Study No. 7: Understanding and Applying the Bible today

Holy Bible This is an important and rather long study. As the studies are issued fortnightly, you might like to study sections 1 to 5 in the first week and the remainder in the second.

The point of our studies, if we are Christians, is not simply to enable us to understand the Bible but to see its application to our lives. Like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30-35), most of us feel the need for some help in this.

Should we, though? Somebody might say, “If we have the Bible in our hands as the very Word of God, do we really need to think about how to interpret it?  Surely all we need to do is to read it, to believe it and to obey it! ”

If you are thinking like this, I can sympathise with you.  Sometimes people say they do not understand the Bible when in fact their problem is that they do not want to do so, for understanding would require change and action on their part.

Then somebody else might say,” But as Christians we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us.  Surely he will show us the meaning and application of what we are reading!”

This too is true, but we must not forget that the Bible we have was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that he may use other parts of it to help us understand and apply the part we are at present concerned to apply.

The fact is that there are proper questions to be asked and, if possible, to be answered, about biblical interpretation.  After all Philip did not rebuke the eunuch when he asked him a question about Isaiah 53, but took the time to explain the meaning of the text.

1. Some questions to consider:

To get us into the subject, I would like you to consider some questions.  I suggest you think about them before looking at my answers, which will be given shortly.

a. Bill (a new Christian), I have been reading the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and notice that the Samaritan gave two coins to the inn-keeper. What do they mean?”

Jim (who has been a Christian longer than Bill), “Some people seem to think they are the Old and New Testaments, while others that they are justification and sanctification, or the first and second comings, but I am inclined to think they are Christ and the Holy Spirit.”

(If you had been Jim, what answer would you have given?)

b. Bill, “I was troubled today when I read God’s command to the Israelites that they should kill the Canaanites. Can you help me to understand this, please?

Jim, “I think you are in danger of not seeing the point of the passage.  The passage should not trouble you, because this Old Testament story is really about the Christian life.  We have been brought into a new life (Canaan) and we are not to allow any features of the old life (the Canaanites) to remain, but should constantly be putting them to death. Does that help?”

(If you were Bill what would you say to Jim?)

c. Somebody once translated John  5:17,  “My father is a working man and I am a working man.” This translation, although slightly free, is quite possible without doing violence to the Greek language, and yet it cannot conceivably be right.  How can we tell?

(Answering this requires no knowledge of Greek whatever)

d. I once heard a sermon on Mark 10:9, “What God has joined together, let man not separate,” in which the chief point the preacher made was that God has joined sin and death together and has also joined Christ and salvation together and that we should not separate them.

(What do you think of that application of the text?)

e.  Psalm 1:3  says of the godly man, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.”  Do you think therefore that we can say that as the tree`s branches point towards the sky, we should always be pointing to heaven, and that as the tree is full of sap, so we should be full of the Holy Spirit?

(Do you think this is a helpful approach to this passage?)

f. (Another example from the parable of the Good Samaritan) This parable has sometimes been interpreted in such a way that the wounded man stands for the helpless sinner, the priest and the Levite stand for mere religion, quite unable or even unwilling to help him, and the Good Samaritan is Jesus.

(What do you think of this interpretation?)

g. The sequence of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3 has sometimes been interpreted as relating to the whole of church history, so that the church at Ephesus is the New Testament church and the church at Laodicea the present-day church and all the others take their places at different periods in history.

(What do you think of this interpretation?)

h. I once heard an inexperienced preacher say about his text, “When I first looked at this text, I thought it meant so and so, but then I looked at it again and came to the conclusion that instead it meant so and so; but now I have looked at it a third time and I am now absolutely convinced that it means so and so,” which was something quite different from either.  He then preached on his third understanding of the text.  I heard him a second time, when he preached on a different text but took the same approach.

(If he were your friend what advice would you give him, short of suggesting that he should give up preaching?)

Now let’s consider all these examples:

a. There is no indication that Jesus intended any detail of the story to be interpreted in this kind of way. The two coins were probably simply the going rate for the period, probably short, of the man’s stay.  The story has a moral point, not a theological one.  Look at the context.

b.  It is true that in the New Testament an analogy is sometimes drawn between the story of Israel and the Christian life, for example in Hebrews 3 and 4, but this is, in any case, a second level of interpretation (theological interpretation) and the first (exegesis) is also important.  We need to recognise that there actually is a moral issue here, and we must tackle it seriously.  We will do so in a later study.  We will be thinking about the two levels of interpretation later in this present study.

c. This is a simple case of totally ignoring the context.  In this the Father is God and the Son Jesus.

d. Jesus was giving a general principle but doing so with a particular application.  It is most unhelpful to give a quite different application without even explaining what you are doing.  There could be much better texts for this particular application.  Not only so, but we need sermons on marriage as God’s institution.

