By Kieran Beville
Spiritual truth can only be fully comprehended when the Holy Spirit illuminates a person’s mind. Spiritual regeneration is necessary in order to understand properly and apply Scripture. The Bible is a sacred book and is discerned best by those who are spiritually regenerated ~ i.e. born again. The apostle Paul said:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ―1 Corinthians 2:14-16.
Robert H. Stein in, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, speaking of 2 Corinthians 2:14, writes, “This is interpreted as meaning that, apart from the Spirit, a person cannot “understand” the meaning of biblical texts. Without the Spirit, these texts are simply foolish riddles. Yet before we assume that Paul, and the English translators of Paul, are using the term “understand” in the exact sense in which we defined the term in chapter 2, we must look more closely at this verse.”
Stein continues, “What does Paul mean when he says that apart from the Spirit these things are ‘foolishness’? Does he mean that a person without the Spirit will not be able to come to a correct mental grasp of what the biblical text means? Is Paul saying that apart from the Spirit the biblical teachings are incomprehensible?”
Stein goes on to say that the “meaning of the term ‘foolishness’ is best understood by observing how Paul uses it elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 3:19 the term is used as follows: ‘For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.’ Here, it should be noted, something is foolish to God! Clearly, Paul does not mean that God cannot arrive at a correct mental grasp of what this world calls wisdom! God is omniscient; he understands everything. God, of course, understands what this world calls wisdom. He rejects it, however, as foolishness. The term ‘foolishness’ in 1 Corinthians 3:19 refers not to what we have called ‘understanding’ but rather to ‘significance.’ God understands perfectly well what this world calls wisdom, but he critiques it. He evaluates it. He condemns it as foolishness. In 1 Corinthians 1:20 the verbal form of this word is used, and Paul states similarly, ‘Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ Here (1:20), in the chapter before 1 Corinthians 2:14, as well as in the chapter following (3:19), Paul uses the expression ‘foolish’ to refer to the significance God attributes to something (this world’s wisdom).”
Stein then asks, “Should this same meaning be attributed to the term in 1 Corinthians 2:14? It would appear so, for what Paul is saying is not that unbelievers cannot arrive at a correct mental grasp of the things of the Spirit. They can and do, but they attribute to this understanding of the author’s meaning a negative significance. They reject it as ‘foolishness.’ Thus, in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, we have the following parallel. The unbelieving world can understand the things of the Spirit, what the biblical text means, but it rejects what it understands as foolishness. Similarly, God understands the wisdom of this world but rejects it as foolishness. In both instances, there is a correct mental grasp of what is meant (understanding) followed by a rejection of its value (significance).”
Finally, Stein concludes, “In a similar way it would appear that the terms for ‘understand’ in 1 Corinthians 2:12 and 14 are best understood as meaning something different than acquiring a correct mental grasp of meaning. It refers rather to embracing as true these biblical truths. It is probably best to see the terms ‘does not accept,’ ‘foolishness,’ and “cannot understand” as referring to various ways in which the unbeliever critiques the divine revelation. This critique (significance) is based on an understanding of that message. The understanding of the text is rejected in several different ways: (1) it is not accepted, not received eagerly or welcomed, because it is opposed to human wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18–25); (2) it is judged as foolishness because it conflicts with their sense of truth; and (3) it is not believed as being true because only the Spirit can convince us of the truth of the gospel message. It would appear that whereas 1 Corinthians 2:14 refers to the work of the Spirit in ‘conviction’ or ‘significance,’ it does not deny but rather assumes that an unbeliever can ‘understand’ the gospel message.”― (Stein 1994, 66-7)
Unbelieving scholars might be able to contribute to a better understanding of contextual (historical and cultural) issues but the unregenerate mind is at enmity with God, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:7-8). So Scripture itself teaches that the unregenerate mind cannot understand the true significance of divine revelation. Such an interpreter cannot be trusted to decipher the spiritual meaning. Such interpreters can have an intellectual comprehension but will not have a spiritual apprehension of truth. In other words, they simply do not have the power or ability to grasp the importance, significance, or meaning of something in its fullest spiritual sense.
