Hermeneutical Principles – Reading the Bible with First Century Glasses

1. Scripture was written FOR us but it was not written directly TO us.

It is of immense value to realize that when we read the Bible we are reading someone else’s mail. At first some may immediately bristle at this notion thinking that this precludes personal application but that is absolutely not the case. By the mere fact that God meticulously preserved the Scripture for us is testimony to the fact that the Bible has every bit the relevance today as it did 2,000 years ago. Recognizing first century context in no way negates or neutralizes the impact of 2Tim 3:16-17.

Clearly all Scripture is not only inspired by God but is fully profitable to equip us for all things. However, reading the Word as though it was written directly to us, while ignoring context, has been a fundamental problem resulting in significant interpretational errors and misplaced hopes. Before we can determine how a passage applies to us we must first understand what it was intended to mean to the original recipients. It requires us to remove our 21st century glasses and replace them with those warn by Jesus, Peter, Paul and John. This is not a simple undertaking therefore necessitating diligent study and a great deal of effort.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:12-14 (ESV)

Case in point. Let’s say for our morning devotion we begin reading 2Tim 3. But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. What immediately springs to the forefront of your mind? Most of us assume that since we are experiencing similar “times of difficulty” per Paul’s warning to Timothy (lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God), we therefore assume that “the last days ” refers to the perilous times of the 21st century.
However, it should not come as a surprise that every generation as far back as the third century has made the same assumption. Can every generation be living in “the last days”? Doesn’t this phrase, first mentioned in Genesis 49:1, become rather oxymoronic if it extends hundreds or in this case thousands of years? (Acts 2:16-21 )

Paul goes on in verse 13 with while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. So we look around, clearly see a declining morality in the in the U.S. and apply this passage directly to our 21st century context. Clearly these sins exist today as they have in all prior generations. So what’s the problem with applying this passage to the here and now? Paul was warning Timothy, not Bert Barber, Steve Thomas or Michael Hemond, of the coming apostasy. This thinking has caused significant harm to the psyche of the 21st century believer. We develop and adopt a wholly unbiblical expectation of abounding evil as though it is to be anticipated as clarification that we are indeed nearing the end. This is so destructive and antithetical to the resurrection which is embodies in the Gospel of Christ.

How do we interpret the following: Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:42 ESV) If we are to read this passage in the same manner as we do many eschatological texts, then we encounter the obvious fallacy of this type of interpretational system. It is an undeniable historical fact that the betrayal of Jesus occurred in 30 A.D. and none of us would be willing to transport this passage into the 21st century because we know that “at hand” meant about to take place. Mark was writing to a first century audience and we must never lose sight of that fact. We must be consistent in our interpretation and not abuse word meanings to fit our personal theological presuppositions.

Here’s another from the book of Hebrews. How we interpret verses that contain imminent language is absolutely critical to our application and understanding. In the second verse of chapter 1, the author tells his readers that they are in the time period identified by the term “last days” (the same last days referred to by Peter in Acts 2:16-21).

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

Note that there is a clear dichotomy between “long ago” and “in these last days”. This is evidence that “time matters” and is vital to the understanding of the Scripture. God surely is infinite, not bound by time, but the Bible is God’s communication to His finite creation. This passage along with Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 place those living between 30-70 AD, in a “last days” context. The cross, resurrection, Pentecost, completion of the canon, and the holocaust of 70 AD (including the destruciton of the temple and the end of the Old Covenantal system), all took place within this time period. That’s why Paul told the Corinthians the time is short…the form of this world is passing away (1Cor 7:29-31) and the reason Peter warned his readers in 1Peter 4:7, The end of all things is at hand. These texts must be reconciled by whatever theological system we adhere to.

