Study No. 11: Is the Bible ever ambiguous?

Holy Bible This study has been placed here in the book because it is the logical place to put it.  Some readers may however find it more difficult than other chapters, in which case they are advised to return to it once they have completed the rest of the course.  Please do not ignore it altogether, for the matters of which it treats are important.

1.  The meaning and significance of the biblical text

The Reformers were deeply committed to the authority of Scripture as the Word of God.  Because of this, they were concerned that it should be rightly interpreted.  Over against some mediaeval ways of interpreting the Bible, they maintained that the meaning of the biblical text is always that intended by its author.  This let a breath of fresh air into the whole matter of biblical interpretation, but we need to do some careful thinking about it.

i.  The surface meaning of the text is normally its intended meaning

It is important not to misunderstand this.  It is not a denial of the presence of figurative language in the Bible, for, as we saw in the last study, this is not only present but prolific.  Rather it is a refusal to view the Bible as a book with all kinds of hidden meanings, perhaps only understandable to the initiated.  Taken to an extreme, this can present the Bible text as a kind of cover for a message of a very different type, with its meaning only to be found by a kind of spiritual code-breaker, the spiritual equivalent of the marvellous machine employed at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.   To treat it in this way not only closes its message to all but the initiated or the exceptionally ingenious, but could even be a way of evading the challenge of what it actually means.

In fact, any over-complicated scheme of biblical interpretation is suspect.  Methods of interpretation which require readers to study elaborate courses in philosophy or numerology or that endeavour to link the meaning of the Bible to the way the great pyramid of Giza was constructed fail by their own sophistication.  The great crowds that followed Jesus when he was teaching are testimony to the essential simplicity and straight-forwardness of his teaching.

This kind of misuse of the Bible was practiced in a particularly extreme way by the Gnostics of the early Christian centuries.  It is not easy to generalise about them, but most of them drew their basic ideas from Greek and Oriental religion and philosophy, which they clothed in biblical language.  This meant that the Bible was being used as a means to an end, to promote ideas that were actually foreign to it.

This way of treating the Bible can not only lead to serious theological error but it is spiritually dangerous, for if we make the Bible say what we want it to say, we evade its real challenge and we may even come to conclusions about God’s way of salvation which are contrary to the truth.  The sinful human mind can find all kinds of ways of rejecting what God says, and twisting the truth is one of them.

We need to read the Bible carefully and to pay close attention to what it actually says, for this is not just what Amos says or Paul says, but what God says, and we must not miss that.  This is the task of exegesis, otherwise known as grammatico- historical interpretation, because it aims to study what the text would have meant for its writers and its first readers.

Recognition of the importance of exegesis often goes hand in hand with interest in the original languages of the Bible.  People who know Classical Greek (the Greek of the great Greek dramatists of the 5th and 4th Centuries BC) soon discover that the Greek of the New Testament is somewhat different.  This is known as Koine (Common) Greek, and this was the Greek language as it was spoken by ordinary people throughout the Roman Empire in New Testament times, although, like all widely spoken languages, it had some regional variations.  It is somewhat simpler than Classical Greek.  The Hebrew of the Old Testament too was the ordinary language of the people.  So then, the Holy Spirit did not create a special language for Holy Writ, but inspired authors who used the ordinary languages spoken and written by the people of their times and places.

ii.  The distinction between the meaning and significance of a Bible passage

Some writers on interpretation have made a distinction between meaning and significance, and this can be useful.  When they are distinguished, the meaning of a passage is the way the writer intended the original readers to understand it, while it may have further significance for other and later readers when it is applied to their own situations.

I deliberately used the impersonal expression, “it is applied”, in that last sentence in order to raise an important question: who is it that makes the application in any particular instance?  Is it God or is it the reader?  This question is important because God’s application has an authority that my application or yours never can have.

iii.  The importance of relying on the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture

It is sometimes said that it is dangerous to give people, even Christians, liberty to interpret the Bible, because they may misunderstand it, with serious consequences for themselves and others.  Instead, it is suggested, interpretation should always be in the hands of those who have been properly trained in interpretation, whether they be priests or scholars.

Now this point of view is understandable, for, as we have already seen, people have found all kinds of strange “meanings” in the Bible.  The danger is that in reading Scripture we will “hear” our own ideas, imported into the biblical text and given privileged status because we see them as implied there.  The history of heresy is littered with examples of this.  Peter calls it a distorting of Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), and warns his readers of the serious consequences of it.  We need to be dependent on the Holy Spirit.  who indwells us if we are Christians, in our reading of the Bible.

