by Wayne Grudem
Throughout many years of ministry, Kent Hughes has been known as a faithful and accurate interpreter of the Word of God, both in his pulpit ministry week after week at College Church in Wheaton and in his numerous publications. In fact, I would point to Kent as someone whose ministry models the kind of faithful interpretation of Scripture that I will discuss in this essay.
I write as a friend who worked with Kent for many years on the board of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who worked with Kent on the translation team for the English Standard Version, and who still serves with Kent on the board of Crossway Books. From many years of friendship, I am quite sure that Kent would agree with much or all of what I am about to say here. In fact, I suspect that he may have taught many of these things to his pastoral interns over the years! But I offer these comments here in Kent’s honor, because I think they represent much of what his life has been about.
My purpose here is to offer some words of advice on right and wrong interpretation of the Bible. I hope these words may help seminary students and pastors and other Bible teachers as they seek to interpret the text rightly and then to teach it week after week to their congregations. Many of the following comments have grown out of twenty-five years of seminary teaching (six years teaching New Testament, then nineteen teaching systematic theology). As I have watched seminary students over the years, they first become excited about all there is to learn about biblical interpretation, then some become discouraged that there is too much to learn, and then a few may even tend to despair, wondering if they can ever know anything about the text when so many different opinions have been written about it over the centuries. The amount of information available, and the number of viewpoints on any passage, can become overwhelming unless we keep them in proper perspective.
To keep students from discouragement, I have tended to tell them over the years that the purpose of seminary training is to help them do better something they already do quite well as mature Christians: understand the meaning of the Bible. That is because I believe God gave us his Word in such a form that ordinary people could, in general, understand it rightly. That is the doctrine of “clarity” of Scripture. “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps.19:7).
So these comments are intended to help people become better interpreters. I have couched my comments as suggestions that may be helpful for pastors and Bible teachers. They include much of what I tell seminary students about how to interpret the Bible, though I hope that others will be helped by these comments as well.
General Principles for Right Interpretation
1) Spend your earliest and best time reading the text of the Bible itself. I’m afraid that too often pastors and scholars can fall into the trap of spending 90 percent of their time reading commentaries about the text and then spend only the last 10 percent of their time reading the text of the Bible itself. But when that happens, people tend only to see problems and disputed meanings in every phrase rather than seeing the clear and strong message of the text itself. I therefore tell students (only partly in jest) that the three most important rules for interpreting the Bible are: (1) Read it. (2) Read it again. (3) Read it again.
The words of Scripture are the product of the infinitely wise, omniscient mind of God. There is much more depth of meaning in them than any human being will ever be able to understand. That is why I have found, and millions of Christians throughout history have found, that increased depth of understanding comes from repeated reading and rereading of a single passage of Scripture, pondering each word and phrase, sometimes even slowly reading the text aloud. Since this is God’s Word, it is especially important that we do this while consciously being in the presence of God, asking him to help us understand his Word rightly, to see connections to other parts of Scripture, and to see proper application to life.
Time and again I have found that the most powerful sections of my own sermons have come from times when God has first spoken deeply to my heart through the words of the Bible itself, and I have been so moved that I have experienced tears of awe and reverence, or tears of sorrow and repentance, or times of great joy and laughter and rejoicing at the greatness of God. Commentaries do not speak to my heart in this way. Now please do not misunderstand me. I own many commentaries (not as many as Kent, however, for I have seen his library!), and I have even written one myself (on 1 Peter). When I get “stuck” and simply can’t figure out the meaning of a passage, I will read a number of commentaries and gain helpful insights. And when I have finished spending extensive time with a text of Scripture on its own, after that I will read through some commentaries to see if I have missed anything or made any foolish mistakes. But I cannot do that first, or I simply get lost in endless detours and byways that should not be my primary concern.
So I encourage pastors and Bible teachers: spend your earliest and best time with the text of Scripture itself and with a notepad and pen in your hand. For those who know only English, spending time with a good English translation (such as the English Standard Version) will be wonderfully rewarding. But for those who know Hebrew and Greek, spending time in the original text, doing some word studies, and checking the meaning of some words in lexicons will add richness and accuracy and depth at this point.
I remember many years ago when I traveled to Wheaton and had an appointment to meet with Kent Hughes in his office. His secretary let me in a minute or two before Kent arrived, and when I walked in I saw a well-marked Greek New Testament open and propped up in a bookstand on his desk where Kent was preparing his sermon for the following Sunday. Seeing that told me that this was a pastor who still used his Greek text, and who still was serious about feeding his people the solid meat of the Word of God week after week. He spent time with the text of the Bible itself. I think this is what Psalm 1:2 encourages us to do when it talks about the blessed man: “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
2) The interpretation of Scripture is not a magical or mysterious process, because Scripture was written in the ordinary language of the day. Sometimes seminary students have a false impression that when they come to seminary they will be given some “secret tools” for getting hidden meaning from the text that other people couldn’t find there. But this is not true, because the Bible was written for ordinary people, and it was written in the ordinary language of the people to whom it was first given. That is why Moses could command all the people of Israel, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6–7).
