Errors In Modern Day Bible Interpretation

Jeffrey Todd McCormack

2 Timothy 2:15, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth"

We've heard it! Some of us have memorized it! But do we really practice it? How far do we go to understand and interpret the Scriptures to seek their original, intended purpose? Interpreting and understanding the Bible today is looked at by most (especially non-believers) as being dependent upon each person's own understanding; or what they feel God is saying at that time to them through it. I've time and time again, heard people say that various parts of the Bible can be interpreted to mean different things depending on who is reading it; and that it's up to each individual to draw their own understanding from it, depending on where the "Spirit leads." To believe that there is a definite, single meaning and understanding behind each Scripture is not a popular view these days, which is unfortunate.

I'm not saying that God can't or doesn't use various Scriptures to speak different words of comfort, instruction, etc. to individual people, but I am saying that when originally written, the Scriptures had a distinct purpose and meaning, pertaining to that time period and to whom it was addressed. I believe many today have forgotten this important fact and look at God's Word as somewhat of an illogical book of hard-to-understand stories and parables for us to decipher. The Bible is not given to us to be an almighty mystical "eight ball" to be flipped around for answers to problems in life.

The main factors this writer sees as the blame for the problems in today's Bible interpretation are: (1) the constant use of Scriptures out of their intended context, (2) today's lack of interest and study in Church history and (3) a weak knowledge of the original languages of Greek and Hebrew (i.e. their uses and meanings at the time).

Out of Context

Many people have their "pet" verses they like to quote for various situations of life. Unfortunately, people use many Scriptures out of their proper context. It's very easy to take one sentence out of a book, and interpret it to make it say something contrary to it's intended purpose. 

Here we examine the latter part of 2 Peter 3:9, commonly quoted as:

"...[The Lord is] not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."

This is frequently used in an attempt to say that God desires not one single person throughout all eternity to ever perish (in hell), but that He wishes that all would be saved.

To get a better understanding of the author's intention here, we must put it back into it's context and examine it:

"(8) But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (9) The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."

The first thing we must take note of here is, to whom the Apostle is writing. He is addressing believers, the Church, those called by God and set apart as his people. Secondly, what is he actually talking about here? He is referring to the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is letting them know that the time of the Lord's coming is not to be rushed, for time is not something that matters with God. He is letting them know, though, that the Lord will keep His promise, for He "is not slack, as some men count slackness." There were many men at the time who were expecting Christ's immediate return, but since it was not meant to be immediate, they were scoffing, saying He was not coming. There were probably also believers, who by their weakness of faith and the greatness of their sufferings, had become impatient, and thought that Christ was slow in coming to give them their reward. Here, the Apostle is correcting them, telling them not to put a time limit on God's plans; then giving the reason why there was a wait: He is "longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any [of the (us) in the church] should perish, but that all should come to repentance."

Now, who exactly is the "us-ward" the apostle is speaking of? Again, it is His church, the elect of God, chosen before the foundations of the world. God is long suffering to them, in that He is waiting till the whole body of His elect believers, throughout all time and generations, are born and come to repentance. God is working out His plan, allowing time for all His chosen race to be brought into the fold. If Jesus was to return prematurely, He would be cutting out all of His covenant people who were to have come in future generations.

We should be able to now see the folly in taking this Scripture out of context and saying that the "any" in this verse could in any way mean that God doesn't want ANY single person in mankind to perish. That would be further proved absurd, considering God Himself, throughout history, has directly been responsible for the deaths of many disobedient men. If we were to try to understand this Scripture in the way it is being abused in these days, we are forced to ask why would God have cut off so many men, if He really wished for them to all come to repentance? The outcome of this misinterpretation would be to imply that God "wishes" or desires that all mankind could or would be saved, but that He alone simply has no power to make it come to pass. To believe this type of man-made, man-centered doctrine is to attempt to take God's sovereignty in salvation away from Him and hand it over to man. As Jesus so plainly stated, "No one can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him:" (John 6:44).

This belief stems from a faulty view and understanding of the depth of man's sinful state and utter depravity, and the modern teaching of man's supposed "free will." God is in total control over His creation, and the salvation of His people, and neither needs nor accepts any assistance from man to accomplish it. Teaching that God can alone do nothing to actually save man, but that man must himself first choose God, is to misinterpret the most basic doctrines of salvation contained in the Bible.

Think about it further. One would actually be saying man must first do something (act in faith and choose God) before salvation can proceed, and that without this, man can not and will not be saved. This means that man is essentially responsible for his own salvation. This is salvation by works, not by grace (unmerited favor) as the Scripture clearly teaches. This means God must just sit back, pitifully watching mankind reject Him, having no power to do anything about it. Oh, that this heretical doctrine could be destroyed, and God would be given back His rightful place on the throne as sovereign Ruler over all things. Faith is not man's contribution to salvation; faith is the outcome of the Spirit's work in man's heart. God takes out man's heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh, and causes man to act in faith and follow Him and His laws (Ezekiel. 36:26-27). Before this act is begun by God, man cannot even try to understand the things of God:

1 Corinthians 2:14, "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know [them], because they are spiritually discerned."

Romans 8:7-8, "Because the carnal [unregenerate] mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."

Remember, before trying to interpret or understand a single Scripture, always read the entire chapter (or better yet, the entire book/letter) in which the verse is contained, to understand its correct context. But even then, don't forget about history.


