According to Scripture, every human action and belief must be approved by the Lord (Col. 3.17) and adopted for his glory (1 Cor. 10.31). But how do we know whether our endeavors actually meet with divine approval?
In the ancient world, God regulated human behavior in various ways (e.g., orally, visually, mentally, etc., cf. Heb. 1.1). But at present, the Bible, which is the revelation of Christ (cf. Heb. 1.1; Gal. 1.11-13; Eph. 3.3-5), is the only way to derive validation from God for our beliefs and conduct. The written word is his all-sufficient authority (see Bible Authority: Is It All-Sufficient?).
This means that we cannot appeal to dreams, visions, feelings within the heart, human traditions, word-of-mouth, or supposed angelic visitations (cf. Gal. 1.8) to support our convictions or justify our actions. The only way to determine whether or not our beliefs and actions conform to the will of God is by Biblical examination.
In that light, how exactly do we use the Bible properly to decipher “right from wrong,” as Abraham Lincoln put it? How does the Bible “direct our conduct,” in the words of Noah Webster?
Basic Interpretive Principles
Before we can determine whether or not the Bible authorizes something, we must first be able to understand it. This is called interpretation.
The science of interpretation (also known as hermeneutics) is multifaceted and well beyond the scope of this article. However, there are two basic hermeneutical principles which must be applied when studying the Bible.
First, what did the passage mean to the author and his original readership? Academic literary critic, Professor E.D. Hirsch (University of Virginia), stressed that “a text means what its author meant” (p. 1).
There are several ways of determining the answer to this in any given context.
(1) Reflect upon the background of the document itself — its cultural, historical, and even geographical conditions, etc.
(2) Situate yourself with the spiritual circumstances of the book — what dispensation (divine law) is in force? What were the moral principles guiding the individuals involved?
(3) Consider the type of literature in which the text is contained — is the style of the book/section written in a historical or theological prose, or is it poetic, or prophetic, or apocalyptic?
(4) Analyze the remote context, marking any details that may shed light on the specific text you are striving to interpret.
(5) Note the major characters involved. Who is speaking? To whom is the message spoken?
(6) Explore the grammar of the text itself. What do the words themselves mean? What are the parts-of-speech employed in the passage (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs), and how do they correspond to one another (syntax)?
(7) Is the language of the text literal or figurative in nature?
Second, how does the passage relate to us today? To discern this:
(1) We must be privy to what divine law was in force, as interpreted above. Why? The law of Christ has superseded the law of Moses, which means we are not amenable to the Old Testament legally (cf. Col. 2.14; Gal. 4.21-31; 2 Cor. 3.1-13; Heb. 8.8-10; 10.9). We will be judged, not by Moses or Elijah, but by Christ (cf. Lk. 9.28-36; 2 Cor. 5.10). Hence, things required of some Bible characters in the past are not necessarily required of us.
(2) We must grasp the ways in which the Bible communicates. Like any written document, the Bible conveys information either explicitly, implicitly, or through precedent.
In this article, we shall consider the first of these three methods of communication — viz., the Bible authorizes directly, through explicit statements and commands.
These statements/commands are either obligatory (must believe, must do), allowed (may), or not allowed (may not).
Let’s begin with a few examples of explicit Bible statements; then, we’ll explore a few of the Bible’s explicit commands.
In John 11, Jesus told his disciples “plainly”: “Lazarus is dead” (Jn. 11.14). What did he mean by this statement (interpretation)? And are we obliged to believe it (application)?
In terms of interpretation, we must note that Jesus is the speaker. Is he trustworthy? Assuredly so.
Next, was this statement literally true, or was Jesus merely suggesting that Lazarus had become spiritually inactive? Well, by default, the statements of Scripture (especially prose Scripture) should be taken literally “unless the evident meaning of the context forbids” (Dungan, 184). Since the Bible was written to be understood, we should take it to mean what it says unless there is sufficient reason to interpret it in another way. At face value, then, it must be understood literally.
In this case, the context also supports the literal interpretation. Consider:
(1) John remarks that Jesus spoke “plainly.” His message was direct and to the point, not couched in veiled overtones or hidden meanings.
(2) There are dozens of historical details in the Lazarus narrative — e.g., his body was foul-smelling after four days of decomposition; he was laid in a cave; a stone enclosed the tomb; etc. — compelling us to conclude that the narrative ought to be taken literally, as an historical occurrence. Indeed, the entire passage reads like a news item.
(3) Furthermore, the reaction of the mourners in the narrative, both before and after his resurrection, is likewise indicative of its literal nature.
(4) For that matter, the point of the narrative is to prove that Jesus possesses supernatural power over the grave itself, confirming that he is the Christ (cf. Jn. 11.4, 25-27, 40-44).
Hence, Lazarus literally died.
