Grant Osborne, like many evangelical interpreters, claims that biblical interpretation is “a spiritual act, depending on the leading of the Holy Spirit,” although Osborne also concedes, “God does not miraculously reveal the meaning of passages whenever they are read” (The Hermeneutical Spiral 21, 24). D. A. Carson sensibly observes, “When two equally godly interpreters emerge with mutually incompatible interpretations of a text, it must be obvious even to the most spiritual … that they cannot both be right” (Exegetical Fallacies 16).
Interpreting the Spirit’s Word
The most commonly cited passages that seem to support this idea of the Holy Spirit’s direct guidance are John 16:13 (perhaps also 14:26; 15:26) and 1 Cor. 2:6-16. If popular inferences are correct, then the production and utilization of Bible-study tools, the learning and application of exegetical methods, and having classes on biblical interpretation, all seem superfluous. Nevertheless, exegesis is still necessary to determine whether or not these passages are being interpreted properly. Otherwise, why appeal to them at all or engage in any kind of Bible study? If, in the exegetical process, it is determined that these texts have been misconstrued and misappropriated, the importance of sound exegesis is clearly demonstrated.
J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays place much emphasis on “context” in their Grasping God’s Word textbook, yet they curiously cite John 16:12-14 and 1 Cor. 2:14 as proof-texts for present-day Holy Spirit “illumination” (226-28) with no regard for the original context of either passage. While they offer a lot of their own opinions without any real basis in scripture, they do concede that since the Spirit has inspired scripture, “we should not expect him to contradict himself when he illuminates it…. The Spirit does not add new meaning to the biblical text…” (225). Irrespective of how one understands the Holy Spirit’s role, no passage of scripture means today what it has never meant.
In John 16:13a Jesus is reported as saying, “but when that one, the Spirit of truth, shall come, he will guide you into all truth…”1 Contextually, to whom is Jesus speaking and issuing this promise? Chaps. 13–16 of John’s Gospel comprise one and the same context, where the Lord is speaking directly to his chosen apostles who were to carry on his work after his departure. This is not a universal pronouncement for all believers of all time (note 17:6, 20), and the specific promise to these particular individuals was in fact fulfilled (Acts 1:1-8; 2:1-14; 4:33; etc.). Subjectively and arbitrarily attributing things to God’s Spirit for which he is not responsible (e.g. “The Spirit told to me …”) is presumptuous and dangerous. “But I say to you, every careless word that people will speak, they will give an account of it in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36).
The 1 Cor. 2:6-16 passage is also part of a broader context that determines its meaning and application. By reading the first four chapters of the epistle as a contextual unit, a clear distinction and contrast is seen between “you”—the spiritually immature, carnally-minded Corinthian audience— and “us”—the spiritually mature spokesmen of God who received the divine message through the revelation of God’s Spirit in the early development of the church. To stretch the applicability of this passage to all believers (including the misguided Corinthians!) is to ignore the context and the entirety of Paul’s argument, thereby twisting and misapplying it.
The Understandability of the Spirit’s Message
The Holy Spirit, as the agency of divine revelation and inspiration,2 is responsible for the collection of sacred writings we call the Bible, whose message is living, powerful, and intelligible.3 Paul acknowledges the understandability of God’s written revelation, expressing confidence in his readers in examining and thereby comprehending what the Spirit has conveyed through inspired penmen (Eph. 3:1-5; 5:17).
Since God wants everyone to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4), surely he has ensured this knowledge is attainable. Jesus promised that those genuinely wanting to follow him can and will know the truth (John 8:31-32). Not only has the Lord provided a revelation of his will that can be understood, he has given a revelation of his will that all can understand alike (see 1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27). That there are currently so many conflicting interpretations of the Bible and so much religious division is not God’s fault. The problem is the many ways in which the word of God has been misused, misinterpreted, and misapplied.
In rebuking the Sadducees, Jesus said: “Are you not in error because of this, not knowing the scriptures or the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). Peter warns his readers, “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom having been given to him, wrote to you, as also in all [his] letters, speaking in them concerning these things, among which some things are difficult to understand, which the ignorant and unstable distort, as also the rest of scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:15b-16).
While we should intentionally avoid mishandling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), at the same time we do not want to dismiss any divine assistance that is available. To help maintain the necessary commitment and mental focus that leads to understanding God’s word, it is important to couple Bible study with prayer, asking and searching for wisdom from above (Prov. 2:2-5; Matt. 7:7-8; 13:14-15; Jas. 1:5). By studying the scriptures with a humble, prayerful spirit, it is much harder to be misled by improper thoughts and personal biases. However God chooses to answer our prayers, we can be assured it is according to his perfect will (Matt. 6:10; 1 John 3:22; 5:14-15).
