There are so many different books on biblical hermeneutics available, and so many ways in which various scholars have suggested for interpreting the Scriptures, that some ordinary believers may become confused and disillusioned by the apparent enormity of the task of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). So, where then shall we find the best, mostly reliable method for interpreting this divinely-inspired document? The best method of interpretation is to examine the way in which Jesus Christ interpreted the Scriptures when He was on this earth. Perhaps the clearest, most concise illustration of the hermeneutical methodology of Jesus, can be elucidated from a meticulous analysis of one text in the New Testament, the one located in Luke 24:27: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
Short three-word phrases from Luke 24:27 have been selected from various Bible versions, so as to clearly illustrate the seven-part method used by the Savior in His interpretation of Scripture. A brief overview of the basic seven-part approach, including the Action Steps to be taken, is outlined below.
Phase 1: “Jesus quoted passages;” i.e., it is Christ-Dependent Interpretation Phase One recognizes that, on our own, we cannot understand the Bible. The words of Jesus to His disciples are as true today as when He originally spoke them: “With God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Later on, in His ministry, He repeated that universal truth, in another six-word sentence: “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But really, this short clause is really the end of a passage of Scripture saturated with divine promise: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (John 15:5). It was only after that incredible assurance, that Jesus then added the vital postscript: “for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Referring to the Scriptures, Peter noted that it “never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). When we acknowledge that it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, then we will similarly recognize that we need to be open to that same Spirit in order to appropriately understand the inspired Word. Hence, the first Action Step clearly states:
Ask Jesus, the Supreme interpreter of the sacred Scriptures, to guide in your study of His Word; then, willingly follow.
Phase 2: “Starting with Moses;” i.e., it is Chronological Interpretation The importance of this intentional chronological approach can perhaps be best explained by means of an illustration. Over the years various individuals have pointed to the experience of David, and have concluded that God must have condoned polygamy to some degree since it was practiced by one who was called “a man after His own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).
According to 1 Samuel 13, it was immediately after King Saul had presumptuously officiated as priest in offering up a burnt sacrifice at Gilgal that Samuel informed him that he would lose his kingdom. In this context Samuel stated: “The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).
This young shepherd David, selected by God to replace Saul, was handsome, healthy, and harmoniously living within the will of God (1 Sam 16:7, 12). Evidently, at this time David was a single man. The narrative indicates that it was while David was still an unmarried man, and before he becomes embroiled in polygamy, that God called him “a man after His own heart.”
Several years earlier God had personally selected Saul to lead His people (1 Sam 10:24). However, even though Saul had for a while been a devout follower, he eventually rejected God. Similarly David was chosen by God as the next king when he was living within God’s will. Chronologically, it was at this point in time that God classified David as a “man after His own heart.”
Phase Two, a Chronological Interpretation of the Bible, seeks to set out a scriptural manner of coherently addressing such issues. Its basic Action Step is as follows:
Start at the beginning, then examine the topic through time, observing any changes over time; finally, draw conclusions.
Phase 3: “Interpreted for them;” i.e., it is Careful Interpretation More than two decades ago an Adventist magazine published a pro-abortion article, in which Exodus 21:22-25 was mentioned as justification for the position taken. Even a cursory glance at Bible versions brought to light an interesting phenomenon: Many translations, such as the Revised Standard Version, interpreted this passage as a “miscarriage” in which a fine was to be paid for the dead fetus, while the death of the mother called for capital punishment. On the other hand, some versions translated this same passage as a “premature birth” in which the death penalty applied equally for either mother or fetus.
Since this is the only passage in Scripture that deals with the legal responsibility in relation to the early termination of a pregnancy, its interpretation is obviously of vital import. Literally hundreds of hours of careful research was needed in order to discover which versions were the most reliable on this controversial matter. The conclusions of the careful investigation of this passage have been validated, by the virtually unanimous manner in which modern versions have rendered this passage, as dealing with a premature birth, and not a miscarriage.
Phase three aims at a detailed investigation of words and phrases in context. Its essential Action Step is as follows:
Examine the biblical passage meticulously, considering the words in the full context, to determine the proper meaning.
Phase 4: “In every part;” i.e., it is Comprehensive Interpretation The kind of careful interpretation of the specific passages of Scripture as identified and illustrated in Phase Three, however, must not be done in isolation from the rest of the Bible. In fact, the importance of seeing passages within their larger spiritual contexts is emphasized by Jesus on His walk to Emmaus. here Jesus “explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Or, as other versions express this vital phrase: “In every part of the Scriptures” (NEB); i.e., “in the whole of Scripture” (REB).
Phase Four, a Comprehensive Interpretation, examines texts within their broader contexts so as to find coherence in Holy writ. The main Action Step is the following:
Consider the evidence from the broader context of the Bible, compare scripture with scripture; then see coherent themes.