e.  There can be no grounds for developing an illustration beyond the way it is developed in the Bible itself.  In this way quite unbiblical ideas could be introduced, although they are not in the example that is actually given here.

f. Jesus was giving a moral point here.  The most one could say is that he was always the best illustration of his own teaching.  If this point is made it should be incidental to the main message, not the main message itself.

g. This interpretation is ingenious, for it can be made to fit reasonably well, but it is a scheme brought to the text (its strongest critics would say “imposed on the text”) rather than drawn from the text.  All these were real places and the churches in them real churches. Present-day churches should seek by the Spirit’s enabling to learn lessons for themselves from what is said about each of these churches.

h. This preacher was giving the congregation the impression that there were no clear principles of interpreting the Bible.  This could be quite unsettling for them.  Tell them how you understand the text and why, without going into all your misunderstandings.

Do these questions suggest to you that principles of Biblical interpretation are important?  I am sure they do.       

2. The need for authoritative interpretation            

If the Bible is inspired and authoritative, its proper interpretation is clearly of capital importance.

It is sometimes said that anything can be proved from the Bible, and that therefore it needs to be authoritatively interpreted.  The first of these assertions is of course a considerable exaggeration, but it is true that the Bible can be misinterpreted, and that this can be extremely serious, sometimes leading readers badly astray.  This is recognised within the Bible itself, as is made clear in 2 Peter 3.16, where Peter says of Paul’s epistles,

“His letters contain some things that are hard to  understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort,  as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

The second assertion however is perfectly true.  he Bible does need to be authoritatively interpreted.  To be given this marvellous book with no means of understanding it is like being given a box full of precious jewels but without a key with which to open it.  In fact, because of the nature of the Bible’s message, we might also say it is like having a dread disease and being denied the key to the cupboard where the life-saving medicine is kept.

In fact such an interpretation exists – within the Bible itself.  This means that the Holy Spirit interprets the Word of God within the very Scriptures he gave in the first place.  We see this happening especially in the way the New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament.  This is a large, fascinating and most profitable subject and we will be addressing some aspects of it later in this study.

3. Two kinds of Interpretation

We need to distinguish between two kinds of interpretation, grammatico-historical interpretation or exegesis, on the one hand, and theological interpretation on the other.  These terms are worth knowing as they are often used in books on the subject.  The term “hermeneutics”, meaning “interpretation”, is widely used today in application to our understanding of the Bible.  It is quite appropriate to apply it to both kinds of interpretation, although it is often applied just to the second.

Hermeneutics has become an immensely complex subject in recent years, and many philosophers are interested in it.  In consequence it has led to the publication of quite a number of learned treatises, so that the Bible student may quite aptly ask how she or he can be expected to hear the simple Word of God for today. In fact the most important principles can be clearly expressed and quite simply explained. I will try to do this.[1]

The term “grammatico-historical”, although unwieldy, is nevertheless particularly useful, as it is a reminder of the two essential aspects of this first kind of interpretation.  Theological interpretation is concerned to understand the passage in the context of the whole teaching of the Bible before going on to consider how this applies today.   When this results in preaching or in books that apply the text for today`s readers it is referred to as exposition.   Characteristically, exegesis is what we find in commentaries (although some of them go on to exposition), while exposition is what we hear in sermons.   Many Christians who have never had a course in theology or read many theological books are often well versed in theology if they regularly listen to expository preaching.

To put the matter  another way, there is a difference between reading or hearing the Word of God in Scripture and reading or hearing the Word of God through Scripture.  In the first case, we are hearing what God said to the original  readers, while in the second we are hearing what he is saying to us.

The exegetical and theological approaches to the text are not alternatives.  Whenever we are concerned to hear the Word of God for life today we need always to use both.

Although we need to distinguish them, they are in fact closely connected.  Their connection is based on the immensely important fact that God does not change and so the principles of his dealings with human beings do not change.  He may change his methods from time to time, but his principles remain unaltered, for they are based on what he is eternally.  It is this fact, more than any other, which forms a bridge from exegesis to the exposition and application of a passage.

We will now look at the two kinds of interpretation in turn.

4. Grammatico-historical  interpretation or Exegesis,

This means that we need to consider what the passage would have meant to the original readers so far as we are able to tell.  No proper interpretation ever does violence to this meaning, and the Reformers laid much stress on it.  Both halves of our composite adjective, “grammatico- historical”, are important, as we will see.

Interpretation must be grammatical.  We need to pay attention to words, phrases, clauses and literary contexts.  This cannot be rushed. We need patience and diligence.  We should expect to have to work at it.  We may find it desirable to look up commentaries at some stage, particularly if we find that two  translations render a passage a little differently.

Interpretation must also be historical, particularly paying attention to the changes in culture which have taken place and which, in any case, are inevitable when we are dealing with a text set in what is for most of us a very different part of the world.

