This is the third in a series of five articles from Langham Preaching, a ministry of Langham Partnership, which seeks to work in fellowship with national leaders to establish local and national preaching movements. This series highlights the five focal areas that shape the curriculum of Langham Preaching and also guide which materials are published within our imprint Langham Preaching Resources.
Faithfulness to Scripture is such an important attribute for all preachers and teachers of God’s Word. People often say ‘Just read the Bible and do what it says, why do you need to interpret it?’ But how do we practice what it says if we don’t’ understand it and how do we understand it if we don’t know the meaning of what we read?
The Lord Jesus Christ once asked an expert in the law, "What is written in the Law? . . . How do you read it?" (Luke 10:26 NIV). This is an important question as we reflect on what it means to be faithful to the text of Scripture.
I once heard someone preaching on how Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord (from Jonah 1:1-6). His primary message was on backsliding and he used one word from the text to teach and illustrate what it means to backslide. The word he picked from the text was ‘down’ as found in the passage
He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it
Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.
The preacher emphasized that each time ‘down’ is mentioned it shows the depth of departure from God’s presence. While his intention to teach on backsliding is good, he was not faithful to the text from which he preached. Instead of focusing on the Scripture text and its meaning, he read into it a message that was not the primary emphasis of passage he read from.
The goal of being faithful to Scripture is to seek what God intends for us to know and understand from the text, and not what we intend to find. The primary objective is exegesis which involves reading "out of" the text the meaning of the author and making it understandable to the hearer or reader without changing the significance of the author's meaning. In the long run, it is a two-sided affair of exegesis and exposition; exegesis being finding out the meaning of a text in its context, and exposition being presenting what that meaning signifies to the reader in his context.
It is also to understand the meaning of words and sentences. This we can do by reading the same text in more than one version of the Bible if any version is not clear enough. For example, years ago when my favorite Bible version was the King James Version, I read and took Isaiah 45:11 literally, interpreting is as God giving is the right to command him when we pray. Afterall, the text says,
Thus saith the LORD, The Holy one of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands; command ye me. (KJV)
The danger I fell into in concluding that we can command God was to take just one verse of Scripture that appealed to me and draw meanings out of it without bearing in mind the overall context of the verse. When someone pointed my attention to the same text in other versions of the Bible I began thinking differently. Other versions put the same text as follows:
This is what the LORD says— the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? (NIV)
Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, Israel’s Creator, says: What right have you to question what I do? Who are you to command me concerning the work of my hands?” (The Living Bible)
These cast doubts on what I had previously believed about the text. It led me to study the whole chapter which gave me a bigger picture of the context of my choice verse. In reading and reflecting on the whole chapter I came to see that my interpretation of that one verse was in fact the very opposite of what the text should mean.
This is important so we do not build doctrines out of phrases or sentences in various parts of Scripture. For example, some have built a doctrine of humans being little ‘gods’ out of the words of Jesus in John 10:34-35 with the claim that Jesus says “Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said you are gods?’ and the scripture cannot be broken”. Texts like these need to be read not only in their immediate context but in relation to the other parts of the Bible to which Jesus was referring.
The question we must examine is, why did Jesus say those words? Before he said these words Jesus had earlier made claims to deity by saying, “I and the Father are one” (verse 30).The Jews who heard him had picked up stones to stone him. Before they could, Jesus asked them “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ Their answer was “We are not stoning you for any of these, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man claim to be God”. They were clearly offended because of their rooted conviction that the God of Israel was only one.
Why would Jesus have responded by asking “Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said you are gods”? Was he teaching that man was god? How can this be reconciled with Israel’s “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The answer lies in the context of Psalm 82:6 which Jesus was referencing. Who are the ‘gods’ referred to in this passage?
The whole of Psalm 86 is actually a word of judgement on unjust rulers and judges. In Old Testament times and in the context of existing Jewish culture, earthly rulers and especially judges were commonly referred to as “gods” because they were representatives of God. The usage in Psalm 82:1 and 6 is a reference to such judges. In another Psalm, 58:1, judges were also referred to as “gods”. Some other versions of the Bible use the term rulers or judges. This was because they were God’s representatives on earth. They are also called sons of the Most High (verse 6).
Nothing however suggests that they were divine. Their very acts contradict that, and verse 7 declares that they would die like more men and fall like every other ruler. The context of both Psalms 58 and 82 is one of strong indictment of unjust ‘judges’. In John 10:34, Jesus more or less asks them “If unjust judges are called “gods” how is it blasphemy for me, the chosen one of God to call himself the Son of God?” We cannot therefore use John 10:34-35 to teach that men are little gods.
Being faithful to Scripture also requires bearing in mind that words only have meanings in sentences and for most part, biblical statements have meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding passages. This is refereed to as the literal context of texts. Texts as found within literal contexts should therefore be interpreted accordingly. Careful attention also needs to be paid to the meaning of words, especially when we use certain versions of the Bible. For example, when one reads
But Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, KJV).
The use of the word suffer here does not mean to discomfort or torture little children to come to Jesus. The use of the term ‘suffer’ meant something different then. It simply meant to ‘let’. Hence a better reading of the same text is
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (NIV)
How then does one develop a habit of being faithful to Scripture? It starts with the discipline of reading.
Reading the text of Scripture over and over again, slowly and as much as possible, aloud, to get into the world of the text. Related to this is the discipline of study. Study, particularly of Scripture is a spiritual discipline in which one works to understand biblical texts within their context and, as may be necessary, using some tools (relevant literature) to understand texts that may otherwise be difficult. Above all, this cannot be done without prayer. Faithfulness to Scripture must begin with dependence on the one who inspired all of Scripture by looking up to Him in prayer.Article By Femi B Adeleye, Director for Africa, Langham Preaching