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Can I Really Trust My Interpretation of the Bible?By John Piper — 4 months ago
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.
Shaken to Bear Fruit: What Has Come from Losing a SonBy Tim Challies — 9 months ago
The strange machine along the streets of Madrid seized my attention.
Its long arms reached out and wrapped themselves around the trunk of a tree. Its motor vibrated those arms at high speeds so they could shake the tree violently. Its net sat suspended just beneath the lowest branches. As the machine buzzed and roared, a hundred ripe oranges fell from the branches to land in the net below — a hundred ripe oranges that could feed and satisfy a hundred people. That machine was carefully designed to release the fruit from the tree — to release it by shaking.
The nets filled with oranges remind me of something the apostle Paul once wrote about times of trial and tribulation, of deep sorrow and loss. He contended that Christians must be prepared to be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and even struck down — a collection of words meant to display the variety of ways in which God may call us to suffer (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).
The God who is sovereign over all things may lead us into times and contexts that are deeply painful. Yet we can be confident that our suffering is never arbitrary and never meaningless, for God always has a purpose in mind. Hence, Paul says more: we will be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” For those in Christ, God’s purpose is never to harm us and never to ruin us.
“The God who is sovereign over all things may lead us into times and contexts that are deeply painful.”
So what is God’s purpose in our suffering? Why does God sometimes lead us away from the green pastures and still waters to call us instead to follow him into deep and dark valleys (Psalm 23)? These were questions that were much on my mind in the days, weeks, and months following the Lord’s decision to call my son to himself.
God Left Us Sonless
Nick, age 20, was at seminary and taking a break from his studies to play a game with a group of his friends when, in an instant, his heart stopped, his body fell to the ground, and his soul went to heaven. His friends tried to revive him, a passing doctor tried to revive him, responding paramedics and emergency-room doctors tried to revive him. But it was to no avail. God had called him home. And since God had summoned him to heaven, there was no doctor, no medication, and no procedure that could keep my son here on earth.
I don’t know why God determined that Nick would live so short a life, why he would leave this world with so little accomplished and so much left undone. I don’t know why God determined to leave Aileen and me sonless, Abby and Michaela brotherless, Ryn fiancéless and ultimately husbandless. I don’t know why God did it — why God exercised his sovereignty in taking away a young man who was so dearly loved, who was so committed to serving Jesus, and who had so much promise. But I don’t need to know, for, as Moses said, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
While I don’t know why God did it, I am already beginning to understand how God is using it.
Lamentation Without Resentment
On the streets of Madrid, a machine shakes the orange trees to cause them to release their fruit. It shakes them violently, shakes them so hard that it almost looks as if the branches must snap, as if the trunk must splinter, as if the entire tree must be uprooted. Yet this is the way it must be done, for the delicious fruit is connected tightly to the inedible branches. And the moment the machine has collected the fruit, I observe, it ceases its shaking, it furls up its net, it withdraws its arms, and it backs away, leaving the tree healthy and well, prepared to bear yet another harvest.
And just like that machine shook the orange tree, Nick’s death has shaken me and shaken my family and shaken my church and shaken Nick’s friends and shaken his school — shaken us to our very core. Yet this shaking, though it has been violent and exceedingly painful, has not caused us to break. We have raised our voices in lamentation, but never in rebellion. We have raised hands of worship, but never fists of rage. We have asked questions, but have never expressed resentment.
“God does not mean to harm us when he shakes us, but simply to release the fruit.”
To the contrary, as I look at those who love Nick most, I see them displaying fresh evidences of God’s grace. I see them growing in love for God, in the joy of their salvation, in the peace of the gospel, in their patience with God’s purposes, in kindness toward others, in the goodness of personal holiness, in faithfulness to all God has called them to, in gentleness with other people’s sins and foibles, and in that rare, blessed virtue of self-control. I see them bearing the precious fruit of the Spirit as never before (Galatians 5:22–23).
Shaken to Bear Fruit
Just as the fruit of the tree clings tightly to the branch, the evil within us clings tightly to the good, the vices to the virtues, the immoral to the upright. God does not mean to harm us when he shakes us, but simply to release the fruit — to do what is necessary to separate what is earthly from what is heavenly, what dishonors him from what delights his heart.
As I consider my wife, as I consider my girls, as I consider Nick’s precious fiancée, as I consider his friends and fellow church members, I see that they have been deeply shaken by his death — shaken by God’s sovereign hand. But I see as well that they have been shaken for a beautiful purpose. They have been shaken to bear fruit.
We Travel to a World UnseenBy Greg Morse — 4 weeks ago
When I talk with modern men who dismiss God without a second to even consider him, I cannot help hearing a herd of cows mooing upon a hillside. These scientifically minded men (they claim) live to stare at the patch of grass in front of them and call the scheme real life. That is all they can prove exists, after all. They can feel the field under hoof, chew the cud in their mouths, feel the rain upon their backs — these are objective realities.
They show no interest in anything beyond their immediate experiences and senses.
Sure, crows may bring them tales of mighty birds exploring worlds above the clouds, or rumors of far-off sea kingdoms and mythical beasts buried in water, or even of goats prancing upon mighty rock hilltops in the skies — but they see no towering mountains, nor swelling oceans, nor lofty heights — nothing to even suggest such a possibility. Foul tales from fowls is all; ravens raving ill dreams. Cows who live to watch the skies have more than sun dropped in their eyes.
Myths and stories, like viral diseases, infect some in their farm society, but not them. Some hoot and chirp and baa of worlds elsewhere. But claiming to be wise, they always knew some chickens are a few eggs short of a dozen; some pigs hit their heads rolling in mud; some horses will remain unbridled. Truth be told, if these dreamers did not bring ethical claims with their feverish imaginations, they might deserve pity. Who wouldn’t mind worlds beyond this? But reality, they’ve come to know, is less enchanted. These hills and gates and patches of mud are all that have been or will be.