All this calls for what is known as “distancing”.  We must realise how different our world is from the biblical world before endeavouring, in our imagination, to live in that world and to hear the Word of God from within it.  The imagination is valuable, but it has to be stocked, and the stock can only come from knowledge of the historical background and the particular culture we find there.   We will consider this historical aspect of interpretation more fully in a later study.

Remember however that one thing remains fairly constant throughout human history, and that is human nature.

The Bible shows us people exhibiting all sorts of attitudes, such as admiration, gratitude and trust, jealousy, hatred and greed.  These attitudes are also familiar to us from life today and moreover in all parts of the world.

So, for instance, David was tempted by seeing a woman bathing herself and men today recognise this temptation.  People in different cultures will usually have the same basic attitudes and emotions but they may express them differently.  So, for instance, in many cultures a bride will smile brightly, but there are cultures where she is supposed to frown, because she is leaving her family and therefore it is felt that she ought to look sad.  It is doubtful however whether there will be much difference in the underlying emotions.  So then the need for distancing, although important, has its limits.

The one major change in human nature is what the Holy Spirit effects in the heart of the Christian, so that our deepest desire now becomes doing the will of God.  The Spirit imparts other virtues associated with this, so that, for instance, we find that Paul was full of thankfulness for his salvation in Christ and Christians today can certainly identify with this.

We will be considering exegesis, and particularly the grammatical aspect of it, in greater detail in our next two studies.

5. Theological interpretation   

To interpret a passage theologically is a skill which develops more and more as our knowledge of the Bible grows.

Is it then quite hopeless for a beginner?  No!  This is because fairly early in the Christian life we become conversant with the really major truths of Scripture, at least in a rudimentary form.  Theologians refer to what they call the perspicuity of Scripture.  “Perspicuity” is “clarity”, and the doctrine means, not that everything in the Bible is clear but that its major truths are, and that the Holy Spirit gives us clear understanding of those things we need to know for personal salvation.  We then discover that the more detailed truths are not so much added on to those we understand in our conversion but rather emerge out of them.  In a study towards the close of the course we will consider this in more detail.

To enable us to grow in the Christian life, we do need to have our grasp of the gospel and its truths enriched and to gain a more detailed understanding.  This comes partly, of course, through our continued study of the Scriptures, but there are also books that can help us.  A very valuable one is the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, details of which were given at the close of Study No. 4.

Remember that the full literary context of any part of the Bible is the whole Bible.  To have a strong grasp of the Big Story of the Bible (see Study No. 4) is a good beginning.

6. The assumptions we bring to the text of Scripture

The more we grow in grace and in understanding the Bible the more we realise that we do not read it without assumptions, and that while some of these help our understanding, others hinder it.  This happens, of course, not only with the Bible but also when we approach any book, but it is of course particularly vital with the Bible.

The most important assumption, of course, is that this is the Word of God.  As we have already seen, this is a conviction a believer has because she or he is a believer, for it is induced by the Holy Spirit when we are born again.  This does not mean every believer has a fully worked-out understanding of all this implies, but it does mean he or she approaches the Scriptures with reverence and with a readiness to hear God speak.

Some mistaken assumptions can be put right fairly easily.  We may, for instance, be reading the Book of Jonah.  We see that it occurs among the so-called Minor Prophets and, because we think of prophecy as prediction, we expect to find predictions in it.  This is put right when we learn that although prediction plays a part in many prophetic books, prophecy is essentially proclaiming a message from God, and that is certainly what comes across to us in the book.

Again, because Luke Chapter 24 tells the story both of the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, we may assume from this that he ascended into heaven on the same day that he rose from the dead.  To read Acts 1, however, a chapter by the very same writer, is to be put right on this.

Again, we may misinterpret through failure to recognise the difference between facts recorded in the Bible and commands given there.  Not every action even of God’s servants is commendable as we see in Acts 15:36-41 and Galatians 2.  Paul and Barnabas were both servants of God, but they fell out. Could both of them have been right? Paul and Peter fell out too.[2]  Having said this, it is also true that we may learn a lot from the general way Paul dealt with problems, and also with the attitude he showed and the courtesies he revealed.

In reading books on the Bible we need to note what assumptions are made by the authors.  Sometimes, for instance, an author may assume that miracles do not happen, and so may give an explanation of a passage which is more a denial of what the text says than an exegesis of it.  The resurrection of Jesus, the supreme miracle, is central to the Christian gospel, and moreover a Christian has experienced the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in his or her heart.  Both these facts introduce us to the supernatural world of the Bible and enable us to believe in the miraculous when we find it there.

Sometimes we may encounter an approach to Scripture which is new to us.  It is best neither to accept nor to reject this immediately, but rather to consider it carefully and prayerfully.  Is it consistent with the fact that the Bible is the Word of God?  Is it consistent with the God-given, tried and tested principles of interpretation which we have learned from the Bible itself?  We may want to read and to listen but there is need also for critical estimation.

