Spiritual Discernment and Scriptural Interpretation

 

Growing up, I loved to watch cowboy films, not in movie theaters but on the only television in our neighborhood, right across the street.  Occasionally, however, my sister and I saw a movie in town at the theater, a place that scared me so much that on one occasion I refused even to get out of the car to go inside.  

The previous time we had watched a rather violent seafaring film that entailed a flogging.  I was so upset afterwards that I resolved to stay in the car while the rest of the family watched the movie and ate popcorn, a situation that my parents strongly disliked.  They left me alone in the car, hoping I would change my mind.  When I didn’t, we all had to go home, and I was put to bed early while the sun was still out!

When I was older, I later was intrigued with what a “league” was after seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I couldn’t conect its context with what I knew for sure, a league in baseball or football!  

But it was in another seafaring film that I first heard the word “fathom,” although I had to wait until we got home to learn what it meant.  I recall the sailors in the film taking depth findings, so I gathered that a fathom had to do with how deep the water was.

Many years later, I read the same word, or at least a similar form of the word, in the following Bible verse:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  (Romans 11:33)

It wasn’t difficult for me, therefore, to realize that the term unfathomable in this context meant “deep, impossible to fathom, incapable of being fully explored or understood, mysterious.”

Based on this verse in Romans, we learn that the depth of the riches of both the wisdom of God and the knowledge we have of Him are impossible to completely determine, or fathom.  To say, therefore, that anyone may fully or completely understand any of the verses or chapters in the inspired Word of God, the Scriptures, is impossible, as the following prophecy of Isaiah declares: 

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Nor is it logical to believe that the Scriptures, the unfathomable Word of God, must only be interpreted literally, or according to the most basic kind of reading like I learned in first grade.  

Yes, some passages are clearly intended to be read literally, such as the following:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  • “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

Other passages are most definitely to be read figuratively, including the following:

  • The 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
  • If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24, et al.).
  • Jesus’ parables.
  • The story of Zachaeus in the tree.

I understand that many theologians and Christian leaders are anxious to discourage heretical teachings in the Church. Therefore, they try to limit the possibilities for misreading unlimited, bottomless, or unfathomable repositories of Christian doctrines, including the even more obscure Biblical mysteries. 

Perhaps a better standard for biblical interpretation is “true” rather than “literal,” an approach with which I agree, for truth may be expressed and understood in many ways, all of which provide additional insight and depth of understanding.      

 

The Holy Spirit is Our Teacher

To prevent heresies in the Church,  however, the Holy Spirit has been given to distribute gifts of discernment and wisdom to Believers to be used to judge the teachings and messages of teachers and preachers in the Body of Christ.  Yet these gifts have been restricted in the Church today because the users of these gifts have been mistrusted, or these gifts of the Holy Spirit somehow have been misused.  Some theologians have even taught that the gifts have passed away and are no longer distributed to the Body of Christ today because they supposedly ceased after the Bible was completed.  

The logic of this reasoning is fallacious, for these gifts were given by Christ Jesus through the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who was given to lead all believers into the ways of righteousness until Christ comes again. At that time we will no longer be like children, led astray by every wind of doctrine, we will  see no longer as in a mirror “dimly,” but then face to face:  “Now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  

Unfortunately, without the powerful help of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, the one called alongside to teach and empower us, we are left with earthly tools and methods, carnal ways of learning and understanding spiritual truths from the Scriptures.  The Apostle Paul’s message to the Church in Corinth directly condemns these carnal approaches, however:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

         “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
         And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. . . . Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.   (I Corinthians 1:18-25)

Ironically, Christ taught His disciples that they needed to be like little children to discover the secrets of the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-16).  In fact, the inability to peer into the mysteries of God’s Kingdom arises from the foolishness and pride of the human mind and intellect, as Paul says in Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.  (Romans 1:18-20)

It is highly ironic, therefore,  that rather than finding the unfathomable wisdom of God through the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the mysteries of His Word, or even God’s creation, humans have turned the omniscient and omnipotent God into any number of literal idols and have worshipped the creation rather than the One Who made all things:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:20-23)