I must stress at the start here, that I am a strong advocate for sola Scriptura, which is basically to say that I look to the Scriptures alone, contained in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, as the ultimate authority for belief and practice. I also believe that neither personal conviction, "warm feelings" or other experiences testify or justify a proper interpretation, but that in fact Scripture interprets Scripture. The proper understanding of Scripture is not subject to each individual's own private interpretation, or to any extra-biblical writings. However, I do believe it important and quite necessary to understand the proper context and historical setting behind each biblical writing, before attempting to interpret or understand its intended meaning. And for that, we must rely on the writings of trustworthy historians, since we were no present during those times to know the historical settings. I will go so far as to say that without a good background in Jewish and first-century Church history, correct Bible interpretation is near impossible.

History, in two ways, plays a very large part in Bible interpretation, yet many today seem to forget it. First of all, to truly understand the Bible, you must have at least some familiarity with the Jewish language, beliefs, and practices at the time of the biblical writing. Otherwise many terms, phrases, and sayings in the Scriptures will make little to no sense to us today. Even for most of the New Testament writings, we must know and understand what was happening in the first century when they were written. What problems faced the Apostles in their time to make them say some of the things they did? The Bible in most cases gives us only a limited amount of insight and background into the surrounding problems at the time. When Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians for instance, the Corinthian people to whom it was addressed knew the surrounding problems of the time, as well as the customs, laws, and practices of that era. Thus, Paul may not have dwelled on, or even mentioned them in his letters. This would leave us twentieth-century readers puzzled and guessing if we just read the letter at face value, as many attempt to do. To understand the Corinthian Epistle, we must "become," as it were, a first century Corinthian. We must understand their practices, their terminology, the social issues of the time, etc. We must also look to the original Bible text languages of the time (Greek and Hebrew) as they were understood, meant and intended at the time, to those being addressed. We cannot take our modern language understanding and try to force first-century Greek into it.

Another way history obviously plays a part is in the actual recording of events that have happened which were prophesied in the Scriptures. This aspect, unfortunately, is a big selling point of today's Dispensational teachers, and is the modern rave for many best selling books, and those with "itching ears." Unfortunately, with the ignoring of the other rules of interpretation, as well as completely overlooking many more ancient major events in church history, these teachers misapply many prophecies to expected future events; prophecies which have actually been fulfilled in times past.

Although I don't have the space to expound in very much detail here, I would like to briefly mention at least one example of what I mean, and point you in the direction for further study.

Matthew chapter 24 (you may wish to read it before proceeding) is regularly used in an attempt to prove the doctrine of the supposed "Secret Rapture" of the Church, as well as the "Great Tribulation" period. Unfortunately, most have missed the mark here, as this was a prophecy, going hand in hand with the tribulations mentioned in Revelation, which was written "to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass" (Rev. 1:1). These judgment prophecies tell, in first-century Hebrew/Greek sayings and terminology and Old Testament symbolism, of the impending destruction and overthrow of Jerusalem, which occurred in AD 70. This is one of the most significant events to happen in Church history. It fulfilled many of God's prophesied judgments on his people, yet this event itself is not recorded in the Bible itself, since it had not occurred prior to the sealing of the scriptures. This information, as you see, can only be known by using the "extra-biblical" knowledge of history. Many still dig into Revelation, looking at it as a futuristic book of prophecy yet to happen. Christians of the first century were heavily persecuted by the Jews, and this book was written to give comfort to the Christians at that time, prophesying the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, and an end of Old Covenant temple practices. I know to many of you, I sound like I am presenting some new heretical teaching. It only sounds this way because most all of us have been brought up in a period saturated with Arminian and Dispensational teachings, a time when Christians have all but forgotten the importance of Church history. I plead with you to look further into this subject.

Due to obvious lack of room, this is the only example I can expound on at this time. There are many other areas that could be discussed, but hopefully you understand the main idea I am presenting, which is the major importance history plays in proper Bible interpretation.

So! How does a person have the time or know how to study all of this history, language, etc. in order to properly interpret the Scriptures? It would take many hours a day, and much learning to do, wouldn't it? True, and that is why God has called and set aside certain men to the ministry of leading His flock into truth. Elders are called to spend their time in much prayer and studying to accomplish this deed, and then bring the fruit of their labor to their flock. It is for this reason we as individuals should not arbitrarily go about trying to easily interpret the Scriptures without some guidance of our Elders, or other trustworthy Elders before us in history.

1 Timothy 3:2,6, "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach... Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil."

1 Timothy 5:17, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine."

It is for lack of sound teaching in the Church regarding this matter, that many of today's cults and cultic teachings have started in times past from small "bible study" type groups, who were not led by called ministers of God, but were rather just groups of laymen seeking "new revelations" in God's word.

Please do not misunderstand me here, though. I'm not advocating the removal of the Scriptures from the layman, as the Roman church has done; I am just stressing the importance of the time and effort needed to properly interpret the Word. Today's full time working church-goer usually doesn't have the training or same amount of time to study the original language, the history, etc. as the full time Teaching Elder does. As the Scriptures ask, "are all teachers?" (1 Cor. 12:29). As a layman myself, I rely heavily on the knowledge of my church Elders, or to read an excellent book by a past godly Elder who had the time and knowledge, used it, and printed the results for us to read now.

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