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 Acts 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; Eph. 3:5; 6:17; Heb. 3:7; 10:15-16; 2 Pet. 1:16-21; Rev. 2:1, 7, 8, 11, etc. Biblical revelation is the means through which God has imparted facts and truths previously unknown, while biblical inspiration is the means through which God has ensured this information has been conveyed (orally and in writing) without error.
3 See, e.g., 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23.
D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).
J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006).
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In Luke 12, as Jesus speaks to “an innumerable multitude of people” (v. 1),1 he issues solemn warnings and teaches important spiritual truths. Then one from the crowd says to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (v. 13). This has nothing to do with what the Lord had been talking about and is a selfish, materialistic, trivial request. Jesus seems a bit irritated as he responds, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” (v. 14). Now one day all will stand before his judgment seat, but here the Lord refuses to get caught up in worldly affairs, so he looks beyond this self-centered individual and again addresses the crowd: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (v. 15). This, then, prompts him to share a parable.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’” (vv. 16b-17). Well, beyond talking to himself, he could have thanked God for his abundant blessings (cf. Heb. 6:7). He could have offered the firstfruits of his increase to the Lord (cf. Prov. 3:9-10). He could have donated the excess to the poor (cf. Acts 20:35). But apparently he was too self-absorbed to think this way.
So he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry’” (vv. 18-19). The problem here is not that he was preparing for the future (cf. Prov. 6:6-11). The problem is that he seems to have had no consideration for God or for anyone other than himself.
“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (vv. 20-21).2 This man, despite his great wealth, was impoverished toward God because he was earthly focused, selfish, and spiritually unprepared.
What if I’m too late? It’s because I’m earthly focused, even though the Bible says, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2). It’s because I’m selfish, even though the Bible says, “[love] does not seek its own” (1 Cor. 13:5b). It’s because I’m spiritually unprepared, even though the Bible says, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2b).
The following year Jesus was across the Jordan and tells another parable about a landowner employing laborers for his vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). Those hired early in the morning agree to the customary daily wage, whereas others recruited throughout the day end up receiving the same amount. From a worldly point of view, those who labored for the shorter periods were in a favorable position compared to the ones who worked the longest. But from the heavenly perspective, what a blessing it is to serve God on earth for as long as possible! The later in life one puts off obeying and serving Christ, the more he or she misses out on what is truly worthwhile.
George Bailey (the gospel preacher) observed that many people waiting to be saved at the 11th hour die at 9:30. What if I’m too late? I miss out on immeasurable blessings both in this life and in the age to come (Mark 10:30).
How Can I Ensure That I’m Prepared for Eternity?
Listen to the word of God, receptively and responsively (Rom. 10:17). As faith takes root in your heart, acknowledge it (Rom. 10:8-10). Recognizing you have been traveling down the broad way of destruction, turn around in God’s direction and forsake your sinful ways (Rom. 2:4). Be baptized into Christ’s death—buried and raised with him to be freed from sin and begin a new life (Rom. 6:2-18), then keep walking in the right direction with the rest of God’s family (Rom. 8:1-5).
Unfortunately some want to dilute the gospel and make excuses. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “What about a person on his death bed who can’t get up to be baptized? Surely the Lord will save him anyway.” But this is an emotional argument, not a biblical one. No hypothetical (or even real) situation changes or cancels out what the Bible says. If, for example, the Lord says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be shaved …” (Mark 16:16), who am I or anyone else to say, “He who believes and is not baptized shall be saved”?
If the one on his deathbed is 90 years old, what has he been doing the past 90 years? The Lord promises, “Seek and you will find” (Matt. 7:7b). If the 90-year-old man on his deathbed hasn’t yet found the truth or obeyed the truth, apparently he hasn’t been searching. Irrespective of this or any other tragic scenario we might imagine, it doesn’t affect what you and I have the opportunity to do right now.
In 1 Cor. 15:9 Paul reminds his readers of his own sinful past. “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” But when the Lord offered him the opportunity to learn the truth and have his sins forgiven, he responded immediately with obedient faith,3 then spent the rest of his life serving the Lord and showing his appreciation. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (v. 10).
How will you respond to the Lord’s invitation? Life is short and uncertain. Jesus is returning at an unexpected time. What if I’m too late? Don’t wait to find out!
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
2 “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26); “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven …. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:20-21).
*Prepared for the summer series at Henderson church of Christ, 14th August 2019.
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• Name means “One Who Clings” (cf. 3:17-19).
• Contemporaries: Jeremiah, Nahum, Zephaniah.
• Prophesied in Judah c. 610-605 BC about the impending judgment of God by the hands of the Babylonians.
• How can a righteous God use a wicked nation to carry out judgment?
• Judah will be punished at the hands of the Babylonians, but the Babylonians will also be punished for their wickedness.