If we read the Bible as though it arrived on our doorstep with the morning paper we will forever be confused and confounded. The Bible was written in the transition period (the Exodus antitype) between AD 30 & AD 70. So when we read the Word as though we are still living in the time of its writing, it seems rather odd to us that the Apostle Paul wrote, Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. Romans 13:11 (ESV)—How do we relate to Paul’s statement? Paul’s not simply stating the obvious in that it’s a few years closer in the span of 2 millennia, but there’s an eager expectation that it’s about to come upon them—its “the last hour”. (1John 2:18)

Salvation is not merely “nearer” to those of us who are reading the Scripture in the 21st century. It has fully come. We have it. We have already been saved but most today are still waiting. Why? Because they still “see” with physical eyes. Their expectations are skewed and what it means to have no more tears or suffering is strictly physical to them (to be quite honest this was my paradigm as well for 33 years—so I’m not certainly not casting stones). This is not the language of the New Covenant which has been revealed as a spiritual kingdom (1Cor 15:50, John 1:13, John 4:21-24, Luke 17:20-21). That’s why when read this passage out of context one gets the mistaken impression that they’re still living in this “already but not yet” transitional state.

So it would behoove us to the read the Bible with First Century glasses while walking in the sandals of those to whom it was written. We need to observe our significant cultural differences. We need to understand the Hebrew mind where such things like chronology and numbers are not an end in and of themselves. That’s why Mark puts little triptych nuggets together where he sandwiches events that take place out of chronological sequence. His interest is one of contrast—a premium is placed on theology over timelines. Numbers to us are to be crunched; to them they had significance far beyond their numerical value. By not understanding the culture and the times when the Scriptures were written, we stand the significant risk of misinterpreting passages, therefore creating false applications and ultimately abding in the resultant confusion.

2. Audience relevance

If we don’t attempt to discover what the intent of a passage was relative to its direct recipients, then how will we ever expect to determine what it means to us 20 centuries after the fact? This is one of the greatest interpretational abuses of modern times.

When James wrote, Be patient for the coming of the Lord is at hand…the judge is standing at the door” (James 5:8-9) we cannot simply ignore the recipients of this message as though they were not real people who had real feelings & thoughts. As though the words had no relevance to the actual readers but were merely code phrases meant mainly for those who would come 2,000 years future.

I heard a sermon preached on patience that used this text. I wanted to scream but I was in the second row and had to settle for squirming. It was said that James was attempting to create an air of expectancy for all future generations regarding Jesus’ Parousia (coming). So later I asked this pastor the rhetorical question, “So you think that James was purposefully lying to create this expectant attitude?” The point is that we must not presume that God is employing situational ethics where the end (creating expectancy) justify the means. Do we presume that our Creator has a need to employ psychological tricks (let’s call it what is is—lying) to motivate us and keep us on our toes? This thought should be disgusting to us all. If I told you that I would be there “shortly” while never intending to come in your lifetime, would you consider me faithful? How about if my reason was that I just wanted to create a sense of expectation so that you wouldn’t forget me? Would that make you feel any better toward my unfaithfulness? In the same regard we oftentimes are unwilling to consider the unfiltered ramifications of Scripture when they violate our paradigm—and in so doing we are destined to succumb to this sort of ill-fated logic.

It is this same interpretational problem that caused the well-know atheist Betrand Russell to reject Christ (Why I’m Not a Christian). He knew that Jesus could not be a liar and be God at the same time—and he was correct! But how sad is it that Russell never met a Christian who could adequately divide the Word in this area of eschatology. This is why we cannot excise the study of last things from the Gospel. They are inseparable. This accepted departure from the common sense hermeneutic of audience relevance has led many astray. How grieving. Jesus did exactly as He and others prophesied and accomplished all at the end of the ages both in his death/Resurrection and His Parousia (Heb 9:26-28) In Scripture it was viewed as one Christ event that spanned a 40 year millennia. From Pentecost to Holocaust. (Acts 2:16-21)

3. Interpreting the unclear in the light of what we know to be clear.

Abusing this simple rule has resulted in the creation of many cults. For example: Interpreting James 2 as a stand alone doctrine ignoring the plethora of grace-based passages gives rise to doctrines such as Lordship (works-added) Salvation. Matter of fact, if one goes to the extreme where James makes mention of Abraham’s works of righteousness, we end up in a very confusing dilemma. Therefore it is imperative that we create matters of doctrine from passages that are abundantly clear while attempting to conform the less clear passages (which may appear to be in conflict) to the framework that we already know to be true. Therefore we know that Scripture be internally inconsistent.

