What did the author intend to teach? If we were to pause and ask ourselves that key question every time we interpreted a Scripture, we would be preserved from a lot of wild ideas that some Christians have extracted from the Bible! The goal of interpretation for any Scripture is to determine the intended meaning of the Author. This is a fundamental principle of hermeneutics (interpretation).The Author of all Scripture, of course, is God. A key principle for reaching our goal is to determine, to the best of our ability, the teaching intention of the human author when the Scripture in question was written. The teaching intent of the Holy Spirit, in essence, is not different than the teaching intent of the inspired human author. When we determine the answer to the question "What did the Author/author intend to teach?" we will be able to more easily resolve questions about Scriptures which, at first glance, might appear to indicate that there are inconsistencies in the Bible. Asking this question will also check our natural desires to devise self-serving ideas and guard us from falling for wild and far-out interpretations of Holy Scripture.
In 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 we see that the Corinthian Christians had missed the author's intention in something Paul had tried to communicate to them. Paul had written to the church at Corinth, telling them that they were not to associate with immoral people. But the Corinthian Christians missed the point that Paul intended to teach them. Some of them jumped to the conclusion that they were to break all ties and relationships withunbelievers and move towards isolation--even monasticism! That was not Paul's intention at all, so he had to write to inform them that such a wild interpretation of his words was not even logical. They would literally have to leave this earth if they were required to disassociate completely with all swindlers, drunkards, covetous and immoral people!Some of the Corinthian Christians had actually adopted an unbiblical lifestyle because they had neglected a most important principle of interpretation. If they had paused to carefully think through what Paul was writing, they would have realized that he intended to teach them to be careful about their relationships with fellow believers! In order to keep the testimony of the early church clean before an immoral pagan world, they were to shun and not fellowship with people who claimed to beChristians, but were involved in sexual immorality or idolatry, or those who used shady business practices, or those who were greedy or drunkards. But relationships with non-believers were to be carefully developed, no matter what their lifestyle, so that the gospel could be communicated to them!
What kinds of problems arise when we fail to determine the teaching intention of the author? Failure to follow this important principle of biblical interpretation has led to some far-out interpretations of certain Scriptures. This was not only true of the Corinthian Christians but is true of Christians today. For example, 1 Corinthians 16:2 says, "On the first day of the week each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made." Based on this Scripture, believe it or not, some Christians have actually concluded that it is more scriptural to collect money for the Lord's work on Sunday rather than on other days of the week. After all, they say, Sunday is the Lord's Day, so that's the day to collect funds for the Lord's work. Is that what this Scripture means?
Let's ask our key question in reference to this easy example: What did the author intend to teach? When writing 1 Corinthians 16:2, did Paul intend to teach the Corinthians that Sunday is the only day of the week in which it is lawful to have church collections? A quick glance at the context surely indicates that this wasnot Paul's intent! His intent was to motivate the Corinthian Christians to get a gift together for the needy saints in Jerusalem. He did not want to make the collection a last minute effort when he arrived. They were to begin immediately, and give each week when they met together. The particular day that they met each week was Sunday.So the point Paul was making had nothing whatsoever to do with when it was right andwhen it was wrong to receive church offerings. The intention of the author, Paul, was to urge the Corinthians to start a regular weekly collection as soon as possible. Any wild idea about "filthy lucre" being more sanctified in Sunday offerings rather than in weekday collections is an uncontrolled, incorrect interpretation of 1 Corinthians 16:2.
We are preserved from a narrow legalistic interpretation in the trivial illustration above by looking at the surrounding context. But many Christians don't bother to study the context! By always asking the simple question, "What did the author intend to teach?" we will be forced to look at the context. This is alwaysimportant for proper interpretation, and it is especially important with Scriptures where proper interpretations are not so obvious as in the 1 Corinthians 16 example.
Before we look at a few examples of the not-so-obvious cases, it should be noted that the question, "What did the author intend to teach?" is a not a hermeneutical principle that has been dreamed up for academic purposes! In Matthew 5:43-48 we see that our Lord Himself used this principle when He interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures. In that passage the Lord Jesus was instructing His listeners on the correct way to interpret Leviticus 19:18. Over the years the Jewish people had ignored the intent of the Law to "Love your neighbor as yourself." In fact, they actually used this law as a justification to hate anyone they didn't consider to be their neighbor--and they could always build a case for just about anyone not being their "neighbor"!When the Lord corrected their twisted interpretation, He essentially told them that they had ignored what the author intended to teach. The intent of the Law's statement, "love your neighbor as yourself" was certainly not that we can hate everyone else! The intent, of course, was to teach that we should show love to everyone with whom we have contact--even our personal "enemies"! If the Jewish people had asked themselves the key question, "What did the author intend to teach?" they would never have been able to blithely interpret this law as a justification for personal vendettas with anyone who was not literally their "next door neighbor." And if we would use the same principles of hermeneutics that our Lord Jesus used, we too would be protected from many of the self-serving or questionable interpretations that plague the Christian community.
