We may laugh at the image of Ah Lek waiting forever to inherit God’s treasures but there is an important lesson we may learn from him-that of the correct interpretation of the Bible. More specifically, do we take the words of the Bible literally or not? Ah Lek did; interpreting that as an heir he inherits everything from his father. Titus however understood being an heir of God meant receiving eternal life (Titus 3:5-7). In the Old Testament the Israelites understood being heirs meant inheriting the land of Canaan by a promise through Abraham (Heb.11:8).
Paul taught Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim.2:16-17). The literal interpretation will be that by Scripture, Paul would have meant the Old Testament because the New Testament, as we know it, has not being written yet. However, all have us have accepted that Paul has meant the whole Bible when he used the word ‘Scripture’ implying that we accept the essence rather than the literal words of Paul. Other examples of accepting the Bible literally is to accept that Jesus taught that he had renounced his mother and brothers (Matt.12:48), that we are to sell all that we have (Matt.19:20-22), and we have to be born again by natural childbirth (John 3:1-9; poor Nicodemus wondered how he could fit into his mother’ womb!). While these are obvious examples of Bible passages not to be taken literally, there are others which are not so obvious.
So what happens? Some Christians begin to pick and choose their passages. We can aspire to be a literal Acts 2 church while conveniently leaving out the part about “were together and having all things in common” (v.44) and “daily meeting in the temple courts.”(v.46). Some stand their grounds and insist that the whole Bible is to be understood literally. To do that, they have to live in their own communities and insulate themselves from the 21st century. The Amish is a good example of these Bible literalists. Those on the other end of the continuum are the Bible liberalists. They insist that the Bible are written by men and are example of good teachings on life and moral values.
How then, do we as Christians, understand the Bible? First, we have to understand that the Bible is divided into different genre: historical, poetry, prophetic or allegorical, and prescriptive. Thus, a poem cannot be understood literally and we must not derive a doctrine from a historical incident recorded in the Bible. Second, we have to be aware of the limitations of various translations (or versions) of the Bible. These translations are called versions for a reason: they only approximate the true Bible or word of God. Each translation of the Bible has their strengths and weaknesses. Different translation reflects the biasness of those who translate from the ancient Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew languages. It is good to have at least two or three different translations of the Bible to compare. Third, Bible commentaries are useful if we recognized that they too have their limitations. It is better to study individual book commentaries rather than single volume whole Bible commentaries. There are scholars have spent their whole life working on a single book or sometimes a few verses of one book of the Bible and are worth reading. Four, put yourself in the place of whom the Bible is addressing. While it may be impossible for us to put ourselves in ancient Israel, we may understand better if we know more about the background, culture and language of the people to whom the Bible was originally directed. Finally, be open to the Holy Spirit as we read the Bible. We must be aware of our human tendency to read into the Bible what we want to hear. Instead we should allow the Holy Spirit to open our spiritual eyes and hearts to what God is saying to us through the words and sentences of the Bible. That, in the final analysis is how we understand the Bible.
1. How can you tell whether a passage is meant to be understood literally or not?
2. Which English Bible version are you using? Why this particular version? What other translations will complement your present version?
3. How do we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the Bible?
Help us to read Your Word well and open our eyes to your spiritual truths. Give us understanding in studying Your Word, help us to discern what may distract us and what will draw us into Your depths. Help us to hear Your Voice by the help of the Holy Spirit through Your Word.
soli deo gloria