The Greatest Privilege
by Contributing Author Ryan Reynolds
Hope drives the Christian life. The hope of a believer separates them from the rest of the world, showing that it’s a peculiar, special hope which is given redemptively in Christ (Eph. 2:12). Hope feeds our faith. If we didn’t have hope, we would have nothing to keep our faith alive. The Bible says the Holy Spirit assists us through faith in this life, and in that time we eagerly wait for a hope of righteousness (Gal. 5:5).
Where is this hope? It’s in heaven (Col. 1:5). What is this hope? The hope of a completed salvation in Christ (1 Thess. 5:8-9). The ultimate joy of all hope is realized in what theologians and philosophers called Summum Bonum; it’s a Latin expression that denotes the highest good, the ultimate end for which everything should be sought after. For the Christian this highest good is found in the end goal of seeing and enjoying and worshipping (communing with) the one true God for all eternity. We live to glorify our Creator.
Night and day living creatures which are unimaginable exist in the heavenly realms crying out to the self-existent One the single attribute that we desperately thirst after throughout our treacherous journey: "Holy, holy, holy….” (Rev 4:8 ESV) As they cry out, God reflects that echo: "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16 ESV). The explicit will of God for every believer is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). We are preparing to spend eternity with God by being sanctified on earth through the power of the Holy Spirit. This will be the ultimate encounter.
God is a gracious, loving, understanding being in that He doesn’t leave us empty handed when it comes to a living reality of experiencing and enjoying Him. On earth, those who are in Christ may experience the presence of God personally and joyously (1 John 1:3). But throughout our lives we have our ups and downs with God, having His presence thick as fog at times and thin as air at others.
In this article I have a long term goal in view. A long term goal is something you plan out and work toward that will usually take many, many years. I want to focus on applying certain principles to the most important way in which we experience God that will benefit every believer in working toward the end goal of the hope we have in Christ. I will give some practical guidelines to follow when studying Scripture. These study aids are taken from a book by R.C. Sproul called Knowing Scripture.1
How do we know God? Or, better yet, how do we experience God to the fullest? Only when we learn about God and His ways are we then able to know how to experience, behave, and think in His presence. In the time of Esther, if someone went up to the king without permission, they could lose their head. Why? Because they were never informed on the way in which they should approach and act in the presence of the king. The Bible teaches us how to know and enjoy the matchless King.
The presence of the Holy Spirit on earth enables us to experience the presence of a God who is so utterly unique that without Him we would be utterly lost in faulty worship. The gift of the Word goes hand in hand with knowing God through His Spirit, for without the Word we wouldn’t know His Spirit.
There are two extremes we want to avoid. We want to avoid trying to experience God through His Spirit without His Word, for this pitfall leads to subjectivism. On the other hand, we want to avoid trying to experience God through His Word without His Spirit, for this leads into cold intellectualism. Both of which are in danger of running a course not set out in Scripture, because we will never know God without the Word being illuminated by the Spirit, just as we will never know the Spirit without the hearing of the Word (Rom. 10:12-14).
These 11 guidelines will aid you in your study of God’s inspired Word. They will take some thinking. These help us from falling into error when trying to understand what the Bible says. This branch of study is called hermeneutics, which is simply the science of interpretation.
We might be tempted to think that since we have the Holy Spirit we don’t need guidelines, that we won’t err in our interpretation because we have the Holy Spirit guiding us. We read passages like 1 John 2:27 and think we are good to go independently: “As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him” (1 John 2:27 NAU). What is John saying? Is he saying that we don’t need teachers because we have the anointing? Is he saying we know everything? If we didn’t need anyone to teach us, then why is he writing his letter? If we knew everything, wouldn’t we be God? If his anointing abides in us and we don’t need teachers, why do we have 66 books explaining the will of God for our lives on how to life, act, think, talk, and love?
John is writing in hyperbole. In one sense he is exaggerating to make a point. And in another, he is counteracting the false prophets and teachers (1 John 2:19) who were coming in the church and trying to lead the people of God astray into wrong teaching. In that sense, they don’t need anyone to teach them because the word of God abides in them and is teaching them.
Jesus also speaks in hyperbole. He says in His parable of the kingdom of God that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Matt. 13:32). Is this true? We know it’s not; there are other seeds smaller than the mustard seed. Was Jesus wrong? Absolutely not. He is exaggerating to make the point that the kingdom of God is very powerful. If we didn’t know about hyperbole in Scripture, which is a part of understanding hermeneutics, then we would have to say that the Bible is false in what it teaches, and therefore not inspired.
There are many other interpretive issues we encounter. There are different literary genres that play a role in how we understand the Bible. If we were to interpret predictive prophecy just like poetry, there would be a major problem in understanding the end times. If we didn’t take in account symbolic images and expressions, we would be greatly misinformed and confused.
Dr. Sproul gives 11 guidelines. In a couple of sentences I will briefly explain what they mean. I would suggest to anyone to buy the book as it is an easy and informative read (only 146 pgs).
