Written Word

Interpreting the Bible – Part 4

The Bible was never written to answer specifically every possible eventuality that may arise in life, but there are principles in Scripture that give us divine guidance concerning the issues we face today. Jesus taught that such principles exist. He said, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.” (Matthew 12:3-4)

There is no doubt that those to whom Jesus spoke had read about this event many times, but never grasped the broad principle enshrined in the text. Jesus explains that human need – in this case, David relieving the hunger of himself and his men – is more important than ceremonial law. Hence his words, “Have you not read…?” This was a passage he expected them to understand.

The Apostle Paul understood this principle very well. In his letter to Timothy, he says that the elders who both shepherd and teach the church are to be paid for their work. (1 Timothy 5:17) And where does Paul go for his proof text? – straight to Deuteronomy 25:4, a text with instruction for the fair treatment of an ox: “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.” Paul understood the principle that if God is concerned for the fair treatment of a working ox – that he can eat the fruit of his labour and must not be prevented from doing so – surely it follows that God is also concerned for the financial welfare of those who work in leading his church.

Finding an Equivalent for Today

We need to learn to read the Bible with an eye open to the broader application of the text. For example, Jesus said, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42) How can we take the words of Jesus about giving “a cup of cold water” in his name and find an acceptable equivalent for today? I have been to Siberia on a few occasions – in winter, I might add – and I can assure you that the last thing they need is a cup of cold water. What would be an acceptable equivalent? Would a cup of hot soup, a warm blanket, or pair of gloves qualify? Of course they would. The rigid, narrow approach to Scripture embraced by the Pharisees, (and by some Christians today) was the root of so many of their problems. They would have taken the words of Jesus – “a cup of cold water” – and debated as to whether or not the water could be served in a glass, or must it only be a cup, and just how cold should the water be? Would lukewarm water be okay? Endless debate and discussion would have revolved around the text while the central point would have been missed entirely.

It is legitimate to move outside the actual words of Scripture in embracing a principle that harmonises with the will of God. For example, we are told, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20) To fulfill this instruction must the needs of our enemy be met only by supplying him with groceries and beverages, or could we fulfill the teaching of this Scripture by providing him with the funds to become self-employed? Could we fund a training course that would qualify him for gainful employment? Of course we could! And if someone objects and says, “Where in the Bible does it say that we have the right to finance a training course for someone?” we reply by saying it is divinely enshrined in the words, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him”.

The Bible teaches us that meeting man’s needs is more important than ceremonial law and that being merciful to one in need is always the right thing to do. The principles found in Scripture provide us with the authority from God to do what needs to be done in carrying out his will. And because “all Scripture is God-breathed” it is said to be “useful… for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:16) Let us always approach Scripture with prayer, reverence and humility so that we can understand how to apply the principles taught therein.