As I listen to more and more people use passages in the Gospels incorrectly, it seems that we need some simple rules for interpreting Gospel material. So here are three that I think will be helpful.
Rule 1: Listen to the writer and not the characters.
Listen to John not Jesus. Listen to Matthew and not Jesus. I know it sounds odd to be told not to listen to Jesus, but it is necessary. It’s necessary because Jesus is not talking to you in the Gospels. Well… not directly.
In the Gospels Jesus is talking to His original disciples not his latter ones. To take it any other way is to treat historical truth as fable.
He is also talking to Pharasees, Saducees, Scribes and others, but not you. The Gospel writers are writing what Jesus said to someone else, in order to communicate a message to you, the reader. Your job is to listen to the writer. He’s the one talking to you.
When we do not follow this simple rule we rob the historical persons of their significance as recorded and inevitably see them simply as metaphorical figures to communicate life lessons to us. As such, they are no longer historical, real persons whose action have affected history.
There is a reason Jesus said certain things to Simon Peter that he did not say to you. One reason is because the church would be founded on the Apostles and Prophets. This was a critical time in redemptive history. The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus said to his disciples that they could ask whatever they wanted in His name and it would be done. Those who would lay the foundation for the church would need the power of God to accomplish the task. If we apprehend Jesus’ words for ourselves, we will erroneously believe that the passage is teaching that we can ask God for whatever we want and He will do it for us. Many faiths have been ship wrecked on the rocks of unanswered prayer because of this mistake.
Rule 2: Don’t Allegorize.
Allegory is taking a concrete or real person or thing in a passage and using it to represent something different in application. The classic example is applying the real and concrete ‘storm’ in the passage and then using it to represent your financial ‘storm’ or your marital ‘storm.’ Then it is suggested that Jesus will quiet the financial storms in your life. The problem with allorgorizing the storm is that there is no indication in the passage that the storm can be made to represent anything other than and actual storm. It was real wind and waves and not the wind and waves of trouble in your life.
The Gospel writer is telling you about the real occurance of Jesus quieting a real storm. The Gospel writer is trying to get the reader to ask the right question about Jesus. Who can speak to real wind and waves and they obey him. The writer is not trying to get you to identify your troubles with the storm and then believe that Jesus will quiet them.
When we do not follow this rule we minimize some of the amazing things recorded in the Gospels, and trivialize their true significance. We make Jesus’ walking on water simply a metaphor for his ability to ‘walk’ on our problems. What an awful thing to do given the historical significance of a man actually walking on water. What kind of man walks on water? What do you do with a man who walks on water? If He walked on water, then the significance is so much bigger than your finances.
Rule 3: Read like a newspaper and not like a yearbook.
When you read a newspaper you read to find out what happened, and then you interpret the significance of what you read for yourself. For example, if you read that gasoline prices are expected to spike just before the coming holiday, you interpret the significance and you fill your tanks before the holiday spike. If you trust what you’ve read, then you respond appropriately. You respond according to it’s significance.
When you read a yearbook, the first thing you do is open the book and look for your picture. You open the book to find yourself. The problem with reading the bible this way is that your picture is not in it. You cannot read yourself into the stories. It is not written to give you a picture of yourself. The bible is a revelation of God in Christ Jesus. If you open it and read it right the only picture you will find is His. Once you see his picture, then interpret the significance of His revelation of Himself. Believe, embrace, and cling, for all these things are written that you may believe, and in believing you may have life in His name.
Hopefully, with these three simple rules, we can avoid misinterpreting some the most beautiful, historically significant books ever written.
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