I was listening to a radio interview in Ireland with Vincent Browne, a TV and radio chat show host admired by the public and feared by politicians. Vincent Browne is an Irish print and broadcast journalist and a non-practicing barrister. The Guardian has described him as an “acerbic host…Ireland’s Jeremy Paxman.”
On this occasion, he was the interviewee rather than the interviewer. He is an intelligent man without a doubt and in many ways, I admire him. However, in the course of the interview, he said, “If you ever doubt your atheism, read the Bible,” ~ meaning it will affirm your atheism. He then alluded to Judges, chapter 19. This is a disturbing passage of Scripture about a Levite and his concubine that led to the battle of Gibeah episode as recorded in the book of Judges.
The battle was triggered by an incident in which the concubine of a man from the Tribe of Levi was raped, by members of the Tribe of Benjamin, and later died. The Levite had offered his concubine to the mob in his place. In the morning, he found the concubine unresponsive on the doorstep ~ probably dead. He later cut her dead body into twelve pieces and sent the pieces throughout all the territories of the Israelite tribes.
The outraged tribes of Israel sought justice and demanded that the perpetrators be delivered for judgment. The Benjamites refused, so the tribes then sought vengeance, and in the subsequent war, the members of the Tribe of Benjamin were systematically killed, including women and children; when the tribe of Benjamin was almost exterminated it was decided that the tribe should be allowed to survive, and all the men from another town, Jabesh Gilead, who had refused to take part in the punishment of the Tribe of Benjamin, were killed, so that their daughters could be wed to the surviving men of Benjamin. The first king of Israel, Saul, descended from these men. Due to this war, the Tribe of Benjamin was subsequently referred to as the smallest of all the tribes.
How are we to understand this shocking and disturbing passage of Scripture? For Vincent Browne, it is an affirmation of atheism. But his comments bring to mind the saying, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” How can such an intellectual be so devoid of understanding?
This story parallels one of Lot’s experiences with the two angels in Sodom and bears witness to the Lord’s abhorrence of illicit and violent (particularly non-consensual) sexual behavior whether homosexual or heterosexual. It also underscores what soon happens in a society that abandons God. This incident took place within one generation after the Israelites had conquered the land, and since the fathers didn’t teach their children what the Lord had done for them, the nation quickly sank into one of the most morally and spiritually corrupt times in its history.
A recurring theme in Judges is that “In those days Israel had no King, and everyone did what was right in his own sight.” The real lesson of Judges is the moral disaster that ensues when people abandon God, and everyone decides for himself what is right. It is an appalling picture of lawlessness and moral depravity. The incident is recorded (not affirmed) rather than airbrushed out of the history of Israel so that people might understand the depravity of man.
Therefore, Vincent Browne’s interpretation of that biblical incident is blissfully unaware of the principles of biblical interpretation, proving that even the wisest of men are not competent to interpret Scripture without the aid of the Holy Spirit. His opinions about the Bible are not just silly; they are absurd and dangerous. It is yet another example of aggressive atheism in the media. Even a basic course in hermeneutics would help him see the passage in context and understand the intended meaning of the original author.
Even spiritual leaders can be ignorant of the significance of Scripture. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew it is recorded that King Herod inquired of the chief priests and scribes as to where the Messiah was to be born (Mt. 2:3-4). They were able to point him correctly to the prediction of Micah 5:2, which foretold that the King of Israel would be born in Bethlehem. Yet they were blinded and apathetic to the possibility that the Messiah might have now appeared. This attitude contrasts with the Magi who had claimed to see the guiding star in the east (v.2) and were obviously interested.
Jesus accused the Sadducees of ignorance, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Mt. 22:23-29) Throughout the gospels, we find Jesus accusing very learned men (who were experts in Judaic Law) of ignorance concerning the Scriptures. Sadly, there are many religious leaders today of whom it may be said, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
Later, the Pharisees were also silenced when they were unable to answer Jesus’ question about the Christological meaning of Psalm 110:1 in a passage about the identity of Jesus:
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.―Mark 12:35-37.