That means that when we are seeking to understand the Bible, we are not seeking some secret “new revelation” that will give us better insight into the text. Nor are we looking for some secret numerical code in which the Bible has a mysterious message that can be found by counting backwards every seventeenth letter, and if that doesn’t work, every eighteenth letter, then if that doesn’t work, then programming the computer to count backwards every eighty-sixth letter, or eighty-seventh letter, until some mysterious message about Napoleon suddenly appears! This is simply not the way that God caused Scripture to be written, and not the way he expects his people to read and understand it. Certainly the original readers did not think they had to read it this way.
No, what we are looking for as we read Scripture is understanding . We seek to know what the words and the phrases mean, and we seek to understand how they relate to the next phrase and the next sentence and the next. We seek to understand the purpose of a sentence in the whole of the paragraph, or the whole of the chapter, or the whole of the book. In all this we are asking God to give us understanding. We want to know why a sentence means one thing and not another; and we believe that the reasons for a certain meaning will be there in the text if we look for them until we find them.
3) Every interpreter has only four sources of information about the text. This is related to the previous point. There are only four kinds of information (as far as I know) that any interpreter can use in understanding the text and in arguing for that understanding in an attempt to persuade others. The four sources of information are these:
a) The meanings of individual words and sentences. Of course we need to understand the meanings of words correctly, and then the meanings of the sentences in which they occur. Words can have a range of meanings (that is why a dictionary entry will list several meanings for a word), but that range is not unlimited. In fact, for every word in the original Greek or Hebrew text of the Bible, there was a recognized range of meanings that the original speakers shared. If one person didn’t know what another person’s words meant, the two could not have communicated with each other! I realize that the context can help us decide among the possible meanings for a word, but context doesn’t give a word an entirely different meaning than it had everywhere else (that is why Greek and Hebrew dictionaries are useful in giving us the range of meanings).
In seeking to understand Greek and Hebrew words, I have found that doing a “word study” (that is, looking at the way a word is used in various verses of the Bible) gives me a much better appreciation of the actual range of meaning of a word, and helps me understand more vividly and accurately the precise meaning of the word and also the kind of contexts in which the word is used.
b) The place of the statement in its context. What is the purpose of a verse or a sentence? Is it to support a previous statement? Or is it stating something with which the author is going to disagree? Is it a statement made by someone whom the author will later say was wrong (such as the statements of Job’s three friends)?
c) The overall teaching of Scripture. Because I believe that the entire Bible is the product not just of human authors but also of God himself, and that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), I also believe that the entire Bible, rightly understood, will be internally consistent. It will not have contradictory teachings. In fact, the psalmist says, “the sum of your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160), and the word here translated “sum” (Hebrew ro’sh) in this context means something very close to what the word “sum” means in English—it is the result you get when all of God’s words are added together. When all of God’s words are considered together, they are not contradictory, but they constitute “truth.”
Certainly it is a good discipline, in interpreting any text, to seek first to understand it in the immediate context of the book in which it occurs and what we know of that author’s situation and viewpoint. But I think it is right for us also to remember that a correct interpretation will not ultimately contradict what other passages of Scripture say. Therefore I may struggle for a time attempting to find out what James means when he writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), but I am certain that, whatever James means, he cannot be directly contradicting Paul when he writes, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). To take another example, I may need to struggle for a time working on the details of Hebrews 6:4–8, trying to understand the meaning of this: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, . . . and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:4–6). Does this mean that some people who are truly born again can actually lose their salvation? People come up with different solutions to this question, but two answers that I do not think possible are: (1) Hebrews teaches that people who have been genuinely born again can lose their salvation, and (2) John and Paul and Peter teach that genuine believers cannot lose their faith.
Of course, liberal New Testament scholars have no problem at all saying that different New Testament authors taught contradictory viewpoints of doctrinal questions. In fact, they expect this to happen because they think of the Bible as merely a human book, recording the religious experiences and ideas of human beings who lived long ago. But I disagree with that viewpoint, and I do not think that the Bible contains direct contradictions in its teaching. Therefore I must work more carefully at interpreting the individual passages until I find a solution that does not contradict other passages of Scripture.
