It Depends on Your Interpretation
How many times have you had a discussion with someone about religion in general or perhaps some Bible topic or a teaching from the Bible, and you quote a Scripture reference to kind of prove your point on something, or you quote the Bible in order to explain why you believe what you believe or do what you do, and the other person that you're talking to simply dismisses your argument by saying, "Well, that's just your interpretation, everybody's got an interpretation." It seems that the politically correct approach to the Bible nowadays is that it is open to everyone's personal and individual understanding and interpretation. If this would be true, it would mean that anyone's interpretation would be as good as anyone else's, and every preacher and every church would be correct because there would be no objective truth, only each person's interpretation of what is correct and true biblically.
Well, just to set the record straight, we in the Churches of Christ do not hold the idea that the Bible is subject to personal interpretation, no matter how sincere or dynamic or popular the speaker happens to be. On the contrary, we believe that there is a way to arrive at objective truth and come to the knowledge of exactly and precisely what the Bible teaches. So in my lesson this morning, I'd like to briefly review with you the history of how we arrived at this important conclusion.
I've noticed that a lot of new Christians, as well as the recent generation that grew up in the church, are not always as knowledgeable about the history of the Churches of Christ as are the older generation. It's important to know our history because it explains why we do the things we do and why we do those things in the way we do, and it also demonstrates the important and real differences between ourselves and other religious groups who also believe in Jesus Christ.
Two men who were significant in shaping the thought of our brotherhood, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, they were father and son, lived during the 1700s and 1800s. These men reasoned that words had the power to convey precise meanings. They were ministers, they were scholars, Bible scholars. They taught that words supplied the reader with sufficient information that enabled the reader to come to a logical and clear understanding.
For example, take the sentence, "Mary Smith is 45 years old." These words, they argued, had the ability to convey precise information that could clearly be understood by the reader of the sentence. These words, when you put them together and read them, left very little room for different interpretations. You couldn't read this and say, "Oh, Mary Smith is 39 years old," or, "This sentence says that Joe Smith is 45 years old." No, no, the sentence is very clear. Mary Smith is 45 years old. They further reasoned that since the Bible was made up of specific words, with sufficient study, a person could be able to clearly understand what the Bible actually said. After all, the Bible is made up of words.
So when they studied the Bible with this understanding, they discerned and discovered three important things that the Bible said about itself, three things that helped them or anyone else, for that matter, learn to interpret the Bible accurately. In other words, if one was guided by these ideas in reading and interpreting the Bible, they would consistently arrive at the objective truth contained in the Bible and available to anyone who searched the Scriptures to know and be sure of God's will and God's word.
Three Things the Bible Teaches About Itself
1. The Bible is inspired
So three things that the Bible taught about itself: Number one, it taught that it was inspired. In II Timothy, the passage we just read, Paul writes,
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.
- II Timothy 3:16
And a like Scripture in II Peter 1:21,
For no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
- II Peter 1:21
And so, if the Bible is inspired by God, one conclusion that can be drawn is that it has authority in matters of religion and morals, divine authority. After all, if the Bible is inspired by God, what it says comes from God. And who has a higher authority than God? And so this idea definitely guides our response to what the Bible teaches.
2. The Bible is complete
The second major idea they discovered: The Bible is complete. Peter writes,
2Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 3seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness,
- II Peter 1:2-3a
Who granted? God granted. God granted what? Everything. God granted everything to whom, he said? To us. Us, meaning the apostles, the church. Granted what? "Everything pertaining to life and godliness."
Through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.
- II Peter 1:3b
Another similar Scripture, Jude 3.
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly [you fight for] for the faith.
- Jude 3
In the Bible, when it says, "the faith," it means the body of teaching. When it's just "faith," well, that's belief or trust. "I believe. I have faith in you. I have faith in God." But when the Bible says, "the faith," it's referring to a body of teaching, doctrine.
So Jude says, "I felt the necessity to write to you, appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith." And what about the faith?
Which was once for all handed down to the saints.
