Can the Bible be understood the same by everyone? Such a thought causes great doubt when we see the number of religions and denominations that exist that claim to be based from the Bible. Unfortunately, too many impasses concerning the scriptures are given the response, “Well, that is your interpretation.” Rather than try to understand the scriptures together, we give a cop out that this is my interpretation or that is your interpretation. Can we understand the Bible the same and if so, how?
I. The Nature of Communication
A. Everyday language
- When we speak to people, we assume they will understand our words literally, unless the context of our language demands an alternate interpretation. When you tell someone something, you expect them to understand your words literally, unless by the use of figures of speech you mean otherwise.
- For example, if you have my family over to dinner and you ask us to bring a salad, you are going to question us if we bring hot dog buns. If you tell your children to go to the store and they go to the hospital, then there has been a break down in communication. I cannot sit back and try to spiritualize or symbolize your words to me, unless you tell me to do so. I cannot say that I thought salad was a symbol for mowing the lawn and going to the store was a symbol to go get a physical. Communication is performed when we have the same basis of understanding. By nature we understand that we take each other literally unless something in our language dictates otherwise.
- The point is that we take words at face value. The words we say to each other have meaning and are not subject to interpretation. What other interpretation is there to the words, “go to the store?” If my wife tells to me take out the trash, I have tried to interpret that as go watch the football game, but it does not work out. Take out the trash means to take out the trash. There is no other meaning and no other interpretation that is reasonable or acceptable.
B. Figures of speech
- This does not mean that we never use figures of speech in our language. We can say to each other that we ate like pigs at thanksgiving and understand the idiomatic meaning behind the figure. We do this all the time without realizing it. For example, how many times do we see on the news the reporter say: “The White House said today that….” We know that the White House cannot speak for it is a building. But we know that by using such a figure that the reporter means that those who represent the power of the White House had these words to say.
- If you tell me to jump in a lake, I know you are not really requesting me to go submerge myself in water. Rather, you are expressing amazement and do not believe what I am saying to you or am doing. We use metaphors, hyperboles, and other such figures of speech in our daily language. We have no trouble interpreting those figures of speech in such a way that makes sense in our communication with one another.
- When we speak to one another about the sun rising, we know that the sun literally does not rise. But no one wants to speak of the next day as the 24 hour revolution of the earth. We simply say that the sun rose.
II. The Importance of Interpretation
A. God can communicate
- There is no reason to assume that God communicates to people any differently. God knows our methods of communication and is able to speak to us in the same way. When God spoke directly to Moses, an angelic interpreter was not needed. When God spoke directly to the prophets, the words were not subject to translation.
- Simply put, we must ask this question: Can God communicate with us or is that not possible? If we are going to accept that God is a higher power who created humans and all that is in the world, are we going to deny His ability to communicate in a way that we can understand? To suggest that we cannot understand the Bible is to suggest that God is incompetent in his abilities to communicate with humans.
- Further, if God cannot communicate His will to us in a way that we can understand, then we cannot know God’s will. Do we suppose that we will be able to make the case on the day of judgment that the reason we disobeyed is because God did not communicate in a way we can understand? Was there anything challenging in the command to not touch the ark of the covenant that caused Uzzah to go ahead and touch the ark? We will not be able to declare on judgment day that God could not be understood. If we cannot understand God, then God is an imbecile who cannot speak to His own creation. If that is true, then we have no reason for faith. Obviously, God is far wiser and smarter than us and has the ability to communicate to us.
B. Jesus prayed for the same understanding
- The Bible tells us that understanding the scriptures the same way is possible. Recall Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:3-5). I do not know how many people lived in Ephesus. But there was more than one person and Paul told all of them that they could understand the mystery of Christ when they read Paul’s words. The Bible was not subject to personal interpretation. Rather, the Bible is God’s communication to people that we ought to understand just as if any other person in our lives was speaking to us.
- Jesus prayed that we would have the same understanding. Jesus said, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21). Jesus seemed to believe that we could come to the same understanding through the words of the apostles. Jesus himself said that we would take the apostles’ words and could be one. Should we suppose that Jesus was insane to think that we could all understand the words of God alike? God spoke in such a way that we all can understand what He means and what His will is for our lives.
C. The real problem: distorting, not interpreting
- Just because we can understand the Bible alike does not ignore the fact that there are some difficult teachings in the word of God. I do not know anyone who says that Revelation is easy. Peter even admitted that some of the words were more difficult. “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand…” (2 Peter 3:15-16). No one denies the challenge that the word of God faces. But this does not mean that God’s words could not be understood, applied, and followed.
- In fact, Peter tells us the real reason why there are “difficulties of interpretation.” It is not that God cannot be understood. Look at the rest of the sentence of 2 Peter 3:16: “His 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.” The problem is not that God cannot be understood, but that we do not want to understand. People want to twist and distort the scriptures because they do not want to do what is the clear teaching of God. If I do not like what the scripture says, I call it a “bad interpretation.”
- When the Bible says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God,” there is no other interpretation (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)! We can make excuses and give our “two cents,” but the words are clear. To accept these words in any other way is to distort them to our destruction.
- When the Bible says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned”, there is no other interpretation (Mark 16:16)! We can go around thinking that accepting Jesus in our heart is all that matters or being a good person is all God wants, but it is a twisting of God’s words. God said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The question is not “what does this mean to you.” The question is “what does this mean.” There is no interpretation. The communication was clear and we need no interpreter.
III. Understanding the Bible
A. We must read it for ourselves
- One of the reasons why there are so many different religious groups and religious teachings is that people are not reading the Bible for themselves. They are listening to preachers and teachers and accepting their words. Why is there so much confusion in Revelation? The reason is that most people have never read the book of Revelation. The reason is not that the book of Revelation cannot be understood. The problem is that people are being lazy toward the scripture and do not want to read it themselves.
- If we are going to understand the Bible properly, we must quit listening to the Bible through the eyes of other people and starting reading the Bible with our own eyes. If we want to know God’s will then we will have to know the book that is the word of God. Reading other books about the Bible will not give us eternal life nor give us the proper understanding of the scriptures. We must read the Bible for ourselves.
B. As we read, apply logic and reason
- Communication assumes a transmitter of information and a receiver of information. When we communicate with others, we assume they can apply logic and reason to our words. Thus, we have confidence when we tell someone to go to the store that they will do what we have asked of them. We assume the receiver will not act foolish with our words and think we meant to go to the hospital.
- In the same way, God is assuming we can and will apply logic and reason as receivers of His words. He has confidence in us that when He says something, we can be part of the communication process and understand. God is assuming we will not act foolish with His words. When we read, apply logic and reason and understand the words is a straightforward and simple understanding. God did not say that we would need angelic interpreters to help us understand. Rather, when we read, we can understand the mystery of Christ.