Interpreting An Ancient Text (Part 1): Learning the Dangers

Introduction

During the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was a television sitcom that aired on ABC for eight seasons called Three’s Company. It was a comedy most widely known for its use of satire. If you have never seen or even heard of it, the show is about the lives of three single adults: two young women (Janet and Chrissy) and a young man (Jack) that share an apartment in Santa Monica, CA.

Janet is the intelligent roommate; she is ordinarily the one that other characters go to for advice. Chrissy is the naive roommate; she is the one that says the dumbest things and makes all the bad decisions. Jack is the flamboyant roommate; he is not necessarily stupid, but he’s not exactly your sharpest tool in the shed either. Jack, the main character of the show, is a Navy veteran and an ambitious, culinary student. He often gets made fun of and laughed at for cooking the meals at home while his female counterparts can’t even fry an egg. Obviously, the cultural norms were a little different in the 70’s.

Living in the apartment beneath Jack, Janet, and Chrissy are their landlords—Mr. and Mrs. Roper. Mr. Roper is an older, grumpy handyman that isn’t very handy at all because he’s too lazy to work; he doesn’t have a problem leaving a tenant waiting months on end for something to be repaired. Mrs. Roper is the older wife that longs for the earlier years of marriage when her husband paraded his undying affection and romance for her. Because of their dull marriage in the present setting, however, Mrs. Roper spends the bulk of her time reading romantic literature and listening to the personal love stories from the kids upstairs.

On one of the episodes in season three, Mr. Roper notices that his bathroom sink is clogged due to the gradual buildup of hair that had fallen into the drain. As one would guess, the hair belonged to Mrs. Roper. After first sharing his frustrations to his wife, Mr. Roper began fixing the sink. He disconnected the pipe underneath the sink to pull the clumps of hair out; but while the pipe was disconnected, Mr. Roper started to hear voices. No, he wasn’t hallucinating; he was hearing a conversation between Jack and Chrissy.

Come to find out, the drainpipe in Mr. Roper’s bathroom was connected to the upstairs apartment where Jack, Janet and Chrissy lived. So, whenever the roommates were in proximity to their bathroom, Mr. Roper could listen in to their conversations, as long as the pipe underneath his sink was disconnected. “But he’s a decent man, right? He’d quickly reconnect the pipe to drown out the noise so that he couldn’t eavesdrop; he would respect his tenants’ privacy, wouldn’t he?” Well, no—he wouldn’t.

He chose to listen in to every conversation that they had, at least the ones that they had when they were near the bathroom. On one of these occasions, Chrissy comes home on the verge of tears, explaining to Jack that her hand was infected with a wart. At this point, Chrissy makes her way towards the bathroom so that she can get a better look. Jack follows her. Mr. Roper starts listening in. Chrissy tells Jack that unless she does something about this, “It will just keep getting bigger and bigger.” She continues, “All I want to do is get rid of it!”

Mr. Roper has no idea that Chrissy is talking about a wart. He becomes convinced that Chrissy is pregnant and believes that she wants to abort the baby. (Remember, this is the 70’s, so this was a big deal.) Mr. Roper becomes hysterical and calls his wife to “come quick!” After telling her the news—his version of the news, that is—Mrs. Roper becomes distraught and quickly runs upstairs to confront Chrissy. You can just imagine where the story goes from here.

Perhaps a silly way to introduce a topic, especially when it’s like the one we are considering today. While I am not necessarily endorsing this TV program, it serves to point out the elephant in the room here: far too many Christians are like Mr. Roper when they read their Bibles. Christians will isolate a portion of God’s Word, detach it from the rest of what God says, and then reattach that fragmented portion with their unfounded assumptions. Hence, they manufacture false conclusions about God and become guilty of misinterpretation. Needless to say, the effects can be devastating.

The Dangers of Misinterpretation

The call to exercise correct interpretation comes from 2 Timothy 2:15:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

Bear with me for just a moment as we get into the more minute details of the text. In this verse, you’ll notice the words, “accurately handling.” This comes from the Greek word ὀρθοτομέω (orthotomeó—literally, “to cut straight”), where we get our English words orthopedic and orthodontic. If a person suffers a severe bone fracture in a sports related injury, for example, he will most likely need surgery from an orthopedic specialist. Why? Because his bones have been critically misaligned, and further damage can be done if left uncorrected. Thus, the orthopedic specialist must perform surgery to straighten the fractured bones back together.

Perhaps a more common concern among the average teenager is crooked teeth. If anyone struggles with crooked teeth but simply doesn’t care about what his teeth look like, then he would just ignore it and move on with life. But if it becomes a big enough deal, then he would most likely be referred to an orthodontist. The orthodontist would most likely suggest braces or even dental surgery; both would be intended for one purpose: to straighten the crooked teeth. Orthotomeó is the Greek word used in Proverbs 3:6 when we read it in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament): “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

The point that Paul is making to Timothy is that he must present himself approved to God as one that cuts through the Word of God in a very straight line (see fig. 1). What does that mean? Well, let’s consider two more words being used in the text that will help us out. You’ll notice the words diligent and workman. The word diligent comes from the word σπουδάζω (spoudazó), which means “to make every effort.” The idea would be to work hard and persistently to accomplish a task. The word workman comes from the Greek word ἐργάτης (ergatés), which simply means “a laborer.” This would refer to a manual laborer skilled at a specific trade.