- Jude 3
How much faith? All faith. What faith? The whole body of doctrine. Given to whom? Given to the saints. And when was it given? Once for all. In other words, there is no more. These passages teach us that all of the information that God intended man to have regarding his life here and in the hereafter has already been given. The Bible says that there is no further revelation from God to come. We have it all.
Now, we don't have everything that God knows, but we have everything that God wants us to know. Everything that God wants us to know has been given to us once and for all.
3. The Bible is understandable
A third important idea: The Bible is understandable. The Bible was not designed to be a book of hidden truths or mysteries. Many tried to describe it in these terms, especially in the Middle Ages, where Bibles were kept away from the common man and meant only for priests or scholars.
However, Paul the apostle teaches the exact opposite of this in II Timothy 3:15. He says,
And that from childhood you have known the sacred writings, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus.
- II Timothy 3:15
Notice here, Paul doesn't say that you have to be educated or wise in order to begin to understand the Bible. He says that you become wise, especially towards the things of God, as you study God's word, even from childhood. So you're a child, and as you study the Scriptures as a child, you begin to gain knowledge and wisdom that will lead you to salvation. You don't have to be wise to begin studying. You become wise as you study the Scriptures.
And so, the rediscovery and teaching of these principles had a profound effect on the conclusions they drew when studying the Scriptures in light of these basic principles concerning the Scriptures themselves. If the Bible was inspired, complete, and understandable, then other things were also true. For example, there was no need for modern-day prophets, no such thing as new revelations from God, and therefore these prophets and these new revelations were false, unnecessary.
If these principles were true, then all the information that I require for living the Christian life was contained in the Bible. No need for extra books or revelations to know God's will or Jesus's teachings. And if these principles were accurate, then everyone who had the ability to read and think could understand and benefit from God's word, not just clergymen or scholars. Even more importantly, each person could understand and respond to the gospel based on reason and normal intelligence without the help or the need of divine intervention by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, man was sinful and lost without Christ, but not so morally depraved that he could not understand and respond to God's offer of salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, armed with these conclusions, that God had given all the information and revelation that He was ever going to give in the Bible, and that this information could be understood by everyone, the Campbells and others of a like mind of that period began an intense study of God's Word to find out what exactly did God want to teach them.
Many of the things that they learned had been taught before. For example, they confirmed the idea of the deity of Christ. Their studies confirmed also the universal need for salvation. They also understood about the person and the holiness of God. These things had been well documented in the past and were confirmed with the studies that these men made. However, they also learned and taught things that had been lost throughout the centuries or had been ignored or had been taught incorrectly.
Biblical Concepts Reintroduced
True Pattern for the Organization and Function of the Church
Some major biblical concepts that they reintroduced were the following: The New Testament reveals the true pattern for the organization and function of the church, II Timothy 1:13. You see, until that time, it was tradition or it was the church leaders that determined how the church should be organized, who should lead the church. Human beings in religious authority had the last word in church affairs, not God's word.
Silence of Scripture
Another important concept. We should always justify our religious practices and beliefs with Scripture. In other words, what you believe about or from God should be supported by the Bible. They taught that what you do in worship or church organization or spiritual practice and development always needs a Bible basis, a Bible example, a command, a teaching, or a biblical logic. They also reemphasized the important biblical command that Christians should not go beyond what is written in the Bible.
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.
- I Corinthians 4:6
This teaching gave rise to the idea of the silence of Scripture, which was and continues to be a bedrock principle among Churches of Christ to this day. We sometimes hear about these things, but we don't quite know where they come from and how they develop. And so the silence of Scripture idea teaches the following: If the Bible says or commands or instructs in some way, by an example or a logical conclusion, if the Bible says that we should do something, then we should simply do what it instructs and nothing else, that's the silence of Scripture.
