Interpreting An Ancient Text (Part 3): Learning the Mistakes

Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. The Mistake In Interpretation
    • The Mistake Committed
    • The Mistake Corrected
  3. Application
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

I come from a Latin American background. Even though I was born in the States, my Latin American heritage was still somewhat influential for my family when I was growing up. My mother is of Salvadorian and Spanish descent, while my father is of Mexican descent. As you may already know, the major religion in Latin America is Roman Catholicism. To some extent, my family held to certain Catholic beliefs because it was all that we knew. Catholic tradition in Latin America identifies Mary, the mother of Jesus, as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which means, “Our Lady of Guadalupe” or La Virgen Maria de Guadalupe, which means, “The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.”

A Latin American, having been influenced by his or her heritage, might carry some preconceived ideas about Mary in the Bible. One of those ideas might be that Mary is Latina, because of the name designated to her in Spanish. In fact, some may think that she is descended from Mexico specifically, because of the term Guadalupe (e.g., the Virgin Mary of “Guadalupe”), which refers to an old town in Mexico City. Today, this former town is now a region in Mexico City that attracts many tourists and Catholics, who regard their visit to this region a holy pilgrimage. [1]

Mary, being called “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe” or “La Virgen Maria de Guadalupe”—or simply called “Guadalupe”can be misleading because Mary was not Latina; she was an Israelite. How do we know that for sure? First, Mary identified her Jewish lineage by calling the Jewish patriarchs her fathers (Luke 1:55). Second, Mary was related to Elizabeth (Luke 1:36), whose ancestry was traced back to Aaron (Luke 1:5). As I’m sure you are aware, Aaron was the brother of Moses, an ancient Israelite (Exod. 2:6). Third, Scripture also gives the impression that Mary was of the lineage of David (Luke 1:27). There is unequivocally no doubt that Mary was a first-century, Jewish woman.

Another culturally influenced idea might be that Mary is to be worshiped because of the teachings in Catholic tradition. In Catholicism, there is what’s called, “The Veneration of Mary,” which is the special honor attributed to Mary, as one that has reached a prestige or status of holiness. Prayers and pious acts, for example, would be performed in the name of Mary because of Catholic tradition. Now, I am not suggesting that Catholics, in general, believe that Mary is Latina nor that Catholics believe that she is to be worshiped. What I am saying, however, is that some Latin Americans, having been influenced by their heritage, might come to those conclusions about Mary because of their preconceived ideas.

The Mistake In Interpretation

A preconceived idea, or preconception means to “to form a conception or opinion . . . before seeing [the] evidence.”[2] In this case, some Latin Americans, like myself when growing up, might have a picture of Mary that is color-coded to look a certain way before even coming to the Bible. Then, when we finally do read the accounts of Mary in the Bible, our preconceived ideas confiscate the actual meaning of the biblical text, and our time in the Word of God becomes profitless. We need to, therefore, eliminate our preconceptions. This is the mistake often made and left uncorrected in the task of interpretation.

We need to remove the influences that dim our interpretation of God’s Word, such as, our attitudes, our feelings, our emotions, our experiences, our desires, our intelligence, our pasts, our preferences, our culture, our heritage, our language, our nationality, our ethnicity, our skin color, our gender, our political views, our economic statuses, and anything else that skews our understanding.[1] After previously examining the dangers and the motivations for interpretation, perhaps what everyone is saying by this point is, “Come on, get on with it! How do we interpret the Bible?” I promise you—we’re almost there. In order for us to know how to interpret the Bible, we need to be aware of how not to interpret the Bible.

The Mistake Committed

Let’s look at an example of how this mistake in interpretation is committed. A debate between two pastor-theologians (Dr. James White and Jeff Durbin) and two atheistic scientists (Dr. Greg Clark and Dan Ellis) was recently held at the University of Utah on October 3, 2019. You can find the full debate here. Clark and Ellis, throughout the duration of nearly two hours, spent their moments of opportunity, slandering and scolding their Christian challengers on the other side of the platform, rather than using the time to instruct the audience about how science addresses the topic of origins. Their sarcasm, rage, anger, hatred, bitterness, mockery, and disgust for God and His Word could not be concealed.