As the year 2000 approaches, a rash of date-settings for the Lord's return has appeared in the Christian media. These are examples of bad hermeneutics, because the intent of the Author is ignored in reference to Mark 13:32. When these would-be prophets are confronted with our Lord's statement that "no one knows that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father," a typical response is as follows: "It's true that no one knows the day or the hour, but that doesn't mean we can't know the year and the month and the week--and even take a 'sanctified guess' at the day and the hour!" This type of response ignores the key hermeneutical question: "What did the Author intend to teach?" When the Lord stated that "no one knows that day or hour..." did He intend to teach that we can figure out the year and the month, but not the day or the hour? Or did the Lord intend to teach that the date is unknown to any but the Father, and we should not spend our time trying to figure it out? The answer is obvious!
What is the teaching intent of our Lord in John 10:27-29 when He said, "My sheep listen to My voice; I know them and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father's hand." Here, apparently, is a wonderful Scripture which teaches the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer. Surely that is what the Lord Jesus intended to teach!But some Christians do not believe in the eternal security of the believer, and they interpret this Scripture as follows: "Your salvation is secure as long as you don't take yourself out of the Lord's hand! These Christians would agree that no one else can take you out, but you can "take yourself out" of the Father's hand." Now do you really think that is what the Lord intended to teach? Did the Lord have a "jump out" exception clause in the back of His mind when He said, "no one can snatch them out of My Father's hand"? Did He intend to teach "You are eternally secure," or did He intend to teach "You are eternally secure as long as you don't somehow fall out of the Father's hand?" Once again when we ask the key hermeneutical question, "What did the Author intend to teach?", the answer is transparently simple.
Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians to "lead a quiet life, attend to your own business and work with your hands" (1 Thessalonians 4:11), has been used by some Christians as an argument for the type of work in which Christians should be involved. In their view, a "trade" is more biblical than a "desk job" because tradespeople "work with their hands." But is this the teaching intention of the author? Is it the kind of employment or the fact of employment that Paul had in mind here?A quick reading of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians reveals that some of the Thessalonian Christians were not working at all, and were living an undisciplined lifestyle. In 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12 we read, "We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy, they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus to settle down and earn the bread they eat." So we see that Paul did not intend to teach that manual labor is more "sanctified" than mental labor. Paul's teaching intention was to motivate his readers to work, and not sit around free-loading off others and stirring up trouble. The kind of job was not all that important--but getting a job was very important! There are lazy Christians today who need to realize, with conviction, the intent of the Author of 1 Thessalonians 4:11!
In Titus 2:4-5 we read "...teach the young women to love their husbands and children...to be workers at home...so that no one will malign the word of God." Does this Scripture mean that women cannot work outside the home? What did the author intend to teach? Once again an examination of the context indicates that the uppermost concern in Paul's mind when he wrote this letter was the lifestyle and Christian testimony of believers. Paul was not so much concerned with making hard-and-fast legalistic rules for women in general as he was concerned to indicate godly priorities for young married women. Husband, children and home were to be the top priorities in a young married woman's life. Neither earning power in the market-place nor social activities in the neighborhood were to push aside her priorities of carefully raising her young children and managing a home that reflected Christian values.
This portion of God's Word is very important for Christian families today. The Bible does not intend to teach here that there should not be Deborah-type (Judges 5) or Lydia-type (Acts 16) Christian women today. And the primary intention is not to bar Christian women from working outside the home. But this Scripture clearly intends to teach that the priorities of young married Christian women should be husband, children and home. Family and home are not to suffer as a result of career and business interests--or even because of time spent in Christian ministry outside the home! Notice, in this connection, the priorities of the very busy woman in Proverbs 31. Although she was involved in business activities and community interests, the needs of her family and home received top priority. Determining the teaching intention of the author resolves what, at first glance, may seem like a slight contradiction in Scripture.
A final example to show the importance of this hermeneutical principle is 2 Peter 3:8. What was the intent of the author when he wrote, "A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day." Did the author intend to teach his readers that every time we read the word "day" in the Bible we are to understand that it can mean "a thousand years," and every time we read "a thousand years" we can substitute the word "day"? Of course not! That would make most of the events recorded in Scripture ludicrous. And yet some Christians ignore the intent of the author here and try to use this Scripture as a type of day=year formula for setting End Time dates, and others use it in their attempts to justify progressive creation day=age hypotheses. Talk about bad hermeneutics!Peter's intention was not to give an equation or formula for his readers to use whenever they read the words "day" or "thousand years" in the Bible. His teaching point was that, unlike us, God is not bound by time! God created time, and therefore is above the limits of time. God can accomplish in one day what we might think would require vast amounts of time. And a thousand years, to God, is not a long waiting period, as it is to us. As Psalm 90:4 says, "For a thousand years in Your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night." Notice also that Peter did not say "a day isa thousand years"--he used the word "as." Clearly his teaching intention was not to equate the time periods of "day" and "a thousand years"! The individual who justifies an interpretation of the days of the creation account in Genesis 1 as geologic ages on the basis of 2 Peter 3:8 is totally ignoring the teaching intent of the Author, the Holy Spirit Himself.
We've seen that a basic principle of hermeneutics is to determine, to the best of our ability, the teaching intention of the Author/author of Scripture. Always remembering to ask "What did the Author/author intend to teach?" will greatly help us as we study and interpret Scripture. It will also guide us as we carefully evaluate the interpretations that others have drawn from Scripture.