Of course, my own ideas of “what the rest of the Bible teaches” might at some point be incorrect, and I may need to go back to those other passages and reexamine them to see if I need to change my mind about the teaching of the rest of the Bible. One verse influences our understanding of the whole, and our understanding of the whole influences our understanding of one verse, so there is a back-and-forth thought process as we seek to get it all right. But on many doctrinal matters the teaching of Scripture is so extensive and so clear that I think it very unlikely that we have misunderstood it through the whole history of the church. All this is to say that the overall teaching of Scripture is something that we must keep in mind in order to interpret Scripture rightly.
d) Some information about the historical and cultural background. Good commentaries and reference books on archeology and geography and extrabiblical history can be very useful in this regard. Jewish literature after the time of the Old Testament and Christian literature after the time of the New Testament can also be useful and can enrich our understanding of the historical background, the surrounding culture, the precise meanings of some words used in the Bible, and so forth.
However, while this material is often helpful, I think it is seldom necessary in order to understand the passage correctly, at least in its central meaning. And too much of what I have read about supposed “background information” I have found to be largely speculative or inaccurate. It is important therefore to have some reliable, standard reference works such as the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 1 or the Oxford Classical Dictionary2 or the New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.3 In addition, it is often helpful to look at the primary documents from ancient Jewish and Greek literature (Jose-phus, Philo, rabbinic literature, Dead Sea Scrolls, apostolic Fathers, etc.) in English translation where that is easily available.
Sometimes this extrabiblical material makes a text much more vivid and forceful. I remember reading about Samson, when he was in Gaza and the men of the city were waiting to ambush him and kill him, that at midnight, “he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron” (Judg. 16:3). I knew this was an impressive feat, since the gate of an ancient city was massive and was made as strong as could be to defend against enemy attacks. But I wondered how far he carried the gate. How far was Hebron from Gaza? I looked at a Bible atlas and found that the distance was over thirty miles! When I found out that bit of background information, I understood more clearly why the men of Gaza decided not to mess with Samson.
So those are the four sources of information:
a) The meanings of individual words and sentences;
b) The place of the statement in its context;
c) The overall teaching of Scripture;
d) Some information about the historical and cultural background.
That’s all there is. There isn’t some other “secret” arsenal of information that only Bible scholars in dusty libraries have access to. And when we realize this, then the task of interpretation seems more manageable and able to be done with some degree of accuracy and confidence.
4) Look for reasons rather than mere opinions to give support to an interpretation, and use reasons rather than mere opinions to attempt to persuade others. Too often I think interpreters have a tendency to count commentaries, and if six commentaries favor interpretation A, while only two commentaries favor interpretation B, they think that A must be the right interpretation. But that is just counting opinions. That is not weighing the reasons for those opinions. Maybe the six commentaries are all based on the work of one respected writer, and maybe that writer got it wrong. (For example, I found that several commentaries on 1 Peter were written with too much dependence on E. G. Selwyn without realizing that he had made a number of mistakes both in information and in judgment.)
Far better is the approach that looks for the reasons a commentator gives for his interpretation. Then it is up to us, as interpreters, to decide whether those reasons are persuasive. Perhaps we see things in the text that those commentaries just overlooked. Or perhaps they are based on assumptions that we cannot agree with (such as a liberal assumption that there are contradictions and historical inaccuracies in what the Bible says).
I think that a good pastor or Bible teacher will take the same approach with his congregation. He won’t just say, “In my opinion the verse means X,” but will rather give the reasons for his understanding. He will say something like, “I think the text means X and not Y because this same word occurs three verses earlier and has the same meaning, and because meaning X supports the author’s purpose in this chapter, which we see in this other verse.” A good Bible teacher will be able to summarize those arguments briefly and clearly and express them in a way that the hearers can understand, so that they can follow the argument in their own English texts as well.
5) There is only one meaning for each text (though there are many applica-tions). To take an example we used earlier, either Hebrews 6 means that genuine Christians can lose their salvation, or it doesn’t mean that genuine Christians can lose their salvation. It doesn’t mean both! This is because (as I mentioned earlier) God’s word is truthful and internally consistent in every part. Every time we see Jesus or Paul reasoning from an Old Testament verse and saying something like, “It does not mean A, B, C, but it means D, E, F,” we see them appealing to a conviction that a text means one thing and not something else. (See, for example, Matt. 22:32; Acts 2:25–35; Rom. 9:6–8).
The Westminster Confession of Faith includes a classic statement of this when it says:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9; italics added).
I admit that the meaning of a passage can be complex and multilayered because of the richness and depth of Scripture. But there is still only one correct meaning.
What is that meaning? It is the meaning that the original authors of Scriptures intended. In most cases that is the same as the intent of the human author of Scripture, but there are times when the Divine Author, who knows the end from the beginning, has more in mind than the human author understands (1 Peter 1:10–12 indicates that was generally true of the Old Testament authors when they were predicting the coming Messiah).
As for multiple applications, there are of course many millions of different situations to which any given Scripture might apply. And we should grow in skill in applying Scripture rightly. But it still has just one meaning at any one point.
