Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One day I was listening to a sermon on the internet and the Holy Spirit helped me understand something in a way I hadn’t seen it before (and in a way largely unrelated to the sermon). Sometimes the Bible carries different messages across the same story, and it is hard to understand where to draw the lines. Today I want us to take a look at a famous story from the Gospel, but with a different interpretation, one that God taught me and hopefully makes sense to you as well.
Alright, so the story is that of Peter walking on water- well, Jesus walking on water and then Peter coming too. History records,
During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it is you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down (Matthew 14:25-32).
So Jesus, being without a boat, went to catch up with his disciples, whom he had ordered to go on ahead of him. As he walked to them on the water, Peter asked to be commanded by Jesus to come to him. Since the Lord commanded it, Peter knew that he would be able to walk on water (as God wouldn’t tell us to do the impossible if he didn’t enable us to do so). But, pretty quickly into his water-walk, Peter started to sink and nearly drowned. Jesus ended up saving Peter, and as soon as he got into the boat with Pete, the storm that had been rocking the boat subsided. Ok, remember all that because we’ll be covering it more later. Anyway, what the Holy Spirit showed me is that –aside from what seems like a neato act of faith –Peter made a dangerous mistake. When we try to follow the Law (the commands of God) out of our power, we’ll always fail. However, when we wait for Jesus to come in his power, he will clean everything up.
To clarify this point, we’re gonna have to cover another story; the story of Abraham’s kids. Now, Abraham (originally called “Abram”) was an old man and had no children, but he had faith in God. The Lord promised Abraham that he’d give him a child one day. “One day” was coming very slowly, so eventually Abraham’s wife, Sarah (originally “Sarai”), had an idea: they would help God. The Bible records,
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife (Genesis 16:1-3).
This was a successful union, as it brought the desired offspring: “So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael” (Genesis 16:15-16). However, Ishmael was not the child of promise, he was a product of Sarai and Abram trying to force a promise made by God. Meanwhile, God delivered on his promise to the old couple some years later;
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him (Genesis 21:1-3).
So now Abraham had under his roof the child of promise (Isaac) and the…other son (Ishmael). Eventually, because he wasn’t the chosen one, Ishmael was kicked out of the family. We read,
But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:9-12).
And, just like that, Ishmael and his mom were suddenly homeless. Meanwhile, Isaac went on to be the father of all of the Israelites; for it is written, “Abraham was the father of Isaac. The sons of Isaac: Esau and Israel” (1 Chronicles 1:34). That Israel is the man whom the Jewish nation is named after, as he was the father of all of their tribes. Through the story of Isaac and Ishmael we can learn the product of our works versus God’s works. The good we do in our strength may yield good fruit…but it might not be fruit we’ll get to enjoy. In the end, Ishmael prospered on his own, which was good for him and his mother, but Abraham lost a son,
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation (Genesis 21:17-18).
However, the fruit God yields through us lasts even past our lives. It was through Isaac’s line that the Savior, Jesus Christ, came and even today when talked about in churches across the world, Abraham is referred to as the “father of faith.” Abraham was able to enjoy the promised son Isaac all of his life, and the child of promise still blesses the nations even today.
This brings me to a passage I’ve always found to be difficult to understand; but was unlocked by the Holy Spirit when he taught me about this topic. While explaining the difference between the Law and grace, Paul uses the example of Isaac and Ishmael. He writes,
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children (Galatians 4:21-25).