It is important to identify the particular genre with which we are dealing in any Bible book.  Not all books convey their message in the same way.  I tried to make this clear in Studies 5 and 6.

Then there are assumptions we make on the basis of what others have told us, either in person or through books.   Although many Christian books and Christian sermons may give us great help in  our understanding of the Bible, human interpreters are not infallible and we may have imbibed some teaching that is mistaken.  The illustrations at the start of this study contain some glaring instances of this. 

The Jewish Rabbis of the centuries just before (and also after) Christ realised the need for contemporary interpretation and application of the Old Testament and over a number of generations they worked at this, paying special attention to the Torah, the Law of Moses, in such a way as to make it relevant to changed times and situations.  There is a positive lesson for us in this, for we too need to work at understanding the relevance of the Bible to the situations of our own day.  What happened in New Testament times, however, also contains a warning for us, because the Rabbis at that time had exalted these interpretations in such a way that they were given almost the status of Scripture itself.  This can happen today, and we can be doing this without being fully aware of it.

Each of us has a particular background and we may not realise how much it is still influencing our thinking.  The important thing is simply to be completely open to what God says, no matter how strange it seems or how it challenges or even hurts us.

We may make mistakes because we do not note the genre of Bible books.  This lies behind a tendency to treat history as exhortation in disguise.

It is because many of us are used to preaching that we may find the epistles of the New Testament easier to apply than the gospels.  The former were written to churches; they are somewhat like addresses committed to writing, addresses the writers would have given orally if they had been present in these churches, whereas the Gospels tell a story.  Perhaps this is why evangelicals often tend to be Pauline people rather than Gospel story people, because evangelicalism was born and is constantly renewed through preaching.

Without doubt some books of the Bible are more difficult to understand than others. I will be commenting on the interpretation of some of these later in the course.

The Book of Proverbs – note the tendency to polarise – e.g. in the English proverbs, “Look before you leap!” and “He who hesitates is lost”.  The chapters on Wisdom which commence the book commend a wisdom with which we approach the rest of the book.   Proverb type material is found also in the psalms and in James.  The Wisdom literature in general need careful handling, most of all in Ecclesiastes.

It is interesting that in western culture we are happier dealing with history, with letters and with law and preaching than we are with wisdom.  The Greeks were an exception and, perhaps, to some extent, the Germans.  We are less reflective by temperament, than many of the people in the east.  Philosophy may flourish but the homely wisdom so often found in other cultures is often lacking among us.

We tend to react against Law – this is our Protestantism and Evangelicalism.  We say we are Gospel people.  Yet the Puritans were more balanced.  They used to ask their preachers, “Have you done your Law-work?”.  We tend to ignore the legal parts of Scripture, but they have lessons for us.

The most serious problems arise from attitudes that are part of our very being and which still make themselves felt.  As we have noted in an earlier study, a human being is best characterised, not by his or her bank balance or occupation or standing with other people, but in terms of his or her attitudes or desires.  We are the sum total of our attitudes.  We need to recognise that although as Christians we enjoy the forgiveness of God through faith in Christ crucified and risen, we are still sinners and the old nature is inclined to show its presence within us and to do so even in our approach to the Word of God.  When we find certain sins being attacked in Scripture we may be inclined to play down what is being said, perhaps not even realising what we are doing.

There is need for a determination, by the grace of God, not to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt but to take seriously what the Bible says about the kind of sins that used to be dear to our hearts and which may from time to time reassert themselves.   Each time we open the Bible we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will teach us truth from the Word and that our hearts will be fully open to receive all that God says.

I want however to illustrate this from a passage in Shakespeare`s Merchant of Venice.[3]

Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is determined to proceed with his bargain with Antonio and to take a pound of flesh because of Antonio’s failure to pay his debt to him in time.   He addresses his critics:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68

When the play was put on in Nazi Germany, Shylock was presented as repulsive and indescribably evil, and the speech was seen as from first to last a product of his craftiness or truculence and was spoken in a tone that suggested this.  Today, however, when both production staff and audiences are concerned about anti-Semitism, he is often played sympathetically, with most of the speech coming across as a plea to be treated humanly.  The sting in its tail, when the speaker speaks of revenge, may then be seen as prompted by the unmoved demeanour of Shylock’s audience.  The words are the same, for they are Shakespeare’s, but the interpretation varies according to the appearance, demeanour, tone of voice and emphasis of the actor who plays Shylock.  It is the cultural background of the interpreters and so what is brought to the text that makes the difference.