Rule 1: Read the Bible Like Any other Book (Sproul, 1979, p. 69)
This might seem like common sense, but many go astray here. Some assume the Bible takes a “magical formula,” thereby coming up with outlandish interpretations by reading in to the text what is not there. When Sproul talks about reading the Bible like any other book, he means that we should take into consideration interpretive characteristics that you would for a regular book. This means we pay attention to the grammar, contexts and genre that the Bible has.
He writes, “I believe the Bible is uniquely inspired and infallible, and this puts it in a class by itself. But for matters of interpretation the Bible does not take on some special magic that changes basic literary patterns of interpretation…In the Bible as verb is a verb and a noun is a noun, just as in any other book” (Sproul, 1979, p. 69). Of course the Bible is special in that for anyone to understand it salvifically God’s Spirit must reveal the truth of the text, but it is not special in the sense that we ignore the plain literal meaning of the text and spiritualize it.
Rule 2: Read the Bible Existentially (Sproul, 1979, p. 71)
First let me tell you what he does not mean, because at first glance this can seem to have a negative connotation. This does not mean that we read the Bible through our own world that we are making up, that we place our own interpretation on the meaning and define what it means by our personal existence, as in the philosophical idea of existentialism. When he says we should read it existentially, he indicates that we should get personally involved with the text: “…we ought to get passionately and personally involved in what we read....What I am calling for is a kind of empathy by which we try to ‘crawl into the skin’ of the characters we are reading about, or as others have said, we are absorbed into the world of the text, and the world begins to shape us” (Sproul, 1979, p. 72).
The Bible is full of life changing truths. When we read the text of the inspired Word, we are changed by God’s Spirit into the image of His Son. Life change that happens to the student of the Word is so altering that it even changes the patter of the mind (Rom. 12:2), causing us to think, look, and act like Christ, the Son of God. Read the Bible as if God is speaking to you and has something to say, because He is and does.
Rule 3: Interpret the Historical Narratives by the Didactic (Sproul, 1979, p. 76)
This is a little harder to understand. An example of historical narrative is the Gospels, and didactic literature would be the Epistles. Sproul is directing our attention to the totality of Scripture when trying to figure out certain meanings of a particular genre. A good rule (but not absolute) to follow is we should have the Epistles interpret the Gospels, because if we just look at the Gospels and their teaching without understanding what the Epistles say on the matter, we will be greatly misinformed on a lot of things.
For instance, the Gospels don’t mention everything in the way in which we are saved. Jesus talks about believing in Him for salvation and the sovereign work of the Spirit (among many other things!) but doesn’t go into detail about the special benefits and privileges we get from such experiences. However, Paul goes into major detail in the books of Romans and Galatians. This goes for all historical narratives and didactic genres.
Rule 4: Interpret the Implicit by the Explicit (Sproul, 1979)
A parallel view of this rule is to say we must interpret what is obscure by what is clear. If there is something in Scripture that is not so clear and there is another passage that is and they are talking about the same thing, we need to get our understanding from what is clear and apply it to what is not. We must let Scripture interpret itself. Scripture interprets Scripture.
A good example of interpreting the implicit by the explicit comes from looking at John 3:16 and John 6:65. John 3:16 says that whosoever believes in Christ will have eternal life. What is implied? That anyone who believes by themselves will be saved. But what about John 6:65? “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father’” (John 6:65 ESV). Here we are told that no one can go to Christ unless the Father grants them to go. This means that when we read the implicit command in John 3:16 that whosever believes by themselves in Christ will be saved, it must be interpreted with the explicit understanding that no one can believe unless the Father grants it to them.
We need to be careful with our implications. “When an implication is drawn that is contradictory to what is explicitly stated,” writes Sproul, “the implication must be rejected” (Sproul, 1979, p. 85).
Rule 5: Determine Carefully the Meaning of Word (Sproul, 1979, p. 87)
For most of us, we like to assume this is a given, but it is very easy to trap ourselves by making too much of a distinction, or too little, of words we hardly know. We do this all the time in our everyday speech. If someone were to call you phat (I hope no one ever does!) without clarifying the spelling and therefore the meaning of the word, you would be really upset. Sproul says, “Accurate communication and clear understanding are difficult when words are used imprecisely or ambiguously” (Sproul, 1979, p. 88). (Remember: Words can have double meanings.)
Rule 6: Note the Presence of Parallelism (Sproul, 1979, p. 95)
Dr. Sproul gives a nice definition of parallelism. “Parallelism may be defined as a relationship between two or more sentences or clauses that correspond in similarity or are set with each other” (Sproul, 1979, p. 95). This occurs quite frequently in Hebrew poetry and is often used for emphasis (see Ps. 95:6; Prov. 13:1; 19:5). We also find parallelism in the Gospels given from the mouth of Christ (see Mt. 5:42; 7:7).
