Hermeneutics


I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

While most people rightly understand the baptism of the Spirit as a reference to regeneration, there is no shortage of interpretations of what the “fire” refers to.

Some understand this as referring to two separate Spirit baptisms for believers: the baptism of the Spirit is for salvation (regeneration), while the baptism with fire is an empowerment for ministry. Others agree that “fire” refers to anointing and empowerment, but only see one baptism in view. When we receive the Spirit, we experience both salvation and ministry empowerment simultaneously. An appeal is often made to Acts 2:1-4, where fire appeared over the disciples when they were filled with the Spirit.

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I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:5-8, ESV)

What is the “gift of God” that Paul enjoined Timothy to fan into flame? Many interpreters, including Pentecostals, tend to view this gift as the gift of the Holy Spirit that we see in the book of Acts. I’ve heard a number of messages about stirring up the Holy Spirit inside of me, based on this verse. It’s not hard to see the connection. The laying on of hands is associated with receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 8:17-18 and 19:6, and this experience is intimately connected with “power” being given to the believer (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8; 4:33; 6:8; 10:38).

While this is a plausible interpretation, I do not think it is the best. Let’s consider other possibilities. (more…)

When it comes to Biblical interpretation, some tend to think that they don’t need to study or engage in deep thinking on the Scripture. God will simply tell them what the Bible means. On the other end of the spectrum are those who tend to think that they don’t need any spiritual illumination of the text. They can discover the meaning through study and deep thinking alone.

Paul rejected both of these approaches to Scripture. He told Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7). Paul didn’t see it as an either-or, but a both-and. We must do our best thinking on the words of Scripture, and Jesus will help us understand Scripture in the process.

I am temporarily reviving an old series I did on hermeneutics called “straight outta context.” For this installment, I want to look at 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:10-17)

I had always heard verses 10-15 used to exhort people to good works. As Christians, we need to make sure that we are doing works that will endure for eternity (gold, silver, precious stones) and for which we will receive a reward, rather than doing things that have no eternal value (wood, hay, stubble). However, in context, this is Paul’s warning to teachers to make sure that they are discipling God’s people correctly.

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I often hear people preface their wayward theological musings with, “I really prayed about this and did a lot of study.” If they are simply making the point that they did not come to their conclusions rashly, fine, but this sort of statement is often used as a justification for their theological conclusions. They are appealing to their prayer and study as reasons to accept their beliefs as true. This is mistaken. Prayer and study do not guarantee that one will come to the right conclusions. This should be evident from the fact that many people have given themselves over to much prayer and study regarding a particular issue, only to come to different conclusions. Prayer and study do not guarantee that you will come to the right conclusion, and surely they are not good reasons for others to trust your conclusions. All that matters are the reasons you offer for your conclusions. If your reasons are good, then your conclusion should be trusted. If your reasons are bad, then your conclusions should not be trusted. The same goes for your facts and presuppositions. Your conclusion will only be as good as the facts you considered and the presuppositions you bring to the question. I’m glad you prayed and studied, but I care more about your reasons than your investment and sincerity.

In the parting words of Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica, he admonished them with several imperatives, including “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).

Many Christians have struggled to make sense of Paul’s admonition because it’s evident that we cannot literally pray without ceasing. At the very least, we would have to stop praying when we go to sleep at night. Even if Paul was only talking about our conscious hours, one cannot pray while they are talking to other people, concentrating on their work, etc. Many Christians, wanting to affirm the sense of “continual prayer,” have taken this verse to mean that we should continually be in “a spirit of prayer.” This is often construed along the lines of always having a prayerful attitude even when we are not praying to God (which should be a frequent affair throughout one’s day). What exactly a prayerful attitude is, is not entirely clear. Others take it to mean that we should pray about everything.

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mutualsubmission“…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)

This verse is often invoked in the context of the marital relationship to teach against male headship.  Rather than the wife submitting to the man, it is claimed that Paul argued for mutual submission: the wife should submit to her husband, but the husband should also submit to his wife.  This principle is extended beyond the marriage relationship as well to include all Christians.  Each Christian ought to submit themselves to each other.

Is that the point of this passage? Is Paul teaching that we should always yield our will to someone else’s will?  I think not.  While a look at the context will prove this to be so, common sense alone rules this interpretation out.  Consider the following: (more…)

no-visionFor many years this proverb has been misinterpreted, probably because the KJV translates it “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” What we typically hear preached from this verse is that a church must have a long-term goal and plan if they wish to thrive rather than perish. That may be good advice, but that’s not the meaning of this proverb.

The word vision does not refer to one’s ability to formulate future goals and plans, but is a synonym for the prophetic word which comes from God’s prophets.

“Perish” has also been misunderstood.  It’s not referring to churches that will cease to exist if they don’t have a vision, or to the spiritual perishing of unbelievers who will perish in hell if the church does not get a vision for the lost.  The word means “to cast off all restraint.”  The point of the Proverb, then, is that when there is no prophetic word from God to guide the people, they will cast off all moral restraint and follow their own evil devices.