What then was the intention of Shakespeare and how may we discover this? [4]  First of all, we look at the literary context, the whole play.  We see that there is a certain ambivalence about its “good” characters.  Can we really view any one of them as a hero?  Then we consider his other plays.  Can we get some idea from this wider context?  We investigate the historical background and discover that there was plenty of anti-Semitism in England in Shakespeare’s day.  This does not settle it, however, as a great writer sometimes moves against the general outlook of the day; it is one of the features of his or her greatness.  Then, we ask to what extent we are influenced in our attitude to the play by the form anti-Semitism took in Nazi Germany in the lifetime of some of us, and which therefore has become for us somewhat stereotypical.  It is worth considering too whether the character of Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, at least before Dickens removed most of his references to him as ‘the Jew’, reinforces for us a negative interpretation of Shylock, or whether Sir Walter Scott`s more positive presentation of Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca in Ivanhoe may have influenced us in the other direction.  Finally, we need to consider our own attitude.  What has the play done to us?  Has it given us more sympathy with the Jewish members of our own community or the opposite, and will it alter our conduct at all?

Here then we have been taking a contextual approach to the play. Now without doubt we can sometimes be influenced in a right direction by the reading of good literature, but Scripture is in a different category altogether, for here not only is everything human but everything is divine, and to deal with it we need, not just to study context, but to engage in Contextual Theology.  At no stage can we forget that this is the Word of God.   Because of this, so much depends on its right interpretation.

7. The Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New

God has given us a most helpful key to the interpretation of Scripture in the fact that Jesus, and the New Testament writers following him, were interpreters of the Old Testament.

This subject is a never-ending source of instruction.  Jesus regarded his own person and work as a major key to the way the Old Testament should be understood.  We see this particularly in Luke 24, but there are many examples of it in other parts of the four Gospels.

He was followed in this by the writers of the New Testament.

Now how could they do this?  The Old Testament anticipates the coming of Jesus in more than one way. W e see this very well in the Gospel of Matthew.  Here there are a number of ways in which this is done.

Matthew is very fond of a particular formula of quotation, which he uses over and over again.  This is “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet” (Matt 8:17, 13:35 21:4,).  Now it is easy to misunderstand this.  Matthew does not mean that there is always a straightforward correspondence between an Old Testament passage and a new Testament event or person.  Rather he means that there is some sort of meaningful comparison between them.

Such meaningful comparisons are of several kinds.  The most frequent is typology, and I want to feature this in this particular study.

Typology is one of the chief ways in which the Old Testament testifies to Christ, perhaps even the chief if this is estimated in terms of its extent.  It is essential, however, to have a clear understanding of it, for it has been much misunderstood and mishandled, and in consequence has suffered disrepute in some quarters.  Properly understood, however, it is enormously enriching.

What is typology? It has six characteristics, each of them essential to it, therefore bear with me as I outline and seek to explain them.

a. Typology involves resemblance  

The term comes from the Greek word tupos, originally a mark made by a blow, then an image made by a stamping device, then simply an image, and finally a pattern or example.  In Christian theology, it is used when some person, office, event or institution in the Old Testament resembles Christ in some important respect, constituting a type of which he is the Antitype.  An example of this occurs in Romans 5:14.

The Old Testament prophets, priests and kings were types of Christ, because he fulfilled each of these roles and did so to perfection.  So, for example, he is like the God- appointed kings of the Old Testament because he exercises rule, he has subjects, he has a particular sphere of authority, in his case the whole universe.  The Exodus from Egypt was a type because Christ effected a greater Exodus, the exodus of the people of God not from bondage in Egypt but from the thraldom of sin and Satan, which is probably what Luke 9:31 means.  The institution of worship, the house of God and its offerings, were types because Christ offered the perfect sacrifice to God in the temple of  his body, the significance of which is explored in the Epistle to the Hebrews, especially in chapters 7 to 10.

b. Typology involves history

This is very important.  A type is not simply an illustration, so that the tree of Psalm 1:3 is not a type.  It is not simply a symbol, so that the horsemen of Zechariah 6 and Revelation 6 are not types, for they are visionary, not historical.  A figure representing Christ in a parable, such as the son in Mark 12:1-1, is not a type, because this is a story, even though it points to Christ.

Typology has often been confused with allegory but this is a serious misunderstanding.  Greek philosophers used Homer’s tales allegorically to illustrate philosophical ideas.  If the stories had proved to be unhistorical, they would have been completely undisturbed.  What mattered to them was that people knew the stories, not that the stories were true, for they were simply teaching aids.  But history is crucially important for Biblical typology because types are much more than teaching aids; they show that God is consistent.  So, for instance, the God- appointed kings were not mythological or even legendary; they were historical.  It is sometimes said that history often repeats itself.  If “history is his Story” (i.e. God’s story), this is quite especially true of biblical history.

c. Typology involves anticipation

Here the idea of the substance and its shadow is helpful.  Approach a great building and, if you are looking down, you will see its shadow before you see the building itself.  The substance casts its shadow before it.  Transfer this spatial illustration to time and we see what a type is.  So, in reading the Bible in sequence, we see the prophets before the Prophet, the sacrifices before the Sacrifice, and so on.

d. Typology involves consummation

The Epistle to the Hebrews often uses the term “better” of Christ (Hebrews 1:4;7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 12:24), while “last” in Hebrews 1:2 indicates that he is not just better but the Best, for there is nothing beyond him.  He is not only “the second Man” but also “the last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45), for there is no great representative man still to come.  This makes all New Testament comparatives related to Christ virtual superlatives, for in every realm he is the Best.  In Christ finality and perfection have come.

