By Mike Hess
One of the greatest gifts a pastor can give to a congregation is to teach God’s people how to read their Bibles. It’s popular to admonish us to read our Bibles (and rightfully so). But all too often God’s people are never taught how to read their Bibles.
As Baptists we gladly embrace the distinctive of the “priesthood of the believer”; this means that every truly redeemed child of God is a priest of God (1 Pet. 2:9) with all the privileges and rights that come with being accepted into God’s family through faith in Christ. This includes the ability to understand and interpret the Bible through the illumination of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6–16).
But it falls on pastors to teach God’s people how to carefully, wisely, and properly read, interpret, and apply Scripture. Ideally, every Christian could take a seminary class on hermeneutics (“Biblical interpretation”) or inductive Bible study. I am convinced that the best way to shepherd and disciple Christians in properly interpreting the Bible is to give them a steady diet of expository preaching that emphasizes the writer’s intent to his original audience—the text has one meaning, the writer’s original intent—and application and implications for today that are deeply connected to and rooted in the text.
Good Bible interpretation moves the saints away from asking, What do these verses mean to me? to asking, What was the original writer’s intent for his original audience? This is the kind of Bible interpretation that the GARBC and Regular Baptist Press are deeply committed to. Not only should pastors model good Bible interpretation in their preaching, but they should also provide trustworthy discipleship materials that don’t need to be reinterpreted or filtered because they contain faulty understandings and interpretations of the Biblical text.
Allow me to share four devastating consequences of bad Bible interpretation:
1. Misunderstanding of the text
God has given all Christians all the resources for understanding all the texts of Scripture. Furthermore, He does not give us the right to interpret a passage based on our own experience, cultural understanding, political leanings, or presuppositions. Christians must understand the one meaning of the passage they’re reading; that is, what the original writer originally intended for his original audience. Finding that one meaning is the safety net that protects Christians from misunderstanding and misapplying the Biblical text. Bad doctrine is usually the result of bad Bible interpretation.
2. Misapplication of promises and commands
Another important question to ask during personal Bible reading is Who was this particular promise given to? Sound interpretation of the Bible helps us understand truths such as the distinction between Israel and the church. Sound interpretation helps us understand the nature of a covenant and to whom a covenant was given. It provides the proper understanding of the word kingdom and its significance in the Old Testament. It helps us understand the promises made to Israel (not the church) that are to be fulfilled in a future millennial Kingdom.
Identifying recipients applies to specific commands. For example, Christians today are not commanded to obey the Sabbath, as that command was given specifically to Israel and not the church. Good hermeneutics keeps us from thinking the ceremonial commands of the law are binding on the church today. It’s liberating for the Christian to understand what commands are for us today in the Church Age and which ones do not directly apply to us.
3. Malpractice in the pulpit
The more a pastor strays from the Word in his preaching, the more he will be prone to preach his own agenda, hobbyhorses, and pet peeves. The command to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) is a command to preach the Word accurately. Twisting a text to fit an agenda is a terrible form of pastoral malpractice. It’s a failure to trust in the power and sufficiency of God’s Word.
Straying from the Word includes coming up with fancy ways to find applications and implications that have nothing to do with the text being preached. This malpractice also fails to help listeners better understand the text. There should be no question that when people hear a preacher, they walk away with a better understanding of the text because that preacher mined that passage deeply for the truths that will transform the hearts of the saints.
I believe it was Ernest Pickering who said, “many of my most creative outlines were destroyed by a faithful study of the biblical text.” It’s far more important for a pastor to properly interpret the passage he preaches than it is to come up with fancy sermon titles or clever outlines (although there’s nothing inherently wrong with either).
4. Misguided saints and churches
Not only are we facing a medical pandemic at the time of this writing, but we’re also facing a theological pandemic that is due in part to faulty Bible interpretation. Here are some questions we should wrestle with:
- Why do so American Christians believe that the USA will play a significant role in Biblical prophecy when nothing in the Biblical text indicates that to be true?
- Why do so many celebrities (and well-known Christians, for that matter) erroneously apply Philippians 4:13 to circumstances and challenges that have nothing to do with the text?
- Is it problematic for major ministries to be applying the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 to the current challenges we’re facing as a nation?
As you can see, multitudes of Christians and churches can be terribly misled when Scripture is taken out of context and grossly misapplied. This, then, results in Biblically inaccurate books becoming best-sellers. Christian audiences don’t discern what is Biblically accurate and what is misapplied.
Instead, we Christians should strive to be “people of the Book.” This must entail not only listening to the Book preached, reading the Book, and singing about the promises of the Book, but also faithfully interpreting the Book as the Holy Spirit intended.
The more accurately Christians interpret the Bible, the more solid spiritual insight they will get out of the Bible. Consider for a moment how much it will help a church to use solid discipleship materials based on faithful hermeneutics. Everything that Regular Baptist Press publishes is tied to a faithful interpretation of Scripture. Pastors serve their churches well by equipping the saints with resources that point them to a faithful interpretation of the text.
The good news for followers of Christ is that we can correctly interpret the Bible as we read our Bibles. No matter a Christian’s educational level, the speed with which he or she reads, or that person’s cultural background, each believer can indeed understand God’s Word. It’s not only possible; it’s an imperative if we are to live in a way that glorifies our great God.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.