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Lesson 11: Interpreting the Prophetic Writings *

Introduction: "That is your interpretation!" Have you ever heard someone say that when they disagreed with you? Lawyers are masters of suggesting that something should be interpreted in a way much different than was originally meant. We even have U.S. Supreme Court Justices who refer to a "living constitution." If you are now in your "sunset years" and you look nothing like you did when you were 18 years-old, you perfectly understand the "living constitution" concept of changing the original meaning. For some people "interpreting" the Bible is an excuse to ignore what God plainly said. At the same time, there are a number of texts in the Bible which seem to be in clear conflict with other texts. There are passages that are difficult to understand. What do honest, humble Christians do in those situations? Let's plunge into the Bible and see what it suggests we should do!

  1. The Logic of Hermeneutics

    1. Have you ever found something beautiful inside something ugly? Give me some examples? (Polished rocks. Cleaned up metal. Treasure found at the bottom of the ocean.)

    2. The Greek term "hermeneuein," from which we get the word "hermeneutics" means "to interpret." Hermeneutics, interpreting, is a way of cleaning up or stripping away the barriers to understanding.

      1. Let's look at this logically. If you had something that you knew was precious, but it was covered with something that was ugly, what would be required of you to see the beauty? List what you think would be necessary.

        1. Would you have to have a desire to see the beauty within?

        2. Would want to call in an expert on properly stripping away the ugly exterior?

        3. Would it require hard work on your part?

        4. Would it require careful work so the original beauty was not damaged?

      2. Is this a fair comparison to what is required of us to properly strip away the barriers to correctly understanding the Bible? Let's look at some examples.

  2. The Lesson From the Eunuch

    1. Let's read Acts 8:30-31. What did this man in the chariot want? (He wanted to understand what the prophet Isaiah was saying.)

      1. What steps had this man taken to understand the words of Isaiah? (First, he had the desire to know. Second, he was reading the words so that he would have a chance to understand them. Third, he asked someone he thought might be an expert to help him.)

    2. We picked up this story in the middle, so let's go back to the beginning. Read Acts 8:26-29. How did Philip come to be near the Ethiopian eunuch just when the man desired expert help? (The Holy Spirit led Philip to the exact place.)

      1. What lessons does this teach us about understanding the Bible? (The Holy Spirit is an essential part of interpreting. The Holy Spirit works through other humans to help us understand.)

    3. Read Acts 8:32-33. If you were the eunuch, and you were reading this for the first time, would you understand it?

      1. Just looking at the text, what would you guess it meant? (It sounds like a cold-blooded murder.)

    4. Read Acts 8:34-35. What did Philip supply to the eunuch? Don't just say "the answer." Think about this, what did Philip supply that stripped the uncertainty away from this Scripture? (Philip supplied two things. First, the factual context. Second, his expert knowledge about the situation. The facts of Jesus' life, as expertly explained by Philip, uncovered the meaning of this prophecy given by God to Isaiah.)

      1. What additional lesson do we learn about interpreting the Bible? (Context is important to a proper understanding of the Bible.)

      2. Our lessons are often on a topic, rather than on a book of the Bible. What is the problem with the topical approach to the Bible? (It is light on context. You should always look at the context when someone has the "proof text" approach. I try to import context even when we are studying a topic.)

  3. The Lesson in the Sheet

    1. Read Acts 10:9-10. Peter is about to be given a message from God. What do you find in this story that you think will help Peter understand the message? (Peter prays. As in our last story, asking for the Holy Spirit to help is critical to understanding the Bible.)

    2. Read Acts 10:11-14. Recall that Peter was hungry. Who does Peter think is providing the food? (God! He says "Surely not, Lord!")

      1. When God tells you to do something, what excuse do you have for saying "surely not?" (If you review Leviticus 11:2-31 or Deuteronomy 14:3-20 you will find that the Bible unambiguously says don't eat those things in the sheet.)

        1. What is Peter's problem? (He has a conflict between the words of God. God's message in the past directly conflicts with God's message now.)

        2. Is Peter using principles of Bible interpretation? (Not so far. He is just denying the new revelation as being inconsistent with the old.)

    3. Read Acts 10:15-17. Why do you think this was repeated three times? (So that Peter would not "interpret" this by getting a little hazy on what was said in God's most recent message.)

      1. Why would Acts 10:17 say that Peter was "wondering about the meaning of the vision?" Isn't it obvious? He was hungry and the Lord said eat a reptile. What is so complex about that? (Nothing is complex about it. Unappetising, but not complex.)

      2. Have you ever had someone come to you and say "This verse in the Bible is clear. Why don't you follow it?"

        1. Has Peter started down the path of Bible interpretation? (Yes. Peter is wondering - contemplating - because he has two messages from God which directly conflict with each other. In such a case you have to look deeper, and he is starting to look.)

        2. In American law we have a principle of interpretation which says in cases of direct conflict the most recent law is the controlling law. Is that also true with the Bible? The "eat a reptile message" was the most recent. (Peter does not think that is a very strong principle of interpretation. If he did, he would not be wondering.)

    4. Read Acts 10:18-20. Why did the Holy Spirit have to tell Peter not to hesitate to go with these men? Did they look like rough and dangerous fellows who might rob him?

    5. Read Acts 10:27-29. Has Peter figured out the vision of the sheet with the unclean animals? (Yes.)

      1. Is the vision to be taken at face value? Or, is it figurative? (Peter had a clear conflict in the messages from God. When the men from Cornelius arrived, Peter realized that God was not talking about eating animals, but rather associating with Gentiles.)

        1. How did Peter figure that out? (Two things. First, the context. The men showing up at his house helped him understand. Second, the Holy Spirit ( Acts 10:19-20) helped him understand.)

    6. What new lessons about interpreting the Bible do we find here? (Some Bible statements which seem plain turn out to be a problem when we compare them with other messages from God. In those cases we need to dig deeper. Some statements from God are figurative and not literal.)

    7. How many times are you digging deeper because the message of the Bible does not conflict with another portion of the Bible, but rather conflicts with your personal preferences? Or, conflicts with your predisposition to sin? (We should dig deeply into the Bible for all of our beliefs. However, I hear people contradict the Bible or excuse sin by saying "I was born that way." "My parents always did it this way." No doubt everyone reading this was born with, or developed along the way, some serious and compelling sinful inclinations. I know I did. The true Christian resists sin and does not celebrate or excuse sin.)

    8. Friend, when you find Bible texts you do not understand, or Bible texts that seem to be in conflict, will you dig deeply into the Bible? Will you determine to strip away what covers the truth by seeking the aid of the Holy Spirit, learning the context and consulting with Bible experts?

  4. Next week: Blessings of the Prophetic Gift.
* Copr. 2009, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. The lesson assumes the teacher uses a blackboard or some other visual aid.

© 2021 Bruce N. Cameron, J.D.
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