The importance of interpreting the Bible correctly can be illustrated by the story of a very discouraged man who decided to seek comfort from the Bible. He randomly opened the Bible and placed his finger on a verse in the hope that it would say something uplifting. His finger landed on Matthew 27:5, which said, "Then Judas went away and hanged himself." Finding no comfort there he repeated the procedure. This time his finger landed on John 13:27 which said, "What you are about to do, do quickly."
When Scripture is taken out of context, the results can be disastrous. Every cult and every heresy that has arisen in the church owes its origin to the misinterpretation of Scripture. The point cannot be overstated that the context of each verse of Scripture must be respected. Here are a few examples that should prove instructive.
The Sabbath: To Work or Not to Work?
The fourth commandment could not be stated more clearly: "But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work..." (Exodus 20:9-10) There it is in black and white: "you shall not do any work". Is its meaning not obvious? Well, not really, especially when other Scriptures are taken into consideration. It was the failure of the Pharisees on this very point that had them hurling accusations at Jesus for violating the Sabbath. They viewed what Jesus did on the Sabbath through this one Scripture and saw him as a violator. Jesus defended himself by saying, "Haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?" (Matthew 12:5) Of the seven days in the week, the Sabbath was the busiest day for the priests, yet they were innocent of violating the law that said "you shall not do any work" on the Sabbath. The problem created by the Pharisees was that they had taken this one verse of Scripture and neglected everything else God had said on the subject. As a result, they turned the Sabbath into a religious straightjacket. And Jesus had to remind them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27) The Sabbath was intended by God to be a gracious blessing to his people Israel, not a religious burden as the Pharisees had made it.
What have we learned so far? When the law says "you shall not do any work" we have seen that it was never intended to prevent the priests doing their work on the Sabbath, nor was it intended to prohibit a work of kindness being done on the Sabbath. Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath, and therefore was working, to show the Pharisees that their narrow interpretation of this Scripture was wrong. (John 5:16-18) Scripture must be understood in its context and supported by other Scriptures that address the same subject. This produces a correct interpretation of Scripture.
To Circumcise or Not to Circumcise?
The early Galatian churches were being infected with false teaching that said circumcision was necessary for one to be saved. (Acts 15:5) This teaching was an attack upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. Having established that it is by grace, not by circumcision or any other legalistic work, that we are saved, Paul gives clear teaching on the consequences of opting for a legalistic religion: "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law." (Galatians 5:2-3) Paul is teaching that when the gospel is supplemented with the legalistic requirement of circumcision, it nullifies the death of Jesus for that person. Why? Because the atoning death of Jesus is then no longer the sole object of one's faith, rather faith now focusses on a work: circumcision. Hence his strong words "do not let yourselves be circumcised".
With that clear warning still ringing in our ears, we read of Paul recruiting Timothy to be his fellow worker. And what does Paul do? He circumcises him! So if Paul is forbidding circumcision and also engaging in circumcision, is the great apostle contradicting himself? Is he not practising what he preaches? How do we resolve this dilemma? Paul teaches the Galatians that circumcision is not a salvation issue. Jesus, not circumcision, is the saviour. Therefore one does not need to be circumcised in order to be saved. The context in which Paul forbids circumcision is when it is made a condition of salvation. But when Paul circumcises Timothy, it has nothing to do with salvation. Rather "Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews in that area." (Acts 16:3) This has nothing to do with salvation; it was an expedient. There is no contradiction when the context is respected.
To Baptise or Not to Baptise?
Paul's words to the Corinthians have created needless confusion among Christian people but they serve to show how important it is to have a proper method of interpreting the Scriptures. Paul said, "For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel..." (1 Corinthians 1:17) What are we to make of his words? Is Paul playing down the importance of baptism as a response to the gospel? Or are we to believe that Jesus gave him a commission that differed from the one given to the disciples before ascending to heaven when he said, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"? (Matthew 28:18-19) If we take Paul's words without due respect to their context we create an enormous problem by presuming Paul contradicts himself and the whole tenor of Scripture on the subject of baptism.
If Paul was not sent to baptise, then we have to ask some searching questions. Why did he baptise some believers in Corinth when he was not to baptise? "I am thankful," he says, "that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius... I also baptised the household of Stephanas." (1 Corinthians 1:14-16) When Paul baptised these people was he being disobedient to Christ? Furthermore, why did Paul take some of those disciples who had received John the Baptist's baptism and re-immerse them? (Acts 19:1-5) This is very strange behaviour for a man who was not sent to baptise. Or was he not sent to baptise only in Corinth? And if Paul was not sent to baptise, is that not strange for a man who himself submitted to baptism and called upon the Lord to save him from his sins? (Acts 22:16)
Paul's words are found in the middle of a discussion about division in the church at Corinth. The believers had divided themselves into factions. "I follow Paul", "I follow Apollos", "I follow Cephas", "I follow Christ". (1 Corinthians 1:12) Because of the divisive spirit within the church, Paul is glad not to have baptised any of them "so that no one can say you were baptised into my name" (1 Corinthians 1:15) and then claim that they belonged to Paul and not to the Christ who died for them. Paul saw that if he had baptised many of the believers this might contribute further to the problem of division and for this reason he said that Jesus didn't send him to baptise – that is, not to form a sectarian party in his own name.
When the Bible says "you shall not do any work" on the Sabbath, it does not mean that work of every kind must cease. When the Bible says "if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you", it does not mean circumcision is prohibited in all circumstances. And when the Bible says, "Christ did not send me to baptise", it is not minimising the importance of baptism as a response to the gospel. So how are we to correctly interpret Scripture? Context, context, context.