It’s a Matter of Interpretation (Part 2)

In the first part of this series I introduced the concept of biblical hermeneutics, which are principles for interpreting the bible. We need sound principles of interpretation because, even though we have the right to read and interpret the bible ourselves, we have an obligation to correctly interpret the bible. This part introduces some interpretive principles focusing on the most important principle.

One very important principle for interpreting the bible is the principle of interpreting according to the literal sense of a passage. Determining the literal sense of a passage considers the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax, genre (for example narrative or poetry), and context. Closely related to this is the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation. As the name implies it focuses on the grammatical constructs and historical contexts of Scripture. Grammatical structure determines whether a specific passage should be considered a question (interrogative), command (imperative), or declarative (indicative). Also, this principle seeks what the text meant to the original recipients in order to prevent reading into Scripture our own thoughts from the present (anachronistic interpretation). Unfortunately, though, many think the most important thing is to determine the literal meaning of a biblical passage. This is not the most important task of biblical interpretation. The most important task is to determine the actual meaning.

To get the actual meaning of a passage we need to interpret in line with the literal sense, and we need to use grammatical-historical interpretation. But there is a principle that is most important. This principle is “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In other words the best commentary on a passage of Scripture is Scripture itself. There are several corollaries to this principle.

  • Interpret the unclear in the light of the clear.
  • Interpret the implicit in the light of the explicit.
  • Interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament.

My goal here is not to give a full explanation of hermeneutics but to point out the preeminence of “Scripture interprets Scripture” over other principles of interpretation. The other principles are important and must be used when interpreting Scripture, but, for example, a literal interpretation that violates “Scripture interprets Scripture” must be rejected.

Let me give a couple of examples to demonstrate my point. This article contains the first example, which is from the New Testament. The second example, from the Old Testament, is in the final part of this series.

John chapter 3 gives the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus gives the prerequisites for entrance into the kingdom of God.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3-6 ESV)

Clearly Nicodemus takes being “born again” very literally as a repeat of physical birth. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus but gives him further clarification when he says Nicodemus must be “born of water and the Spirit.” What means do we use to interpret this, especially the phrase “born of water?” Well if we interpret this strictly literally those who can enter the kingdom of God are born of physical water. Water is used in baptism so Jesus may be saying that one must be baptized to enter the kingdom, and there are those that hold that view. Many who reject the idea that Jesus is speaking of baptism try a different literal approach. Since Jesus is speaking of being born, and verse 6 has the phrase “that which is born of the flesh,” he could be referring to the release of amniotic fluid that happens before physical birth because this is known as a pregnant woman’s water breaking. Can we legitimately use our current expression of “water breaking” as a literal interpretation of “born of water?” Did Nicodemus and others of his era use the phrase “water breaking” to refer the rupture of the amniotic sac? (If this view is correct we have surely left purely literal interpretation since Jesus said water, not amniotic fluid.) Nicodemus did refer to entering his mother’s womb a second time but that was before Jesus said he must be born of water and the Spirit. Jesus seems shocked that Nicodemus, a teacher, does not understand what he is talking about.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:9-10 ESV)

Since Nicodemus is a teacher he should understand the Old Testament context of Jesus’s statement. Jesus is not making up doctrine as he goes along. He is fulfilling Scripture, thus, we should look to Scripture to interpret what Jesus said. In Ezekiel chapter 36 God promises that he will cleanse his people and renew them by his Spirit.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27 ESV)

Here in Ezekiel we have a clear reference to water and the Spirit pointing to the new birth (a change of heart in Ezekiel’s terms). Richard Phillips agrees.

The…best view observes that in the Greek text the grammatical structure of “water and the Spirit” indicates a single event, not two different births. Moreover, since Jesus chides Nicodemus for his ignorance (John 3:10), he must be referring to things taught in the Old Testament. It turns out that Jesus’ description of “water and the Spirit” corresponds to God’s promise of the new birth in Ezekiel 36:25-27…. This is a rebirth that a teacher such as Nicodemus should know, involving cleansing from sin as by water, giving us a new and righteous standing with God, and the transforming of the heart by God’s Spirit, giving us new life to live for God. This is what the new birth is all about.[1]

So when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit to see the kingdom of God Nicodemus should have been reminded of God’s promise in Ezekiel. Paul confirms this in Titus chapter three.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:4-5 ESV)

By using Scripture to interpret Scripture we find Jesus is referring to the sovereign work of God to regenerate his people. But what about verse six where Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh?” Surely that indicates physical birth. The problem is the only other place in John where flesh and Spirit are used together indicates otherwise.

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63 ESV)

Jesus is saying the flesh offers nothing when it comes to new life. (The KVJ says the flesh “profits nothing,” and, as Martin Luther said, “‘Nothing’ in this passage not only may, but must be taken to mean, not ‘a little something.’”[2]) So Jesus is saying to Nicodemus we do not have it in ourselves to produce new life. God must do it. What God said through Ezekiel and Paul confirms this.

By using the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture” we get the to the heart of what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, and we eliminate a literal interpretation that relies purely on our own understanding and experience. The final part of this series will give an example from the Old Testament of the preeminence of the principle “Scripture interprets Scripture,” especially the corollary “Interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.”

[1] Richard D. Phillips, John, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 1:153

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 263

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