Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

white ballpoint pen on book pages

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.

Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings

Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.

Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.

Polysemy and Multivalence

There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.

For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.

What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent. 

  • Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
  • Multivalence: “many appeals or values”

Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” [1]

This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.

John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” [2]

Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.

Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.

Multivalence and Multivocality

Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.

Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:

  • Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
  • A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
  • Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
  • Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
  • An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
  • Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
  • The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
  • The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
  • By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
  • Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work [3]

Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.

Considering Inspirational Intent

We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.

This is what Matthew is doing  in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!

Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth?

jesus christ figurine

Matthew chapter 2 tells one of the most overlooked and skipped-over parts of the Christmas story: the mass killing of innocent infants and toddlers by king Herod “the Great.”

When you read the Christmas story to your children, you might likely leave this part out. Chances are that if you attend a school Christmas pageant, the kids will not act out this part of the story.

And yet, it’s an incredibly important part of the Christmas story, because in effect, it tells us what Christmas is really all about: God came to us in order to rescue us from the tyranny of evil, sin, suffering, and death.

This past Sunday we studied this story to kick off our Advent series, “God With Us.” You can listen to the message here: “The Hopes and Fears of All the Years”

One of the most interesting parts of Matthew chapter 2 is that Matthew points out several prophecies which Jesus fulfilled. However, Matthew 2:23 says that Jesus was raised in Nazareth to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets. However, you can look through the Old Testament all you want, but you won’t find a prophecy which mentions Nazareth as a city directly. What then is this verse referring to?

Mike and I sat down for our weekly Sermon Extra video to discuss this topic, and answer that question. Check it out:

What Does It Mean that “Judgment Begins at the Household of God”?

inside photography of church

In 1 Peter 4:17, Peter makes an interesting statement; he says: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

Judgment might seem like an odd word to use in regard to the people of God… Hasn’t Jesus already taken our judgment upon himself on the cross? What is Peter referring to here, and how should we understand this statement?

The Waters That Buried Some, Lifted Others

In 1 Peter chapter 3, Peter referred to the judgment that took place in the time of Noah, and said that the waters of that flood were a type, or a picture, of baptism. The judgment of the flood, which was a judgment upon human wickedness, did effect, touch, and impact even those who were believers. However, because those believers were in the ark, the waters of the flood did not crush them, but rather lifted them up.

The ark, in this case, is a picture of Jesus. When we climb into Him by faith, and are hidden in Him, He takes the brunt of the storm of God’s judgment, which, apart from Him, we would not be able to survive on our own. As we are in Him, the waters which destroyed those outside the ark actually serve to lift us up and they have a cleansing and purifying effect.

The Fire That Destroys Some, Purifies Others

Along with water, Peter uses another word-picture in this letter: fire, which is used to purify precious metals, like gold.

Paul uses this same analogy in 1 Corinthians 3, where he talks about how our actions in this life will be tested by God as by fire; those things which were pure in motive will withstand the test, and those good things we might have done for the wrong reasons will be burned away like wood, hay and stubble.

Essentially, Peter is saying that the judgment of God will have the effect on believers, not of destroying them, but of purifying them, and clarifying who is really in the faith.

This makes sense, especially in light of the fact that earlier in the same chapter (1 Peter 4:1-4), Peter called his readers to holiness and to separate themselves from the sins which formerly enslaved them.

Malachi’s Prophecy

In his commentary on 1 Peter, Edmund Clowney says that in these verses (1 Peter 4:12-19), Peter is alluding to a prophecy of Malachi:

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. (Malachi 3:1-3)

God’s judgment has a double purpose: to purify his worshipers and to consume the wicked.

In Hebrews 12, the writer says that it is proof of God’s fatherly love for us that He disciplines us.

Rather than cleansing us in purgatory, God’s cleansing of his people is a process which takes place in this life through our trials. Our suffering in this life does not atone for our sins, Jesus’s suffering did that for us, but God uses our trials in order to form us into the image of Christ (cf. Romans 8:29), purify us like gold, and prepare for us a weight of glory to be revealed.