This is why most Churches of Christ do not use instruments of music, for example, in public worship. I mention that because that's the most oft-asked question of us, "Why do you guys not use instruments? Do you have something against music?" No, we don't have anything against music. The principle of silence is what prohibits us from using instruments of music in public worship. You see, all the information in the New Testament about music in public worship specifically instructs the church to sing without the use of instruments.
And so the Bible tells us what to do when gathering publicly to worship God. It tells us to sing, and thus, by doing so, eliminates everything else: bands, parades, drama, whatever. Now, when the Bible gives no instruction on a matter, then we're to use godly judgment and do things in a decent and orderly manner. How do we know that?
But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.
- I Corinthians 14:40
Every situation is covered. We have instructions for every type of thing that we face. And so using this approach to Bible study helps us to consistently and accurately determine what the Bible teaches.
Now, in trying to determine who has correctly interpreted the Bible, we need to question not the conclusions first, we need to question the approach that the person has used in order to arrive at their conclusions. The Bible itself teaches us what our attitude must be if we wish to interpret the Scriptures in such a way that we're saying what God says and not what we think, and especially not what we feel.
The worst sentence to use in a Bible study is, "I feel that--" Yeah, no, no. What you feel about the Bible doesn't count in interpreting what it says. The Bible teaches us that in order to arrive at correct interpretation, we must believe that it is God's word, in other words, inspired, accept that it is complete. There is no more information. And it is meant to be understood for everyone, not just the specialists. The Campbells and others did a great service in that they established this criteria as the basis for proper study of the Bible. For example, if you approach Bible study with the idea that it's inspired and complete and understandable, you will arrive at accurate and correct conclusions in a consistent manner.
Well, this movement grew quickly because people began to study the Bible in this way, and they discovered correct biblical conclusions about all kinds of things, salvation for example, and especially the role of baptism in the process of salvation: Who to be baptized; How should we be baptized; Why should we be baptized; When should we be baptized; What happens when we're baptized?
All of these ideas were rediscovered- The church and how it should be organized. It helped people eliminate organizing the church simply based on tradition. And we learned much more about the Holy Spirit and His influence, what the Holy Spirit actually did and didn't do. These men didn't try to reform the churches that they were in. That had been tried and failed. They tried to restore biblical teaching and practice.
The process of restoration doesn't try to fix what is broken or even in error. Restoration attempts to bring back or to reestablish what was originally in place.
Now, from this original work of Campbell and others, and like-minded preachers and teachers, came the Churches of Christ, originally referred to as the Restoration Movement. The idea was an attempt to restore biblical or New Testament Christianity in the place of denominational Christianity that was born out of the Reformation movement brought about by Martin Luther and John Calvin and others.
The first members of the Churches of Christ did not become members because they wanted to join a new church. No, they became members as they discovered how to become simple Christians according to God's word and not according to manmade teachings or religious traditions.
For example, if you were baptized after reading this passage, let's say - And I picked this because this is why I was baptized. This is the passage that brought me to the water,
He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved, but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
I want to tell you, if you were baptized on this passage here, you were pretty solid. You were truly saved based on what Jesus Himself actually said in the Bible, not what some theologian said or your catechism said or your prayer book said or your minister taught. No, you were saved according to what Jesus specifically said in the Bible.
This gave you confidence. If somebody said, "Are you sure you're saved? How do you know you're saved?" "Well, Mark 16:16" And I remember at the beginning, the only passage of Scripture I knew by heart was this one. "Are you sure you're saved?" "Oh, yeah." "How do you know?" "Mark 16:16 says, 'If you believe Jesus and are baptized, you'll be saved.'" "I have believed. I have been baptized. Therefore, I am saved." This built your faith. This was a source of joy and peace and comfort that no one could take away from you. It was true on the day you believed it. It was true on the day you obeyed it. It was true on a good or on a bad day, and it remained true on the final day of your life when staring death in the face. Such was the power of truth personally discovered and believed from God's Word.
These spiritual pioneers used this newfound approach along with the knowledge and faith that it produced to establish churches strictly based on the teachings of the New Testament, and by the 1950s - Fast forward from the 1700s/1800s to the 1950s - these New Testament churches became the fastest-growing religious movement in America with thousands of congregations located all across the USA.