It may, of course, be objected that this too is very dangerous, for it would be a recipe for a wholesale subjectivism, in which we would substitute what is in our own hearts for the dictates of an objective authority.  Put this way, the objection is entirely valid, but it is based on two misunderstandings.

First of all, we must examine what is meant by “subjective” as used in this connection.  It may mean that the guidance is self-originated.  If this is what it means, then clearly such guidance is unacceptable for, in the nature of the case, it must be fallible.  On the other hand, it may simply mean that it is internal, a guidance to be found in our hearts but not originated by them.  It is the latter that is being claimed when Christians say that they are being guided by the Holy Spirit.

This then raises a second and an extremely important question: how do I know whether what I believe to be guidance as to the meaning of Scripture comes from the Holy Spirit or not? I will know this if it is in accordance with principles to be found in the Bible itself, for this authoritative book is in fact an interpreted book, interpreted within its own pages.  Any Scripture can only be rightly interpreted when read in the light of the Bible as a whole, as this is the book the Holy Spirit has inspired, and he cannot contradict himself.

Here then is an important principle: the Bible is to be interpreted biblically.

But how can we interpret it biblically? This may seem difficult, particularly if our Bible knowledge is somewhat limited.  Yes, but we have been provided with an important means of doing so, for in Scripture one passage often interprets another.  Especially we find that a New Testament writer will often interpret an Old Testament passage or theme.  What makes this so very helpful and imposes a highly needful discipline on us is that both the Old Testament writer and the New are divinely inspired.   Perhaps then we can use the word “meaning” of this divinely-inspired significance, although some writers still prefer to stay simply with “significance” in this connection.  The meaning God intended was of course never less than nor contrary to the meaning of the human author, for God inspired that author, but it may have been more.

The chief way in which this happened was through typological interpretation of the Old Testament by the New.  The New Testament writers saw many Old Testament persons (like David), offices (like the priesthood), institutions (like the sacrifices) and events (like the Exodus) as designedly foreshadowing Christ and his work for us.  Not only does this second meaning have the same authority as the first, but it is intimately related to the first.  It is not something quite alien to it and imposed on it.

It is a different matter with so-called typological interpretations which have no authority in the biblical text.  They can be, at best, nothing more than human opinion, and at worst distortions of the meaning of the Word of God.

We will consider typology more fully in a later study.

iv.  The significance of the Bible for the church in every age and for today

The Bible was of course intended as the Word of God for the whole church, so that we, in our generation, need to be exposed to and alive to what God is saying to us in Scripture.  The sermons in the book of Jeremiah, for instance, were not only intended by God for his hearers in the Seventh Century BC, nor was the epistle to the Philippians meant only for Christians living in Philippi in the First Century AD.

This raises the question of the significance of Scripture for readers like you and me.  The Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible writers also dwells in Christian believers today.  This does not mean we can claim inspiration in the special sense in which that term is applied to the prophets and apostles, but it does mean we can seek understanding of the Bible’s significance for today from that same Spirit.  If there were no such significance, then preaching from Scripture would be a pointless exercise.  The biblical writers were both illuminated and inspired; if we are dependent on the Spirit, we may experience illumination, but we would rightly hesitate to claim inspiration.

Shortly after the fall of the Communist regime in Bulgaria, I was invited by a group of Christian churches in that country to give some lectures on preaching, chiefly to pastors.  I was told that under Communism pastors were allowed to preach, but that they were only permitted to explain the meaning of the biblical text, not to indicate its significance for the hearers, and that it was the latter they were now eager for.   Of course, the authorities knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, who was able to make the Scriptures highly relevant to spiritually-minded hearers and to do so despite the planting of Communist spies in the churches.

How than can this happen?  Jeremiah was preaching to Jews and Paul was writing to Philippian Christians, but most readers today are neither.  Even contemporary Jews and contemporary Philippian Christians live in much changed conditions.  This means that all present-day readers of Scripture have to hear the Bible as an ancient book applied to them in a changed situation

When we were considering typology in the last study, we noted that it is based on comparison, on analogy.   If the church as a whole, or a local church, or even an individual Christian, is seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in some matter, then this too will normally come by the analogical route.   The Holy Spirit will lead us to see some comparison that will show the relevance of a passage to our situation.  This is the constant experience of Bible-using Christians.  As we have already noted, it is because of the unalterable consistency of God, by which we mean of course that he does not change in character.