Rule 7: Note the Difference Between Proverb and Law (Sproul, 1979, p. 99)
We should be careful not to give a proverbial saying the weight of a moral absolute. “A common mistake in biblical interpretation and application is to give a proverbial saying the weight or force of a moral absolute” (Sproul, 1979, p. 99). Dr. Sproul gives an example of this by considering Proverbs 26:4-5, which will show to be contradictory if some proverbs are taken as absolutes with no exceptions. We find that verse 4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself" (Pro 26:4 ESV). And verse 5 we read, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Pro 26:5 ESV). And his conclusion: “Thus there are times when it is foolish to answer a fool according to his folly, and there are times when it is wise to answer a fool with foolishness” (Sproul, 1979, p. 100). It will be to our advantage in understanding the diversity of Scripture so that we clarify its meaning, for there are no contradictions present in God’s inerrant Word.
Rule 8: Observe the Difference Between the Spirit and Letter of the Law (Sproul, 1979, p. 101)
This denotes that we should understand what God truly commands us to do without falling into legalism. When Christ healed on the Sabbath, the Pharisees thought He was breaking it. However, Christ points out that the Sabbath is to be obeyed but not at the expense of compassionate works done to God’s glory, for the Sabbath was made to honor God.
Sproul summarizes this distinction well when he talks about hating someone as being the same as murder (Mt. 5:21-22). Sproul writes, “The point of Jesus’ teaching is that the law has a wider application than its letter. If you murder someone, you violate the letter of the law; if you hate someone, you violate the spirit.” We must always uphold the commands of Scripture, but we must do it in a Christ-exalting and grace-understood way. In other words, we must avoid legalism.
Rule 9: Be Careful with Parables (Sproul, 1979, p. 105)
A parable is given to teach one primary truth. Although there may be one truth in the parable, there may be different applications (this goes for all of Scripture). We need to make sure we don’t read something into the story that is not there. However, there will be times when more than one point can be made, but we must carefully examine what that could mean in light of its context. We should also avoid allegorizing a passage unless Scripture does it first (Sproul, 1979, p. 108).
Rule 10: Be Careful with Predictive Prophecy (Sproul, 1979, p. 108)
I agree with Sproul when he says, “Handling predictive prophecy is one of the most abused forms of biblical interpretation” (Sproul, 1979, p. 108). There are elements in prophecy that have a historical aspect to the people of the time, as well as predictions that are made universally to the church in the coming ages. Commentaries will be a help in your aid to determine how to study prophecy. We should try to avoid applying a literalistic meaning to every prophecy in the Old Testament, as well as trying to make everything figurative. Careful study must be in high regard in such matters.
Rule 11: Interpret the Bible with a Spirit of Humility (Sproul, 1979, p. 111)
The Bible is God’s special gift that is given to man so that we can learn about His ways and will. We will guard our hearts by understanding that God has a specific message to relate to a fallen world in need of good news. With this is mind, we can say with Martin Luther, “The Holy Scriptures require a humble reader who shows reverence and fear toward the Word of God and constantly says, ‘Teach me, teach me, teach me!’”2
The Word of God is given to us so that we can know how to live according to His will, which shows us how to act in the presence of a holy Creator. Preparation in this life is hard. But God gives more grace. Christ understands our limitations. He has given His Spirit to aid us in our worship.
Living in the presence of God on earth comes by abiding in Christ. We abide in Christ through the teachings He has given us in the totality of Scripture. If we love Him, we will obey Him. We will not know what to obey if we don’t know what He said. The Spirit guiding us in all truth is accomplished through the standard by which all truth is measured—the Bible. The cannon of Scripture is comprised of sixty-six books. Cannon means “measuring rod.” The books contained in the Christian Scriptures are the only authority by which all truth necessary for the salvation of our souls is revealed.
The Holy Spirit’s presence transforms us through God’s written Word as we labor to know what was inspired by a God who sent His perfect Son to die and rise again. Encountering God through His Word is the greatest privilege we have in this life. This privilege comes with a purpose, a purpose to transform us into the image of Christ. And “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18 ESV).
1Everything in this article is taken from Sproul, R. (1979). Knowing Scripture (2nd ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
2Quoted in Sproul, R. (1979). Knowing Scripture (2nd ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, pg. 112.
Sproul, R. (1979). Knowing Scripture (2nd ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Ryan Reynolds was born in Houston, Texas and has spent most of his life residing in Houston and the surrounding suburban areas. He grew up in a tightly knit family of six who have encouraged and helped push him along his desired path of advancing God's kingdom.
In a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ through the Word of God, Ryan was graciously saved at the age of twenty-two. Since then he has made it his aim to thoroughly understand the Bible, so that he can help re-insert sound teaching into a culture that has lost sight of godliness.
Ryan is a third year student at Sangre de Cristo Seminary in Westcliffe, Colorado. He is studying for a Master of Divinity, which he hopes to attain after completion of an undergraduate degree in biblical studies.
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