Interpreting the Bible: Interpreting the New Testament
Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Whereas God once spoke through the prophets, He now speaks through His Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1). Jesus gave the Holy Spirit and authority to His twelve Apostles to set forth the message of His life, death, resurrection, lordship, kingdom, and return (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:1-36); their testimony is recorded in the pages of the New Testament (John 20:30-31). If we would learn of Jesus’ life and how we are to live and serve in His Kingdom, we must learn how to read and interpret the New Testament appropriately.
Interpretation begins with reading and understanding the text in its context, considering the author and the message. Before we begin to directly apply passages from the New Testament to our lives, however, we must first establish the level of relevancy of the particular passage to ourselves. A good guideline is to consider all passages relevant to our lives unless the context provides a good reason to the contrary. Many passages are very relevant, such as Galatians 5:18-24, Philippians 2:5-11, and many others: we find ourselves in similar need to our first century forebears to hear these exhortations and act accordingly. Other passages, like Romans 2:17-29 or John 14:1-17:19, prove moderately relevant: the context in each shows that they are written or spoken to a particular audience (Jews and the twelve Apostles respectively) with expectations for them to act or respond in certain ways we could not today, yet we can still gain valuable insights from the message to such persons so that we may follow God properly. Other passages, like Paul’s concluding messages to specific people (cf. Romans 16:1-15, Philippians 4:2-3), have a low relevance level; we can certainly learn from them, but since we cannot greet such people, or exhort those people toward certain forms of conduct, we cannot apply them directly to our lives.
Once we have read and understood a text in context, and have sought to establish how relevant a given passage is to our lives, we may then begin seeking to apply the message to our lives. When we apply the message of Scripture to our lives, we establish Biblical authority for the things we think, feel, say, and do, consistent with Colossians 3:17. Biblical authority is not merely derived from highly relevant New Testament passages; many times, passages that are in the low to moderate relevancy range can help illuminate the authority present within more highly relevant passages. Biblical authority is manifest in three ways: commands, apostolically approved examples, and necessary conclusions or inferences from what has been revealed.
Many times God provides specific directives that are to be followed: Christians either are to do a given thing or not to do it. These are commands, and they are found throughout the New Testament (e.g., Romans 12:1-21, Ephesians 5:1-6:9, etc.). Commands establish precisely what we are or are not to do; we must follow them (1 John 2:3-5).
The Apostle Paul commanded Christians to imitate the examples they were given by the Apostles as they reflected Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6-15). Therefore, we can know that if we follow the examples approved by the Apostles in the New Testament, we stand on firm ground and have confidence in our practice. Examples include Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 which indicate that Christians met on the first day of the week and such was approved by the Apostles; we know that we can meet on the first day of the week and also be approved.
At times certain truths are manifest in Scripture by necessity according to what has been revealed even though they are not explicitly spoken. Such are necessary conclusions or examples. In Acts 8:34-39, for instance, we necessarily infer that Philip preached baptism as part of “preaching Jesus” since the eunuch’s response to Philip was a desire to be baptized. Lessons can also be gained through necessary inference, as Jesus indicates by concluding that God is God of the living and not the dead because He “is” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 22:23-32; cf. Exodus 3:6).
Biblical authority ascertained from commands, examples, and inferences is well and good. But what of times when examples prove inconsistent? What about all the things which have changed since the days of the Apostles? For these and many other reasons we must also ascertain the scope of the authority we have derived from the message of the New Testament.
More often than not, the authority provided in Scripture is general in scope, giving a broad outline of authority. Such is often called generic authority. When there is a broad outline of authority there is often liberty in the details. Commands often provide general scope of authority for practicing the command: the command to preach the Gospel, for instance, does not provide specifics on how to travel to preach, and we therefore have liberty in that area (Matthew 28:18-20). Examples often leave many details to liberty: for instance, we know that brethren assembled on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), but we are not told precisely when; therefore, we have liberty to assemble at any time on the first day of the week. Examples also demonstrate a generic scope of authority when they are not consistent: since we see Paul and others going to preach the Gospel in a boat, on a chariot, or by walking (cf. Acts 8:4-5, 29-31, 17:10, 27:1-28:16), the inconsistent examples indicate that we have liberty. Inferences often provide authority in a general way: the inference that we need to help people based on the judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 does not specify precisely how we are to do so.
At other times God has made known His purpose in a more specific way. Specific scope is often called specific authority. When God has specified a thing, we must follow the specifics without variance, as Hebrews 7:12-14 indicates. God’s specific command to sing would thus exclude the use of instruments (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Many specific examples, when appropriate, should be followed, as is true with the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The scope of authority establishes what we can do in matters of silence: if the scope is general and there is silence, God has established liberty; if the scope is specific and there is silence, God has prohibited a matter. We must also show great concern with our liberties that we do not provide reason for offense (cf. Romans 14:1-23, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13).
We can read the New Testament and come to an understanding of God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ as long as we seek to interpret the text soundly and consistently. May we observe healthy guidelines for interpreting the New Testament and live with Biblical authority for all we think, feel, say, and do!
Ethan R. Longhenry