to Christ.”
Or another example is when the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his disciples for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10–13), and when they condemned them for plucking some grain on the Sabbath and eating it as they walked along (Matthew 12:1–8). In both these cases in Matthew, Jesus said that the problem is the Pharisees don’t know how to read; they don’t know how to read their Bibles. He quoted Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Then he said, “If you knew what this means, you would not have condemned the guiltless. You wouldn’t have used the Old Testament that way. If you knew what Hosea 6:6 meant, you wouldn’t have used the Old Testament to condemn us.”
In other words, there are key interpretive passages in the Old Testament that give guidance for how to rightly handle the law. There are many, many more pointers in the Bible to the right handling of the law. Just one example would be the book of Hebrews. Oh my — almost every page of the book of Hebrews is written to help us understand the limits of the law and the right use of it.
But How Can We Know?
Let me close by saying a brief word about this other kind of person who responds to virtually every effort you make to explain the Bible or help them understand the Bible by saying, “But I can’t really know if I’m interpreting you or the Bible rightly. How can I know?”
Now, Jesus has something to say about that person and to that person. His claim was blunt and unsympathetic. He said, “You don’t live that way.” That was his answer to people like that. “You don’t live that way. Your life shows that you really do live on the basis of your confidence in your interpretation of things. Yes, it does. When you talk that way, you’re a hypocrite.”
Here’s where I’m getting that. Listen to Matthew 16:1–3: “The Pharisees and the Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.” They needed more signs. “We can’t understand what you’re doing. We don’t know where your authority comes from. We don’t get it. We need signs.” Here’s what Jesus said: “He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and menacing.”’” To which Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
In other words, they were saying they could not know how to interpret Jesus and his words and ways. “It’s all so uncertain. Who can know? We need more signs, more explanation.” But when it comes to their livelihood, they trusted their powers of interpretation just fine. “Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight. We can tell the one from the other, and we’ll stake our lives on it. We’re not going fishing today — there’s going to be a storm.” They were hypocrites. They were just plain outright hypocrites.
So I would say this to the person who is claiming not to be able to know how to read anything with confidence: you are probably inconsistent, and you may be a hypocrite who is just using feigned helplessness to avoid the clarity and conviction of Scripture.