The Bible has Multiple Meaning (Part 3)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Genesis 15:18-21, Genesis 17:3-14, Genesis 22, Hebrews 11:17-19
  • Matthew 2:15, Hosea 11:1-2
  • Revelation 3:20
  • Matthew 26:39
  • Romans 15:4
  • Numbers 20:12
  • 1 Corinthians 14:32
  • Colossians 3:23-24

What are we allowed to interpret? 

After looking at literal versus figurative interpretation, other questions start popping up. For instance, does the whole Bible apply to our lives? Does a figurative interpretation need to have only one meaning? How are we supposed to go about interpreting different passages?

It helps to look in the Bible and see how different situations in the Bible deal with these issues. It might seem crazy to do so, but it turns out it happens all the time. Look at Abraham’s promise for example. When you track down different passages about Abraham’s covenant with God, it is clear that his promise is supposed to be fulfilled through his son Isaac.

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – 1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 ES

18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

Genesis 15:18-21 ESV

3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. … 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” 9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

Genesis 17:3-5, 8-10 ESV

From here it is clear that God’s promises are going to be extended to his children. But there is a problem. The promises were supposed to go through Isaac. When looking at this, we then find that God later tells Abraham to offer Isaac as an offering.

2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Genesis 22:2 ESV

Of course, we could take some detours and talk about everything that is happening. But instead, we find that we get more insight into this situation later in the Bible. 

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Hebrews 11:17-19 ESV

We do not get this from the story of Abraham in the old testament. Somehow Abraham has the idea that Isaac could be raised from the dead if he died, why? Because God gave a promise and God needs to fulfill this promise. If something happens to Isaac, God is responsible not Abraham. If Abraham follows through with the offering, obvious Isaac could die. Abraham was not explicitly told that God would raise him up from the dead, but Abraham looked at the promise that God gave him and understood that this was a possibility. The promise was a physical promise and yet he was able to derive more meaning about what was going on in a different situation because of this promise. 

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew 2:13-15 ESV

When looking at this passage, we find that Mary and Joseph took Jesus down to Egypt. But Matthew is linking it to a prophecy from the old testament. There doesn’t seem to be any name attached to it so naturally many scholars try to find where this comes from. 

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.

Hosea 11:1-2 ESV

You find it in Hosea which seems to match the context. It seems rather problematic though. The context of the passage is talking about Israel and if you follow the rest of the passage, it seems to reinforce that. How could this be the same thing? There are at least two things you could say to this. One thing is to broaden our perspective on prophecy. We tend to think of prophecy as prediction and fulfillment, but there is another way to look at it. Prophecy can also be a pattern. Just like how Israel went into Egypt so did Jesus. But you can take this a step further. 

16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16 ESV

Here Paul is saying that the promises are directly looking at Jesus. From this picture, we can look at the person of Jesus being carried through Israel as they go down into Egypt. 

Do all interpretations apply to us?

There tends to be a problem when trying to apply the Bible to our lives. For instance, can anything apply to our lives? After Abraham sacrificed Isaac, There is a servant that goes and finds him a bride. They don’t meet before the wedding plans are already made. Does that mean all of us should have arranged marriages? On the other hand what about if we look at things that happen in the Bible and try to apply them to our lives like this idea of patterns? Should we take the same pattern that happens in Hosea 1 and apply it to our lives?

Of course, there is a reason why God had the events of the Bible happen the way they do. Every person is different and God has different plans for everyone. But that does not mean that all because he does it one way, he will do it that way all the time. For those situations, there are reasons why he did it that way. But what about for the rest of us? If God is telling us to do something there is a reason behind it and often (if it isn’t clear in the situation) you can see how it fits in with other things God does and how they comply with scripture. To give an example I knew someone who was a pastor; he was married to some kids. A younger woman in the church and he felt that God was using the story of Hosea to speak to him about how he should divorce his wife and go with this younger woman. This brings up many many questions and red flags but of course, that is one extreme. 

What about other situations like how we interpret the Bible in different ways. Often we try to take scripture and apply it to help people understand a concept. Let’s take this passage for example.

20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

Revelation 3:20 ESV

Often people use this as an invitation when evangelizing, telling people that Jesus is waiting for them to open their hearts and receive him; Which is true. But when you look at the context this should worry some. We often look at this as a nice invitation but that is not the reflection you get if you read this in context. John is writing down several letters to every church as Jesus is giving them a report of good things and bad things they are doing. We get to the church of Laodicea and they are doing everything wrong to where Jesus is talking about spitting some people out for being lukewarm. The fact that he is talking to a church of believers, who are in the body and yet Jesus is outside of the church altogether.

It is as if it was an act of desperation trying to get people’s attention to invite him in because they haven’t been considering him. But does that mean we can’t use this for evangelism? The concept is the same but the target audience and tone at which it is being presented is not. You could find other passages that also talk about non-believers accepting Jesus with proper context. But does it matter? Often we get this issue not being able to separate the difference between the concept of the message and the theology of the message. If you didn’t know about the context mentioned, did you do something wrong? This deserves a whole discussion on itself but often story and analogies help us understand and experience situations and ideas. Whether or not it is okay to take a story out of context for demonstration purposes is another story.

Regardless of the issue of context, the scripture is still supposed to be used so we can apply it to our lives to some degree.

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4 ESV

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV

Is our interpretation always right?

This would be obvious to many but it can be easily forgotten while in a situation. If we think we learned something from God and we think it is something we want to share with people, that still does not mean we are always right. This might be counter-intuitive but it is an important point to make.

31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,

1 Corinthians 14:31-33 ESV

When you reflect on this, there is a problem; that problem is us. Even if we get a message from God, we still have the responsibility to deliver it. This is an important lesson to learn. 

7 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9 And Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he commanded him. 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

Numbers 20:7-12 ESV

Here we find Mose who directly heard from the Lord. There is no question about that. Yet God gives him some instructions. We think, what God wanted was too simple to give the people water to drink and perform a miracle the people would remember. Yet there were more important things that God wanted out of this. For one Moses was supposed to speak to the rock not strike the rock. Not only that he went out of his way to call the people rebels. This leaves the people with an impression of who God is angry with the people. More could be said here but you find that even though Moses delivered a message and the end result appeared to be what God wanted, it was still not correct. The reason is that the message was not delivered correctly even though the person delivering it heard straight from God.

Often we need to separate a few things when looking at interpretation. There are the theological parts and then there are the application parts. They are not exactly the same thing in every situation. When looking at the passage in Revelation where Jesus is knocking at the door; the theological part is how the church could operate without involving God (which is bad). But the application (which you can find as theological for claims elsewhere) is about how we should act in response to learn about this. In the situation of Moses, a person can be given a message from God and yet still not deliver it right. The application then is to take care of how you deliver the message. One can think of theology as the facts and statements that we know to be true and the application of how these should change our lives. 

We should always try to do our best to understand what God is saying to us. But we should always remember that we need to take care of what he has given us and make sure we understand and deliver it right. This shouldn’t stop us or give us any fear. We should be doing everything to the best of our abilities because at the end of the day, we will be in front of God and it would be best to do with what you understand. 

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.

Colossians 3:23-25 ESV

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