Interpreting An Ancient Text (Part 2): Learning the Motivations

Outline

  • Introduction
  • The Motivations for Interpretation
    • God Expects Precision
    • God is Cherished
    • God’s Word is Sufficient
    • God’s Word Gives Hope
    • God’s Word is Satisfying
  • Conclusion

Introduction

Johnny has always struggled in his dating life. He’s in his early 40’s now, and he just ended his most recent relationship—his tenth relationship in twenty years. After his relationship ended, he became convinced that God was out to get him. Johnny got upset at God, wondering, “Why would God do this to me!” Whether you believe it or not, Johnny is a professing Christian. He repented of sin and put his trust in Christ at an early age.

He works hard and spends all of his free time enjoying his outdoor hobbies—hunting and fishing. His hobbies are where he finds his satisfaction in life. Inevitably, whenever Johnny is not hunting or fishing, he just goes through the motions; he’s dispassionate in normal, everyday life. Unfortunately, Johnny never reads God’s Word. His Bible collects dust as it rests inside one of his unpacked boxes in his bedroom closet. Are you noticing a pattern in Johnny’s life here? Let’s put Johnny’s life on display for just a moment:

  • Johnny’s tenth relationship is over.
  • Johnny gets mad at God.
  • Johnny thinks God is out to get him.
  • Johnny only finds satisfaction in his hobbies.
  • Johnny is dispassionate in normal, everyday life.
  • Johnny never reads God’s Word.

Johnny is a fictional character; but his story is real. In fact, Johnny’s story is often heard in the counseling room. It is imperative for Christians to understand that, unless you find your ultimate satisfaction in God, you will not find it anywhere else. Johnny was motivated to engage in his outdoor activities because they provided temporal satisfaction. His misconception, however, was that God and the Bible provided only dissatisfaction. Clearly, Johnny did not know his God very well. Relationships are wonderful, hobbies are great, life can be enjoyed—but not apart from God.

One might ask, “So, how can I find my satisfaction in God?” In one simple answer: you find your satisfaction in God as you enjoy Him in His Word.

The Motivations for Interpretation

In order to enjoy God in His Word, you need to have accurate interpretation of what God’s Word says. Often, the problem is that people, sadly, don’t even have the motivation to open God’s Word—let alone devote themselves to learning how to interpret God’s Word. So, why would Christians be motivated to become accurate interpreters?

God Expects Precision

First, we should be motivated to become accurate interpreters because we are commanded to accurately handle the Scriptures (2 Tim. 2:15). For those that read my first article in this topic series, you know that Christians are sternly warned about the dangers of misinterpretation. Failing to handle the Word of truth can be catastrophic for the lives of other Christians in the church (2 Tim. 2:16-18). For those that have not read part-one to this topic series, you can find the article here.

Failing to handle the Word of truth is not only dangerous for other Christians, it is dangerous for the interpreter. Like an unreliable, physical laborer that carelessly gets the job half-done, the Christian receives a stamp of disapproval from God because of his interpretive distortions of the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). You might remember the story of Job. Job was described as a man that “was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1). Even when Job’s animals, wealth, and children were taken away from him, “Job did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:22).

In chapter 2, we discover that Job was afflicted with sore boils all over his body because of Satan (Job 2:7). When Job’s three friends found out what had happened to their friend, they came “to sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They had made their journey to see Job, and when they saw him “at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept” (Job 2:12). The text continues,

Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great (Job 2:13).

Job’s friends did the one and only thing that was appropriate to do at this time: they kept silent and mourned with Job. (Take it from a counselor: that is sometimes the only thing you can do to comfort someone that has suffered severely.) After mourning with Job for one week though, his friends had a slight change of perception about the reasons behind their friend’s suffering. They began making accusations against Job, suggesting that his suffering was his own fault; he was to blame for all of his problems. The expression, “What goes around comes around” appears to succinctly capture the message that Job’s friends were trying to convey to him. As you can see, things escalated pretty quickly.

Keep in mind, these were religious men that were trying to relate to Job accurate truths about God. They were not scolding Job for the fun of it; they were doing what they believed was right. They had conceptions made about God that they believed were true, and they acted on those beliefs. Were the strong convictions that they had, however, enough to warrant their actions? Absolutely not. In fact, God was incredibly displeased with Job’s friends for misrepresenting Him. God said to Eliphaz,

I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me (Job 42:7).

When people speak lies about God—distorting His character and His Word—God does not take it sitting down. Ignorance, by the way, is no excuse. When the Pharisees began accusing the Lord’s disciples in Matthew 12:1-8 for allegedly violating the Sabbath, the Lord responded to them by making one accusation of His own: You don’t know the Scriptures. Consider the opening statements of Jesus:

  • “Haven’t you read what David did…?” (Matt. 12:3-4).
  • “Or haven’t you read in the Law…?” (Matt. 12:5-6).
  • “If you had known what this means…” (Matt. 12:7).

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching inaccuracies that were not found in the Word of God—the very text that they had claimed to be lawful experts on. This was not the only time, by the way, that Jesus rebuked the religious teachers of His day for mishandling the Word of God (see Matt. 22:29; Mark 12:10, 24; Luke 11:52). Regardless of the excuse, the Christian is charged with the task of handling God’s Word with precision.

