Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
You open up your Bible and try to read a passage. It doesn’t make sense. You turn to the Gospels to check something that Jesus said. It doesn’t make sense. It happens to us all. If you find yourself having difficulty understanding the Word of God, don’t worry, you’re in good company. In fact, in the Gospels we find Jesus’ disciples repeatedly not understanding what is going on or what their teacher is actually teaching them. Often times we give Peter a hard time for putting his foot in his mouth or the other disciples for a lack of understanding or perceived lack of faith. However, we need to go easy on them and understand something: Jesus was a confusing guy. Whereas we find some parts of the Bible, including the Gospels difficult to accept or understand, the disciples lived a life of constant confusion because Jesus said a lot of things that to them wouldn’t have made any sense. Our confusion was their daily life. So instead of treating them like fools, we should see the disciples as being extremely loyal to the Son of God- especially when we consider that he frequently sounded out of his mind.
Often times passages that we see as being straightforward or not terribly difficult to understand to us today, were very confusing and strange for the disciples of Jesus’ time. Consider for example the doctrine of salvation. We all know that Jesus had to die as a sacrifice for our sins, and that by coming to him we can receive eternal life. Now imagine trying to teach that to people who saw Jesus alive and walking around in good health. At one point Jesus tried to teach this doctrine using bread as an example and the following line is this, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60). We credit this response to a lack of faith but quite honestly, nobody had seen Jesus beaten to a bloody pulp as he gave his body in sacrifice yet- so how are they to be expected to understand a concept that requires that kind of knowledge? It’s not that the disciples were dense; it was just that it wasn’t their time to understand yet. John actually explains the situation very well to us in John 12:16; he writes,
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.
Much of the confusion around our Christ was that he was talking about things that had not yet happened as though they had, but once they did happen, his disciples were able to put it all together (which is why we have the Gospels now).
While he walked on the earth, Jesus said a lot of confusing statements and did many oddball things. For example, right after Judas ran out of the last supper, we find Jesus saying something that even today I have not yet once heard a pastor quote: John 13:31-32, “When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once” Talk about circular reasoning! Not only that, but the statement applies to his nearing death, but he wasn’t dead yet. I don’t think even a lot of Christians try to give the statement a lot of thought but just continue to go through their reading. But really, what is Jesus trying to say? By being glorified, God is glorified, who then in turn glorifies the son again and quickly at that? Or just a handful of verses before that, Jesus predicts his betrayal by quoting scripture in a way that makes little to no sense for the disciples, and Jesus even acknowledges that they won’t get it until later. We read,
I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: “He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.”
I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He” (John 13:18-19).
Really? It seems almost unnecessary against everything else Jesus says, but Our Lord and Savior makes it clear that after the events which his vaguely describes happen, the disciples will know he was God and that he was fulfilling scripture in all that he did. Could you imagine sitting through this teaching? “Sorry J-man, this teaching was a little above my head- but you already said you knew that…so um…I guess I’ll understand later then?” What would you do as a disciple?
There’s more though. Jesus’ teachings didn’t just confine themselves to being confusing from a time standpoint. Oh no, our Lord also broke the fourth wall during his teachings. We can read as he explains the end of the world in Mark 13:14, “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong- let the reader understand- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” …WHAT? Can you imagine standing around listening to your leader, who has been teaching, preaching, and the like and suddenly he makes a note to the reader? What reader? Matthew also uses this exact line in his Gospel too, so we can know that Mark wasn’t trying to clarify, no, this is a Jesus quote. Now I suppose the argument can be made that he’s talking about the reader of Daniel, but since he doesn’t clarify the Daniel at all, I think that this was meant for us. Eventually, all this got too much, and Peter outright asked Jesus just who he was talking to. We read in Luke 12:41, “Peter asked, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?’” Of course Jesus doesn’t give him a direct answer either, and instead tells another parable. John tells us, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). I suspect that the Gospels we have are filled with some of the more confusing things that Jesus did because it’s what stuck the most in the disciples’ minds as they tried to understand our Lord.
What was something strange that Jesus did? One of my favorites is what I call “The Celestial High-Five.” We read in John 12:28-30,
“Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.”
This is one of my favorite parts of John because of its absolute randomness. Jesus had just been talking about his coming death, and then suddenly calls up to heaven for God to glorify himself, God does (the high-five between the two, so to speak) and then to top it all off, Jesus turns to everyone and says, “That was for you, by the way.” It’s especially funny that John notes how some people, in their confusion, decide to write the event off as some thunder or something. Now we can stop and laugh and comment about how strange the whole thing is, but consider this: the disciples were subject to this sort of behavior for three years or so. I think we can give them a little understanding when they ask seemingly stupid questions or are confused at Jesus’ teachings. After all, they had become accustomed to not understanding what was going on.