Fig. 1. Having the ability to cut straight is necessary for the construction worker. Before he can properly cut though, he needs to be precise in his measurements. Being slightly off by just a little bit can have profound effects on the rest of his project. The same goes for the one interpreting God’s Word. (Photo Credit: “Cottage Life”)

Now, let’s put this all together. Timothy is a laborer whose job is to teach the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:2, 24; 4:2). Paul is instructing Timothy, therefore, to work diligently as that skilled laborer by cutting straight through the Word of God without deviating from that line. Any crooked cuts or slants would be cause for shame (2 Tim. 2:15). In other words, Timothy was charged to get the job done right! When it came to using (or handling) the Word of God, Timothy needed to be precise in his interpretation and in his explanation. This means that the Christian, in turn, must work hard at interpreting the Word of God. You show me a person that doesn’t put very much effort at interpreting God’s Word and I’ll show you a person that mishandles the word of truth and misleads others.

It’s no coincidence that, in the previous verse, the apostle Paul warns us about the ramifications of mishandling the word of truth. Paul says,

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers (2 Tim. 2:14).

Three questions. 1) What are “these things” Paul is charging Timothy to remind the Christians under his care? 2) What does it mean “not to wrangle about words?” 3) What does it mean that this will lead “to the ruin of hearers?”

First, “these things” that Timothy needs to remind the congregants in his church are the things that Paul has been talking about up until this point, in chapter two of his letter. Listen to what he says earlier in this chapter:

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2 emphasis added).

From verses 3 to 13, Paul explains what “these things” are. “These things” are the experiences (2 Tim. 2:3-7) and the doctrines (2 Tim. 2:8-13) of the Christian life. These were the things Timothy was charged to entrust to future teachers (2 Tim. 2:2) and these were the things Timothy was charged to remind the believers in his church (2 Tim. 2:14).

Second, what does it mean to “not wrangle about words?” The word Paul uses here is λογομαχέω (logomacheó), which means to strive or contend with somebody about words. The picture being painted for us here is that of people getting into heated arguments, or bumping heads because of ridiculous disputes over frivolous matters. These matters, being impetuously debated among believers, are frivolous because they are based on “foolish and ignorant speculations” (2 Tim. 2:23), not on the truths found in God’s Word. Paul says that this manner of conversation “is useless” (2 Tim. 2:14b) and calls it “irreverent, empty speech” (2 Tim. 2:16).

Let me break from the flow of thought for just a moment. Have you ever noticed that people who outright botch the Word of God are eager to talk about it? Obviously, they would never tell you that they misinterpreted the Word of God. (In fact, they are persuaded that their interpretation is right.) In recent months, a coworker engaged me in conversation about the ethnic background of Jesus. He worked hard at trying to convince me that Jesus was Ethiopian, not Jewish; he claimed he had credible sources that were hundreds of thousands of years old. That was already a red flag. But for the sake of entertaining that claim, if these so-called “credible sources” are hundreds of thousands of years old, then we have our first problem. Jesus was not born until approximately 4 B.C. This means that our Lord came to earth in human flesh about 2,000 years ago—not hundreds of thousands of years ago.

These credible sources, as a result, are left with no credibility. If that wasn’t enough, let’s consider the claim that Jesus was Ethiopian. Is that a problem? Yes, it is. Let’s just consider the same letter from Paul that we have been examining thus far: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8 emphasis added; cf. Matt. 1:1; Mark 10:47-48; Luke 1:31-32; Rom. 1:3). Since Jesus is David’s descendant, then we have to identify the ethnic background of David. We come to see in the Old Testament that David is identified as a Bethlehemite (1 Sam. 16:18-19) and the son of Jesse, who is an Ephrathite of Bethlehem (1 Sam. 17:12).

An Ephrathite was an Israelite whose hometown was Ephrath, also known as the city of Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19; Gen. 48:7; Mic. 5:2). So, in actuality, an Ephrathite and a Bethlehemite represent the same person (Ruth 1:2; 1 Chron. 4:4). This is not unusual by the way. Somebody can tell you he is from Manhattan while another person can tell you he is from New York City; and instantly, we know perfectly well to associate both designations to represent the same geographical city in the northeastern part of the United States. Undoubtedly, if Jesus was not an Israelite, He could not be David’s descendant; thus, He could not be the Messiah. Because Jesus was an Israelite from the line of David, being made clear by His Israelite family (Acts 7:37) and His Israelite ancestry (Luke 3:23-38), we can be confident that He is indeed the Messiah sent by the living God.

