Interpreting the Bible
One of the more common excuses people give for not reading the Bible is that it is so difficult to interpret. "The Bible can be interpreted in so many different ways," they say, "so why bother?" If they would just take the time to read it, they would find that the Bible doesnít really require as much interpretation as they think; that, for the most part, its teaching is quite plain and straightforward. Think about it: The Bible claims to be a message from God to his creation. If his purpose is to communicate something to human beings, it only makes sense that it must be written in language that human beings can understand. So, the first rule for understanding the Bible is: Let the Bible mean what it says.
Take a prophecy. Zechariah foretold the coming of the Messiah like this:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee... lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass" (Zech. 9:9).
Some expositors might try to find a deep spiritual meaning in these words. But how were they fulfilled? Matthew 21 tells us,
"And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon... And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved..." (Matt. 21:6-10).
The fulfillment took place according to the exact literal requirements of the prophecy.
"But," it might be asked, "is there no such thing as figurative language in the Bible?" Indeed there is; but when it occurs, itís almost always easily identifiable, and understandable according to ordinary rules of speech. Metaphor, for example, which abounds in the Bible, is used in our everyday conversation with no loss of comprehension. If someone remarks that a certain person is "a clumsy ox", we have no trouble understanding them, even though they arenít speaking literally. And so it is with the Bible. Metaphor, simile, personification, parable; all these devices and more are used, and are usually intelligible using the basic principles of everyday language.
However, there is one form of figurative language used infrequently in the Bible that clearly does require interpretation; namely, outright symbolism. Yet even this can be easily distinguished from the literal words of scripture. When we read the book of Revelation, for example, itís very apparent that symbolism is being used. Now, when it comes to interpreting Bible symbolism, one cannot afford to be dogmatic. Humility is definitely in order, and a simple, common-sense rule needs to be remembered: Our interpretation must be consistent with the plain, literal teaching of the Bible elsewhere. The basic message of the Bible is clear and understandable to all who open its pages.
The One True God
One of the most fundamental facts that the Bible declares concerning the nature of God is that he is the only one, and there is no other besides him. "Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD" (Deut. 6:4). God himself emphatically declares this truth throughout the 45th chapter of Isaiah:
"I am the LORD, and there is NONE ELSE, there is NO GOD BESIDE ME (v.5)... That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is NONE BESIDE ME. I am the LORD, and there is NONE ELSE (v.6)... Who hath declared this from ancient time? Who hath told it from that time? Have not I the LORD? and there is NO GOD ELSE BESIDE ME; a just God and a Saviour; there is NONE BESIDE ME. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and THERE IS NONE ELSE (v.21-22).
What could be more plainly stated? Yet, from about the 4th century A.D. onward (long after the completion of the Bible), Christians have been compelled to believe in a God that consists of not one, but three distinct persons. The doctrine of the Trinity, admitted to be an incomprehensible mystery, has been unquestioningly received by the vast majority of Christians.
The truth is, however, that not once do the words Trinity or Triune God occur in the Bible. Not once is God referred to in the Bible as consisting of three persons. Not once do we find the terms "God the Son" or "God the Holy Spirit" in the Bible.
What does the Bible say about the nature of God? Weíve already heard the emphatic statements of God himself in Isaiah 45, that he alone is God, and there is no other. But the New Testament, too, repeats this basic truth in the clearest of language. Paul states in his first epistle to Timothy:
"For there is ONE GOD, AND one mediator between God and men, the MAN Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5).
Notice that the "one God" teaching of the Old Testament is repeated, and Jesus is introduced to us, not as one "person" of a triune God, but as a man, who is the mediator between the one God and other men. The same idea can be found in the words of Jesus himself:
"And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, THE ONLY TRUE GOD, AND Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3).
Again, in the 8th chapter of First Corinthians, we find the following statement:
"But to us there is but ONE GOD, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; AND one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him" (1 Cor. 8:6).
In all these passages, we see the fundamental truth repeated that there is only one God. And in each case, Jesus Christ is clearly separate. Jesus is the mediator between God and men, the one sent by the "only true God"; he is not himself God!
Jesus Christ, the Son of God
Is Jesus Christ God? There are a few passages in the Bible in which he is called "God", and this has led many to conclude that Jesus is God Incarnate, that he is "God the Son" or "Very God".
But consider this: In the Bible, Godís authorized representatives are frequently referred to as God himself. For example, when God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush as Yahweh, or "I am who I am", it was actually an angel (Exodus 3:2; Acts 7:30). Instances like this, where angels are called "God" or "the LORD", are fairly numerous. Occasionally, even men are spoken of as "God", when they are acting on Godís behalf, as when Moses was to be "as God" to Pharaoh (Ex.7:1 RSV).