Further Discussion

https://twitter.com/DominicDone/status/1199788112060112896

This week Mike and I sat down to discuss this verse in more detail. One of the things we talked about was how persecution and hardship has the effect of purifying the church and “weeding out” those who have come to Jesus for the wrong reasons. One example we bring up is my experience with the Roma (Gypsy) population in Hungary and the false promises of the “prosperity gospel.” Check it out:

Resources for Studying the Prophets

This past Sunday we began a new series at White Fields called “Remember the Prophets“.

The idea for the series comes from James 5:10, where James tells us to “remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.”  In this series, we will be looking at a different Old Testament prophet each week, considering their lives and their messages and what we can learn from them.

remember the prophets main title 16x9

We are moving through them chronologically, and so began with Amos, an interesting person with an important message. Click here to listen to that message: Amos: Faith that Works

This Sunday we will continue the series by looking at Hosea, a gripping story of adultery and faithfulness which gives us insight into God’s heart.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

Generally speaking, the prophetic books are not well known by many people who even regularly read the Bible. Part of the reason for that is because of the negative tone of some of the books, as well as the feeling that without understanding the context of the books, they don’t make sense.

People have asked me at times what books or materials are good to use if they want to get to know the prophetic books better. Here are my top two recommendations:

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets, J. Gordon McConville

Image result for exploring the old testament a guide to the prophetsI had the pleasure of studying under Gordon McConville at the University of Gloucestershire in England, where he is professor of Old Testament theology. This was one of my text books, but is part of a great series from Inter-Varsity Press and is very accessible to the average reader and also scholarly at the same time.

On the scholarly side, this book tends to get a little bit into the weeds about theological discussions and debates, but the introductions and outlines of the books, their themes and their structures are very good. In other words, you can use it to go as deep as you’re ready to go.

Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament, Irving L. Jensen

When I first became a pastor, one of my mentors told me, “You’re going to need some books.” He then walked me into the book store at the church we were at and pulled Jensen’s surveys of the Old Testament and New Testament off the shelf and handed them to me.

The benefit to these books published by Moody Press is that rather than being a commentary that tells you information, they instead instruct you about how to ask the right questions. Thus, you are the one doing the exegetical work, or the inductive Bible study, rather than just passively receiving information. They do, however, give you important background information in order to get the context you need, but they also tell you where to go to get that context if it is found in other places in the Bible.

I hope these resources are helpful for you, as they have been for me!

If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself the “Son of Man”?

Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man”. This term is used of Jesus 88 times in the New Testament, and Jesus refers to himself  as the “Son of Man” more often than as the “Son of God”.

I am often asked why this is, and why Jesus preferred this term over the term Son of God. Here are some thoughts on what that term means and why Jesus may have preferred it:

Son of Man is a Messianic title from the Old Testament

The title: “Son of Man” was a reference to a prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

This description of the “Son of Man” matches that descriptions of the Messiah found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is particularly interesting is that the Son of Man is exalted, divine, and is sent from Heaven – and yet, is distinct from “the Ancient of Days”. This is in line with Trinitarian theology, which states that the Son and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead.

The Son of Man according to this prophecy is both human and exalted. He does the work which only God can do, indicating that he is God, and yet he is distinct from the “Ancient of Days” who sends him. This tells us that the Messiah would be human, but he would also be God at the same time, while a distinct person from the “Ancient of Days”, AKA the Father.

As I discussed in a previous post – Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet About His Miracles and Identity? – although Jesus was sometimes very explicit about his identity, other times Jesus was more subtle and implicit in how he revealed his identity. In that post I delve into some reasons why that was, but here it suffices to say that by using the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was using a term by which those who had ears to hear would pick up what he was putting down.

Son of Man speaks to Jesus’ humanity

The term Son of Man emphasizes the fact that Jesus was truly and fully human. Although he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he is nevertheless fully human.

Why are you telling me this?

Remember that the Gospels were written by humans under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What that means is that there is a particular telos or objective inherent to what they have written and how they have written it. This is true of any historical account: any time anyone tells a story, they include certain details and leave out other details depending on what they want to emphasize for their audience. This is true of the Gospels as well. So what is the telos or objective of the Gospel writers in making sure we know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” in referring to himself (other than the fact that he actually did)? Probably it is to emphasize that Jesus was truly and fully human.

