2 PETER 3:16-17
"[Paul's] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort,
as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried
away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position."
How to interpret the Bible accurately: Tips 9 - 12
Here are the final 4 tips of the series "How to interpret the Bible accurately: 12 critical tips."
For the previous tips, please see
part 2, and
Tip #9: Understand the difference between "literal" and "figurative"
This may be the most popular technique used by men who don't want to accept what the Bible teaches.
If a Bible verse isn't suggesting quite what they wish it would, they simply turn it into a figurative meaning.
For example, in one instance a false teacher insisted that the Bible (in 2 Peter 3) DOES NOT teach our world will be
destroyed by fire (even though that's exactly what it says). So, to get this passage to fit
with a theory he had adopted, he simply suggested the entire passage was being used figuratively, much like
Old Testament prophets did from time to time.
In doing this, he effectively removed a critical teaching from the Bible, one that Christians
today really need to pay attention to.
Fortunately, when someone resorts to this dishonest technique of modifying the Bible,
it's usually not difficult to recognize. That's because God typically,
if not always, makes it obvious when He's using symbols.
For example, John, who penned Revelation (a book packed with obvious symbolism) also wrote
the "Gospel of John," which is packed with a description of the literal life and teachings of Christ.
How irresponsible would it be if I were to suggest that since Revelation contains a lot of symbols,
therefore literal events of Christ's life in the Gospel of John were not actual events, but symbols as well?
As another example, the Old Testament often used symbols to describe actual, literal, future events.
The prophet Jeremiah (chapter 24) described
a vision of seeing a basket containing figs—some good and some bad. Later, the vision was explained
to mean that the good figs were the good people of Israel, and the bad were the unbelieving Israelites
who were to be destroyed. The honest mind should have no trouble distinguishing between when "symbolic
prophetic language" is being used and when "literal prophetic language" is being used.
The Bible is replete with many other such examples. Obviously, failure to recognize the difference between
literal and figurative will mean your understanding of many passages is likely distorted.
Tip #10: Just because the Bible uses a particular word in one place doesn't mean it's used in the same
Sometimes, to get a passage to say what they want, dishonest individuals will examine all the other
uses of a given word. They will then draw a conclusion about how the word appears to be generally used in the Bible.
Finally, they take that "general use" and plug it back to the original passage. Now, the passage fits their theory.
I believe there's nothing wrong with this if a valid argument can be made that the specific passage
is confusing to understand.
In other words, if you're otherwise totally confused about the way a word is used in its local context, this would
be the ONLY occasion such a technique might be employed. And even then, your conclusion may be wrong.
But if used, this technique must be employed with great caution. Why? Because, just because a word happens to
be used in a certain sense everywhere else, does not at all mean it's used that way in a totally different context.
If this technique is employed improperly, it
can potentially distort the actual meaning intended by God's Holy Spirit.
For example, suppose I wrote a book about dogs, and throughout the book, I referred to dogs "literally" in many
and various ways. One such instance might read: "The dog broke all racing speed records."
Suppose that later in the book referring to animal abuse, I said: "That animal abuser was a real dog."
Is there really any doubt that, in the last case, I was using "dog" figuratively—even though it may be
the only instance of that use in the book?
Suppose someone read my book and argued: "Well, he used the word dog 100 times literally,
so we must assume that
he's doing it again here; in other words, that man evolved into a literal dog!"
As ludicrous as this sounds, abusers of God's word do this routinely. Don't fall for the trick.
Always do an honest examination of the immediate context to see how a word's actually being used.
Once determined, then make sure the overall point of the immediate passage
harmonizes with the rest of the Bible.
Tip #11: Be cautious of "armchair translator-quarterbacks"
Most of us have seen one or been one: an armchair potato quarterback ("potatoes" because that's what
people start looking like after sitting long enough in the arm chair).
The coach is on the field, calls the play, and it's a disaster. We scream at the TV: "You should have
hit the open receiver!"
Unfortunately, if we were as good as we thought, we'd be the ones earning $2 million a year, not the
actual coach on the field. In the meantime, we have to be satisfied with our $35,000 salary and our armchair.
What's this have to do with proper Bible interpretation, you ask?