6) Notice the kind of literature in which the verse is found. The Bible has different kinds of literature. It contains historical narrative, poetry, doctrinal argument, collections of wisdom sayings, prophetic speeches, and visionary or “apocalyptic” literature. Although all the words of Scripture are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16), we understand it better when we realize that poetic literature often speaks in imagery rather than with literal description and realize that wisdom literature often makes generalizations about things that are usually true with regard to human conduct (without claiming that they are true in every single instance in every person’s life), and so forth. Each type of text should be understood according to the kind of literature it is.
But here is a word of caution as well: too often I have found that scholars get carried away with “parallels” to similar kinds of literature outside the Bible. They can end up saying things such as, “This set of laws from Moses is just like the laws found in Hammurabi’s law code in ancient Babylon, and therefore the biblical law must be saying the same thing,” and then they use Hammurabi as the deciding factor in interpreting the text of the Old Testament. Or a New Testament scholar might say something like, “This set of moral standards in Paul’s epistles is just like the ‘household codes’ in ancient Greek or Roman society, and therefore Paul must be upholding the same moral principles as found in those ‘household codes.’” But in both cases the parallels have been overdrawn, because the interpreter has failed to realize that the Bible has both similarities to and differences from other literature of its time. Certainly we would expect the moral standards given by God to be higher and purer than the moral standards of the surrounding cultures.
7) Notice whether the text approves or disapproves or merely reports a person’s actions. For example, Genesis records a number of events that God does not approve of. Jacob lied to his father, Isaac, in order to get Esau’s blessing (Gen. 27:19, 24), but that does not mean it is right to lie. And “Rachel stole her father’s household gods” (Gen. 31:19), but that does not mean that God approves of what Rachel did! It reports that Jacob told Esau he would come to him “in Seir” (Gen. 33:14), but the subsequent verses show he had no intention of doing this but went another direction to Succoth (v. 17). Joshua reports that Rahab told a lie to save the Israelite spies (Josh. 2:4–6), but I doubt that the author means to encourage readers to tell lies in difficult situations. (Although Hebrews 11:31 commends Rahab for her faith and for welcoming the spies, and James 2:25 commends her for receiving the spies and sending them out by another way, the Bible nowhere explicitly approves of Rahab’s lie, which violates the ninth commandment. Moreover, it is doubtful that the author of Joshua intends us to take the uninstructed moral conduct of a Canaanite prostitute as an example for how to live a morally blameless life.)
The question of whether an action is morally right or wrong, or is approved by God or not, should be determined by the explicit teachings of Scripture regarding moral conduct, not merely by appeal to narrative examples where it is unclear whether God approves of the character’s action or not.
8) Be careful not to generalize specific statements and apply them to fundamentally different situations. Too often I have heard people in a Bible study take some verse where Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and make an immediate application to “our evangelical leaders today,” thereby implying that many evangelical leaders are, like the Pharisees, hypocrites, or given to excessive pride or greed, or accustomed to placing human traditions above the Word of God, and so forth.
But these easy connections between the Pharisees and modern evangelical leaders fail to make the most important distinction: the Pharisees who opposed Jesus were not born again and did not (by and large) have a genuine personal relationship with God or a genuine spiritual life within. They were unregenerate religious leaders, for Jesus said they were “like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness,” and he told them, “You also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28). Therefore, anybody who makes a direct parallel between the Pharisees who opposed Jesus and modern evangelical leaders should first be prepared to say that he thinks that these modern evangelical leaders are not genuinely born again, that they are not really Christians at all.
I realize, of course, that we can all take warning from observing the sinful conduct of various people in the Bible, and there are surely appropriate warnings against pride and hypocrisy that we all should take from reading about the Pharisees. But to say that we all should be warned not to become like the Pharisees is far different from assuming that certain ones of us are already like the Pharisees. That is generalizing specific statements about certain people and applying them to fundamentally different situations.
A similar case is found in Matthew, where Jesus says, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matt. 16:4). Time and again I have heard this verse quoted (even by some very reputable Bible scholars) as a means of rebuking people for seeking signs and miracles in the work of the church today. But these writers have failed to observe the context of this verse, where we find that Jesus directed this rebuke against “the Pharisees and Sadducees” who came to him, “and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven” (Matt. 16:1). Nowhere did Jesus ever rebuke someone who came to him in genuine need and asked to be healed or asked for some other miracle. Nowhere is there a hint that it was wrong for the early disciples to pray that God would give “signs and wonders” in connection with the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 4:30). So using Matthew 16:4 against genuine believers who sincerely ask God to perform miracles is wrongly applying the text to a fundamentally different situation from that of “evil and adulterous” opponents of Jesus who were simply seeking to test him and find some way to criticize his ministry.