4. The Analogy of Faith

Using Scripture to interpret Scripture will avoid a multitude of interpretational errors. (So many read the Old Testament as though it is the end of the story. But without viewing it through the lens of the New Testament authors, one is left quite confused—one errant belief that is derived from letting the Old Covenant stand on its own merit is the presumption that God is going to restore the land of Israel to the Jews etc. This misses the teachings of the New Covenant that are so prevalent in the book of Hebrews, and therefore they never “see” the spiritual anti-types as fulfillments of the physical types of the Old Covenant. So we accentuate physical healing as thought it’s almost an end in itself when clearly Christ’s healings were not use the temporal to prove the eternal.

Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— Mark 2:9-10 (ESV)

When reading Jeremiah 31 as though it is the end of the story, has caused major interpretational errors. If it is not interpreted in the light of the New Testament author’s illumination, we will gain the wrong temporal/physical picture of fulfillment. Hebrews 8 quotes Jeremiah 31 and puts it in the context of the New Covenant. This (Hebrews 8) is a gross departure of what one might conclude by meditating solely on Jeremiah 31.

5. Realizing that the New Testament is not new

There isn’t anything new about it. Paul repeatedly told us that he preached nothing new—everything came from the law & the prophets.

`And I confess this to thee, that, according to the way that they call a sect, so serve I the God of the fathers, believing all things that in the law and the prophets have been written, 15having hope toward God, which they themselves also wait for, [that] there is about to be a rising again of the dead, both of righteous and unrighteous; Acts 24:14-15 (YLT)

And at this point, it should not go unnoticed the reason I chose to use the Young’s Literal Translation. Many times it accurately captures the verb tenses. No other translation reads “about to be” because their paradigm doesn’t allow them to properly translate that little Greek word, “mello”, which means just that—“about to be” or “to be about”.

In the New Testament there is never a redefinition of terms. There was “this age” and “the age to come” and those phrases are never reinterpreted by New Testament authors.

And whoever may speak a word against the Son of Man it shall be forgiven to him, but whoever may speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that which is coming. Matthew 12:32 (YLT)

I find it rather odd that the YLT abandons their translation of “mello” in this text and uses a rather nebulous, “that which is coming”. It should read “nor that which is about to come”.
I used to believe that Christianity was a new religion and a total departure of the Old Testament, never realizing that everything in the Old Testament was prophesied in the NT. It just wasn’t seen clearly without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. They were “behind the veil of Moses” (2Cor 3) That’s why Peter & the gang seemed clueless even after the resurrection. After Jesus’ death they didn’t even understand that Jesus was to be raised.

for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. John 20:9 (ESV)

But in Acts 2 we see an entirely different Peter. He now gets it to the point where he’s quoting from Joel and now sees the whole picture. The difference was the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

I think the new and old divisions have deleterious to the believer’s understanding of the Word as a living organism. We perceive one as old and done away with and that’s not the case. Yes, the Old Testament was not complete and on its own merits it cannot stand as the final arbiter of truth, because it’s simply the beginning of the story. The New Covenant fully put away the OC in 70AD (Heb 8:10) but it did not negate the Old Testament as irrelevant. Christianity is not a new religion. It’s an extension of the law and the prophets.

6. Misunderstanding apocalyptic language

This is the single-most reason for the confusion regarding eschatology. Folks think that the Olivet Discourse of Mt 24 (Lk 21 and Mk 13) as well as Rev 6, Acts 2 and 2Pet 3, consider a new type of speech referring to the end of the world. Nowhere do we find this expectation in the New Testament. The New Testament is replete with references to what sounds like end of the world type language i.e. Isa 34, 13, Ezek 32, Mic 1 etc. This is God’s poetic speech regarding the destruction of nations. So when we come to the New Testament & the same moon turning into blood and the stars falling from heaven type verbiage is used, they (the authors) aren’t all of a sudden changing the rules of interpretation. This heaven & earth passing away that you find in Hebrew 1 (garment growing old etc.) is not speaking about a physical end of the planet but an end to Judaism & the sacrificial system i.e. the Old Covenant. I was always taught that the OC passed away at the cross but that is not the case as we see clearly delineated in Hebrews 8.