If that is so, then no one type can show this, for all types are partial and imperfect.  For instance, no king could fully establish the kingdom of God.  If any type were to be perfect, in the particular aspect of God’s purpose represented by it, Christ would not have been needed.  He is God as well as Man, so that he not only fulfils all the types taken together, but goes infinitely beyond them.

e. Typology involves retrospective recognition

It is when we see the fulfilment of a type that we recognise its typical quality.  No doubt the very imperfections of the types were meant to create a hunger for the Perfect, making them a significant feature of God`s preparation of his people for Christ as well as a means for us of understanding his Person and Work more fully.  The Books of Kings, for instance, show not only the positive but also the negative features of the Old Testament monarchs.  Even the prophets, whose words were the Word of God, could not fully anticipate Christ in their characters, for, as sinners, they were all imperfect.  He is the Word of God incarnate (John 1:14), for all he was and did revealed God.  The reality and also the imperfection of the Old Testament ceremonial types are explored in Hebrews 7-10.

f. Typology involves divine revelation

This follows from the former principle, because our retrospective recognition comes, not from our subjective interpretation, our poor attempts to understand, but from the way the New Testament interprets the Old.  In other words, it is the New Testament that shows us that God intended these various features of the Old Testament to foreshadow Christ.

Much adverse reaction to typology has been due to its undisciplined use.  All kinds of fanciful “types” have been discovered and promoted, without biblical warrant.  Typology is really a form of theological interpretation, and our theology must come from God himself.   Because undisciplined use of typology is normally practised by people who have a firm belief in the authority of Scripture and the great basic truths of the Christian faith it may seem harmless, but it can foster the idea (usually unrecognised) that the meaning of Scripture is more a matter of what we can find in it than of what God has put into it, so that human ingenuity takes over from divine revelation.

This really means that in this respect theology is to be governed by exegesis, for it is from New Testament exegesis that the theological principles of Old Testament interpretation are to be obtained.  If we accept  the Word of God as inspired and therefore as authoritative, we need to accept God’s own revealed principles of understanding that Word.

So, through typology, God has shown his utter consistency.  What he was for the people of the Old Testament so he is for us, except that we live in the good of all that has been effected for us by Christ, who is the ultimate Revelation of all that God has established as important in his dealings with human beings.

Some readers may be surprised that I have given so much space to typology when they would regard predictive prophecy as more important.  I have done this because prediction is so often based on typology, which means that the latter is the more basic of the two.

So, for instance, Isaiah 53 is normally regarded as predictive prophecy of Christ, but in verse 10 the Suffering Servant is said to be “an offering for sin”, and the offerings and sacrifices were part of the Old Testament worship system which, as we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews, foreshadowed Christ.  So, when a prophecy like this uses sacrificial language it employs typology to serve its purpose.  The same applies to Deuteronomy 18 where a great prophet of the future is predicted.  The New Testament shows that this prediction was fulfilled in Jesus, but again, of course, the prediction was based on typology, for all the prophets typified Christ (see Acts …). [5]

Micah 4 is about the coming of a king, a ruler, of the future and it is applied to Christ in Matthew 2, but, of course, kings typify Christ.

So it is important to grasp the fundamental principles of typology and then to see that predictive prophecy so often begins here but goes further by actually predicting the coming of the great Antitype.

There are other ways in which the new Testament fulfils the Old, but these can wait until later studies.

8. Applying the Bible today

We are studying the Bible so that we may live in the light of it and please God in the conduct of our everyday lives.  How are we to discern how the Word of God applies to us today?

As we wait on God, the Holy Spirit shows us how the Word of God applies to us, but even this is along lines clearly shown to us in the Scriptures themselves.  We are not at liberty to impose any interpretation that suits us on the books of the Bible.  We need to insist on this in view of the fact that some philosophers of language are promoting highly subjective views on the interpretation of literature.

The first thing we must do is to pray for light as we read the Word. Bible study and prayer should always be united.

Then we should seek to understand what the passage we are reading meant to its original readers.  In other words, we should apply the grammatico- historical principle of interpretation.  If we find this difficult, then we would be advised to consult a commentary, but only after wrestling with the text for ourselves.

Then we will seek to see it in the light of the total teaching of Scripture, so far as we know this.

After this we should consider both the culture of the time and our culture today.  Inevitably the Word of God in Scripture is culturally conditioned, but we need to take seriously the essential principles of the passage we are reading, relate them to our own culture and then render due obedience.