Once the original meaning has been deciphered, its applicability must be considered. Since this explicit statement was made by one of unimpeachable authority, and corroborated by John (a Spirit-inspired author), it follows that it should be believed by all who profess faith in Jesus. Lazarus was not merely ill; he had been dead for “four days” (v. 17, 39) by the time the Lord resurrected him (Jn. 11.40-44).
The statements made in these verses constitute affirmations of historical fact. Either they happened or they didn’t. Since the Bible asserts that they happened, they remain Biblically authoritative — that is, one cannot dismiss them without first dismissing the integrity of the Bible itself. If you believe the Bible, then you must believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
That said, there are statements in the Bible that were intended by its author to be understood figuratively. When Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (Jn. 2.19), the Bible clarifies that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. He was not referring to the literal Jewish sanctuary. Rather, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (Jn. 2.21). Hence, he had employed a figure of speech (see also John 7.37-39).
Admittedly, in a few Bible texts, it can be challenging to ascertain whether the language employed is literal or figurative. In such cases, the balanced reader must exercise caution in drawing conclusions.
Most of the time, however, the context will clarify the author’s meaning. When Elijah proclaimed that Baal “is a god” (1 Kgs. 18.27), the context indicates that he meant that in mockery, not as a literal fact.
Sadly, some believe that figures of speech are tantamount to falsehood. But that is not so! They are merely rhetorical devices designed to express a separate meaning for the sake of adding emotional depth or mental vividness to one’s communication.
Jesus’ figure of speech, which conveyed the fact that his body would be raised in three days, was still true, even if expressed in colorful metaphor. In that light, figurative statements in the Bible, if endorsed by the Spirit, are no less obligatory than literal ones. We must believe their intended meaning.
However, we must not misinterpret a figure of speech as literal. When Jesus said, “Lazarus sleeps” (Jn. 11.11), he was conveying a truth; but his disciples were wrong to assume he meant that literally, for he was speaking about his death, not a siesta (vv. 12-13). Indeed, many grave errors are committed by individuals who twist literal statements into figurative expressions —and vice-versa (cf. Jn. 6.51-52, 60, 66).
The careful Bible reader should also pay attention to the source of the statement. Who said it? Though every passage in the Bible is recorded accurately, not every Bible statement is necessarily true — or endorsed by the Lord.
For example, in John 7.52, the Bible explicitly reads: “no prophet arises from Galilee.” Yet, Jesus was a Galilean (a resident of Nazareth and Capernaum, Mt. 4.13ff). Does that mean that the Bible denies the prophetic authority of Jesus? Of course not. The statement, accurately documented by John, was originally uttered by the chief priests and Pharisees who opposed Jesus. But the statement itself was false (cf. Isa. 9.1-2).
Likewise, Paul wrote that “there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor. 8.5); from this, Mormons think they derive authority for polytheism. However, Paul stipulates that these are “so-called gods” — that is, others call them gods; but “for us there is one God” (1 Cor. 8.6). The statement was actually affirmed by pagans; whereas it was only cited by Paul as a means of dismissing what is false. In this, Mormons err greatly!
Hence, just because the Bible documents the mistakes, errors, or lies of others, does not mean that it endorses them. Henry Morris remarked that:
“All the discourses are divinely inspired in the sense of being correctly reported, but they often illumine the faulty reasonings and attitudes of fallible human beings rather than the inerrant revelations of an infallible God” (p. 19).
Thus, some explicit statements in the Bible must be repudiated — we are not authorized to believe them, since Biblical authors dismiss them as erroneous (cf. Gen. 3.4; 39.14-15; Lk. 22.57; 23.2; Acts 14.11; etc.).
Allowed, But Not Obligatory, Statements
There are also Biblical statements which may be believed, but which are not mandatory.
For example, some Bible statements are plausible, but not necessarily absolute in veracity. Mary, Lazarus’ sister, surmised that if Jesus had been there, her brother “would not have died” (Jn. 11.32). Perhaps that is so. Jesus himself seems to concur with this remark, when he suggested that he was glad he was absent, so that his disciples could believe in him (v. 15).
However, it was also his every intention to raise the man from the dead for the “glory of God” (v. 4), suggesting that even if he had been there, he would not have prevented his death. In fact, the Lord did not even need to be present in order to heal his friend (cf. Mt. 8.8). Hence, he could have done so, even being absent, if that were his will. Perhaps, then, the Lord merely meant he was glad he was absent so that his disciples would not have occasion to doubt him, as some who were present with Lazarus did (11.37).
In short, there is no way to verify what Jesus might have done had he been there before Lazarus’ death. Consequently, no one can be dogmatic about either conjecture.
In addition, there are subjective statements — those which, though true to one individual, are not true to another. These too are permissible, but not essential.
For example, the statement: “one day is more special than another day” may be accurate to those who cherish secular holidays and celebrate birthdays and the like; yet, “another esteems everyday alike” — i.e., every day is cherished equally. These two statements are incompatible with each other. Yet, they are of no consequence to Paul. He insists: “let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rm. 14.5). Both viewpoints may be incompatible, and yet both sides must respect the other’s opinion. Both are right; neither are wrong — for God has determined that such matters are purely grounded in individual preferences (like one’s choice of diet; etc.; cf. v. 1ff).