9) It is possible to do a short or long study of any passage. Do what you can with the time you have, and don’t be discouraged about all that you cannot do . Imagine that you are a young seminary student and need to prepare a short devotional talk on Psalm 1—with only ten minutes to prepare! I think you could do it. Take two minutes to calm your heart and pray for the Lord’s guidance (eight minutes to go). Then take about two minutes to find out something about the structure of the passage and get a brief outline (six to go). Then take two minutes to think about how this psalm will be fulfilled in Christ and then ultimately in the age to come (four to go). Then take the remaining three or four minutes to jot some notes on application. Then give the talk! Life in the ministry includes some situations like that where you have to do the best you can with the time involved.
Please do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that it’s a good idea to give a devotional talk that you have only spent ten minutes preparing. But I am saying that sometimes unexpected situations come up, and through some emergency that is no fault of your own, your preparation time is taken away, and you still have to give a short talk. I think it’s possible. And I say this only to illustrate the point that it is possible to work within the time allowed and still do a reasonably good job of interpreting the text of Scripture for a specific need or circumstance.
Or you could work twenty hours preparing a good sermon for Sunday morning on Psalm 1. Or some scholar could work two hundred or three hundred hours and write an academic article on Psalm 1. Or a PhD student might take an entire year to write a dissertation about Psalm 1 and its place in the book of Psalms. He might eventually publish a commentary on the book of Psalms.
All of these exercises have their place. If we have more time, there is always something more that can be done to give more depth, more certainty, more insight, more accuracy to our interpretation. But it is good to be able to tailor your work to the time you have available for it, and then ask the Lord to bless what you have done.
10) Pray regularly for the Holy Spirit’s help in the whole process of interpreting the Bible. Even the author of Psalm 119 prayed for help in understanding the Word of God, for he said, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). If even he needed to pray for help and understanding, then so do we. In fact, there is a strong moral and spiritual component involved in proper understanding of Scripture. Paul says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14; compare Heb. 5:14).
This means that regular prayer needs to be part of our interpretative process. In fact, in my own life, time and again, when I have been puzzled about the meaning of a verse, I have stopped and prayed, asking the Lord to help me understand. And time and again, after praying, I have suddenly seen something I had overlooked that was there in the text all along. I wouldn’t say that the Holy Spirit told me the meaning of the text. Rather, I think the Holy Spirit enabled me to see more information that I had not yet taken into account, information that was already there but that I had overlooked or not understood.
If “solid food is for the mature” (Heb. 5:14), then personal holiness of life and the maintenance of strong personal faith and a vital relationship with the Lord are all important in right interpretation of Scripture. Paul told the Corinthians, “Among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age,” (1 Cor. 2:6), but then he told them that he could not give them that kind of wisdom, because of their immaturity: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. . . . For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Cor. 3:1–3). Their disobedience became a barrier to proper understanding of the wisdom that Paul would have taught them.
Keeping the “Big Picture” in Mind: Some Observations about the Whole of Scripture
A final comment on right interpretation has to do with keeping the “big picture” in mind. After he had graduated, an excellent seminary student told me that the one thing he missed in his seminary training was a class on “how the whole Bible fits together.” He had learned thousands of details, but what was “the big picture”? The classes were all on such specialized topics that no class seemed geared to address that question.
So here are some comments on “the big picture.” These are general characteristics of Scripture to keep in mind. Interpreters who understand these “big pictures” will be much better at understanding individual verses.
Big Picture 1
The Bible is a historical document. Therefore, always ask, “What did the author want the original readers to understand by this statement? ”
When we read Scripture, we are reading a historical document written at specific times and places long ago. Yes, it does speak to today, but sound interpretation requires that we first think about what the text was doing in its original setting. What did the original (human) author want his original readers to understand?
This approach will help us avoid bizarre errors in interpretation, such as the classic story about the man who prayed for guidance and then opened his Bible and stuck his finger on Matthew 27:5, where it says that Judas “went and hanged himself.” Not seeing much benefit in that, he prayed again, then turned over to another gospel and blindly stuck his finger on another verse, only to read Luke 10:37, “You go, and do likewise.” Surely the original authors did not intend for people to take that kind of guidance from either statement!
By contrast, asking what the original author intended the original readers to understand will help the interpreter avoid fanciful allegories that improperly interpret the text. For instance, an interpreter who doesn’t follow this procedure might find all sorts of fanciful interpretations of the “five smooth stones” that David took to fight Goliath (1 Sam. 17:40). A modern charismatic interpreter, given to allegorizing, might say that these five smooth stones are the fivefold manifestations of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4:11. “But no,” a Calvinistic interpreter might answer. He would say that it’s obvious that the “five smooth stones” represent the famous “five points of Calvinism.” Then a third allegorical interpreter, an ethics professor, might say that they were both wrong because David is going forth to war against Goliath, and therefore the “five smooth stones” obviously represent the five sides of the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, and they therefore give support to the “just war” theory!