Aside from calling into question the historicity of the story of Ishmael and Isaac; Paul makes the pretty big claim that Hagar represents everything that is wrong with Judaism, specifically the Law. But after watching Peter sink in the water and the whole Ishmael debacle, you can start to understand. When we act in our own strength (even doing righteous things), we are bound to ultimately fail. Ok, say you set out to keep the whole Law for the rest of your life. Good luck, but you’re going to end up failing because nobody is perfect. Solomon in his wisdom noted, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). It’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s just part of the human condition. We are not perfect and are naturally prone to sin. Heck, depending on what time it is, you’ve probably already sinned several times today. James reminds us, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). Therefore, it is impossible for us to follow God’s law, and trying to follow it- no matter how good our intentions are- makes us a slave to an impossible master. Not only that; but the little good we do is not all that impressive to God. Isaiah 64:6 notes,
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
We all shrivel up like a leaf,
And like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Remember that wind is one of the reasons that Peter started sinking when he came to Jesus. When we think we can follow the commands of God (Peter asking Jesus to command him), we are setting ourselves up for failure when our sins inevitably catch up with us. And what happened then? Jesus, unimpressed by Peter, asked him where his faith was. Getting back to the children of Abraham; Isaac was the product of the promise. Paul writes, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise” (Galatians 4:28). We’ve established that there’s nothing we can do to help God. After all, he can do anything. God even noted this when he made the promise to Abraham and Sarah about Isaac,
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son” (Genesis 18:13-14).
Nothing is a challenge to God. In fact, he is even able to save us, who are doomed to sin our entire lives, and make us righteous before him. For it is written,
But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-24).
So although slavishly following the commands of God brings no long-term profit for us (just like Abraham having Ishmael), the promise and power of the Lord can bring everlasting gain (like the promised son, Isaac).
This line of teaching was something that came up during Jesus’ ministry somewhat frequently. The Bible records another time this lesson came to pass,
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, “’Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth (Matthew 19:16-22).
This is a multi-meaning story in its own right. But take note that the man had followed the Law for the most part all of his life. But when pressed, Jesus said that he’d have to sell everything to be perfect. This shows us that salvation is always another step away. There is always another law and another work to be done. Keep in mind, the law does not require one to sell everything, and yet still it would have been required for the man to be saved if he was to do so by his own hand. There’s a reason why Christians aren’t changed overnight, sanctification is a lifelong process as the Lord shapes us into the perfect citizens of heaven. This makes salvation by our own works ultimately impossible; which is what Jesus was getting at as he taught after the man left,
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:23-24).
“Wait? A camel through the eye of a needle? But that’s impossible!” It is entirely impossible; because we cannot be saved through keeping the Law and doing good works. Rightfully, this caused a little bit of a stir; “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Matthew 20:25) If it is impossible to get myself to heaven, how then heck does anyone get there? And so comes the answer, “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matthew 20:26). So again we see that although the commands of God are all good (no sinning, honoring parents, giving to poor, loving others, etc), they cannot save you in your time of need nor can they impact the process by which God works (the Lord hardly even acknowledged Ishmael’s existence and continued in his promise). However the power and promise of God has lordship over all.
Paul reminds us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith –and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is found only through God’s promise and his grace, not through our deeds (righteous though they may be). He also writes,
But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman (Galatians 4:30-31).
Now remember, the slave woman (Hagar) represents the Law given on Mount Sinai. This means that we should actively avoid trying to follow the Law in its full because the Law has no hope of freeing us from our earthly bonds; only forgiveness through Christ Jesus can do that. But there’s more! Jesus teaches us,
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31-34).
According to Christ, we’re not even supposed to put our concentration into our own needs, but rather rely on the Lord to provide for us as we grow in him. That’s not to say you should quit your job, but what it does mean is that your primary focus should be Christ and understanding him and growing in faith- from this will spring the fruit that will supply your life. What it comes down to is this: Both salvation and a full life come only through Jesus Christ and his work at the cross. It’s when you accept that Jesus died for you, and shed his blood so that you could be freed from the bonds of hell that you stop sinking in your life and are led into the boat of the Lord. And once you’re in the boat, just stay in and let Christ take care of it!
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. Should we do good deeds? Yes! In fact, saved Christians are called to do good; “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). But those good deeds should not come from a feeling of compulsion, but a natural flow of the Holy Spirit in our lives; for righteousness follows believers in Christ naturally. Paul explains it like this,
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14-15).
You doing good cannot help God, but God can help you to do good. And herein we find the balance of the Law and the promise of the Lord:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13).
God can be the author of the divine law and expect us to keep it because he’ll give us the strength to do so; not by the power of the letter, but the power of the Holy Spirit living within those who have been saved (even those who know not of the Law at all). Get in the boat, stay in the boat, and watch Jesus work amazing miracles in your life.