One of the biggest realms of confusion for the disciples was that of Jesus’ impending death. The event is not only foreshadowed in all of the Gospels, but Jesus flat-out says he’s going to die a horrible death pretty much every few chapters. This tells us that Jesus talked about it a lot- and nobody really understood it. In fact, right after the Celestial High-Five, we read,
“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:31-33).
We quote this kind of stuff these days to reflect our Lord’s crucifixion, but to the people of his day, the prophecy was so vague and strangely worded, that nobody actually knew what he meant. Keep in mind, they didn’t have John at nearly a hundred years old and understanding everything to help explain- he was just a kid still and was likely as confused as the rest. So unsurprisingly, in John 12:34, the people don’t even know what to do with the prophecy, “The crowd spoke up, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this “Son of Man”?’” Who indeed? Jesus was speaking in the third person and talking about an event that didn’t fit with their understanding of the scriptures. It looks great having “The Son of Man” clearly in our sermons, but the people of his time were dumbfounded by Jesus’ language. Even Jesus’ close disciples had a very difficult time with his teachings in regard to his death. We read,
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about” (Luke 18:31-34).
For us, it seems like Jesus does a perfect job of talking about his prophesized death. But the Jews of his time (and many today as well) didn’t understand the Old Testament scriptures in that the Messiah would be beaten and killed. Rather, they saw him as a conquering king. After all of the teaching they had heard from the priests and teachers of the law, none of what Jesus said made any sense. Furthermore, notice that the Christ did not take the time to explain from the scriptures so that they would understand.
If these predictions were confusing even for our Lord’s closest disciples, can you imagine what it was like for the rest of the Jews, many of whom were already only so-so on Jesus being the Savior? John records an interaction with them on the subject of his death,
Once more Jesus said to him, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.”
This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, ‘Where I go, you cannot come’?” (John 8:21-22)
The general masses had no idea how to respond to Jesus’ teachings. So when they questioned what he meant, they were even more off-base than his followers. Or again,
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life- only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my father” (John 10:17-18).
Now imagine that you’re not a Christian, you have no idea about what resurrection actually is, nor have you ever seen it happen before. Read that again. Does it make sense? The people of Jesus’ day didn’t think so, and so we read in John 10:19-20, “At these words the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, ‘He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?’”
This was the life of a follower of Christ. They’d see the miracles and believe, and then Jesus would open his mouth and say something totally unintelligible. This had to wear on the disciples and actually Luke records that sometimes they just decided not to ask Jesus about his comments,
“Listen careful to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it (Luke 9:44-45).
This is actually kind of a sad moment, because Jesus is trying to share a really close moment with his disciples, and the best they can do is, “Yeah, ok Lord.” All the while they have no idea what he’s actually trying to say. Later, close to his death, Jesus tried to speak a lot more directly in terms of his death, but because they were so accustomed to confusion by this point, most of his words went well over his disciple’s heads. We read,
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.”
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means” (John 13:21-24).
Just as a quick note; notice that Peter doesn’t even want to ask any more what Jesus is talking about and instead puts it on someone else (likely the much younger John). Continuing on,
Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon (John 13:25-26).
It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. I mean, Jesus could have stood up and pointed at Judas, but he pretty much did the same thing when he gave him the bread. But the apostles were so used to things not making sense that NOBODY (except probably Judas) understood what just happened. We read,
As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
“What you are about to do, do it quickly,” Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus had said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor (John 13:27-29).
Really guys? But consider this; they had spent three years being totally confused. Should it be any surprise to us that when Jesus spoke clearly, the apostles were more confused? Often Christians, after spending a lot of time in the Scriptures start to over-analyze everything to the point where even the simplest teachings don’t make sense anymore too. Because the Bible is filled with different levels of communication, sometimes it is direct, sometimes it is very difficult to get a meaning out of (like anything from Song of Songs); so it should be no surprise that even those who are in the Word every day have difficulty sometimes understanding everything.
So, what do we do?
“I believe that Jesus saved me, I believe that there is a God in heaven who is connected to but somehow separate from Jesus, and that there is a Spirit given by God that also counts as part of God and Jesus. However, I don’t necessarily understand how it all fits together. And what’s more, I’ve seen God at work in my life since coming to him and yet I’m not sure how to weigh in the fact that there’s hundreds of denominations, not to mention a direct split between at least two major ways to interpret the Bible- and all of these people who can’t agree, including myself (with myself at times as well) are Christians (mostly anyway).”
I think this covers what most followers of Christ are feeling as they come in more and more contact with the Word and the Christian life. So again I ask, what is a believer to do? Jesus actually asked Peter about this when many disciples left Jesus for being too confusing. Peter gave a great statement of faith that I think we can learn from as we are faced with different teachings, evolution, hardships, and confusion with what we read ourselves in the Bible. We read, “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy one of God’” (John 6:68-69). I may not understand it all, but one thing is true, Jesus is Lord.