Phase 5: “Of the scriptures;” i.e., it is Canonical Interpretation As is well-documented, Jesus referred to the Scriptures repeatedly in His life. Jesus believed in the authority of the Scriptures (e.g., Matt 4:4). He not only taught from them (e.g., Matt 12:7-8), but He also lived by them (e.g., Matt 4:8-10). In His communication He frequently quoted from or alluded to them (e.g., Matt 11:10, 21-24; 13:14-16; etc.). He responded to temptation by quoting from the Scriptures (see Matt 4). When He was talking to the Pharisees, He answered their concerns by quoting from the Scriptures (e.g., Matt 12:3-8). He went virtually nowhere without talking about the Word of God. He constantly pointed people to the true meaning of the Scriptures (e.g., Matt 23:23).
When Jesus met those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, what could he have done right away, if He had wanted to convince them of who He was? Could He not have held of his hands and said, “Gentlemen, it is I”? But what did He do?
According to the account in Luke 24, we see very clearly that Jesus did not provide any such physical evidence to begin with. He was more concerned about going to the Word of God. As Luke 24:27 puts it: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” Or as another translation has phrased it: “He explained to them the passages throughout the Scriptures that were about himself” (NJB).
Thus, only after they were convinced from the clear canonical interpretation done of the written Word of God -- that the Messiah was indeed this Jesus who had died -- did the risen Christ then reveal His identity through the breaking of the bread.
Phase Five, a Canonical Interpretation, seeks to demonstrate the indispensability of the Word of God in the life of the believer. The Action Step, therefore declares:
Acknowledge and use the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as the fundamental basis for belief and practice in life.
Phase 6: “The passages which;” i.e., it is Contextual Interpretation When the risen Christ spoke with the two men on their way to Emmaus, “He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27), or as another version has it, “the passages which referred to himself in every part of the Scriptures” (NEB). Simply put, Jesus took the context into account.
For a practical example on the importance of context, consider the oft-quoted passage from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled (Matt 5:17, 18).
This passage is often used as strong evidence that Jesus Himself did not set aside or annul the law, that is, the Ten Commandments. This idea appears even clearer in some modern versions, such as the Revised Standard Version’s rendering: “‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In brief, a contextual study of the terms “law” and “prophets” in Matthew 5:17 indicates that these terms refer to the Scriptures as a whole during the time of Jesus. Since the word “law” in this couplet clearly means the five books of Moses, it naturally includes the Ten Commandments, located in Exodus 20 as well as in Deuteronomy 5. However, to refer to the word “law” in Matthew 5:17, as though it were simply a synonym for the moral law (i.e., the Decalogue), is a misuse of the Bible.
Phase six, a Contextual Interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, will explore the dynamics of such a hermeneutical methodology. Thus, the Action Step to take, is as follows:
Analyze every issue by taking into account both the broader and immediate contexts, to reach the best interpretation.
Phase 7: Referred to himself;” i.e., it is Christ-Centered Interpretation In 1981 an article appeared in Insight Magazine, titled “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” While the author mentioned that “God is a God of truth,” and that Satan is called the “father of lies,” he basically presented his points from a consequentialist perspective, using humanistic logic. Amazingly, even though this essay was published in a Christian magazine for young people, less than four percent of the article dealt with biblical information. Essentially ignoring the relationship of truth-telling to Jesus Christ, it was not surprising therefore that the writer concluded that sometimes “a lie is fully justified.”
Sadly, this type of Christless, and atheistic rationalization, has been infiltrating the ranks of Bible-believers over the decades, especially since the rise of so-called “situation ethics.” While there have been several challenges to these types of relativistic and humanistic ideas that have been creeping into the church as a whole, some well-respected, powerful communicators continue to indirectly undermine the moral law of God, as found in the Ten Commandments.
Jesus is our example: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth’” (1 Pet 2:21, 22). Thus, the Action Step simply declares:
Witness the way in which every biblical teaching relates to, and focuses on Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord of all humanity.
Like two attractive bookends, this seven-part system of biblical interpretation, begins and ends with a deliberate, intentional focus on Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
By way of reminder, Phase One emphasized the vital necessity of a Christ-Dependent Interpretation, in which the Bible student is to, “Ask Jesus, the Supreme interpreter of the sacred Scriptures, to guide in your study of His Word; then, willingly follow.” In a similar manner, Phase Seven, a Christ-Centered Interpretation, underlines a crucial and utterly indispensable aspect of proper biblical hermeneutics -- that of searching the Scriptures with the realization that every biblical teaching relates to and centers upon Jesus Christ.
What are the soul-satisfying results of such study of Scripture? “And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32). Hearts will indeed feel “strangely warm” when we emulate the methods of the Messiah. We too will become excited when we see the true meaning of the Scriptures. _______________ Adapted from the book Warriors of the Word: Methods of the Messiah for Searching Scripture by Ron du Preez.