A pastoral leader with whom I spent several years often noted, “All that the Bible teaches about a subject is the truth about that subject.” This wise hermeneutical insight should keep us all from jumping to hasty conclusions in Bible study.
I’ve tackled the assignment of teaching basic hermeneutics (principles of biblical interpretation) on a few occasions and love the challenge of it. I’m no scholar but I trust God by His Spirit has taught me some of the basics.
In real estate the 3 principles of success are location, location, location. I would suggest the three principles of careful interpretation are context, context, context. A word is set in the context of a sentence. A sentence rests in the context of a paragraph. A paragraph rests in the context of a chapter, a chapter in a book, a book in the corpus (body) of the author’s writings, the corpus in the Testament in which it is included and the Testament in the context of the entire Bible.
I love using Colossians 2:21 as an example of context. In the translation I am using, the verse is set in quotation marks. Paul is citing some unidentified source as he writes to the Colossian church. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Read alone it sounds like three prohibitions for Christian conduct. I’ve heard a few Bible studies and sermons that have ripped this verse out of its setting as the preacher/Bible study leader attempted to convince us of the importance of careful conduct in daily living.
But is this what the text is saying? No! The full sentence commences in verse 20 and ends in verse 21. Paul is asking a question and pressing for an answer from his readers.
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?
Believers in their identification with Christ, died WITH Him. We may accurately say, “Christ died for us.” He paid for our sins in full by offering His life for us. We may also say, “I died WITH Christ.” God considers me to have died with Christ, and in chapter 3:1 to also have been raised with Him.
Since I, as a believer in Christ, like the Colossians, have died with Christ, I have severed my relationship to the ‘basic principles of this world’ – some foundational life principles which were designed to guide behaviour. In this brief post, I won’t attempt to illucidate this further, but the context, the entire paragraph teaches these principles, these rules are man made, they appear to be wise, they seem appropriate, but in essence they are useless in holding back any sensual (sinful behaviour.)
I share these verses and these few meditative thoughts because I’ve been pondering them in recent days. The Christian community is offered ‘packaged’ principles with some ‘self-appointed’ teacher claiming that if you follow his or her six steps, you will reach a new spiritual height. I’ve been to more than a few ‘seminars’ and read ‘books’ that seem to provide the ‘final solution’ in dealing with sin.
The reality is, putting to death whatever belongs to my earthly nature (Colossians 3:5ff) is an ongoing battle. No human help, no matter how loudly it is taught, will deliver me. Let’s stop offering false hope, and allowing testimonies which seem to assert, “I used to struggle but now I’m living in constant victory.” Some of the recent ‘headline-making’ sinners perhaps were set up to believe this lie. In time, the seminar ended, the teaching was over, but there had been no internal change of heart. The human commands and teaching they thought they ‘believed’ actually provided no braking for their sin-bent wills. Like Paul, in Romans 7, they discovered the true depraved nature of their hearts. “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
What I need is not another false promise, another seminar, another ‘get-out-sin-quickly’ card, but a fresh endowment of God’s Spirit who, using the means of God’s amazing grace brings about real lasting change as I work out what HE works in!