Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

How to Read the Bible Like the Apostles Did


Traditionally, the Protestant Reformation has been seen as formally beginning on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses Against Indulgences to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Though this date is certainly important (Luther was surely beginning to question some basic principles of the Roman Catholic system in 1517) the most vital aspect of the Protestant Reformation– the recovery of widespread preaching of the true, biblical Gospel– did not begin until 1519.

In 1519, Luther was studying through the book of Romans and contemplating the justice of God. Up until this time, he had been utterly frustrated because he had been taught, basically, that if we do our best in our service to God, then God’s grace would make up the deficit between our works, which always fall short of His glory (Rom 3:23), and God’s perfect standard of justice. One fatal flaw with this system is, as Luther realized, that one can never be sure that the absolute best has been done. At the end of a day spent diligently trying to please God through Bible study, prayer, and good works, one may still think back to times when there could have been a little more positive effort involved. In his studies of Romans, Luther came to understand that salvation is not based upon our own works at all, but on the works of Christ done on behalf of sinners. The only way sinners can be justified– made right in God’s sight– is by faith, that is, by trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When Luther came to understand this, he wrote, “I felt myself reborn and to have gone into open doors through paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning…This passage of Paul [Romans 1:17] became to me a gate to heaven…

As long as Martin Luther had continued to interpret Scripture based on a system of tradition handed down by Rome, Luther had never truly understood the gospel of grace. Once Luther studied the Scripture alone– allowing Scripture to speak for itself– God changed Luther’s heart and he was born again. “Scripture alone” thus became a rallying cry for the Protestant Reformation. “Scripture alone” was the formal principle, or blue-print, for Reformation. The entire idea of biblical Reformation is that we are to prayerfully, humbly and diligently study the Scriptures, come to a firm understanding of what God is teaching us by His Scriptures, and then faithfully put His teachings into practice.

One vital question in regards to this principle of “Scripture alone” involves the process of understanding, or interpreting, Scripture. Without Rome or some other religious hierarchy to instruct us as to the meaning of particular passages, how are we to be sure that we are understanding and applying them correctly? In response to this question, Luther and the Reformers who followed him asserted that Scripture is able to interpret itself. They said, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This phrase was intended to indicate, among other things, that Scripture itself reveals principles of interpretation that allow Christians today to come to a sure knowledge of what God is communicating in His Word. Like the earliest church in Jerusalem, Christians today are to be devoted to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42). And so we may ask, ‘Does Scripture record how the apostles interpreted Scripture?’ It is my firm conviction, following the principle of “Scripture alone,” that the answer to this question is a definite “yes.”

As I attempt to elucidate the example set by the apostles of how to interpret Scripture a word of clarification must be mentioned at the outset: the principles of interpretation revealed by Scripture through the apostles are not given to us in some textbook-fashion, but are rather demonstrated by example. Now, many of us have been taught to draw our beliefs not from examples found in Scripture, but from places where the Bible is explicitly teaching a doctrine or giving a command. And it is a good idea to take caution before framing a belief based on an example, as some examples may only apply to specific people at specific given times. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul consistently encouraged and commanded believers to follow his example (Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess 3:9; 2 Tim 1:13, etc.). Specifically, Paul expected others to follow his example of godly living and his example of teaching biblical truths. So I believe that Christians have warrant, based on a clear command of Scripture, to follow the apostles’ example of biblical interpretation. Also, if we reject the example of interpretation given by the apostles, saying that the apostles interpreted the Bible in a different way than we are able to interpret it today, as some would have us believe, then where are we to turn in finding principles to understand the Bible? If we cannot follow the example of the apostles, then we are left at the mercy of constantly changing opinions of modern men– men who are certainly not the foundation of the Church (Eph 2:20).

As we study the example of the apostles, we find that they demonstrated AT LEAST the following purposes in reading the Bible: application, allusion, allegory, argument, and adoration.

Reading for the Purpose of Application

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17 NIV 1984).As we begin to examine the apostles' example for reading Scripture it is important to note that though we may distinguish between biblical interpretation and biblical application– and this may be a helpful distinction to make on a regular basis– we must never separate the two. Scripture is useful so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Understanding this, we realize that when the apostles read the Scripture, they did so for the specific purpose of applying it to their lives and the lives of others in the Church. This is why the Apostle Paul may read a particular civil law from Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain" (Deut 25:4 NIV 1984), and derive a principle for specific application within the New Covenant community (see 1 Cor 9:8-12). We too are to read the Bible with this purpose, as instructed by the Apostle, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom,” (Col 3:16a NIV 1984). So we cannot imagine that we may properly interpret what is being communicated in the biblical text unless we come to the Scripture with a fervent desire to put what God has revealed into practice.