So, for instance, in Deuteronomy 19:14, the Israelites are told, “Do not move your neighbour’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess.”  Now this is clearly a moral exhortation, for such landmarks showed where one family’s land ended and another’s began.  To go out surreptitiously and move a landmark further away from your house or even to remove it altogether was really a transgression of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal!”  This may not seem so relevant in the flat-dwelling urban society in which many of us live, but there are plenty of ways in which we can violate the spirit of this commandment by taking what does not belong to us.


NOTE : Some of Geoff’s study notes had not been completed and checked at the time of his death. Some of the text from this point onwards in this study does not follow the flow of the previous text.  Many thanks to Rev. Iain Macaulay for checking the study notes prior to publication. 


1. Proper INTERPRETATION is the foundation for proper APPLICATION. 

If we do not accurately understand what a passage means, then it is almost certain we will not be able to determine how to apply it correctly to our lives. Unfortunately, many people go to the Bible for a blessing or for guidance for the day, ignoring the interpretive process altogether.  In their intense desire to find something devotional or practical, Christians sometimes distort the original meaning of some passage of Scripture.  To bypass the purpose and original meaning of the passage, looking for a subjective impression, can lead to serious misuse of the Bible.

2. Determine whether a passage is direct teaching or indirect illustration. 

When the passage was originally written, was it prescriptive or descriptive?  Prescriptive passages are those that give a command or a “prescription” for human behaviour, and they often provide teaching intended for direct application.  Descriptive passages simply tell what happened at a particular time, often without providing any value judgment as to whether this was good or bad. “When Scripture describes human actions without comment, it should not necessarily be assumed that those actions are approved. When Scripture describes an action of God with respect to human beings in a narrative passage, it should not be assumed that this is the way He will always work in believers’ lives at every point in history.”

3. Recognize the differences in how God has worked with people throughout human history. 

Every Bible reader is aware that at various points in history God dealt with different groups of people in different ways. God’s command for Noah to build an ark is certainly not a prescription for behaviour today. God’s command for Israel to collect manna as food in the wilderness was obviously not intended to apply later in history. Some of God’s instructions to people have changed, while others have carried over from one time period to another. For example, the Old Testament command to love your neighbour (Lev 19:18) still applies today (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8), but only nine of the Ten Commandments were carried over into the New Testament.  Some of the Old Testament commandments were completely nullified, such as the prohibition against eating certain foods (Lev 11 vs. Acts 10:9-16) and the requirement for circumcision (Lev 12 vs. Rom 4 and Gal 5 – 6).

4. Determine what is “normative” for today vs. what is limited to the biblical setting. 

“Behaviour that has a certain meaning in one culture may have a totally different significance in another culture. In American society, for a woman to follow her husband at a distance of fifteen feet, with her head down, would usually indicate a problem in their relationship. In another culture, this same behaviour may be considered normal and expected.  It may be necessary to change the behavioural expression of a scriptural command in order to translate the principle behind that command from one culture and time to another.”

It also may be helpful to determine the reason for a particular command or practice.  If the reason for the command is limited to that specific cultural situation, then the command itself may also be limited in application.  For example, when Paul said in Romans 15 that the Gentile churches had a duty to contribute to the needs of the church in Jerusalem, the reason for this command was given: “if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things” (Rom15:27).  That believers have a duty to share materially with those who have blessed them spiritually is a reason which crosses all cultural boundaries.

5. Determine if a biblical command or practice is consistent with the overall message of the Bible as well as with the unchanging nature and character of God. 

If what happened to someone in Bible times is considered normative for all believers, it must be in harmony with what is taught elsewhere in Scripture.  The fact that God used Elijah and Elisha each to raise a young man from death to life (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:17-37) and used Peter to restore Dorcas to life (Acts 9:36-43) does not mean God intends for believers today to raise others from the dead.  This is never indicated in Scripture as normative for all believers.  Principles, to be valid, must be affirmed elsewhere in Scripture.  How does God’s sending ravens to feed Elijah during a drought (1 Kings 17:6) apply to us today?  Obviously this does not mean God desires to feed Christians by means of birds.  Instead the principle is that God sometimes meets human needs by unusual means.  The application of this principle is that believers can trust the Lord to supply their needs.

2.  The Relationship of  Predictive Prophecy to Typology

a. They possess several similarities

Both are subjects of divine revelation, both relate to the future and both point to the consummation of God’s purposes in Christ.

b. They exhibit important differences

In prophecy, prediction and fulfilment are identical, both relating to Christ. In type there is similarity but not identity: either two persons, or an office, event or institution and a Person, are involved. David is not Christ, nor is the OT sin-offering, yet they both typify him.