Toward the end of the debate, Clark reached for a container of antifreeze from behind the table, poured some into a plastic cup, and invited Christians in the audience to take a chug, in an attempt to make a mockery out of Mark 16:17-18. Clark said,

These are the signs of those who have believed—not just the apostles—those who have believed. They will drink deadly poison, and it will not harm them; it will not harm them! . . . Is there anybody in the audience who will stand up for Jesus, because he says if you deny him before men, he will deny you before your gods.

By the way, did you notice that last word—gods? That was not by accident. Clark pluralized the term God on purpose to mock the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Now, what was Clark trying to accomplish here? He was taking a shot at interpretation, even as an atheist, in an attempt to demonstrate that the Bible falls flat on on its face, so to speak. Most definitely, if I prompted a bodybuilder to stand on one leg like a flamingo, told him to close his eyes, instructed him to put both of his hands behind his head, assured him that I was performing a magic trick, but came from behind and shoved him to the floor, and then bragged in celebration about how powerful I was—the only thing I would prove to myself was my own weakness, not my strength. Why? Because I demonstrated that the only way I could shove him to the ground was by manipulating his composure.

The same thing happens when someone manipulates the content of Scripture—twisting the truth, distorting the text, decontextualizing the words—and then in arrogance, asserts that the Bible is contradictory and untrue. It is no wonder, when referring to the apostle Paul’s writings, that Peter warns his audience that there

are some things hard to understand, which the [mockers that are] untaught and unstable distort, as they [distort] also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16).

Not only was Clark trying to expose the fallacies in Scripture, he was trying to expose the faultiness of Christians. He did this by inviting Christians up to the platform to drink antifreeze. Like the civilians and the leaders of Jesus’ day that mocked Him (Matt. 27:38-44), Clark was mocking Christians. He thought that if Christians really believed in God and the Bible, then they would prove their faith by taking a drink of antifreeze. (Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?) Clark’s problem is simple: he was ignorant to the text of Scripture.

The Mistake Corrected

What was really going on in Mark 16? Let’s examine the text:

14 Afterward [Jesus] appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs (Mark 16:14-20).

First, let’s understand that Jesus was speaking to the eleven disciples (v. 14— “He appeared to the eleven”). He then charged the disciples to preach the gospel to all people (v. 15— “the whole creation”). Whoever believed the gospel that the apostles preached would be saved (v. 16). A quick disclosure here: Jesus was placing the emphasis here on belief, not baptism. Notice, “He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed” (v. 14); they were not reproached for turning a blind eye to baptism. Also, notice the second half of verse 16: “Whoever has not believed will be condemned.” Condemnation did not fall on the one that wasn’t baptized, but on the one that didn’t believe. Lastly, look at the beginning of verse 17: “These signs will accompany those who have believed.” The text makes it clear that if anyone had been baptized but neglected to believe, he would not be saved.

Then, what was Jesus teaching here? Let’s remember that these events did not occur in the twenty-first century; these events took place during the first century. In those days, when Jewish customs were prevalent in civilian culture, it was an ordinary practice for a person to make public confession that corresponded to his identity. The custom was not a matter of preference nor was it up for debate; you just did it. For instance, if you were a Jewish male, you would be circumcised publicly when you were eight-days old. Today, when a new U.S. President is elected to Office (let the reader understand that I am not inferring a political reference here), the President-elect is formally inaugurated into his term by way of public ceremony. It is normal and expected that the President-elect participates in his inauguration by being publicly sworn in by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Baptism, in similar fashion, was a public confession of one’s faith; it was the mark of salvation, not the means to salvation (see Acts 8:36-37). 

Let’s return to the matter at hand. Clark told the Christians in attendance to drink the antifreeze, remarking Jesus’ statement that if they had truly believed in Him, then the antifreeze would not harm them. Is Clark’s interpretation correct? Let’s find out.