Today, you and I, we are the inheritors of this movement. As the New Testament churches of the past, we also believe that the Bible is inspired by God and thus the final authority in spiritual and moral matters. This explains our effort at knowing it and obeying it. We also believe it is complete and therefore our only inspired guide. This is why aside from the elders who oversee each local church, the only leader and head of the universal church is Jesus Christ, who exercises His leadership through the Holy Spirit and His word.
And we also believe, because we believe that the Bible is God's Word, we focus most of our religious energy as a church into the study and the practice of God's word, which is the Bible. And this explains why we set aside three periods a week, Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, for study and worship and fellowship.
"Why do you guys meet so often?" "Because we want to study the Bible." "Why is that important?" "Because it's God's word. Because it teaches us how to be godly people. Because it's the word that will bring us to heaven, that's why." Wouldn't that be something worthy of studying, worthy of making time for?
I believe that most of the denominational world falls into error concerning their interpretation today because they deny one or all three of these principles here.
Roman Catholicism, they believe that the Bible is inspired, but they don't believe that it's complete, and it's not possible to understand without the help of the Catholic Church. So they have added human traditions, all kinds of doctrines actually forbidden by the Bible: the worship of Mary, for example; The doctrine of the infallibility of the pope. The pope is infallible when speaking, as they say, ex-cathedra, from the chair of Peter. Some people say, "That's a doctrine from God." Really? Then why was it only introduced in 1870, against the wishes of the College of the Cardinals, and yet it passed somehow without a shred of biblical support?
Protestant denominations, they believe that the Bible is complete and understandable, but not fully inspired. This has given rise to trends for them doing all kinds of things that are unbiblical. Some people wonder, how is it that a certain Protestant church will have a practicing homosexual as an elder or as a pastor of that church? How does that happen? Well, the only way that happens is by denying the writings of Paul concerning homosexuality are inspired. If you can throw out parts of the Bible as you wish, you can introduce all kinds of stuff to your practice of Christianity.
And modern sects, they believe the Bible is inspired and understandable, but they don't believe it's complete. And so every group has its prophet or founder, and many charismatics rely on the revelation and visions of their members to continue and clarify their teachings.
Every time you compromise one of these three principles, you go off the track with your conclusion. This is my point.
So, Churches of Christ came into being defending the principle that to correctly interpret Scripture, you must approach it as: A, inspired; B, complete; and C, completely understandable. Not one or two of these, all three of these.
This is what I believe and teach and what Churches of Christ all over the world teach today. And why do we do so? Well, the Bible itself tells us,
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
- II Timothy 2:2
Those are the marching orders for teachers in the church from the very beginning. They were to take what they were taught, that body of faith, that body of doctrine, and pass it along without compromising its integrity, from one generation to the other. And our task today is the same thing. We have to take the body of teaching and pass it on to the next generation intact.
So the next time somebody says, "Well, it depends on your interpretation," your answer should be, "No, it depends on God's interpretation, and you can only find that out if you believe that the Bible is inspired, complete, and understandable."
Well, one thing that the Bible makes very clear is how a person can be saved. When you read the entire New Testament, you find out several things about salvation. First of all, you find out that everyone is lost.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
- Romans 3:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Romans 6:23
How can we misinterpret that, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?" How can we interpret that as meaning some have sinned or just a few have sinned or almost everybody has sinned? No, no, it says, "All have sinned," so everyone is lost and needs to be saved.
Another thing we discover: No one can save themselves.
For while we were still helpless,
- Romans 5:6a
What is it we don't understand about the word "helpless"? Paul is saying, "Helpless." We can't do anything.
At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.
- Romans 5:6b
Another thing we learn: Salvation is through Christ and Christ alone. The only way to be saved is through Jesus Christ.