Unfortunately, some believers have unknowingly carried these idols into their tents, for they continue to use the world’s wisdom to understand the deep mysteries of God.  Likewise, some Bible teachers base their favorite teachings on literal renderings or other kinds of misinterpretations based on spurious readings.  The following are some of the missteps that lead to false doctrines:

  • Imposing a meaning onto a scripture (eisegesis) rather than drawing out a meaning from the scripture itself (exegesis). 
  • Not considering the genre or kind of writing that is being interpreted.  Poetry should not necessarily be read literally but figuratively, as poetry, for example, and a dream should not necessarily be interpreted the same way a historic event is understood.    
  • Not reading from the perspectives of the authors and time periods when the Biblical books were written. Reading the descriptions of the creation of the universe from a modern scientific perspective, for example, may result in incorrect interpretations.  
  • Imposing one definition of a certain word in Scripture onto another passage of Scripture. The word “day,” for example may indeed refer to twenty-four hours, but it may also be understood as one-thousand years (see Psalms 90:4 and II Peter 3:8).  

 

The Apostle Paul’s Perspective

The Apostle Paul makes clear the perspectives of interpretation emphatically throughout his letters, but most clearly when He is writing specifically about the mysteries, or ‘hidden wisdom,” that the Lord desires for us to know.  

Read carefully the following passages taken from I Corinthians.  First, Paul relates that his wisdom is directed to those believers who are mature in Christ, those who are walking in the Holy Spirit and are receiving the “mysteries” or insights only God may give.  These insights are not understood by the carnal methods used by the “rulers of this age,” for these methods are only transient, or “passing away.”   

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (I Corinthians 2:6-8)

These mysteries, or secrets God desires to reveal, are given through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (our Advocate, Helper, or Teacher).  Only the Holy Spirit has the insights we need, for He is One with God the Father and God the Son (He is also called the “Spirit of Christ”).  And these insights are not taught “by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit.”

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.  (I Corinthians 2:10-13)

Thus, God’s wisdom is received by combining “spiritual thoughts with spiritual words,” a process that is much more genuine than merely reading and interpreting the Scriptures literally.    

Paul summarizes his teaching by relating that a “natural man,” one who thinks according to human wisdom and uses the methods of the intellect rather than the spirit, does not understand these mysteries, for they may only be spiritually discerned:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.  (I Corinthians 2:14-16)

We must align our means and methods of interpretation to those of the Apostle Paul, therefore, and begin thinking with the “mind of Christ,” thinking not according to carnal wisdom or human methods, however wise they may seem.  They are not wise, according to Paul, and they may even be foolish, leading us into error.  It was this same kind of thinking that led the rulers of this world to crucify the Lord of glory.

 

Christian Cannibalism?

For example, in Matthew’s Gospel we read about the Last Supper, when Jesus gave His disciples the bread and wine:

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying,“Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.  (Matthew 26:26-28)

We cannot read this passage and interpret it literally without falling into the false doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist become in actuality the body and blood of Christ, not merely the signs or symbols of His body and blood.

Also, in John’s Gospel, we find another example.  After feeding the five thousand, the crowds follow Him and try to get Him to continue feeding them.  Jesus says they are only following Him because they “ate of the loaves and were filled.” He then says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35).  

Are we to take His words literally?

Later, the skeptics among the Jews question Jesus’ statements, having misunderstood Him and indeed taken them literally:  

Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 

Jesus responds with the following statement, which is even more obviously not to be taken literally:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

This passage from John is sufficient for many unbelievers even today to accuse Christians of advocating and practicing cannibalism, all because Jesus’ words have been taken literally, first by the skeptical Jews who heard His words and later by misguided Christians who have also taken the written words in the Gospels literally.  

One blog article I read even surmised that this is actually what happened to Jesus’ body:  He didn’t actually rise from the dead.  Instead, the disciples ate His body because He had commanded them to eat His flesh and drink His blood.  This is what comes from taking the words of Jesus, or the entire Bible, literally rather than spiritually.

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