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:15-18).

These signs—1) casting out demons, 2) speaking in new tongues, 3) unaffected by serpents, 4) unharmed by poison, and 5) healing the sick—would accompany (παρακολουθέω— lit. “to follow”) those who have believed. The fact that these signs followed or accompanied believers showed that the administration of signs was a passive experience for the believer; these signs were not administered because of the Christian’s ability or power. In fact, this is confirmed by Paul when he said that it was the Spirit who performed these signs (see 1 Cor. 12:11). Notice, Jesus did not stipulate that each individual Christian would be able to perform all of these signs. Jesus was making the point that these signs, as a general rule, would be a visible reality for believers. Paul, as a matter of fact, states that each Christian was assigned a gift by the Spirit of God to perform one sign (1 Cor. 12:4-10, 27-30).

Now, when Jesus said that these signs would accompany believers—which believers was Jesus referring to? Was He indicating that all believers from every generation would be accompanied by these signs, or would only the believers during this time period experience this phenomena of miracles? We can only answer that question by addressing another question: since these signs accompanied those who have believed, what was it that these believers needed to believe? Look back to the passage.

15 And he said to [the eleven], “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. . . . 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe” (Mark 16:15, 17).

Jesus said that whoever believed the gospel that was proclaimed by the eleven apostles would be accompanied with these signs. If you came in contact with an apostle, heard his message of the gospel preached, and you believed, then you would be accompanied—as a participator and as a spectator—with these signs. As a participator, you would administer these signs by the Spirit, as He would allow (e.g., Acts 6:8—Stephen; Acts 15:12—Barnabas; 1 Cor. 12:8-10—the Corinthians). As a spectator, you would witness the administration of signs performed by the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 8:6-7, 13; 14:3).

After Jesus finished speaking to the eleven, He ascended up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. Notice what happened afterwards:

20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs (Mark 16:20).

The eleven apostles preached the gospel as they were commanded by Jesus, in Mark 16:15. While they preached the gospel, “the Lord worked with them and [the Lord] confirmed the message by accompanying signs.” The Lord was accompanying (ἐπακολουθέω—lit. “to follow after”) the message of the gospel with signs. In other words, when the gospel was preached, the Lord followed up with a sign to confirm the message. Here, the believers that heard the apostolic message were accompanied with signs from the Lord, as spectators.

Signs, miracles, and wonders were prevalent in the first-century because they distinguished a true apostle from a false apostle (see 2 Cor. 12:12). Therefore, if you came in contact with an apostle, believing his message, you would be accompanied with these signs to validate the message and to validate the apostle who preached the message. If Clark’s interpretation is accurate—that believers should be unaffected by antifreeze—then we should also be able to cast out demons, speak in tongues, and heal the sick. Not only that, we should be able to witness a widespread outbreak of signs administered by the apostles. But wait—there are no more apostles left.

No more apostles. No more signs. It’s as simple as that. My sincere apologies to my Pentecostal and Charismatic friends. The apostle Paul declared that signs and miracles were only a temporary phenomenon (1 Cor. 13:8-10). The writer of Hebrews explained the ultimate purpose behind signs:

3 How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it [the message of salvation] was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard [the apostles], God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Heb. 2:3-4).

Miracles, signs, and wonders were primarily intended to verify the identity and salvation of Jesus (see Acts 2:22), not to put on a show like Penn and Teller. And this magically inspired show was the manner in which Clark mockingly expected the Christians in attendance to drink antifreeze. The God of the universe and the King of heaven will not be mocked into subjection, to the mercy of a man.

