In the days of Peter, people struggled to understand the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16), and we are no different today. At that time there were many systems of interpreting the Bible with the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and others, and with many differing groups within the Pharisees. Today many more systems have been added, but which one is right? Or, if not right, best?
One popular thought in certain areas of American Christianity is that it makes no difference what a person believes as long as they attend church somewhere and they obey that church’s teaching. This certainly has the advantage of reducing both inter-church competition and friction between believers. However, it serves only to avoid real issues concerning biblical interpretation since it assumes that every church’s doctrine is within tolerance of God’s truth, even though some churches hold completely opposite and incompatible views. Thus although this position may have sociological advantages, it is not designed for searching out biblical truths.
Another common view is expressed in a popular song, often taught to children, but which forms some adult attitudes. “Every promise in the Book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.” (watch video).
Now the Bible is filled with promises. Some were made to Noah, others to Abraham; some to Moses, others to David; some to Peter, others to Paul. Was Noah promised the same as Abraham? Was Moses promised that his sons would rule Israel as was David? Was Paul promised that he would sit on one of the twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel as was Peter?
If a church teaches that “every promise in the book is mine”, does it mean that every promise in the book becomes mine? The answer is simple of course. Every promise in the Book is not mine! But why not?
We all hold erroneous views and we have to ask by what standard is truth judged? Is it the Bible or some church? If a church teaches that Christians today are the Spiritual Israel, does that mean believers today are a spiritual Israel? If one church teaches that Christians should observe a sabbath of rest from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, while another says Sunday replaced the seventh day of sabbath, while a third states that Gentile Christians were never commanded to keep any sabbath, which is correct, if any?
Without a consistent method of interpretation there is a danger that Christians feel the right to go through Scripture selecting the promises they want, like choosing food from a menu in a restaurant, selecting favorites and leaving ones not liked. In other words, Christians go through selecting some promises and leaving others, selecting promises of blessing, but rejecting promises of judgement!
But the Bible was not given to be used like a menu. God inspired many different men to write over many hundreds of years. These authors wrote to particular people, addressing specific problems. Thus the basic of any consistent method of interpretation should be paying attention not only to what was said, but also to whom or of whom it is said. Also the time factor needs to be considered; either when it was said or to when it relates. Lastly, place may also be important; to where does it pertain. These give us building blocks for constructing a consistent understanding of Scripture. Ignoring them can lead to serious error, as the following old story illustrates.
A person was in a desperate situation from which he could see no escape. He turned to the Bible which he closed, stood on end, and let fall open. With eyes closed he placed a finger on the page and looked at the verse indicated. It read, “Judas went out and hanged himself”. Not liking this he repeated the process. The second verse was “Go thou and do likewise”. In desperation he tried a third time. The result? “Then said Jesus unto him, That thou goest, do quickly.”
Obviously all three verses were taken out of context and no truth can be derived from such a method. But equally no truth can be obtained by selecting promises from the Bible as one chooses food from a menu! Every promise in the book belongs to someone, but they cannot all belong to me, or to you. In order to help us appreciate which ones are ours we need to pay attention not only to what a promise says, but to whom it was made, to when it relates, and to where it pertains.