And there is salvation in no one else;
- Acts 4:12a
Again, how do you misinterpret "no one else"? Can that mean something else than no one else? And what does he say afterwards? He says,
For there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12b
There is no other name that you can name, no religious leader, no philosophical leader, no religious guru, no supposed god, no force, nothing. There's nothing under heaven by which we can be saved other than Jesus Christ. Christianity is an exclusive religion. People don't like that. That's not politically correct in this day and age, but what does the Bible teach? Well, the Bible teaches that Christianity is an exclusive religion. There's only one person by which we can be saved, and it's Jesus.
Another thing we learn, that Jesus's cross is what saves us.
And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, for by His wounds you were healed.
In other words, the method of salvation is a thing called vicarious atonement. God's justice demands payment for sin. Jesus pays our debt for sin with His death on the cross, vicarious atonement.
Peter says it in a more poetic way,
He bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness;
- I Peter 2:24a
He says it again in a different way.
For by His wounds you were healed.
- I Peter 2:24b
And then finally, not the last thing, but the last thing I'll mention. Faith is expressed in repentance and baptism. Mark 16, that I just read,
He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
- Mark 16:16
Why will the person who disbelieves be condemned? Because he disbelieves, not because he wasn't baptized. He's condemned because he doesn't believe, and if he doesn't believe, you can be sure he won't be baptized.
And then in Acts 2:38, Peter says,
Repent, each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:38
What happens when you repent and are baptized? You receive: A, forgiveness; and B, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And so, salvation comes through faith. And how do we express our faith? We express it through repentance and baptism. Do we express our faith by coming forward? No. Do we express our faith by raising our hand? No. Do we express our faith by saying the words, "I accept Jesus as my personal Savior"? Is that how we do it? No. Do we express our faith by mentally thinking, "Jesus, come into my heart"? No. What does the Bible say? Never mind what you think. What does the Bible say? How do you express the faith in a biblical way? Well, you repent of your sins, and you're immersed in the water in the name of Jesus. That's how you express your faith according to the Bible.
What God says about salvation is clear, and it is understandable. If you're not saved in this way, then you're not saved in the way that the inspired word of God teaches that a person should be saved. That's a hard truth.
Never mind what your grandmother said. Never mind what or how your uncle taught. Never mind what your great-great-grandmother- what she did concerning salvation. God will judge everyone in a just and righteous manner. I say this, I take the right to say this to you because my dad died when I was 15. I never even had a chance to share the gospel with him, but I am assured that God will judge him righteously. Whatever God judges him, I will say, "Amen, that is the right judgment." I will not question God's judgment on my mom or dad or anything else. The Lord knows what they knew. The Lord knows what they obeyed.
We, on the other hand, have the opportunity to restore the teaching of the New Testament and stop the tide of error on this and other important biblical matters. We'll be judged on the things we know and have been taught today in our generation, so let's obey and walk in the measure of light that we've been given in our understanding of God's word. To ignore this would not honor or help those who came before us, and I'm sure that if they were here today, they would encourage us to obey God's truth.
And so, I encourage you to accept the idea that God's word is understandable and clear, especially when it comes to salvation. Why would God make salvation like a mysterious thing that's too hard for anyone to understand? He's made it very clear, very open. People say, "Why do you people in the Churches of Christ- you're all about baptism. Why do you concentrate so much on baptism?"
Could it be because the Holy Spirit mentions it at least 10 times in the book of Acts alone? Would that be a reason, maybe? That of the dozens of times baptism is mentioned in the New Testament, it's always mentioned in connection with a person's salvation? Could that be a reason why we sort of focus on this? While others are focusing on when Jesus is going to return, and what's the meaning of the Russians getting new rockets or something, and trying to figure out the religious context of that, while others are trying to figure that out, we're trying to tell people, "Repent and be baptized and save your souls." That's a much surer message that will produce a much greater harvest of souls.
And so, if you need to respond to the invitation to be saved, if you need help to study the Bible more accurately, many people here are ready to study with you. Whatever you may need this morning in answering the invitation call, please respond if you need to.