Application

Why is it necessary that signs and miracles have an expiration date? Why does God no longer work miracles through His people today? The short answer: there’s no longer a need for them. Let’s remember, signs were used to verify the identity of Jesus (Acts 2:22), to confirm the message of the gospel (Mark 16:20; Heb. 2:4), and to validate the apostle who preached the gospel (2 Cor. 12:12). Do we still need Jesus, the gospel, or the apostles to be confirmed by miracles? No, we do not. Jesus is currently sat at the right hand of God; the gospel is testified in the Scriptures; and the apostles are all in heaven. The urgency for miracles is just not there.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a case in point (Luke 16:19-31). This passage depicts the most graphic and the most horrifying display of hell. The rich man was so wealthy, he made it a priority to show it off; “he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day” (Luke 16:19). Dressing in purple and fine linen can be compared to a person that wears nothing but popular branded clothing, drives a Lamborghini, and lives in a million-dollar mansion—it is a show of wealth and prosperity. Jesus then introduces us to a man less fortunate, a man named Lazarus.

Lazarus was poor and was infested with sores all over his body. Lazarus was not asking for much; he only pleaded for the crumbs, the garbage-dumping leftovers from the table that the rich man feasted on (Luke 16:21). But Lazarus was ignored. He eventually died and went to heaven. Not long after, the rich man died as well (Luke 16:22). When the rich man awoke, he found himself in the tormenting flames of Hades (Luke 16:23). The torment was so excruciating, the rich man begged for just a drop of water (Luke 16:24). His times of comfort were over. Water was not available, not even a drop.

The rich man, after realizing his eternal doom, pleaded that Lazarus be sent to his five brothers that were still alive on earth, in the hope that his five brothers would be warned about hell (Luke 16:27-28). Listen carefully to the following interaction between the rich man and Abraham, who was in heaven:

29 But Abraham said, “They [your brothers] have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” 30 But he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” 31 But he said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:29-31).

Did you catch that? The rich man asked that Lazarus be raised from the dead and make an appearance to his brothers on earth, in order that they would understand that their existence on earth is not all that there is; there is an eternity after life on earth. That eternity would either be spent in eternal rest in heaven or in eternal torment in hell. How did Abraham reply? He declined the rich man’s request and affirmed that Moses and the Prophets—i.e., the Old Testament Scriptures—were sufficient to persuade the rich man’s brothers about eternal damnation and salvation in Christ.

If seeing someone risen from the dead is not enough to persuade someone about eternity, what do you think signs, miracles, or wonders will do? If believers still had the power to cast demons out, to speak in tongues, or to heal the sick, people would respond in the exact same way they did in the first century: they would accuse believers of drinking too much alcohol (Acts 2:13). People today would cast the miracles off as magic tricks and mind games, and would accuse believers of being mentally ill and psychologically disordered. If people will not listen to Scripture, then nothing else—not the resurrection, not miracles, nor scientific evidence—will be adequate enough to persuade a man, who loves his life too much on this earth, that God exists and that eternity is real.

Conclusion

Whether you are Latin American, Israeli American, Caucasian American, Asian American, African American, Native American, or something other than American, you must eliminate your preconceptions in order to accurately understand the Scriptures. Like Dr. Greg Clark, whose emotional and intellectual preconceptions manipulated the Scripture, we do not want to be guilty of twisting, distorting, and decontextualizing the Bible. The Holy Spirit may not be administering the signs and miracles that were once prevalent in ancient times, but that does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not hard at work. Today, the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of sinners, bringing them to Christ and growing their faith in Christ, when the Word of God is faithfully and accurately read, studied, interpreted and proclaimed.

We first looked at the dangers in interpretation. In the last post, we considered the motivations for interpretation. Today, we looked at the mistakes in interpretation. Next, we will examine the Source of interpretation.


Notes

[1] This list of preconceptions was inspired by Mr. Todd Friel’s message on hermeneutics. Friel, Todd. “Hermeneutics: History Matters.” 20 Jan 2019, Providence Church, Duluth, GA. Sermon.

[2] “Preconceive.” Def. 1. Dictionary.com. Accessed 26 Oct 2019. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/preconceive?s=t


One thought on “Interpreting An Ancient Text (Part 3): Learning the Mistakes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s