More than you might think. It's not unheard-of
for a party in a Bible discussion (who doesn't have the truth) to use the "armchair translator quarterback" tactic.
First, to prove his point, a false teacher will sometimes scour a set of possible Bible translations
for the wording that best suits his doctrine.
If none of the wordings fit, he might then plug in his own definition,
typically taken from a Greek-English lexicon (dictionary). If the primary definition doesn't work, he looks
for a secondary/tertiary/etc definition. From there he might sprinkle his
own twist on it, and then attempt to plug it back into the text.
By the time he's finished, he's re-translated a critical word in a verse to be like he wants it to be,
rather than like it should be.
In other words, the false teacher ignores a large body of translation experts
because their translations don't fit his doctrine.
This maneuver accomplishes 2 things for the false teacher. First, he looks like he knows what he's talking about;
after all, he went to the specific definition of a word to get it's "real" meaning, didn't he?
Second, he's able to twist the meaning so that the naive will consider him correct—and all the translators
either incorrect, or "not quite as accurate as they could have been."
But truth is: (1) He would never have been selected to serve on any of the translating committees
he's suggesting are inaccurate, due to his general ignorance of Greek and how it should be translated to English; (chances
are, he had a Greek course or two; just enough rope knowledge to hang himself with); and,
(2) All the experts who truly are experts are generally in agreement, or close agreement generally, on the given word whose
meaning he wants to change; and (3) It's obvious the false teacher has an agenda for changing the meaning, but
there's no evidence anyone on any of the translating committees had a dog in this fight—except to do their best.
All that put together paints a disappointing picture for false teachers who choose to modify the
Bible's meanings in this way.
Tip #12: Have an unshakeable love for truth
Here are some frightening words from the Bible:
"They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie
and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness."
Failure to love the truth will cost you your salvation. But what's especially scary about this
is that some people actually reach the point—because they chose lies over truth when they should have known
better—that God purposely
"sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie..."
(2 Thess 2:10-12)
Have you ever wondered how some people could seem so convinced and sincere in their wrongness? That's how.
Instead, we must have an unshakeable love for truth, no matter where it leads us. Truth is what
Jesus said would set us free (John 8:32).
Therefore, your determination, and mine, should always be to do this:
"Test everything—Hold tightly to the good."
When the truth is found, cling to it! Spend all to get it, and "sell it not" when you have it
(1 Thess 5:21)
The only way to determine God's truth is by an honest, logical, unwavering
commitment to Biblical knowledge growth—through a proper interpretation, and application,
of what God is actually saying to us, instead of what we want Him to be saying to us.
Final points to ponder...
I believe one of the most valuable concepts any spiritual teacher can communicate to his listeners is this:
Don't rely on men for truth; rely on the word of God. Go where it leads you. That's because even the
best intentioned, most educated person can be wrong at least some of the time.
However, the word of God is perfect. Therefore, learn to use it as your primary Source—rather
than the words of men.
As for mutual agreement on truth, that will come when all parties honestly and accurately read and interpret the Bible.
Think independently of man; think dependently of the word of God.
The Bible said in one place that God's people were going to be destroyed due to a lack of knowledge,
and in another that misunderstanding the Bible could lead to one's loss of eternal life (Hosea 4:6; 2 Pet 3:15-16).
Let's make sure these things never happen to us.
Peter's last command in the Bible, mentioned previously (2 Pet 3:18), was the command for Christians to
"grow in knowledge." Please note: Peter did not say:
"Send your preacher to Bible college and depend on his knowledge to guide you."
Don't become overly curious about something common sense dictates is obviously wrong or false.
This is the only way most false teachings have any hope of being believed.
The longer you listen to a false message, the longer you're paying attention to error, and the less time you have to
pay attention to truth.
If you give serious false teaching an ear, even the most intelligent can be misled—and the Christian world is
scattered with the spiritual remains of many such people.
Let the word of God speak to you, honestly and directly. That is to say, don't filter it
through the prisms of political correctness, religious correctness, family correctness or preconceived ideas.
This is a very difficult thing for some people to do, but required if you want the truth.
And that you must have.
Additional recommended reading:
God's Basic Instructions
for your Christian Life.
BACK TO PART 3