Jesus is in the temple teaching the Word of God. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes are still looking for a way to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people and the Roman authorities. These groups questioned Jesus. Their questions were designed to trap him and undermine his authority. However, Jesus answered well and outsmarted these deceitful and dangerous people. He gave his enemies no legitimate cause to bring a charge against him.
All along Jesus had been on the defensive as he responded to their questions. Now Jesus goes on the offensive. He takes the initiative. The question he asked the scribes and Pharisees goes to the heart of what they believe about the identity of Christ. This is a relevant and important question today. Jesus countered every attack his enemies used against him. He answered their question about paying tribute money to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17); the resurrection and the nature of life in heaven (Mk. 12:18-27) and which commandment in the Law was the greatest (Mk. 12:28-34). Each time Jesus was asked questions that were designed to make him look foolish in the eyes of the people. Every question they asked was an attempt to prove his ignorance of the Old Testament Scriptures. They tried their best to unmask Jesus and prove that he was an imposter.
Now Jesus asks in what sense the Messiah was the Son of David. He did not receive an answer. It is not clear if Jesus waited for an answer but it is likely that there was some silent pause. Whether that silence was the result of ignorance, fear, inability or unwillingness to answer is not certain. The fact remains that Jesus did not receive an answer. So the Lord answered his own question and in doing so confirms the messianic usage of this psalm.
David called the Messiah “My Lord.” How could he be both David’s son and David’s Lord? The Messiah, though David’s descendant is also the Son of God and therefore, senior in rank and authority. I can imagine the crowds enjoying Jesus outsmarting the Scribes. Not all Scribes were frauds, but many abused their position and influence. They liked being addressed by honorific titles (rabbi and master). In the synagogue, they sat in a prominent position on a bench in front of the Ark of the Covenant that contained the sacred scrolls. Jesus condemned them for seeking honor for themselves instead of glorifying God, whom they professed to serve. He also criticized them for their long prayers and hypocrisy.
Jesus had answered all their questions. (Mk. 12:34) Now he has a question for them. That question was meant to focus their attention on the person of the Messiah. Jesus asked them, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” Every Jew believed that the Messiah would be a physical descendant of King David. They believed that the Christ would be a great political and military leader who would deliver Israel from those who oppressed them. They believed that the Christ would be a great king in this temporal world. The Jews were looking for a human being. Jesus is about to show them that the Messiah will be human, but he will also be divine. He confronts them about their beliefs concerning the nature and identity of the Messiah.
Many people in the Western world are like the scribes and the Pharisees. They know the Bible stories about Jesus. Some even love the image of that baby in his manger. They have heard about Jesus feeding multitudes, healing the sick, preaching sermons, raising the dead and walking on water. They know the story of the cross and the resurrection. But many people today cannot grasp the truth that Jesus Christ is more than a baby in a manger or a man who was crucified. They cannot seem to grasp the truth that he is God in human flesh.
People will go so far, but they often will not go far enough. Some people are “not far from the kingdom of God.” They are on the threshold of belief. However, being “not far” means you are lost. It is like being nearly saved. I would prefer to be nearly drowned than nearly saved, wouldn’t you? “Not far” is not where a person needs to remain. A person should not remain undecided about the identity of Jesus. A person should not remain on the threshold of faith. We need to come to Jesus Christ and call on him for salvation. He is the door that leads to eternal life (Jn. 10:9). With him, you are saved; without him you are lost (1 Jn. 5:12). This is an unpalatable truth. Many are willing to believe Jesus was a great teacher, a prophet, a good man, but stop short of believing in his divine identity. They will not accept his unique and universal claims. This has serious consequences.
As Jesus confronts these men, he asks them about Psalm 110:1. That verse was acknowledged by all Jews to be a reference to the coming Messiah. Jesus points out that a careful reading of that verse reveals the truth that the Messiah will be more than a man. The first “Lord,” in Psalm 110:1, is the Hebrew word, Yahweh. The second “Lord” in that verse is the Hebrew word Adonai. The idea in this verse is that “the Lord (Yahweh) said to my (David’s) Lord (Adonai)…” In other words, David addresses the Messiah as his Lord. The implication is clear. The Messiah is to be a man, but he will be more than a man. He is to be God as well. Jesus is declaring the deity of the Messiah.