Unless we first anchor our interpretation in what the original author wanted the original readers to understand, there will be no limit to the variety of such incorrect interpretations that have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the text. What then is the correct meaning of David’s “five smooth stones” in 1 Samuel 17:40? The correct meaning is that “the five smooth stones” tell us that David took five smooth stones from the brook when he went to fight Goliath. The meaning is no more, no less than that. How do I know that? Because that’s what it would have meant to the original author and the original readers as they read this historical narrative.
Big Picture 2
The original authors wanted the original readers to respond in some way. Therefore always ask, “What application did the original author want the readers to make to their lives?”
Just as we want readers to respond in some way to what we write, so the original authors of Scripture had a purpose in what they wrote. They wanted to get a response of some kind from the readers. Perhaps they wanted the readers to believe that certain things were true about God; or perhaps they wanted them to obey God’s commands, or fear judgment if they disobeyed, or take courage against their enemies, or treat their neighbors with justice and kindness, and so forth. Perhaps the authors wanted the readers to praise God for his excellent character and his wonderful deeds. Perhaps he wanted the readers to avoid the mistakes of people in the past or look forward to a Messiah who was to come.
If we ask, “What application did the original (human) author want the original readers to make to their lives?” that will be an excellent first step in avoiding wrong applications and finding proper applications to our lives today as well. For example, before David went out to fight Goliath he said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). Here the historical narrative in 1 Samuel tells us David trusted in the Lord to give him victory, and that God did give him victory over Goliath. In addition, David refused to wear Saul’s armor (1 Sam. 17:38–39) but took the weapons with which he was familiar, and God gave him victory with those (vv. 40, 45–49). Just so we don’t miss it, the text emphasizes again and again that David trusted in the Lord and the Lord gave him the victory (see vv. 36–37, 45–47).
It is not hard to see that the original author wanted the original readers to make application to their lives as well. They should be like David and trust in the Lord to protect them, and to work through the “weapons” and abilities God gives them, and to give them victory in the trials of life. As for application to our lives today, we too should trust in the Lord to protect us and work through the tools and abilities that God has given us, and hope that he will give us victory in the tasks he calls us to. But there are some differences: in the New Testament our “weapons” in the ministry of the gospel are the spiritual weapons of the Word of God and prayer (see 2 Cor. 10:3–4).
Related to this question is another: When we read about historical events in the Bible, we should also ask, what was God showing the original readers through this event? Why did he want it recorded for subsequent generations?
Big Picture 3
The whole Bible is about God! Therefore we should always ask, “What does this text tell us about God?”
With respect to the story of David and Goliath, it would be totally foreign to the whole message of the Bible to take the story of David and Goliath as merely an example of human courage: David had courage and therefore we should have courage as well. This is man-centered moralism that misses the God-centered emphasis of the entire Bible. Rather, the text tells us that David trusted in God, and God gave him courage, and God gave him victory over Goliath. In fact, the emphasis on God’s work in this story is repeatedly found in the text itself (see 1 Sam. 16:13; 17:26, 37, 45, 49–51).
There is so much more in the story of David and Goliath than a morality tale of a mere human being who had courage against insurmountable odds. The story tells us (1) that God has chosen “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) to be king of Israel, and David is going to replace Saul as that king. (2) It tells us that God anointed and protected and empowered David to defeat Goliath, the most powerful enemy of God’s people. (3) It tells us that no earthly power could stand against the Lord (note the emphasis on the Goliath’s size and armor in 1 Samuel 17:4–7). It was God who protected and saved his people. (4) It tells us that David was zealous to defend God’s honor (1 Sam. 17:26, 45–46). David trusted in God to the point of putting his own life on the line, and God rewarded David’s faithfulness and obedience—obedience even to the point of risking death. (5) It tells us that after the battle, God gave great honor to his anointed king and brought the people of God into a time of great harmony, peace, and blessing under the leadership of King David (see James 1:12 for a parallel in the New Testament).
So this text, like the rest of the Bible, has an emphasis on God and his excellent character and his wonderful works. A similar emphasis can be found throughout Scripture, and we will do well not to miss it.
Big Picture 4
The center of the whole Bible is Jesus Christ. The entire Old Testament leads up to him and points to him, and the entire New Testament flows from him. Therefore, we should always ask, “What does this text tells us about the greatness of Christ?”
After Jesus’ resurrection, he taught his disciples more fully how the whole Old Testament points to him. We read, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). In this verse, “Moses” means the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy, and “all the Prophets” most likely refers to the rest of the Bible, the “early” prophets who wrote the historical literature and the “later” writing prophets, who wrote the prophetic books and wrote or assembled the wisdom literature as well. Luke seems to be telling us that Jesus saw “things concerning himself” in “all the Scriptures,” that is, in the entire Old Testament.