God is Cherished

Second, we should be motivated to become accurate interpreters out of our love for God and His Word. The psalmist declares, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). Don’t get too boggled down on the word law; the ancient law of Moses was the Word of God for the Israelites for many centuries before the rest of the Bible was written and available. Also, please don’t misunderstand the word meditation. Meditation on Scripture is not yoga meditation or Eastern-religious meditation; the word meditation simply means “to give careful thought to something.” If you ever dated someone you really liked and spent long periods of the day thinking about that person, then you know exactly what this kind of thoughtful meditation looks like. The psalmist couldn’t contain his love for God’s law; it was all he could think about all day long.

The psalmist says several verses later: “Your word is completely pure, and Your servant loves it” (Psalm 119:140). This time, the psalmist declares his love for the entirety of God’s Word, not just the Law. Andreas Köstenberger (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Richard Patterson (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles), in their partnered contribution, ask the important question, “Why would we want to take the time and exert the effort to learn to interpret Scripture correctly?” [1] They answer, saying,

Many cults have arisen because of their flawed interpretation of Scripture. There is an even more powerful motivation, however: embarking on the quest for accurate biblical interpretation out of our love for God, his Word, and his people. If you and I truly love God, we will want to get to know him better, and this involves serious study of his word. [2]

God’s Word is Sufficient

Third, we should be motivated to become accurate interpreters because the Scriptures, when properly understood, sufficiently provide us everything we need to be saved and to obey God. The apostle Paul says to Timothy,

15 [F]rom childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

Here, Paul reminds Timothy that he was brought up as a child knowing the “sacred writings,” which were likely passed down from Timothy’s mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5). Paul described these sacred writings earlier in his letter as “the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and proceeds to refer to them as “all Scripture” in the passage quoted above (v. 16). The Scriptures, by themselves, cannot save a person (John 5:39; cf. Rom. 2:12-13). When interpreted correctly, however, the Scriptures provide the wisdom that lead to salvation through Christ alone. This indicates, just to be clear, that a person cannot be saved apart from the cleansing water of the Word of God (see John 3:3, 51 Pet. 1:23; cf. Rom. 10:17; James 1:21).

Not only is the Word of God profitable for our salvation, it is profitable for our obedience. The apostle declares that all—not some, but allScripture is inspired (θεόπνευστος—lit. “God-breathed”) and is helpful for the Christian in four ways:

  1.  Instruction: teaching us about the things of God;
  2.  Conviction: reproving us about our sin;
  3.  Correction: correcting us from wavering in our sinful habits;
  4.  Training: nurturing, or disciplining us for righteous habits.

What is the end result? Like a soldier fully geared for battle, the Christian is sufficiently girded with salvation and is equipped with righteousness to serve God in obedience.

God’s Word Gives Hope

Fourth, we should be motivated to become accurate interpreters because the Scriptures, when rightly interpreted, provide hope. Being in a state of hopelessness is one of the most devastating experiences a person can have. Depending on the circumstance, a hopeless person can be described as depressed, despaired, discouraged, desperate, unhappy, miserable, and, in some cases, suicidal. The apostle Paul declares that the Word of God addresses people of this caliber, supplying them with the hope that they lack. Listen to what he says:

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).

According to this verse, how does a person obtain hope? Hope is realized “through perseverance [ὑπομονή—lit. “patient endurance”] and the encouragement of the Scriptures.” Frankly, why in the world would we need hope that comes from endurance and encouragement? Simple answer: because of suffering. Paul understood that a person tended to lose hope in the midst of suffering; and Paul also understood that there was no way to avoid suffering. If there was a way to avoid suffering, then there would honestly be no need for endurance and encouragement. Rather than venture through the dark valleys of our sufferings, why not exert all our efforts to just prevent suffering in the first place? Because that is not a possibility in this world.

We know that suffering is unavoidable because of what Paul says several chapters earlier:

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it . . . . 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Rom. 8:20, 22-23).

Paul, in verses 20 and 22, refers to the entire natural creation—the earth, the universe, and all it contains—being subjected to suffering. (This is why the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a reality for us.) In verse 23, Paul narrows down the recipients of suffering to Christian believers (those of us “having the first fruits of the Spirit”). In this particular case, what specifically is the Christian’s suffering? Notice, toward the end of verse 23, we “groan within ourselves” while we wait for the ultimate, heavenly experience of our salvation (“our adoption as sons”), bringing with it the experience of possessing new bodies (“the redemption of our body”; cf. 1 Cor. 15:35-49Phil. 3:20-21).

So, why would we groan within ourselves while we wait for new bodies? Because the current bodies that we occupy here on earth are corrupted, fragile, weak, and slowly declining as we age. Therefore, Paul alludes to our physical sufferings (e.g., sickness, disease, organ failure, aging, etc.). Let me not neglect to mention that it is not only our physical sufferings, but also our spiritual sufferings that Paul brings to bear, in the previous chapter (Rom. 7:14-25).  Paul’s description of our spiritual sufferings as Christians is simple: we struggle inwardly because of the evil that’s taken residence within us.

