An Approach to Biblical Interpretation
Colin W. Lancashire, Warrington
The above title may be considered by some to be rather academic and of little spiritual value in the study of the Scriptures, However, the need and importance of accurate interpretation becomes vident when we realize that the wide range of views amongst Christians today is largely due to the differences in their interpretation of Scripture. We all read the same, or similar words, but we often come to a variety of conclusions. This, clearly, is not the mind of God for he is not the God of disorder.
In addressing this fundamental problem it is necessary to establish clear guidelines for our approach to Scripture. Knowing what the Bible says is one thing; knowing what it means is another. There are three basic principles which must be applied when seeking to obtain the truth from any verse or passage of Scripture. These are:-
1 Examine the text
2 Examine the context
3 Examine other texts
1 EXAMINE THE TEXT
This involves ascertaining the meanings of words and phrases in the passage being studied, as used in the Hebrew or Creek text. A knowledge of these original languages is useful but not essential, for there are numerous helps available including Bible lexicons and dictionaries, concordances, interlinear texts and other Bible translations. It is helpful to see the range or restriction of meanings that words and phrases can have, and to note how the Spirit of God has used them in other parts of Scripture. The tenses of the verbs and the use of prepositions can be particularly helpful in determining their intended meaning.
2 EXAMINE THE CONTEXT
All too often we alight on a verse of Scripture and seek to give it a meaning without reference to the context in which it is found. Every verse has its own setting, that is its literary and historical environment. Whenever we read a passage it is very important to appreciate its relationship to verses that precede it and those that follow it. Conclusions that ignore the context must be viewed as suspect. A true interpretation of a verse will not be isolated from, or inconsistent with, the passage in which it is found. The writers did not just write verses or even chapters, but whole books, and attempts to block off a passage and to consider it in isolation run the risk of misinterpretation and therefore of reaching a wrong conclusion.
3 EXAMINE OTHER TEXTS
The Bible is complete in itself for God has designed it that way. This means that it is self-explanatory and self-supporting, so that apparent difficulties in one part are often illuminated by other parts. In following this third principle we should look to verses found elsewhere that deal with the same or similar subject matter and then see what additional help or confirmation they give.
APPLYING THESE PRINCIPLES
Let us now see how these three guidelines work by applying them to a verse which has given rise to different interpretations, namely 1 Thessalonians 5. 10. Here we read 'to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him'. Many Bible students take the two words 'wake' and 'sleep' to mean the same as 'alive' and 'sleep' in 1 Thessalonians 4. 13-18, but by following the three principles suggested we will see that this is not the intended interpretation.
1 EXAMINE THE TEXT
Although we could examine every word in the verse, we will just look at the two verbs that are at the centre of the different interpretations. These are the words 'wake' and 'sleep'. The first word gregoreuo is used twenty-three times in the New Testament. It means 'to stay awake, to watch, to be vigilant, attentive, alert, on the lookout'. It is never used in Scripture with the meaning of 'being alive'; this is the meaning of a different word zao, used in chapter 4. 15, 1 7. So, to 'be watchful' does not mean 'to be alive'.
Similarly, the word 'sleep' in our verse, katheudo, is used twenty-two times in the New Testament and is used of natural sleep and also of slothfulness and apathy, but never of death. Indeed, the Lord Jesus indicates this when describing Jairus's daughter as 'not dead, but sleeping', i.e., He draws a distinction between the two. On the other hand the word for 'sleep' in chapter 4, kolmao, is used of natural sleep (five times) and also of death (thirteen times), but is never used to describe slothfulness and apathy.
2. EXAMINE THE CONTEXT
It is evident from the first part of chapter 5 that the apostle has moved on from the truth of the dead and the living at the time of the rapture. The context now concerns an exhortation to believers, in the light of impending events, to be sober and alert and not to be characterized by the behaviour of the ungodly. The two relevant words 'sleep' and 'watch' in verse 6 are the same words as used in verse 10, clearly indicating that the context in both verses is the spiritual condition of believers at the time of the Lord's return. A further confirmation that these two words do not mean 'dead' and 'alive' is found by substituting these words in verse 6, which would then read, 'let us not die, as do others; but let us be alive and be sober'. This statement does not make any sense, and therefore it is obviously not the intended meaning.
As a result of a correct interpretation a wonderful truth emerges that should give great reassurance to all the Lord's people. We have to admit, with sadness, that immediately prior to the Lord's return there will be many believers who, because of the way they are living, will be in a state of unreadiness. Worldliness, immorality, wrong teaching, etc., could cause such Christians to be asleep spiritually when the Lord comes. This ought not to be so, for the apostle clearly exhorts all believers, vv. 4-8, to be vigilant and ready for that wonderful moment. But what will happen to those caught up in worldliness and wrong living? Will they be left behind? Will there be a partial rapture? The passage teaches that this is totally impossible, for it says, 'whether we wake (are in a state of readiness) or sleep (in a state of unreadiness) we should live together with him'. The reason for such great confidence is this; we are those who will 'obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ', because He 'died for us'. In other words our salvation does not depend on our condition on earth but on our position in Christ! What a great truth! Once saved we can never be lost. This enhances our appreciation of the greatness of our Saviour and of our salvation. It does not give us licence to live as we please but encourages us to live in the light of that coming day, as exhorted by many other Scriptures.
3. EXAMINE OTHER TEXTS
This conclusion is supported by other Scriptures. In John 10 we read, 'they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand . . . no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand'. Again, even though a believer's building may amount to 'wood hay, stubble . . . he himself shall be saved', 1 Cor. 3. 12, 15. See also Rom. 8. 34; 8. 39; Heb. 7. 25. Note also in the broader context of 1 Thessalonians 5, the words of the Lord Jesus to Sardis in Revelation 3. 3.
We have thus arrived at an interpretation of this verse which is consistent with the text, the context and other texts. This approach requires that we read the text carefully, thoughtfully, honestly and prayerfully, asking questions of it and then looking to the context and to other relevant parts of Scripture for the answers. We must depend at all times, on the Holy Spirit to grant illumination of the sacred page.