With every Bible statement, context must be respected before determining whether it must be believed, may be believed, or may not be believed.
In the next place, the Bible also contains explicit commands.
Some commands are specific as to the overall goal, but generic as to the means of achieving that goal. For such instructions, the Bible has provided implicit authorization to achieve the goal by any lawful means (see part 2 of this series).
However, other commands are very detailed, both in the goal and in the means of executing them.
Nadab and Abihu learned this lesson the hard way. God commanded the priests to burn incense, which they did. But he also specified the means of igniting it (viz., with burning coals from the altar, Lev. 16.12). Because they employed “profane fire…which he had not commanded them,” they had disobeyed the Lord’s command, even though they were still burning incense — the ultimate goal (Lev. 10.1-2).
Thus, a failure to obey both the goal (e.g., burn incense) and the means (e.g., with coals from the altar) which the Lord explicitly commands is to fail to give God the glory and respect he is due (Lev. 10.3). If God specifies both what I must do and how I must do it, faith demands that I do both — trusting not only his goals, but also his methods (cf. 2 Kings 5.10-15; 2 Cor. 10.5; Acts 10.33; Jms. 2.10).
Furthermore, some Bible commands are temporary or are issued to a limited audience, while others are meant to be age-lasting and for all mankind. The responsible Bible exegete will learn to discern the difference between these types of instructions.
For example, after informing his disciples that Lazarus had died, the Lord said: “let us go to him” (John 11.15). Is that instruction directed to the Lord’s disciples today, too? Must we “go to him”?
Of course, no Christian today is obliged to go Lazarus’ tomb. Why not? This instruction was issued in response to a singular event (the death of Lazarus). And it was directed exclusively to those who were in his immediate company. The command was both limited and temporary. Hence, not everyone in the world at that time was obliged to go to Lazarus, nor is anyone today obliged to do the same (see also verse 44). In short, contextual factors demonstrate that the command was limited in scope.
However, if contextual factors do not indicate that a certain instruction is limited to local or temporary circumstances, then the instruction should be regarded as permanent and universal. As Wayne Jackson put it, “no one has the right to assume that a divinely given instruction or practice is culturally conditioned unless there are contextual considerations which clearly indicate that such is the case” (“Command Or Culture: Discerning the Difference;” see that entire article for a more expansive treatment of the applicability of Bible commands).
In other words, every Bible command should be taken, by default, as applicable to the reader, unless the context indicates otherwise. Why? The Bible was written for everyone to embrace, so that all may be saved through its testimony (John 20.30-31; Luke 1.4; Jn. 19.35; 1 Jn. 5.13). Hence, the very nature of the Bible is such that it claims authority over everyone, not just those to whom its various books were directly written.
Accordingly, when a Bible command is not limited by circumstances in the context, and especially when the context itself provides a rationale for keeping the command that applies to all on a permanent basis, then the command must be regarded as obligatory for us today.
When the author of Hebrews wrote:
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12.14),
we must conclude that such instructions are necessary for us today, even though he wrote them directly to a particular audience (not us). Why? Because the rationale behind these commands is universal in scope — “no one will see the Lord” if we do not obey these two commands.
Now, suppose someone argued that pursuing peace and holiness was only necessary for the Hebrews of that era since the Hebrew culture especially prized these characteristics, whereas, in our time, peace and holiness tend to be regarded as old-fashioned and out of touch with modern trends. Where is the flaw in that reasoning?
First, they have provided a rationale for the Bible command which the author did not supply — no where does he appeal to local circumstances as a basis for the commands.
And second, they have ignored the rationale actually given — that no one (which includes us) shall see the Lord (i.e., experience his salvation) without pursuing peace and holiness.
Unfortunately, many Christians today reason in precisely the same fallacious manner regarding Bible commands which they find intolerable, such as with the role of women (cf. 1 Tim. 2.11-15; 1 Cor. 14.34-35) and the use of head-coverings in church (cf. 1 Cor. 11.2-16), etc. Culture must never be assumed as the rationale for the command, especially when the reasons explicitly given by the author himself are trans-cultural in nature (e.g., the creation of our entire race).
Ultimately, if a Bible command is applicable to us, we must humbly obey it in order to be pleasing to the Lord (cf. Jn. 14.21; 15.10; 1 Jn. 2.3-4; 3.22-24; Rev. 22.14).
Read Part Two Here.
Dungan, D.R. Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures. Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Co., n.d. Hirsch, E.D. Validity In Interpretation. Yale University Press, 1967. Jackson, Wayne. "Command or Culture: Discerning the Difference." ChristianCourier.com. Access date: December 13, 2019. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1050-command-or-culture-discerning-the-difference Morris, Henry. The Remarkable Record of Job. Green Forest, AR: Master Books Edition, 2010.