This means that if the first principle of good biblical interpretation is attention to context, as we have seen already, the second is concern for analogy.

The significance of the Bible for today is, of course, the chief preoccupation of preachers.  Preaching should not only be biblical, faithful to the Word of God, but it should also be relevant to the hearers.  This is why sensitive awareness of the needs of a congregation is so important.  This is by no means the only reason for pastoral visitation, but such work can be very productive in terms of relevant preaching.

The individual Christian too needs to be exposed to the Word of God and not simply through Sunday preaching, vitally important as that is.  Regular devotional Bible reading with prayer for illumination is essential both for spiritual growth and for daily guidance.

Books of sermons delivered by preachers of the past or present are certainly of some value but there are limits to this.  This is because, although the basic needs of churches and of individual Christians are the same everywhere, there are also needs peculiar to a particular congregation or individual.  Good sermons always contain well-applied biblical teaching, but, interesting and often spiritually valuable as published sermons are, they should not be regarded as a substitute for the contemporary word of preaching, provided the latter is faithful to Holy Scripture and makes good exegesis of the passage concerned the basis of insightful application to the needs of the congregation.

2.  Intentional Ambiguity and Irony in Scripture

Meaning and intention are closely linked, because the meaning of what I say is what I intend my listeners to understand by it.  When we communicate with each other, we normally intend our speech to convey our thought clearly and without ambiguity.  There are however times when we actually intend ambiguity.

Now irony may appear, at first sight, to be an example of intentional ambiguity, for in using irony we intend our words to be read or heard in a sense opposite to the one they normally convey.  So, if somebody has let us down, we may say, “Well, you’re a fine help to me!” The irony is often conveyed by the tone of voice.   When such comments occur in literature, of course, we cannot hear the tone of voice, but the context will usually make the matter clear.  This is not actually ambiguity, however, for the literal sense is not intended at all, but only the ironic one.  There is still only one intended meaning.

There are however biblical passages where two senses are intended by the human author, with neither being a denial of the other, although one sense is much more important than the other.  We will see examples of this in the Gospel of John.

The Bible writers also use dramatic irony, where it is a situation, not simply a statement, that is ironic.  For Jesus, who was both fully divine and totally innocent, to be put on trial by sinful human creatures – can there be any greater irony than that? Yes, but only the further, deepest irony of all that we find in the very same event, that he, God’s perfect, divine Son, should bear the divinely-imposed penalty for our sins! Here, in the central message of the Bible, is its deepest irony.

3.  Irony in the Old Testament

There are quite a number of examples of this, and those I am indicating are therefore just the tip of the iceberg.

i.  Elijah on Mount Carmel

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Old Testament, Elijah encounters the prophets of Baal and challenges them.  They were to build an altar, lay sacrificial animals on it, and call on their god to send fire to consume it.  They cried out to Baal all day but there was no response.  Then Elijah taunted them, saying,

“Shout louder! …  Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling.  Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened (1 Kings18:27)!”

ii.  The Book of Esther

This book reveals a most ironic situation.  It is a divine irony, for it shows how God counters the intentions of human beings.  Haman, an influential enemy of the Jews in Persia, ordered a scaffold to be erected for Mordecai, the kinsman of Esther, the Jewish queen of King Ahasuerus.  Haman expected to be specially honoured, but, due to his own folly, his scaffold was used to hang him instead, while it was Mordecai who was honoured.

iii.  Irony in the Book of Job

In his exasperation with his comforters, Job said to them

“Doubtless you are the people,

and wisdom will die with you” (Job 12:2)!

In dealing with one of them, Bildad, he says,

“How you have helped the powerless!

How you have saved the arm that is feeble!

What advice you offered to one without wisdom!

And what great insight you have displayed (Job 26:2-3)!”

As the book moves towards its close, God reveals himself to Job, and challenges him.   Does Job have an arm like God’s and can his voice thunder like his?  Of course not, but, in order to make Job aware of his creatureliness, the LORD goes on to say, ironically,

“Then adorn yourself with glory and splendour.

and clothe yourself in honour and majesty.

Unleash the fury of your wrath,

look at every proud man and bring him low.”

He was really inviting Job to take over the throne of the universe! It was his way of bringing home to Job his human creatureliness.

Of course, the very description of the three friends as comforters is highly ironic, for in fact they became his tormentors, as he declares in Job 19:2.  The final piece of irony in the book emerges in its closing chapter when God declares Job to be in the right and his friends in the wrong, for throughout it the comforters have been assuming the exact opposite.