The principle that Godís representatives may be called by his name is perhaps best illustrated in the 23rd chapter of Exodus, where the LORD says:
"Behold, I send an ANGEL before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: FOR MY NAME IS IN HIM" (Ex.23: 20-21).
If Godís name may be applied to his messengers (the meaning of the word angel), how much more to his Son! Jesus was he who came "in the name of the Lord" (Matt. 21:9). In Philippians 2:9, weíre told that because Jesus was obedient unto death, therefore "God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name that is above every name..." It is entirely appropriate that Jesus should be called by Godís name, yet this no more proves that he is God than the same fact does of Godís lesser representatives.
The Bible is crystal clear about the relationship of Jesus to his Father. It is not one of equality, but rather of subordination. Consider these verses:
"...my Father is GREATER THAN I" (John 14:28).
"...the head of every man is Christ... and THE HEAD OF CHRIST IS GOD" (1 Cor.11:3).
"And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? None is good SAVE ONE, THAT IS GOD" (Luke 18:19).
"Not as I WILL, but as THOU WILT" (Matt. 26:39).
"But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, NEITHER THE SON, but the Father" (Mark 13:32).
"And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall THE SON ALSO BE SUBJECT unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all" (1 Cor.15:28).
"The Son can DO NOTHING OF HIMSELF, but what he seeth the Father do..." (John 5:19)
In other verses, we are informed that the Father is Jesusí God (Rev. 3:12); that Jesus increased in favor with God (Luke 2:52); that Jesus learned obedience to God (Heb. 5:8).
Nowhere does the Bible tell us to believe in "God the Son", or in Jesus as one person of a triune God. The simple truth is that Jesus is the Son of God. In the words of the apostle John,
"But these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, THE SON OF GOD; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31).
The Sacrifice of Christ
Theologians often refer to Christís sacrifice as the "substitutionary atonement of Christ". It is felt that Jesus paid the penalty for sin naturally due from us, much like a condemned man being set free when another offers to be executed in his place.
While this might be a simple way to understand the death of Christ, it is inconsistent with the most superficial of facts: If Jesus Christ died as a substitute for us, then we shouldnít die -- yet we do. If he died in our place, then his resurrection shouldnít be necessary for our redemption; but 1 Corinthians 15:17 says, "if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins". And if Christ "paid our debts" by his death, then it would be improper to speak of our debts as having been forgiven, yet forgiveness and grace are, without doubt, among the most prominent features of the proclamation of the gospel message.
To understand how the death of Christ is a foundation for the forgiveness of our sins, we begin by noting that in his sacrifice the righteousness of God was declared:
"But now the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD without the law is manifested... Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ ... Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, TO DECLARE HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: THAT HE MIGHT BE JUST, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:21-26).
In what way is the righteousness and justice of God declared in the shed blood of the sinless Jesus Christ? This will become evident when it is considered who he was. Jesus was the Son of God, certainly; but he was also, by his own frequent description, the "Son of man". Being born of a human mother, he was a partaker of the same sin-stricken nature as the rest of mankind:
"Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, HE HIMSELF likewise PARTOOK OF THE SAME NATURE ..." (Heb. 2:14 RSV)
"Therefore he had to be MADE LIKE HIS BRETHREN IN EVERY RESPECT, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17 RSV).
"(He) was in all points tempted LIKE AS WE ARE..." (Heb. 4:15)
Some might bristle at the thought that Jesus was associated with sin in any way; but in Romans 8:3, it is stated that "God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh". And perhaps even more pointed is 2 Corinthians 5:21, which declares that God "made him to be sin for us". Jesus Christ was, therefore, a perfect representative of a sinful and dying human race. It was just and right for God to require his death, because the nature he bore was condemned. But it was also right that God raise him from the dead, for he committed no sin of his own. In every facet of the death and resurrection of Christ, Godís righteousness was declared. And in the process, Jesus was able to do, in himself, what no one else could: He destroyed the power of sin and death.
"Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 13:38). God continues to enforce a just consequence for sin while leaving a door open for repentant sinners. He does not offer forgiveness indiscriminately and without condition. He does not offer it apart from the declaration of his righteousness in "Christ crucified". God says to us, in essence, "If you acknowledge your own sinfulness, repent, and associate yourself with this man, I will have mercy on you. My righteousness has been declared in him; submit to him, obey him and put on his name, and I will forgive your sins and raise you from the dead even as I raised him."
Thus, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, mercy and justice are beautifully and forever reconciled.