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:13 (ESV)

7. Time is always constant throughout the Scriptures

Parables and apocalyptic language use hyperbole to hammer home particular points but never do we find indication in Scripture that time can or should be trivialized or neutered. Imminent language is contained in every New Testament book. There was a clear sense of eager anticipation. To ignore that fact plays right into the hands of those who say that the Scripture is not reliable. Timing dictated the nature of His coming & yet we so misunderstand the nature that we willingly assume that God can’t tell time.

We cannot continue to ignore time as it is expressed by every New Testament author including Jesus. We cannot allow a day to the Lord is but a thousand years & a thousand years is but a day” to be improperly extracted & misapplied, and in so doing trivialize time to suit our own “private interpretations”. If read in context, this verse from 2Pet 3 is Peter’s defense against the last days scoffers & expresses just the opposite of the way many are abusing it. Written in the latter part of the 60’s, Peter is telling his readers that even though it’s been more than 35 years since Jesus said, This generation shall not pass away until all these thing are fulfilled”, He will fulfill His clearly-stated expectations within the bounds of “this generation”.

Simply because we cannot comprehend the nature of His coming does not give us license to reject the clear timing laid out in Scripture. Time is never bastardized. It is always consistent. At hand always means at hand. In a little while does not mean a thousand years. Shortly does not translate time into perpetuity. “This generation” does not morph into “that generation”. By reading the Scriptures in this way we have reduced the Word down to the least common denominator. If we abuse time we can make it say anything we please. Then there is no objective standard of interpretation and therefore the Scripture becomes rather impotent. This as you know was a huge area for me. I had lost faith in the Word partly because of what I perceived (rather incorrectly) as contradictions. Why trust it for my life if is capable of such fluidity? I believe a full commitment to inerrancy will lead one to take time seriously.

8. Recognizing how our own paradigm can skew our view of Scripture

We all have presuppositions & there’s nothing wrong with that. They are our framework which enable us to make sense of a very complex Word. However, to not recognize that we have them and to not realize that they can cause us to miss truth, is a serious issue.

Short example but one that continues to boggle my mind. Every time I saw the term, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, I didn’t even really read those words. I simply replaced them with “John”, since we’ve been told from the beginning of time (it seems) that John is the disciple whom Jesus loved. I never one time questioned this “fact” even though nowhere in Scripture do we find even a hint of Jesus’ specific love for John. When I first was confronted with this fact I became somewhat indignant because surely we cannot be fooling around with authorship. That’s what the liberal heretics do that want to discredit the Word. Upon further study I found (not really me because I don’t read the Scripture with as much attention to detail as I should—but I’m trying) through a few sources that there was definitive Scriptural evidence that the Apostle John did not in fact write the 4th Gospel. So I was left with a choice—I could continue to blindly follow tradition (because who are we to disavow third century testimony) or I could allow the Word to successfully shape my belief.

(For a thorough treatment of this issue you can either go to www.thedisciplewhomjesusloved.com and read the book of the same name or you can listen to a sermon of that name @ www.charlescoty.com/audio2.html. You will be amazed)

Why does this example matter? First of all, Scripture is always enhanced and enriched when read through the eyes of truth—but on a different note; this was a glaring example of how tradition had blinded me to truth. The exhortation of Acts 17:11 to be a faithful Berean continues to plague my instincts but something we should always strive for. I would much rather not have to forsake age old tradition because it’s always uncomfortable to deviate from the party line and makes others thusly squeamish.
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1 Response to Hermeneutical Principles – Reading the Bible with First Century Glasses

  1. Antonio says:

    How come you substituted “works-based salvation” for your earlier, “Lordship Salvation”?

    Lordship Salvation would have been better to stick with.


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