Look out for other touches of irony in this great book.

iv.The Book of Ecclesiastes

Scholars differ as to how many ambiguities this book contains, but the presence of irony is certainly widely acknowledged.  Irony is the most likely explanation of a puzzling passage in chapter 7:15-18, where the author says,

“In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:

a righteous man perishing in his righteousness,

and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.

Do not be over-righteous,

neither be over-wise –

why destroy yourself?

Do not be over-wicked,

and do not be a fool –

why die before your time?

It is good to grasp the first

and not let go of the other.

The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes]”

The ironic nature of this passage becomes clear when we note, not only that it is unique in being contrary to the teaching of the Bible as a whole but even to that of Ecclesiastes elsewhere, especially in its concluding verses, where the author expresses “the conclusion of the matter” by saying,

“Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,

including every hidden thing,

whether it is good or ill” (Eccles.12:13-14).

4.  Double Irony in the Gospels

A sensitive reader of the four Gospels can hardly escape noticing the element of irony in the story of Jesus.  In most cases this is not a literary but a dramatic historical irony; in other words, the irony is in the events, not always in the comments of the writers, although the events also embrace words spoken by those involved in the story.

This is particularly true of the story of the passion.  Human actions were often motivated by an irony which had an edge to it, for it was expressed in cynical or mocking sarcasm.  So, for example, the soldiers gave Jesus a robe, a crown, a sceptre and obeisance (Matt 27:27-31), and Pilate gave him a royal title (John 19:19-22), but all this was done in mockery as these are symbols of kingship.

Yet, as we read the story, we discern something more, for we see that there was a double irony at work.  Over against the human irony was the irony of God.  This is because these symbols, given in mockery, actually reflected profound truth about him.  Nothing could be more appropriate than that he should have a crown and a sceptre and be approached with obeisance.

It is also worth noting that although Jesus confessed to being the Messiah when Simon Peter identified and confessed him as such, he asked his disciples to keep silent about this (Mark 8:27-30).  He did not make public claim to this effect until a time when he seemed utterly helpless in the hands of his enemies (Mark 14:61-62).  How laughable this will have seemed to his opponents, and yet it was true.  Then again they accused him of blasphemy, and yet this was their own sin (Mark 14:64).  On the cross his claims to be Saviour, Christ, King of Israel and Son of God were treated with contempt (Matthew 27:39-44; Mark 15:31-32; and yet these claims were all true.

In all this a divine irony countered the human irony, for the sovereign purpose of God was being expressed in it all.

5.  Double Meanings in the Gospel of John

The Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean almost certainly has the deepest water on earth, with a depth greater than the height of Mount Everest, yet people travelling across its surface may have no awareness of this, as the water there may be completely tranquil.

The Fourth Gospel is somewhat like that.  It appears at first sight to be quite a simple book.  This is particularly the case if it is read in Greek, for the vocabulary is comparatively small and the sentence structure straightforward.  It has great depths, however, which do not always appear on a first reading.  The Prologue (John 1:1-18) has such a simple vocabulary and syntax that somebody who is at quite an early stage of learning Greek can translate much of it, and yet it is likely that more has been written on it than on any other passage of Scripture.

There are passages in this Gospel where a statement which is true at a straight-forward level can also be interpreted at a much deeper level, or sometimes truth lies only at the deeper level.

Before we look at this in detail, we need to ask if there is a discipline to which we should submit in relation to this feature of the Gospel.  Some of the Gnostics, heretical teachers of the Second and Third Centuries, were particularly fond of John’s Gospel, probably because it seemed that this feature of it gave them licence to interpret it in all sorts of strange ways.

What is helpful to us is that occasionally either Jesus or John makes it clear that what has been said has a deeper meaning, so that it is not fanciful to see this phenomenon elsewhere in the Gospel, where these are fairly obvious, although it may be wise to avoid dogmatism as to these.  Some Bible interpreters are not fond of the word “probably” but there are times when it needs to be employed.

Incidentally, this feature of the deeper meaning is not totally absent from the other Gospels, for the parables, the analogical nature of which we considered in the last study, are stories which may be heard or read simply as such and yet they have deeper meaning.

In a number of passages in John’s Gospel, it is perfectly clear that the surface sense is not the intended meaning at all, but only the deeper sense.  In John 2:19, for instance, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” and then, after recording the reaction of the Jewish hearers who took his words literally, John says, “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” The profound significance of this can be seen when we remember that the temple was the dwelling-place of God and that Jesus was God manifest in the flesh.  Here the surface meaning was only a vehicle for the deeper meaning.  Further clear examples of this kind of thing can be found in John 3:3-8,4:32-34,11:11-15, and 12:31-33.  I suggest you study each of these.