Sometimes, particularly in the psalms,  it is hard to distinguish type from prophecy.  If the passage shows imperfection, it is clearly typical.  So Psalm 69, quoted several times of Christ in the New Testament, must be typical (see v. 5), whereas Psalm 22, also applied to him several times, can be prophetic.  Is Psalm 22 prophecy or typology?  Does it at all echo David’s experiences as well as Christ’s?  We cannot be sure, but it is possible he was guided by the Spirit to describe his sufferings in such a way that although true of his experience, they also fitted Christ’s far more profound experiences.  In this way the limitations of the type disappear in the fulfilment.

c. Prophecies sometimes show typological awareness

Sometimes it will incorporate type, as, e.g. in Isaiah 53:10, when the Suffering Servant is said to be “an offering for sin”. So, when prophecy uses sacrificial language it employs typology to serve its purpose.

d.  Prophecy sometimes predicts future phenomena which typify Christ

Deuteronomy 18:15-18 probably promises a whole sequence of prophets. None were perfect embodiments of the prophetic ideal (Deut 34:9-12), but the promise was completely fulfilled in Christ (Acts 3:22)  So the whole line of OT prophets typified the ultimate Prophet. In 2 Samuel 7, promises are made about David’s son . Do these refer to Solomon (and perhaps his successors) or to Christ?  They refer to the line of kings, loved by God and yet chastised for their sins, but their ultimate fulfilment was Christ, the perfect Son of David.  Every true prophet, every Davidic king, was both a fulfilment of prophecy but also a type of Christ.

e. In this way God so orders history that it finds its climax and true meaning in Christ

So the Old Testament predicts the coming of the seed of the woman, not Seth (Gen 4:25) but Christ, the seed of Abraham, not Isaac but Christ, the son of David, not Solomon but Christ, the prophet like Moses, not Samuel or Jeremiah but Christ, the ultimate Priest, not Aaron nor even Melchizedek but Christ.  Christ effected the final Exodus and the New Covenant.  In the far-reaching character of its effects Adam’s act of sin foreshadowed Christ’s act of righteousness at Calvary.  Inevitably there were disappointments during the history, but in every way the fulfilment in Christ met and exceeded every expectation.  Unlike the Old Testament prophets, Christ was able to fulfil everything in his character as well as his words.  He was the Word of God Incarnate.

The ultimate basis

a. Other modes rest on typology

b. Typology rests on correspondence and analogy

c. Analogy rests on the consistency of God


1. Fulfilment in Scripture

a. The idea of fulfilment

b. The terminology of fulfilment

2. The modes of fulfilment

a. Typology

b. Prophecy and prediction

c. Similarity of principle

d. Similarity of sound (assonance)

e. Apparent arbitrariness

Illustrate from Matthew’s Gospel?

3. The ultimate basis

a. Other modes rest on typology

b. Typology rests on correspondence and analogy

c. Analogy rests on the consistency of God

This is changelessness plus faithfulness – so He does not change in Himself nor in His relationships through promise

4. Fulfilment and OT genres

a. Narrative literature – salvation themes/ typical persons – conceived objectively

b. Legal literature – typical institutions

c. Prophetic literature – prediction

d. Wisdom literature – concepts (e.g. wisdom) – also question and answer _Job, Ecclesiastes, some Psalms)

e. Devotional literature – typical persons – conceived subjectively

5. Old Testament and New Testament Salvation

a.  Salvation – God as Saviour out of trouble and from enemies

b. …     from sin – sacrifices

c. ..      through Christ – prophecies – Isaiah 53, also typical Psalms 22 and 69. First of all,

So, for instance, in recording the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, Matthew quotes the words of Zechariah 9:9,

“Say to the Daughter of Zion,

See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

On a colt, the foal of a donkey”

and Paul quotes the words of God in Exodus 33:19, seeing that they still apply literally in his day,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy

and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

In each case the words were being applied in terms of their original meaning, for Jesus was a king and God’s mercy is always sovereign.  Yet, as we will see, there is an inevitable theological component even in the use of these passages in the New Testament. (i.e. Jesus is the Messianic King and the passage about God’s mercy is applied to the Gentiles as well as the Jews)

For Further Reading: In addition to Fee and Stuart, Understanding the Bible for all its Worth, already recommended; R. Julian, D. and J. Crabtree, The Language of God: A Common Sense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001. 

[1]Those readers who can tackle a demanding but very helpful book on the philosophical aspects of the subject from an evangelical standpoint are advised to read K. Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?  

[2]It is important to note that in both cases the differences of opinion were not theological but practical.

[3]I used this illustration in a longer form in my book,  The Faith Once Entrusted to the Saints: engaging with issues and trends in evangelical theology (Nottingham: IVP, 2010), pp. 224-225 (used by permission).

[4]I am simply illustrating principles of interpretation here, not proposing a particular interpretation of this play.

[5]Some scholars think the passage predicts a whole line of prophets, but even if this is so, the ultimate prophet of this line was Christ, so that all earlier ones foreshadow him.


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