Keep it in context….

peace-of-christ-rule-in-heartsLet the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)

We have often interpreted this verse in an individualistic fashion to mean that each Christian should have peace in our heart.  This verse is even appealed to in support of the teaching that intrapersonal peace in our heart is a means by which we discern God’s will for our life.  Is this what Paul was conveying?  Let’s look at the context. (more…)

testing_the_spiritsBeloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God… (1 John 4:1a)

… for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4b)

Portions of 1 John 4:1-6 are often cited in discussions of spiritual warfare.  John’s admonition to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (4:1) is cited as evidence that we need to exercise spiritual discernment to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, or even good and bad human spirits.  “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (4:4b) is typically quoted in the context of overcoming the Devil.  But are these passages being interpreted correctly?  Are they referring to spiritual warfare?  To find out, let’s look at the context. (more…)

all-things-through-christI can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

Some have called this the Superman verse.  People invoke it to say that they can do anything and everything, as long as Christ is giving them the ability to do it.  It’s a great motivational verse.  As great as that message sounds, it’s not what Paul meant when you read the verse in its context.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13)

Ben Witherington observes that the Greek does not say “do.” The only verb in the Greek is ischuo, which means “to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful.”  A literal rendering of the verse is “I am able all things in Him who empowers me.”  Read literally, it doesn’t make any sense.  Able to do what?  The helping verb is missing, and can only be supplied by the surrounding context.

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root-of-bitternessSee to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Hebrews 12:15)

The way I have typically heard this verse explained, the author is warning against the spiritual danger of harboring personal bitterness.  Indeed, the Contemporary English Version interprets it this way in their “translation”: “Make sure that no one misses out on God’s wonderful kindness. Don’t let anyone become bitter and cause trouble for the rest of you.”  Is that what the author meant to convey?  Let’s look at the context. (more…)

work-together-for-goodAnd we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

This passage is typically used to teach that God will use the bad things that happen to us in life to bring about some future blessing (financial, relational, ministerial, etc.).  Some go so far as to teach that each instance of suffering has a corresponding blessing attached to it.  Let’s look at the context.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30)

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philosophySee to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

On its face, these words of Paul to the church at Colossae appear to denigrate philosophy.  For that reason, this verse has been one of the favorite verses by anti-intellectuals and those opposed to the study of philosophy.  Philosophy, they say, is the not just worthless, but dangerous to the Christian faith.  This would be a gross misreading of the text, however.  We must pay attention to the qualifications Paul made concerning his indictment of philosophy. (more…)

truth-set-free[A]nd you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)

This phrase adorns the buildings and statues on many college campuses.  The message is that knowledge of the truth will liberate one’s mind.  While that may be true, is that what Jesus was trying to communicate in John 8:32?  Let’s take a look at the context. (more…)

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. (Philippians 3:13)

If I had a dollar for every message I heard using this verse to encourage people to forget the bad things that have happened in their past and to look forward to what God will do in their future, I would be rich.  While there is wisdom in this approach to life, that was not Paul’s point in this passage.  Let’s look at the context. (more…)

generational_curseThere are four passages in the OT that speak of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers unto the third and fourth generations of those who hate God”: Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9.  Deuteronomy 5:9 is probably the most familiar:

You shall not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

Many interpret these passages to teach “generational curses”: curses on the children resulting from their fathers’ sins. There are whole ministries dedicated to helping people break free from these generational curses over their lives, many of which they may have no knowledge of. Is this the point of the passage? Does it really mean to convey the idea that God punishes the children for the sins of their fathers?  There are three good reasons to think not.

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binding-loosingThere are two passages in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks of “binding” and “loosing”:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18)

I have heard two different types of interpretations of these passages.  The first understands this to give power to the church leadership (whether at the level of the local pastor or the denomination as a whole) to legislate on matters not addressed (or not sufficiently clear) in Scripture.  This often gets applied to morally questionable practices.  For example, some Christians think it is morally wrong to wear jewelry while others think it is morally acceptable.  To settle the dispute, a pastor will either “bind” the issue by prohibiting the use of jewelry among his congregants, or will “loose” the issue by allowing it.  Whatever the pastor binds or looses on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven, so to disobey or contradict the pastor is to disobey God Himself.

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2-or-3-gatheredThe go-to passage for prayer groups and prayer meetings across the globe is Jesus’ words in Matthew 8:19-20:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The common interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is present when two or three believers have gathered and agree together in prayer concerning any matter.  Even when I subscribed to this interpretation, I always had the nagging question about the implications this had for praying alone.  Is God not present when you are praying by yourself?  I resolved that perhaps God was present in a special way when more people were gathered.  The power of unity, right?

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do-not-judgeThere are few charges Americans dread more than “being judgmental.”  It ranks as one of the worst of the new “secular sins.”  But what exactly is judging?  The way it has come to be understood in common parlance is considering someone’s beliefs or behavior to be wrong.  Both Christians and non-Christians alike commonly quote Jesus saying “Do not judge lest you be judged” as their moral authority for their brand of non-judgmentalism, but did Jesus mean it’s wrong to tell others they are wrong?

If Jesus’ prohibition on judging means it’s wrong to tell others their beliefs or behavior is wrong, then Jesus Himself is both judgmental and hypocritical.  If it’s wrong to tell others that they are wrong, then Jesus was wrong to tell those people that what they are doing is wrong.  When our understanding of “judging” leads us to conclude that Jesus is a hypocrite, we ought to reconsider whether Jesus defined judging the way we do.

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