Have you heard the old joke about the fellow who studied the Bible by letting it fall open and putting his finger on a verse for instruction and inspiration?
The first verse he turned to was Matthew 27:5. It said, “Judas went out and hanged himself.”
“Wait a minute!” he cried out. “This could not be right. I’ll try again.”
He opened the book and let the pages fall again. This time his fingers came to Luke 10:37. It said, “Go thou and do likewise.”
“No!” He tried a third time, which opened to John 13:27 and admonished: “What you must do, do quickly.”
Unfortunately, too many people approach the Bible that haphazardly which can lead to a lot of wrong conclusions. God is often credited to leading people to places He never intended they go. How many false doctrines are built around a single verse or even a word that is taken out of context, misunderstood or misapplied.
The Bible itself provides the best explanation on how to understand and interpret its meaning. One such example is found in Acts 15.
The growth and unity of the early church was threatened by “certain men” who taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and converted to Judaism as a prerequisite to becoming Christians. Paul and Barnabas sharply disagreed and debated the issue.
As a result, it was decided that the apostles and elders meet in Jerusalem to reach a conclusion. The Jerusalem conference was not a meeting to formulate policy. Nor a political forum for compromise. Or to establish new truth. But to ascertain what was God’s will regarding the matter.
Consider the arguments and the basis on which they were made.
(1) Peter reasoned from necessary inference (vs 7-11).
He re-counted the supernatural events that occurred as recorded in Acts 10 which influenced his thinking. An angel appeared to the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. Peter had a vision. The Holy Spirit’s command to go with Gentile messengers to Cornelius’ house. And the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles.
What was Peter’s conclusion? Nothing is common or unclean that God has cleansed. God is no respecter of persons. How can I forbid water baptism? And “who was I that I could withstand God?
The implication to Peter was that God accepted the Gentiles apart from binding the rite of circumcision on them.
(2) Paul and Barnabas appealed to apostolic examples. (v.12).
They summarized their first missionary journey. The gospel was taken to the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus. In Antioch of Pisidia when the Jews opposed them, they preached to the Gentiles. In Iconium both Jews and Gentiles obeyed the Gospel. In Lystra, they preached to pagans who were converted to Christ.
When they returned to Antioch of Syria they “rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.”
All of these examples demonstrated God’s approval.
(3) James pointed to the direct command of Scripture (vs 13-21).
He quoted Amos 9:11-12, a Messianic prophesy that foretold of the Gentiles being in God’s new tabernacle. Ironically, the very law the Judaizers tried to bind speaks of a time when God opened the door to all nations.
James’ argument is a simple, basic appeal to the clear and concise Word of God. His conclusion? Don’t trouble the Gentiles over your opinion, but preach the same warnings as given to Jews!
As a result a letter was drafted to refute the assertions of these false teachers and to verify the apostles’ acceptance of God’s will on this matter.
(4) The letter argued on the basis of the Scripture’s silence. (v.24)
This is sometimes called the law of exclusion. In other words, when there is no command, approved example or necessary inference that includes the practice under consideration, there is no authority for such a practice and therefore is excluded.
These teachers had no right to bind circumcision and the Old Law on the Gentiles. Why? Because the apostles said, “We gave no such commandment.” Silence forbids it.
(5) Expediency was exercised in sending the letter. (v.22)
There may have been many ways to address and answer the problem, but this method “seemed good” to those assembled. It was a matter of judgment and an expedient way to handle the problem.
Our observance of the Lord’s Supper is a good example of how we use this method of interpretation.
(1) Why observe it? There is an express command. “This do in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor. 11:23-24).
(2) When do we observe it? The apostolic example is on the first day of the week (Ax. 20:7).
(3) How often we observe it? By necessary inference every first day of the week, since every week has a first day. The sign outside Chick-Fil-A says “Closed Sunday.” Everyone understands this means every Sunday.
(4) What emblems do we use? Unleavened bread and fruit of the vine (Matt 26:26-28). The law of exclusion forbids any other elements.
(5) What time of day should we take it? The law of expedience allows any hour on Sunday.
While some are critical and disparage this method of Biblical interpretation, it’s not new. It didn’t originate in the 1800’s or the 1950’s. It was employed by the apostles. It worked then. And it will work for us.
In an article on “Establishing Bible Authority, “Bubba Garner was right when he wrote, “We don’t need a new way to establish authority. We need a renewed dedication to the word of God. We don’t need more signs. We need a deeper understanding of the signs that have been revealed.”
“What is the Lord’s will for us? We can find it, we can understand it, we can fulfill it.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman