The Bible is God’s Word. But some of the interpretations derived from it are not. There are many cults and Christian groups that use the Bible, claiming their interpretations are correct. Too often, however, the interpretations not only differ dramatically but are clearly contradictory. This does not mean that the Bible is a confusing document. Rather, the problem lies in those who interpret and the methods they use.
We need, as best as can be had, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting God’s Word.
Because we are sinners, we are incapable of interpreting God’s word perfectly all of the time. The body, mind, will, and emotions are affected by sin and make 100% interpretive accuracy impossible. This does not mean that accurate understanding of God’s Word is impossible. But it does mean that we need to approach His word with care, humility, and reason. Additionally, we need, as best as can be had, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting God’s Word. After all, the Bible is inspired by God and is addressed to His people. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand what God’s word means and how to apply it.
On the human level, to lessen the errors that come in our interpretations, we need to look at some basic biblical interpretive methods. I’ll list some of the principles in the form of questions and then apply them one at a time to a passage of Scripture.
I offer the following principles as guidelines for examining a passage. They are not exhaustive, nor are they set in concrete.
In order to teach you how these questions can affect your interpretation of a passage, I have chosen one which, when examined closely, may lead you into a very different interpretation than what is commonly held. I leave it to you to determine if my interpretation is accurate.
The passage that I am going to use is Matt. 24:40, "Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left," (NIV).
1. Who wrote/spoke the passage and who was it addressed to?
Jesus spoke the words and they were recorded by Matthew. Jesus spoke them to His disciples in response to a question, which we will get to later.
2. What does the passage say?
The passage simply says that one out of two men in a field will be taken. It doesn’t say where, why, when, or how. It just says one will be taken. It doesn’t define the field as belonging to someone or in a particular place.
3. Are there any words in the passage that need to be examined?
No particular word in this verse really stands out as needing to be examined, but to follow this exercise, I will use the word "taken." By using a Strong Concordance and a dictionary of New Testament words (Vine’s, for example), I can check the Greek word and learn about it. The word in Greek is paralambano. It means "1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self, 2) to receive something transmitted."
A point worth mentioning about word studies is that a word means what it means in context. However, by examining how a word is used in multiple contexts, the meaning of the word can take on a new dimension. For example, the word for "love" in Greek is "agapao." It is generally believed to mean "divine love." This seems obvious, since it is used in John 3:16 in that way. However, the same word is used in Luke 11:43. Jesus says, "Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces," (NIV). The word used there is "agapao." It would seem then that the meaning of the word might mean something more along the lines of "total commitment to."
However, we must be careful not to insert a meaning of a word from one context into that of another. For example: 1) That new cadet is green. 2) That tree is green. The first green means "new and inexperienced." The second one means the color green. Would we want to impose the contextual meaning of one into the other? It wouldn’t be a good idea.
4. What is the immediate context?
This is where this particular verse will come alive. The immediate context is as follows, Matt. 24:37-42, "As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come," (NIV).
Immediately we can see that the person taken in verse 40 is paralleled by people being taken in verse 39. That is, the "being taken" are of the same kind.
A further question needs to be asked. Who was taken in verse 39? Was it Noah and his family or was it the people who were eating and drinking? The answer to that question might help us understand the original passage better. Therefore, the next interpretive step will help us greatly.
5. What is the broader context in the chapter and book?
A passage should always be looked at in context, not only in its immediate context of the verses directly before and after it, but also in the context of the chapter it is in and the book in which it is written.
Jesus’ discourse from which our verse was taken began with a question. Jesus had just left the temple and in verse 2 told His disciples that "... not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." Then in verse 3 the disciples asked Jesus, "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (NIV). Jesus then goes on to prophesy about things to come at the end of the age. He speaks of false Christs, of tribulation, of the sun being darkened, of His return, and of two men in a field where one will be taken and the other left.
The context, then, is eschatological. That means that it deals with the last things, or the time shortly before Jesus’ return. Many people think that this verse in Matt. 24:40 refers to the rapture spoken of in 1 Thess. 4:16-17. It may. But it is interesting to note that the context of the verse seems to suggest that the wicked are taken, not the good.
Now, about this time you might be thinking that this method of interpreting passages isn’t that good. After all, the "one taken, one left" verse is obviously about the rapture. Right? Well, maybe. You see, we all come to the Bible with preconceived ideas. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong. We should always be ready to have our understanding of the Bible challenged by what it says. If we are not willing, then we are prideful. And God is distant from the proud (Psalm 138:6).