Let’s proceed to our third question. Not only is wrangling about words useless, it leads “to the ruin of hearers.” The word for ruin that Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:14 is καταστροφή (katastrophé), where we get our English word catastrophe. What Paul is saying is that this kind of bickering is catastrophic for the church. Paul elaborates to Timothy just how devastating this can become for the church:

But avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness. And their word will spread like gangrene; Hymenaeus and Philetus are among them. They have deviated from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and are overturning the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:16-18 HCSB).

I find it fascinating the medical language that Paul uses to illustrate the damaging effects of this ungodly chatter in the church. He compares it to gangrene. For anyone not too familiar with this medical condition, gangrene occurs when blood is unable to reach the tissue, causing the tissue to decompose and leaving an awful discoloration on the outer layer of skin (see fig. 2). Needless to say, gangrene can rapidly spread through large areas of the body if left untreated, and will likely result in surgery or amputation.

Fig. 2. Photo Credit: “News Medical Life Sciences”

The same devastating, infectious effects happen to the church when its people start spreading lies. Paul identifies Hymenaeus and Philetus as among these people. Their words caused a spiritual epidemic. These two men were telling others in the church “that the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Tim. 2:18b), leading them to believe that they weren’t saved and were headed to hell. Sadly, some of them were. This is why Paul said that these two men were “overturning [ἀνατρέπω—destroying] the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18c).

This became evident in the reprehensible, ungodly lifestyles that the people began living thereafter. This is why Paul goes on to say in the very next verse, “The Lord knows those who are His, and everyone who names the name of the Lord must turn away from unrighteousness” (2 Tim. 2:19). Certainly, what Paul had said just a couple of verses earlier was proven to be accurate: “irreverent, empty speech . . . will produce an even greater measure of godlessness” (2 Tim. 2:16). It is unsurprising that Paul would deliver a similar warning in his letter to Titus:

But avoid foolish debates, genealogies, quarrels, and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning, knowing that such a person is perverted and sins, being self-condemned (Tit. 3:9-11).

What in the world ignited this fire? How did all this happen? Paul tells us. Hymenaeus and Philetus did exactly what Paul charged Timothy not to do earlier. They “deviated from the truth” (2 Tim. 2:18a). In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he revealed that Hymenaeus rejected the faith and a good conscience, and thereby, “suffered the shipwreck of [his] faith” (1 Tim. 1:19-20). Instead of cutting straight through the Word of God, Hymenaeus and Philetus deviated from it by manufacturing false conclusions about God with their unfounded assumptions. There was only one hope that these former church members had: Timothy, being “able to teach,” needed to instruct “his opponents with gentleness,” depending only on God to “grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Applications

So, what do we make of all this? First, we need to take our approach to Bible interpretation very seriously. We mustn’t be indifferent to our study of Scripture. I’ve heard many Christians complain that learning “doctrine is boring” and “the only thing that matters is that you believe in Jesus.” Believing in Jesus matters greatly; you have no argument from me there. But we need to be careful. There have been many that once claimed to believe in Jesus that no longer do today. What happened? They were deceived by lies; they did not know what their Bibles said, and therefore, were unprepared for the devastation that came their way.

Second, we need to work hard at interpreting the Bible. Timothy was a clergyman assigned to instruct the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). From the early years of his childhood, Timothy knew the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15). Despite his ministerial role and his many years of knowledge, he was still instructed by Paul to be diligent in his work at “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Ezra “was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6) that “set his heart to study the law of the Lord” (Ezra 7:10). Because of his diligent efforts at studying the Word of God, Ezra was one of the interpreters that helped “the people . . . understand what was read” (Neh. 8:8).

How much more do you and I—perhaps not being gifted like Timothy and Ezra—need to put in diligent work and effort at handling the Word of God? This leads me to another point. We do not receive revelation from God or perceive God’s will for our lives by dreams or visions, feelings, emotions, experiences, hunches, intuitions, or coincidences. We receive revelation from God as we work hard at knowing God and His Word (see Deut. 29:29).

Third, we mustn’t be careless when others mishandle the Bible. When Paul and Silas traveled to Berea, they entered the synagogue and began preaching the Word. The Jews and Greeks at the Berean synagogue, we are told, welcomed the message from Paul and Silas but “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In other words, the Jewish and Greek attendants that assembled at this synagogue were “fact-checking” Paul and Silas by investigating the Scriptures, making sure that what the apostle and his colleague were teaching was accurate. How much more do we need to be examining what is said today in a world that is run by the internet? All sorts of ideas, worldviews, and philosophies are available at the click of a button.

Conclusion

Toward the end of the episode, Mr. Roper was humiliated by his misguided conclusion about Chrissy. He was blackmailed into discounting the kids’ rent as restitution for his error. Certainly, believers in Christ do not want to make the same mistake when it comes to the Word of God. We, like Timothy, are instructed to be “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). To neglect this essential task would wreak havoc for ourselves and for those around us. So, let us engage our minds by learning to study this wonderful, ancient text.


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