Trinitarian theology

We know from early church history, that there was a tendency amongst some Christians to emphasize the deity of Christ to the negation of His humanity. The converse was also true, and these discussions and debates culminated with the codifying of the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and in the Athanasian Creed. Even to this day, there are some Christians, e.g. Coptic Christians, who are “monophysites”, which means that they believe that Jesus only had one nature: a divine one, and that he was not fully human. The use of the term “Son of Man” emphasized Jesus’ true humanity.

Son of Man actually had more significance in that context than Son of God

To the Jewish mind, the term Son of God might be used to refer to any person without too much controversy, because they would agree that we are all created by God, and therefore could be called “sons” of God. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, “You are all sons of the Most High.”

The same could be said of “Son of Man” for that matter, in the sense that all humans are sons or daughters of men. The difference is that in the Jewish context, the term “Son of Man” actually carried more significance because of Daniel’s prophecy.

Remember that Jesus actually did call himself the Son of God on several occasions, as John’s gospel in particular records. Again, this gets to the point of the telos of John’s gospel, which is to emphasize Jesus’ deity – whereas other gospels aim to emphasize his humanity.

But it is not only in John’s gospel that we see Jesus being called “Son of God”, which reminds us of the importance of his two-fold nature as both fully God and fully man, a nature that was necessary in order for him to be the perfect Savior that we need.

A case study

I will leave you with these words from Mark’s gospel:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

Notice in this text:

  • Jesus said he is the Son of God
  • Jesus called himself the Son of Man – and connected that term with the imagery directly from Daniel 7:13-14
  • This was understood by the Jewish people to be a claim of deity, which is why they accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.

O Little Town of Bethlehem: What are the Odds?

A reader of this blog contacted me this week asking if I could write a few words about Micah 5:2

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

Bethlehem = “House of Bread” – it is a small town only a few kilometers outside of Jerusalem. It was also the ancestral home of King David.

The older, pre-Jewish name of Bethlehem was Ephrathah, which is used on several occasions to speak of it in the Bible.

Micah’s prophecy is about the impending destruction of Samaria and Judea, including Jerusalem for their sins and refusal to repent of them and turn their hearts back to God. As a result, destruction would come upon them from other nations and they would be carried off in exile.

However, the final word of this prophetic message is one of hope and restoration, the message that God has not abandoned his people, but is wholly committed to them, and at a time when they have repented, he will fulfill his promises to them.

What promises were these? In particular it was the promise of a ruler, a King in the line of David, who would establish a Kingdom which would have no end; a kingdom of peace and justice and righteousness which would last forever.

That’s a pretty steep promise! Is it just meant as hyperbole, or was it meant to be taken as a literal promise? How could any king rule forever?

When you begin to take the different promises about this king together, the picture comes together of a King who is more than just a man, but who is actually divine in nature. Notice how Micah says that “his coming forth is from old, from ancient days” – this is saying that one is going to be born, who has existed from eternity past. This is speaking of divinity being born into the world to establish an everlasting kingdom. This is speaking of the incarnation: God coming to us, born in human flesh.

And where would this happen? In Bethlehem. A village of no consequence, only famous as the ancestral home of Israel’s greatest king – and significantly, a king who was promised by God that one of his descendants would establish an everlasting kingdom.

Micah 5:2 is one of 300+ prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) about the Messiah, which speak of who he would be, what he would do, and how his coming would take place. 300+ – fulfilled by one person! What are the odds?

Peter Stoner, in Science Speaks (Moody Press) attempts to show how coincidence is ruled out by the science of probability. Stoner says that by using the modern calculation of probability in reference to eight prophecies, “we find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017.” That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000.  In order to help us comprehend this staggering probability, Stoner illustrates it by supposing that “we take 1017silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep.

“Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man.”

Stoner considers 48 prophecies and says, “we find the chance that any one man fulfilled all 48 prophecies to be 1 in 10157. The estimated number of electrons in the universe is around 1079. It should be quite evident that Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies by accident.”