David was speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” He placed the Messiah in a position of authority that was co-equal with Almighty God. The word “sit” in that verse speaks of a continuous sitting. The Messiah has a place of equal exaltation with God (Phil. 2:9-11). The Messiah must be God because he will be in a position of absolute equality with God in honor, power, and glory. The implication of this can be seen in what Jesus said next, “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” In that society, a father would never call his son “Lord.” A father never rendered that kind of honor to a child. Children were considered to be subordinate and never superior to their fathers. Yet, David looks at this one who is to be his son and David calls him Lord. This is a declaration that the Messiah is to be more than a man. He is to be God and man.
When the Jewish religious leaders heard this, they were dumbfounded. They had no answer. This allegedly unlearned carpenter had put them to shame in the very area where they were supposed to be the experts. Jesus had interpreted the Scriptures in an accurate, clear way that they could not refute.
They did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. But Jesus had proven his identity time and again. His place of birth fulfilled prophecy. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem fulfilled prophecy (in detail) concerning the Messiah. He arrived in the precise way that the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would come (Zech. 9:9). His words, works, and wisdom proved his identity. He fulfilled every Old Testament prophecy that predicted what the Messiah would do when he came (Isa. 29:18-19; 35:3-6; 61:1-2). He healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, walked on water, calmed a storm and cast out demons. The Messiah was to be the Son of David.―2 Samuel 7:8-16; Isaiah 9:7; Jeremiah 23:5.
According to the genealogies (Matthew and Luke), Jesus was a direct descendant of David. On many occasions, Jesus was called “Son of David.” Jesus was a man. He had a human mother (Lk. 1:31; Gal. 4:4). He had a human body, soul, and spirit (Mt. 26:12; 38; Lk. 23:46). The soul is the essence of the human being; it is who we are. The spirit is that aspect of the human being that connects with God. He had flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14). He grew (Lk. 2:52). He asked questions (Lk. 2:46) and increased in wisdom (Lk. 2:52). He prayed (Mk. 1:35; Lk. 11:1). He was tempted (Mt. 4:1; Heb. 2:18; 4:15). He learned obedience (Heb. 5:8). He hungered (Mt. 4:2; 21:18) and thirsted (Jn. 4:7; 19:28). He was weary (Jn. 4:6) and slept (Mt. 8:24; Mk. 10:21). He had compassion (Mt. 9:36). He was angered and grieved (Mk. 3:5). He wept (Jn. 11:35; Lk. 19:41). He was troubled (Jn. 11:33; 12:27; 13:21; Mk. 14:33-34). He suffered (1 Pet. 4:1) and bled (Jn. 19:34). He died (Mt. 27:50; 1 Cor. 15:3) and was buried.―Matthew 27:59-60.
Jesus was also God. When Jesus came into this world he was God born as a male child. That is the teaching of the Word of God (Jn. 1:1; 14; Phil. 2:5-8). The evidence from his life proves this too. He is omnipresent (Mt. 18:20; 28:20). He is omnipotent (Mt. 28:18; Heb. 1:3). He has authority over disease (Mt. 4:23). He has authority over Satan (Mt. 4:10; Jn. 12:31; Heb. 2:14). He has authority over demons (Mt. 8:16). He has authority over men (Jn. 17:2). He has authority over nature (Mt. 8:26-27). He has authority over sin (1 Jn. 3:5). He has authority over the Sabbath (Mt. 12:8). He has authority over death itself: physical death (Jn. 5:28-29) and spiritual death.―John 5:24; Hebrews 2:15.