In our walk with Christ, we often blow it because of poor, sinful choices. We can destroy relationships. We can develop sinful habits. We can say things and do things that we later regret. These sinful decisions occur because of the evil that is present within us. Because of this, we confess with Paul, “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24). Let me be clear: this is the experience of every Christian.

Because of our physical and spiritual sufferings, every Christian needs hope (ἐλπίς— “confident expectation of the future”; see Rom. 8:24-25). For the sake of clarity, let us quickly recall our key verse:

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).

In order to obtain hope, the Christian needs to be supplemented with the spiritual vitality that enables him or her to be encouraged and to patiently endure suffering. For this to happen, let us be clear, the Christian must listen to instruction. This instruction is not found in TED Talks, self-esteem conferences, self-help books, Positive News magazines, politics, the classroom, your horoscope, or conventional psychology. This instruction is rooted in “whatever was written in earlier times”—that is, the Scriptures.

Therefore, in order to have hope, we must accurately be instructed from the Scriptures. You show me a person that neglects the Scriptures and I’ll show you a person that has very little hope when life gets hard. 

God’s Word is Satisfying

Finally, we should be motivated to become accurate interpreters because the Scriptures, when interpreted correctly, plant the Christian in the soil of satisfaction and happiness. Listen to what the psalmist says:

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water (Psalm 1:1-3).

Here, the word blessed (אֶשֶׁר, esher) literally means, “happiness.” Have you ever noticed that the people most intent and determined to finding happiness are the ones that rarely find it? They preach positivity and “good vibes only,” but cannot crawl out of their pit of misery. Please don’t misunderstand me: I do not say this out of derision or as a joke. I say this out of concern; I say this empathetically as one that struggled with aching moods of depression before coming to Christ several years ago. I can assure you that my emotional struggles were not due to unmet needs, low self-esteem, or chemical imbalances in the brain. My problems were deeper than that; I planted my affections and desires in the wrong soil.

Explorers that venture on their expedition for happiness fall short of finding it because they don’t know where to look. Like trying to drink water from an empty reservoir, they search the pleasures of the world to satisfy their thirsts—when ultimate happiness was never meant to be experienced in the creation, but in the Creator (Jer. 2:13; John 4:13-14). The psalm writer teaches us that the happy person is not influenced by (“walk in the counsel”), does not conspire to (“stand in the path”), nor settle down in (“sit in the seat”) a life of godlessness. Rather, the happy person finds “his delight in the law of the Lord”—that is, the Scriptures.

Notice, the picture being painted by the psalmist is not one that displays a person with his bottom lip folded over his upper lip, bummed out and fussing over a sense of obligation to read God’s Word. The picture painted is of a man or woman whose love and delight for God’s Word is so astronomical and uncontainable, that he or she cannot help but to think (meditate) on the Scripture day and night. Don’t misunderstand: the text is not assuming that the person is going to have an open Bible during all waking hours of the day. The idea is that the words of God are richly filled in the mind of that person (cf. Col. 3:16).

Have you ever been so overwhelmed with excitement because of a new movie you enjoyed or because of a sports team that had just won a championship, and all you could think about was the excitement of that experience? That’s what the lover of God’s Word experiences. You cannot experience this love for God’s Word though, if you do not know how to accurately interpret it. The psalmist, using language of comparison, describes this happy person “like a tree firmly planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3).

The tree that is rooted in fresh, hydrated soil like the one planted by the streams of water, is the tree that stands firm, even when the storm winds come. So, like a storm that cannot uproot a tree from its soil is the person whose circumstances will not govern his life. Some branches may be broken off but the tree is not going anywhere, when it is firmly planted in the soil of God’s Word. 

Conclusion

Johnny was motivated to engage in the activities that he enjoyed doing outdoors. Unfortunately, reading the Bible was not one of those activities. The reason for this was because Johnny was mistaken about something: the Bible was meant to be an enjoyment, not an exasperation. What should have been legitimate leisures of enjoyment outdoors turned into temporal sips of delight from an empty cup. What was intended to be found in God and His Word alone was what Johnny was searching for in all the wrong places. Those wrong places are probably the places you’ve been exploring as well.

The ultimate satisfaction for the Christian can only be found in God through His Word. The problem is that, like Johnny, Christians neglect the Bible. A common reason Christians neglect the Bible is due to their inexperience in interpretation; but the common problem for Christians who neglect becoming skilled in interpretation, is the problem of motivation. Therefore, let us be motivated to become accurate interpreters of God’s Word, because 1) God commands precision, 2) God is to be cherished, 3) God’s Word is sufficient, 4) God’s Word gives hope, and 5) God’s Word is satisfying.

Last time, we covered the dangers in interpretation. Today, we covered the motivations for interpretation. Next time, we will consider the mistakes in interpretation.


Notes

[1] Köstenberger, Andreas J. and Patterson, Richard D. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011, p. 59.

[2] Ibid, p. 59.


3 thoughts on “Interpreting An Ancient Text (Part 2): Learning the Motivations

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