To return to the story of David and Goliath, does it tell us anything about the Messiah to come? Is there any way in which God was preparing his people for the Messiah by teaching them what the Messiah would be like through the lives of various historical figures? Yes, this text tells us much about things yet to come. From the perspective of the fulfillment that comes in the New Testament, we now can realize that a number of things are foreshadowed in the story of David and Goliath. These five points follow closely the five points about what God was doing that I mentioned in the previous section:
- God is someday going to choose someone yet greater than David, someone who is truly “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), and this coming one will be King of Israel forever (see 2 Sam. 7:12–16; John 12:13).
- God is going to anoint and protect and empower this coming Messiah, and he will defeat the most powerful enemy of God’s people, that is, Satan himself. This was predicted as far back as Genesis 3:15 (see the partial fulfillment in Rom. 16:20) and began to be fulfilled when Jesus came and bound “the strong man” and began to “plunder his house” (Matt. 12:29). This prediction found its culmination in the cross, where God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15; see Heb. 2:14–15), and it will be more completely fulfilled when Satan is cast into the lake of fire at the final judgment (Rev. 20:10).
- Just as Goliath was not able to stand before David, so no earthly power will be able to stand against the coming Messiah. He will come in the strength and power of the Lord, and will defeat all his enemies and reign as King of kings and Lord of lords (see Rev. 17:14; 19:16).
- David’s zeal for God’s honor reminds us that there is a Messiah coming who will be zealous to defend God’s honor. He will trust in God even to the point of laying down his own life. After he is obedient unto death, God will highly exalt him (see Phil. 2:8–11).
- Just as God brought his people into a time of great peace and harmony after David defeated Goliath, so after the coming Messiah defeats all his enemies, God will empower him to bring his people into a time of great harmony, peace, and blessing under the leadership of Jesus Christ, their eternal king (see Rev. 11:15–17).
Although Jesus in his first coming fulfilled many of these expectations, there will be a yet greater fulfillment at his second coming.
Now it may not be possible to develop all of these points and all of these parallels in any one message. But the Old Testament is filled with many examples of righteous leaders who in their good conduct foreshadowed the greater Messiah yet to come. And, by contrast, the many shortcomings and failures of the leaders (such as Abraham, Moses, and David, all of whom sinned) remind us that Abraham is not the Messiah to come, nor is Moses, nor is David. Someone greater than these is yet to come.
I do not think it is foreign to the text and the flow of all of Scripture to see the Old Testament in this light. It is all leading up to Jesus Christ, and it is all a kind of preparation for him. When we understand that and point it out, we are not imposing something on the text, but we are in fact being faithful to the text as it appears in the larger context of the entire flow of biblical history.
Big Picture 5
All history can be divided into several major “ages” or “epochs” in salvation history. Therefore, we should read every passage of the Bible with a salvation history timeline in our minds and constantly remember where every passage fits on the timeline.
The Bible’s perspective on the history of the world is different from the perspective of secular historians of the world. The Bible’s focus is not military history or political history or economic history. The Bible’s focus is not the history of science or the history of art or the history of the development of various cultures. Rather, the Bible’s emphasis is on “salvation history,” that is, the study of how God himself was relating to mankind at various periods in history.
So it is good to begin to read the Bible with at least a rudimentary timeline in mind and then to seek to grow in understanding of how God related to his people in a somewhat unique way in each period on that timeline.
Figure 4.1 contains a very simple timeline with which I advise students to begin. It is easy to memorize, it includes only five dates plus the present year, and it helps readers keep the whole Bible in proper historical perspective. (This is a “premillennial” timeline, according to my own convictions. Amillennialists and postmillennialists may adjust the last part as they see fit.)
Now, on that timeline, the old covenant, or the Mosaic covenant, begins with Moses and continues until the death of Christ. Then the new covenant age begins, and the Holy Spirit is poured out in a new fullness and new power that is appropriate to the new covenant on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
Such a timeline provides a great help in keeping many interpretation questions in right perspective. Why don’t we follow the dietary laws given in the Old Testament? Why can we eat ham and bacon, contrary to Leviticus 11:7, which says “the pig” is one of the unclean animals that should not be eaten? It is because we are no longer under the Mosaic covenant or the old covenant, and so we do not need to be subject to those dietary laws that were particular to that covenant.
But what shall we say then about Genesis 9:6, “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image”? Many have argued (and I think rightly) that this provides a fundamental basis for human government to inflict punishments up to and including capital punishment on people who do evil. But is this applicable today, or is it just part of the Old Testament that we no longer need to follow?
I think it is applicable today because it is not part of the Mosaic covenant that was given on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20. These commands to Noah in Genesis 9 are commands that seem to apply to the entire human race that descended from Noah and his wife and children. When this salvation history timeline is in my mind, it helps me to understand that this command is not part of the temporary provisions that were only for the Jewish people in the time of the Mosaic covenant.
But what about the moral commands in the New Testament? What about, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25)? Is this a command that we need to follow today, or is it just something that was written 2000 years ago that belongs to another place and another time? Here the salvation- history timeline shows me that the “church age” began in A.D. 30 when the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, and the “church age” continues until the time Christ returns.