Foundation of Reality
We live increasingly in a culture of cows. These do not need to cling to children’s tales or superstitions. They know the world is not flat. Science and reason solve mysteries formerly left to religion. Now we have morphine and highways and YouTube. As David Wells stated of our modern world, “The hand that gives so generously in the material realm also takes away devastatingly in the spiritual” (No Place for Truth, 56). What spiritual realm? many even ask.
But such questions are nothing new. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” wrote the ancient poet (Psalm 14:1). They cannot tell us who or why man is or how he got to this hill — but here he is and here he remains. Nothing lies above or beyond his existence on this patch of earth. He has bravely looked the situation in the face and contents himself to live head down, grazing this world for all it’s worth, unbothered by distant horizons. Out of sight, out of existence.
Christians know better. We understand that the physical realm — full of bones, flesh, trees, stones — is derivative of the spiritual. It must be so, for the God who created the physical is spirit (John 4:24). His immaterial speech created the material world; the invisible begot the visible. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3).
But we must ask how much of this secular spirit we have unknowingly adopted. Here is probably the most important question you will be asked today: What is most real to you — this world or the next? What holds greater reality — the seen or the unseen? What is more ultimate — this physical realm or the spiritual?
“Can your life be explained apart from faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ?”
You don’t necessarily need to tell us; your life answers well enough. Where do you spend your attention, energy, affections, time, talents? Can your life be explained apart from faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ?
This can be a Copernican revolution, or a caution and reminder, if you accept it: The invisible world — the unseen, untouched, unmeasured — is most substantial, most enduring, most real. The immaterial world does not orbit our physical realm; the physical orbits the immaterial. Theirs is the unyielding reality; we inhabit silhouettes and shadows.
People Who Saw the Invisible
Faith, in other words, tells us that the world is turned upside down, flipped inside out. Faith does not regard the physical as unreal or unvaluable simply because it is physical — what the apostles saw with their eyes and touched with their hands is paramount to their witness to Christ (1 John 1:1). But faith sees beyond to the unseen. It demotes this world — its values, its dictates, its desires — in preference for the world to come. And it waits for this current physical world to be remade into that place where spiritual and physical perfectly abide: the coming New Heavens and New Earth.
Our spiritual forefathers — though without flushable toilets and supercomputers — knew to give precedence to the just-out-of-view, and wagered their very lives upon it. The history of the saints in Hebrews 11 shows the contrast of sights.
They were convinced of things they hoped for, were assured of things they could not yet see (Hebrews 11:1). Noah, for example, spent decades building a boat on dry land, preparing for the unseen flood. Abraham looked upon the only home he knew, turned his back, and wandered into the unknown to live in tents. He and Sarah then eyed wrinkled skin and aged bodies and waited to see children more numerous than the stars. Moses gazed at the shackles and the scarred backs of the Israelites and chose these over the gold coins, luxuries, and lush pleasures of Pharoah’s house — “for he looked to the reward” and “endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:26–27).
Others gazed past beatings and mockings and jail cells and death in this world to see a resurrection to a higher life (Hebrews 11:35–36). Salvation from their God was more real than swords of the enemy; conviction about the Christ felt more solid than their chains. They were those of whom this world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:37–39).
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised,” the writer admits. But notice their vision: “Having seen them and greeted them from afar,” they “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Their hearts smiled as they bowed into the grave because they saw promises coming. Promises more powerful than death. They declared plainly that they sought the life over the hill, their distant homeland (Hebrews 11:14). And their God did not disappoint, and will not disappoint them, when they awake in the better country they longed for, a city built by God, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:14, 16). Do you see as they did?
This World, a Dream
This passing world is the phantom, the shadow. While great things are gained or lost in its short span, this age will soon break upon eternity as a tiny bubble against the rock shore. This life, so fragile, so fleeting. “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). The wind passes over us, and we are gone (Psalm 103:16). Only a few more sunsets, a couple more nights of sorrow, a handful more days of laughter, and you will be gone. To chase this world and all its pleasures is to chase nothing but the wind.
“This age will soon break upon eternity as a tiny bubble against the rock shore.”
What is coming, what is near, what is not yet seen with physical eyes is most real. Light and momentary were Paul’s calculations of all his heaviest sorrows compared to the nearing “eternal weight of glory” for Christ’s people (2 Corinthians 4:17). He saw as we must see: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
So what now? Henry Scougal paints it perfectly when he writes in a letter to his friend,
We must therefore endeavor to stir our minds towards serious belief and firm persuasion of divine truths and the deeper sense and awareness of spiritual things. Our thoughts must dwell on divine truths until we are both convinced of them and deeply affected by them. Let us urge ourselves forward to approach the invisible world and fix our minds on immaterial things till we clearly understand that they are not dreams. No, indeed; it is everything else that is a dream or a shadow. (150)
Indeed; it is everything else that is a dream or a shadow.
So turn off the screen and gaze — and keep gazing — up at the heavens, where Christ is (Colossians 3:1–2). Despise the tantalizing trivialities, and keep your heart fixed on the next world — its glories, and foremost, its God. Wipe the crust of materialism from your eyes, wake from the sedative of worldliness, rise from slumber in this Enchanted Ground and look at Christ by faith until you see him more clearly than as trees walking. Spend your life exploring the mountains of glory summed up: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
“Though you have not seen him,” Peter wrote to the early church, “you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9).
Beloved, we travel to a world unseen, a place to make this all a dream.