Unbelievers often claim the Bible is confusing or even contradictory. Sometimes their questions are sincere, giving us the opportunity to offer a gospel-centered response. At other times they are simply trying to discredit Scripture from a heart of unbelief. Of course, believers may have honest questions, too. How do we clear up the confusion for those who simply want to know the truth?
Studying the overall purpose of God and the larger picture of the whole Bible is essential to understanding the specifics. Let’s review a few principles of hermeneutics—Bible interpretation—regarding the larger context of each passage. These principles will help us rightly understand confusing passages.
First, we should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture—the clear texts of God’s Word help us understand the unclear texts.
For example, in Deuteronomy 24 God seems to condone divorce, yet in Luke 16:18 Christ associates divorce with adultery. Reading Matthew 19:3–12 gives the explanation: divorce was not God’s intent from the beginning, and divorce and remarriage for any reason other than sexual immorality is adultery.
Second, we should consider the literary genre. The Bible contains poetry, narrative, prophecy, and parables, to name a few. Each genre is different and must be interpreted accordingly.
For example, Proverbs is wisdom literature. Proverbs 10:27 tells us, “The fear of the Lord prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.” When a faithful Christian dies young or a blasphemer prospers into his nineties, does that prove that this verse is false? No, wisdom literature teaches principles of wisdom, not necessarily absolute laws.
Third, we should recognize literary devices. For example, sometimes Jesus used hyperbole—exaggeration—to make a point.1 Luke 14:26 does not teach us to hate our parents. The fact is, our love for Jesus should be so strong that it overshadows our love for everything else.
Fourth, we should be aware that, although the whole Bible is true, not everything stated in the Bible is a truth for us to follow! For example, the Bible records matter-of-factly that David married multiple wives, but it doesn’t seem to condemn his actions, even though he was in direct violation of God’s command in Deuteronomy 17:17.
The Bible tells us truly what sin is and gives many illustrations, even from the lives of godly people, but not to encourage us to imitate their sinful actions. God intended for us to use the rest of Scripture to evaluate the rightness and wrongness of people’s decisions. David clearly violated the Law, and we see the fruit of his sin in later adultery with Bathsheba and the despicable wife-collecting of his son Solomon. So, when interpreting Scripture, we must discern between historical records of actions and truths God commands us to follow.
Fifth, it is vital to look at the larger context of a whole book to determine the basic interpretation of any text within that book and its proper application.
What is the theme of Jonah? Is it simply a story of a prophet swallowed by a massive fish? No, Jonah tells us of the Lord’s compassion and sovereignty. God can extend His grace to whomever He desires. He even granted repentance to godless, pagan Ninevites, and He wanted Jonah to show them compassion, as well.
We need to see what He is saying through the lens of the whole Bible, for it builds upon itself.
Finally, discernment comes as the fruit of studying all of Scripture. God gave us the truth through progressive revelation, that is, He gives truth on page one and continues to add to it to the last page. So we need to see what He is saying through the lens of the whole Bible, for it builds upon itself.
Ultimately, the context of the Old Testament is necessary to understand Jesus’s coming to earth as a man (the second Adam), and His teaching in the Gospels. Jesus laid the foundation for the New Testament and fulfills the Old Testament. His life on earth is recorded succinctly in four short Gospels—just a skeleton of all that He did and taught during His earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit, through continued revelation to the later writers of the New Testament, added flesh to the body of truth, as Jesus promised (John 16:13). And without reading the Old Testament, we would not know all the details of the Law that Jesus fulfilled so completely and richly (Matthew 5:17–20).
Read through the entire Bible. Allow such an intake of God’s whole Word to show you the larger perspective.
The particulars of God’s Word are of utmost importance, even the very words (2 Timothy 2:15), but we must study to understand the words in their context and in light of the whole counsel of God: “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27).
Discussion Questions . . .
- Sometimes Scripture interprets itself in ways that are not immediately obvious. Hosea 11:1 refers to Israel’s exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 4:22–23), but Matthew 2:15 confirms a prophetic meaning as well. What was the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy?
- Compare Judges 4–5, which recount Deborah and Barak’s defeat of the army of Sisera. What differences do you see between the two accounts? How does recognizing the different literary genres affect your understanding of each chapter?
- In Luke 17:33 and 22:26, Jesus uses the literary device of rhetorical paradox, stating two seemingly contradictory truths or teaching something that appears to go against “common sense.” How does Christ’s use of paradox emphasize His teaching? What other instances of paradox have you encountered in the Bible? (Hint: Consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, or instructions in Proverbs on how to deal with fools.)
- In Genesis 12:10–20, Abram lied to the Egyptians to protect himself. How can we know the purpose of this account is not to cause us to imitate Abram’s behavior?
- In the context of the whole Bible, how does John 7:24 shed light on Matthew 7:1–6?
- Job tells of a godly man’s great suffering. But is suffering really the main theme of the book? Read Job 1:6–12; 2:1–6; and 42:1–6. What do these passages suggest is the most important teaching of Job?