He knew the history of the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:29). He knew what the scribes and Pharisees were thinking (Mt. 9:3-4; 12:25). He knew the true nature of Judas (Jn. 6:70; 13:11). Jesus receives worship: from the angels (Heb. 1:6); from the magi (Mt. 2:11); from the apostle Thomas (Jn. 20:28). He forgives sin (Mk. 2:5; Jn. 8:24). He possesses all authority (Mt. 7:29). This was reflected in his teaching, which was more than a confident style. He is the source of life itself (Jn. 1:4; Jn. 5:26). He is the creator of all things (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). He is the preserver of all things (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). He receives our prayers (Acts 7:59). He is the final judge (Mt. 25:31-32; Jn. 5:22, 27; Acts 17:31). He is both the Lord of Glory and King of kings.―Revelation 19:16.
Jesus proved his identity. Yet many Jews refused to accept him. They refused to acknowledge him as their Messiah. (Jn. 1:11, Lk. 19:14; Jn. 19:15) Israel had all the evidence they needed to believe in Jesus. They had all the Old Testament prophecies that he had fulfilled to the letter. They had the proof in the temple records that Jesus was a descendant of King David. They had the evidence of changed lives all around them. There were people who had been sick that were now well. Blind people could see. Deaf people could hear. There were demoniacs who had been delivered. In addition, most amazing of all, there were a few people walking around that used to be dead! Many Jews ignored that evidence.
We have far more evidence than they had. We have a completed Bible (Old and New Testaments). We can see where prophecies were made and fulfilled. We too can look around us and we can see lives changed by the amazing grace of God. We have every reason to believe that he is who he claims to be. Believe it and be bold about it in bearing true testimony to him. Luke speaks of; “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) This verse nails his deity to the cross.
What does all of this mean? It simply means that even intelligent people and religious leaders may not necessarily be competent to interpret Scripture in an appropriate manner. However, those who are in right relationship with God (not the same as being religious) will know the aid of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture.
How can we understand God’s message and avoid misunderstandings about the Bible? As already noted, we must have a proper understanding of the genre. A good translation is important. Asking the right questions is important. There are factors that depend on the individual. Is there a genuine desire to understand the text? There must be faith. Only those who believe and trust in God can truly understand what God is saying in Scripture. Does the reader have a heart that is willing to obey the text?
Prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit are vital in the process of hermeneutics. Prayer places us in the position where we can hear the Spirit and understand the text. The same Holy Spirit, who provided the inspiration to the writers of Scripture, also provides illumination to the interpreters of Scripture. Interpretation requires the illumination of the Spirit. Neither methodology nor the Spirit operates in isolation from the other. The Spirit’s work of illumination does not grant new revelation.
There must be a spiritual commitment on the part of the interpreter. (1 Cor.2:6-14; Eph.4:17-24; Rom.8) To merely understand what the text says can be done by anyone who has been trained. Anyone can lay out the various options of interpretation. However, those who are committed can only exercise obedience to the text.
Much of the Bible is understandable even without extensive knowledge of the literature and context in which it was written. We interpret with other Christians. Theology should not be done on one’s own. There should be an understanding of the story line of the Bible, not just dipping in here and there. Thus, systematic, regular reading should be a central part of our lives (devotional and scholarly). Pastors and preachers should not just use the Word as a resource. They should not just trawl for sermons. They must also feed their souls and find a word in season. We must understand that the Bible points to salvation through the person of Jesus.
Everyone is an exegete, but not everyone is a good one! The proper interpretation of a text begins with the exegesis of a text. There are a couple of lines from a hymn that goes, “Wonderful things in the Bible I see, this is the dearest, that Jesus loves me.” But some people could sing, “Wonderful things in the Bible I see, most of them put there by you and me.”
 Michael White, “An Irish election in a time of staggering debt and quiet rage,” The Guardian. 14 February 2011. Jeremy Paxman is an English broadcaster, journalist and author. He has worked for the BBC since 1972 and is known for his forthright and abrasive interviewing style, particularly when interrogating politicians.
 As to this particular rendering in Acts 20:28, the Revised Standard Version, and the Lexham English Bible, is the preferred translation for Christian Publishing House, “the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” See the article, Acts 20:28—A Worthy Translation is Faithful: http://www.uasvbible.org/translation-acts-20-28