Reading for the Purpose of Allusion

Allusion “is an implied or indirect reference [through specific words or short phrases] to something or someone assumed to be in the common body of knowledge.” If you own a chain-reference Bible, you may have been surprised at the number of very specific words and phrases repeated throughout the Scriptures. You may also have noticed that when you look up the references down the center column, the subject matter for the overall passages surrounding some of the verses linked by particular words or phrases seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. This is because when using an allusion, an author is only trying to recall one specific aspect of a previous work to his readers’ minds. (So, for example, if you make an allusion to “David and Goliath” while speaking, you may not be indicating the overall spiritual teaching of the passage– that David defeated the giant based on faith in God and trust in His Word rather than is own strength, etc.– you may just mean that a little guy was able to, in some way, defeat a big guy.) When the human authors of the Bible used allusions, they did so for the same reason authors today use them. That is, they used allusions to communicate with their audience, drawing upon a “common body of knowledge” shared by both author and reader. For this reason, the Apostle Paul not only drew allusions from the Bible, but also from a pagan poets (Acts 17:28) and a pagan prophet (Titus 1:12). Thus, we have warrant for referencing popular ideas known from the culture at large when we are trying to communicate truths from God’s Word. On the other hand, the vast majority of allusions contained in the New Testament, whether the human authors were writing to Jews or Greeks, are from the Scriptures– what we now know as the Old Testament. This is true when James, writing to a mostly Jewish audience alludes to Job in James 5:11 and to Elijah in James 5:17-18; this is also true when Paul, writing to a mostly Gentile audience, makes several allusions to the Exodus story in 1 Corinthians 10:6-11. Converts to Christianity were taught the Scriptures early and taught the Scriptures well, and so it could be assumed that allusions to the Scripture would facilitate communication of other spiritual truths.

We should follow this example by encouraging others in our congregations to read through their Bibles systematically, so that we all have, at least, a general awareness of what God has said, no matter how new we may be to the Faith. We should also follow the apostles' example of reading the Bible for allusion, supporting understanding of spiritual truths through references to other portions of Scripture.

Reading for the Purpose of Allegory

Allegory is basically a form of literature in which objects and persons represent ideas or qualities. In allegory, the ideas or qualities are the focus RATHER THAN the objects and persons. In speaking of allegory, a word of caution must be given. At different times in church history, certain groups have utilized allegory as an interpretive framework for Scripture. So, for example, during the Patristic Era (c. A.D. 100-590), the group of theologians now known as the Alexandrian school would attempt to find underlying spiritual meanings in historical narratives; thus, the account of Jesus' changing the water to wine at the wedding in Cana would be taken to symbolize the need for those weak like water to be changed and become steadfast like wine, etc. [S.J. Wellum, 22100: Hermeneutics Handouts, 2006. 4] As an interpretive framework, allegory is unacceptable because it downplays the historicity of the the text, and either leads to a purely arbitrary system of interpretation where anyone can read anything into the text or else leads to the need for an elite group of interpreters to explain the deeper meaning of the Scriptural text [Wellum, 5].

Given this caution, we still must observe that there is at least one instance where the Apostle Paul read the Old Testament allegorically, namely Galatians 4:21-31:

21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, "REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE NUMEROUS ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND." 28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? "CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN." 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. (NASB)

The word in verse 24 that the NASB translates "allegorically" is ἀλληγορέω, the word from which the English "allegory" directly derives. In the section above, the Apostle uses a combination of allusion and allegory to illustrate the spiritual truth that he has been establishing throughout the epistle: that salvation and sanctification are perfected not by the works of the old testament Law, but by hearing with faith. Notice two things about the Apostle's use of allegory in this section:
  1. He specifically indicates his use of allegory: This is not his typical style of biblical instruction, i.e. he is not giving us a framework by which to read our entire Bible, rather he is making a point through using a figure of speech, and he alerts readers to this fact.
  2. The way that the Apostle uses allegory is specifically dependent upon the historical reality of the primary events. Though the Apostle makes allegorical connections ("Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia," etc.) this allegory would be meaningless if there was never a slave-woman named Hagar and powerless if there was never a child of promise named Isaac.
The Apostle uses allegory, NOT as an interpretive framework for all Scripture, and NOT obscuring the historical realities involved, but as an illustration of teaching he is giving, as also directly taught in other passages of Scripture. And this is how we should use allegory as well. Pastor John MacArthur has noted that when he gives illustrations of Bible truth, he will sometime use personal stories, but much more often he will first turn to Scripture to find examples from God's Word. In this he is following the example of Paul, the example we should follow as well.