• Even when we don’t understand God’s ways, we can trust that his ways are right.
• Habakkuk 3:18, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
• Name means “Yahweh Hides.”
• Prophesied in Judah c. 630-622 BC.
• Contemporaries: Jeremiah, Nahum, Habakkuk.
• Zephaniah’s purpose was to initiate change by pronouncing God’s judgment; just prior to Josiah’s reforms (621 BC).
• The day of the LORD’s judgment is fast approaching.
• Be humble and seek the LORD.
• Beyond judgment the LORD intends to restore his people.
• Zephaniah 3:12, “I will leave in your midst a meek and humble people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD.”
• Prophesied c. 520 BC, the second year of Darius king of Persia.
• Contemporary of Zechariah.
• Some Jews have returned from exile to their homeland to rebuild the temple, but over a decade and a half later it is not finished.
• Haggai preaches a series of fiery sermons to motivate them to complete the project.
• The importance of getting priorities in order: “Consider your ways” (1:5, 7; 2:15, 18).
• The importance of the temple to glorify God among his people (1:8; 2:7-9).
• Reassurance of God’s abiding presence (1:13; 2:4, 5).
• Haggai 2:9, “‘The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the LORD of hosts” (cp. Luke 2:21-49; Matt. 26:55).
• Name means “Yahweh Remembers.”
• Prophesied c. 520 BC, the second year of Darius king of Persia.
• Contemporary of Haggai.
• Like Haggai, Zechariah is commissioned to motivate the post-exilic Jews, but unlike the fiery motivational speeches of Haggai, Zechariah encourages with positive glimpses of Jerusalem’s future.
• Learn from and do not repeat the sins of your forefathers.
• Visions of Jerusalem’s glorious future.
• Warnings to the enemies of God’s people.
• Messianic allusions (e.g. 9:9; 12:10; 13:7; 14:9).
• Zechariah 1:3, “Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Return to me,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD of hosts.”
• Name means “My Messenger.”
• Prophesied to post-exilic Jews (c. 450-430 BC); contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah.
• Rebukes corrupt priests, no sabbath-keeping, failure to tithe, divorce and religiously mixed marriages, and various social problems.
• The LORD deserves to be respected, honored, and worshiped.
• The LORD expects faithfulness and permanence in marriage.
• An Elijah-like figure will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord and subsequent judgment against nationalistic Judaism (3:1; 4:5-6).
• Malachi 3:6-7, “‘For I am the LORD, I do not change …Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD of hosts …”
Each of these “minor” prophets challenged the people of his day to be faithful to Yahweh. Warnings of judgment are balanced by hope for the future. Each prophet, as a voice for God, is still worth listening to.
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• Name means “Worshiper or Servant of Yahweh.”
• The shortest book of the OT.
• The Babylonians have conquered Judah (586 BC) with the help of Judah’s neighbor the Edomites.
• Divine judgment against the nation of Edom.
• God’s people will be restored.
• Obadiah 1:10, “For violence against your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.”
• The Edomites were driven out of their land by the Nabateans in the 4th century BC and had vanished from history by the end of the 1st century AD.
• Jonah lived in the 8th century BC (2 Kgs 14:25).
• The book of Jonah is not the message from a prophet but a series of events in the life of a prophet.
• Jonah ran from God (chap. 1), then to God (chap. 2), then with God (chap. 3); then was taught by God (chap. 4).
• God is a universal God who cares for all people, even heathen nations.
• God extends his love even to non-Jewish people in the OT, providing opportunity to come to him.
• Jonah was a reluctant missionary, demonstrating resistance to God’s desire for a light-shining people (Ex. 19:3-9; Isa. 43:8-13; Acts 13:47; etc.).
• Jonah 4:2b, “for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm.”
• Name means “Who is like Yahweh.”
• Prophesied in Judah (c. 735-700 BC); contemporary of Isaiah.
• Quoted by Jeremiah about a century later (Jer. 26:18-19).
• Rebukes particularly the wealthy and powerful in Judah for their mistreatment of the poor.
• Exposes and rebukes the sins of his people.
• Warning of God’s judgment.
• Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
• Name means “Comfort or Consolation.”
• Prophesied in Judah c. 625-612 BC.
• Contemporaries: Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, all prophesied against Judah.
• About a century prior to Nahum’s ministry, God had given the people of Nineveh the opportunity to repent through Jonah’s preaching.
• Now they have reverted back to their old sinful ways, and Nahum prophesies against them.
• Nineveh is the capital of Assyria.
• This message of doom against the people of Nineveh was probably intended to give comfort to the people of Judah, who were being afflicted by the Assyrians.
• God is patient, but it is not limitless.
• God hates evil and holds sinners accountable.
• God does not forsake his people.
• Nahum 1:7, “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knows those who trust in him.”
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