This means that we are at the same point in salvation history as were the people in the early church. In terms of the way God acts with people over time, we are closer to Paul’s readers in Ephesus in the first century than they were to the Jewish people in Jesus’ ministry just a few years earlier, because those people were still under the old covenant. There fore, these moral commands such as Ephesians 4:25 should be seen as applying directly to us and requiring our obedience as well.
Now the situation is a bit more complex than that. I am not saying that nothing from Exodus 20 to Malachi has any value for us! “All Scripture” is “profitable for teaching” and “for training in righteousness” (see 2 Tim. 3:16), so even the moral standards in the Mosaic covenant can be helpful to us in letting us know, in general, about the kinds of actions that God approves of and the kind of actions that displease him. That is a more complex subject than I can treat here. But the point remains that the salvation history timeline helps us keep the big picture of the flow of biblical history in our minds and helps significantly in the task of right interpretation.
Big Picture 6
Themes: Because the Bible is a unity (it has one divine Author though many human authors), there are many themes that develop and grow from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore, for each significant element in any text, it is helpful to ask, (a) Where did this theme start in the Bible? (b) How did this theme develop through the Bible? and (c) Where is this theme going to end in the Bible?
There are actually hundreds of themes that flow through the tapestry of biblical history like threads that appear again and again. It is rewarding to trace these themes from Genesis to Revelation and see how they develop, and I have found that when this perspective on a text is included in a Bible study, it encourages people’s hearts because they can see repeatedly how the entire Bible fits together and forms a consistent pattern in which God has been working through all history to bring about his plans for his glory and for the good of his people.
For example, the story of the Wise Men (the Magi) coming to visit baby Jesus is a familiar one to many people (see Matt. 2:1–12). This is not an isolated event in the Bible, however, but picks up on a number of themes that were present in the Old Testament and will be fulfilled in the age to come. For example, these Wise Men bring gifts from the wealth of the nations to offer in worship to the future King of Israel. These gifts are part of the abundant resources that God has put in the earth for us to develop and use for his glory (see Gen. 1:28, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”). All of the wealth that is found in the earth was created by God, and it ultimately belongs to him (see Hag. 2:8: “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts”), and so these Wise Men who bring gifts to the Lord are only offering back what belongs to him, and he is worthy to receive all honor and glory from it.
In fact, the Old Testament historical narrative foreshadowed a time when the wealth of the nations would be brought to the king of Israel who reigns in Jerusalem, as happened during the glorious period of Solomon’s kingdom (see 2 Chron. 9:22–23). And now when the Magi come to bring their gifts to Jesus, they are simply the first of the leaders of the nations who will ultimately come and bow before Jesus, who will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. They foreshadow all the rulers of the world bowing before their true King.
In the future, this theme of the wealth of the nations flowing to Jerusalem in the worship of God will be fulfilled in the New Jerusalem, for we read, “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:24). All the glory and wealth of the earth will be devoted to the worship of the King, and when the Wise Men open their treasures and present them to Jesus, it is a foreshadowing of that continual offering in the Jerusalem that is to come.
These Wise Men are also Gentiles, not from Israel but from another nation. But God had predicted as early as Genesis 12 that in Abraham (and, by implication, in his descendants), “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen.12:3). There are various historical events that anticipated this throughout the history of the Old Testament, as when Gentiles such as Rahab and Ruth became part of God’s people. But when we come to the New Testament, these “wise men from the east” (Matt. 2:1) are the first of a long stream of Gentiles who will become part of God’s people and worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
This theme finds further development when Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It finds further development when the Gentiles who were not God’s people, who were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise,” who had “no hope” and were “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), have become part of the church and become “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
But the visit of the (Gentile) Wise Men to baby Jesus finds even greater fulfillment in the age to come when John’s vision shows that around God’s throne is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9–10). All nations will join in the worship of Jesus Christ, and the “wise men from the east” are the forerunners of that wonderful theme in Scripture.
If we keep this “big picture” of developing themes in mind in our interpretation, it will help our people understand the Bible not as a series of isolated verses, but as a unified whole that develops as an outworking of God’s eternal and wise plans.
No doubt much more can be said about how to interpret the Bible rightly. But I hope that these brief comments might serve as a help and encouragement to many younger seminary students, pastors, and Bible teachers so that they, in imitation of the faithful ministry of Kent Hughes over so many years, might be wise and faithful interpreters of the biblical text, so that they might strengthen the faith and knowledge of their hearers, and so that they might bring glory to God in all that they teach from his Word throughout all their days.
1. Geoffrey Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988).
2. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds., Oxford Classical Dictionary , (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
3. Earle E. Cairns and J. D. Douglas, eds., New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).
From Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes by Todd A. Wilson, Leland Ryken