Reading for the Purpose of Argument

The word "argument," as it is commonly used, has almost entirely negative connotations in contemporary culture. When one hears that two parties have engaged in an argument, the immediate assumption is that there has been a highly emotional confrontation in which each party was trying to impose his or her selfish will upon the other. This kind of situation is obviously undesirable, and so most people today try to avoid arguments altogether.

But arguments, in the purest sense of the the word, are absolutely necessary for meaningful communication to take place. Patrick J. Hurley's Concise Introduction to Logic defines an argument as follows:
Argument: A group of statements, one or more of which (the premises) are claimed to provide support for, or reason to believe, one of the others (the conclusion).
Consider the following scenario: I may say to my wife, "Dear, we're out of milk and so we need add it to the grocery list." She may reply, "I don't think so, honey- when I looked in the fridge an hour ago we had plenty of milk." Then I may say, "But after you looked, you put some milk in the recipe to bake the cake you're taking to church on Sunday, and I used the rest of the milk to fix us French toast for breakfast, so we need to buy some more." (This is a fairly realistic depiction of what may happen at our house.) Now, we may have been sweet toward each other during that conversation (an outside observer might say 'sickeningly sweet'), and we probably wouldn't say that we'd had an 'argument' that morning- using the popular understanding of the term. But, according to the definition of an argument listed above, we had both offered conclusions, 'we need to buy more milk,' or, 'we don't need to buy more milk,' and gave reasons (premises) for those conclusions.

When we examine the way that the apostles read the Scriptures, we discover that they were consistently arguing for specific conclusions about the person and work of Jesus Christ using premises drawn from what we know as the Old Testament. In this they were following the example set by Jesus Himself who, to mention just one instance among many, cited Psalm 110:1 as a premise in order to lead His hearers to the conclusion that He is greater than King David (see Matt 22:41-46).

Similarly, the Apostle Paul regularly turned to the Scriptures to argue for the truth of the Gospel, as demonstrated in passages such as Acts 17:2-3:
And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining to them and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ." (NASB, Emphases added.)
Since all Christians are Christ's ambassadors (see 2 Cor 5:20), we must follow the Apostle's example, as the Apostle Peter also instructs us in 1 Peter 3:15:
... sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give a defense [a word that can be translated "argument," as the NASB notes] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; (NASB)
From this passage, we see that we are actually commanded to be ready to give an argument, and we also are commanded as to what attitude we are to have when arguing. While not shrinking away from giving an argument- or "reasoned defense"- for the Faith, we are not to be "argumentative" in the worldly sense. We are to, as much as possible from our end, live at peace with all people (see Rom 12:18). When arguing to defend our faith or proclaim the gospel, our goal is not to belittle others to make ourselves look good so that others think, "What smart people those Christians are!" Rather, our goal is to glorify God alone by persuading others to trust in Christ and submit to Him. The content of our argument must be from the Scriptures, as the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (NASB, Emphasis added.)
Reading for the Purpose of Adoration

The apostle Paul was very clear that every aspect of life should be conducted for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31), and this would certainly begin with our reading of Scripture. The apostles modeled reading the Bible for the glory of God- using the Scriptures as a pattern to shape their adoration of Him- throughout their writings. Specifically, the apostles read the Scriptures with a focus on the adoration of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So we read the Apostle Paul drawing upon 2 Samuel 22:50, Psalm 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10 to praise God for His work of mercy among the nations through "the root of Jesse," our Lord Jesus Christ, as recorded in Romans 15:8-12,

8 Now I say that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God, to confirm the promises to the fathers, 9 and so that Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy. As it is written: Therefore I will praise You among the Gentiles, and I will sing psalms to Your name. 10 Again it says: Rejoice, you Gentiles, with His people! 11 And again: Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; all the peoples should praise Him! 12 And again, Isaiah says: The root of Jesse will appear, the One who rises to rule the Gentiles; in Him the Gentiles will hope. (HCSB)

Likewise, Peter draws upon Isaiah 53 in adoration of Christ for suffering on our behalf, as we read in 1 Peter 2:22-25,

22 He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; 23 when reviled, He did not revile in return; when suffering, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to the One who judges justly. 24 He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; by His wounding you have been healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (HCSB)


We should learn to read the Bibles from the first teachers that Christ appointed for His Church: the apostles. We should read the Bible with the intention of putting God's Word into practice in our lives. We should read the Bible in order to understand other aspects of what God has revealed. We should read the Bible to discover how we can illustrate and argue for Truth. Finally, we should follow the example of the apostles, reading our Bibles so that we may learn to adore God as He deserves.

[The above material is lightly edited from a series of blogposts that originally appeared here from December 2006 to July 2007.]

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