Incidentally, the enemies of Jesus used this feature of his teaching against him.  So he was accused at his trial before the Sanhedrin of saying that he could destroy the temple and raise it in three days.  This is described by Matthew as “false evidence”, for it was not true to the sense Jesus intended by the words.  It has been suggested that his words may have been accompanied by a gesture towards his body, and this is possible, although the text does not actually say so.  It may even be that in this case the “witnesses” realised they were distorting the meaning of his words, for it seems this accusation was only brought against him after other suggestions had been tried without success (Matt.  26:59-62).  When there is an argument between two people and one of them is losing it badly, his or her last argument may often be very thin, for any more substantial arguments have already been advanced.

Was it reasonable to expect people to penetrate beneath the surface meaning to the deeper one?  We may perhaps find a key to this in the passages where Jesus criticises his hearers (John 8:43) and even his disciples (Mark 8:14-21) for their lack of understanding.  There is an ignorance that is culpable.

To understand spiritual teaching we need to have a spiritual faculty, and that faculty needs to develop and grow.  It is the Spirit of God who gives understanding.  Apart from him, our minds are dim, clouded by sin.   Here we see again how basic the parable of the sower is.  Jesus placed a high value on the faculty of receptivity and he saw that as the gift of God.

If you are a Christian but you feel that your spiritual understanding is inadequate, remember that prayerful exposure to the Word, openness to its teaching, obedience to its truth and dependence on the Spirit are the way to deeper understanding, for such understanding can come from God alone.  Also he may not reveal new truth to you unless you are obeying what he has already shown you.  Many of us who wear spectacles to correct short-sightedness know that we can find most things if we lose them in the house, unless what we have lost are our spectacles, because we need them to find them!  If you have lost your spiritual “spectacles” you cannot restore them yourself, but God can graciously do so when you return to him and his way.

In John’s Gospel, there are three striking passages, none interpreted in the immediate context, but where we are probably correct in seeing examples of deep meaning.

The first is John 13:30, where John says, “Judas …  went out, and it was night.”  The immediate, even abrupt, juxtaposition of these two facts certainly seems to be no mere indication of the time of day, but an ominous warning to the reader of what was to come.  It is not interpreted in the immediate context but it is worth reading it in the light of John 12:35-37, which is only a little earlier, and perhaps also in the light of the saying of Jesus recorded in Luke 22:33, “This is your hour – when darkness reigns.”

The second is in John 18:4-8, where we read, “When Jesus said, ‘I am he’, they drew back and fell to the ground.” In this Gospel, Jesus is recorded as making a number of important claims by the use of a particular formula.  He said, “I am the Bread of Life”, or “the Good Shepherd”, or “the Way, the Truth and the Life”, etc.  In each case, the word “I” is emphatic in the Greek.  This phrase recalls Exodus 3:13-15 and the great divine name given there.  The grammatical complement in each case (Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, etc.) represented his ability, as God incarnate, to meet some particular need of his people.  In the passage in John 18, however, he simply used the words “I am” without any complement, not even the word “he”, despite its presence in the translation!  This is not only impressive because of its lack of grammatical complement, but also because it is the final I AM saying of Jesus in the Gospel.

On the face of it, Jesus could have been saying, “I am the man you are looking for,” but the reaction of the soldiers and others suggests to many commentators that how Jesus said the words made them recall (rightly) that great divine title.   Perhaps there was something in the bearing of Jesus when he said this that suggested this interpretation of his words.

The deepest of all these sayings (arguably the deepest in the whole Bible), is found in John 19:29-30, where, from his cross, Jesus cries out, “It is finished!” This Gospel, like the others, does not simply provoke thought in its readers about the person of Jesus, but also about his work.  These three English words translate just one in Greek.  What does this utterance mean?

The superficial reader may think Jesus is simply saying that he has finished the drink he has been offered.  But the tense of the verb suggests far more than that, for it is the perfect, and the Greek perfect denotes past action with lasting effects, so that this adds emphasis to the meaning (“to complete”) of the verb itself.

This is profound, for so much was then perfectly completed: his life, so peerless, his teaching, so challenging, his life’s fulfilment of Scripture, so striking, his terrible sufferings, so moving, his conflict with Satan, so victorious, but supremely his atoning work in which he bore, so agonisingly and yet so willingly, the penalty of our sins.  The great theme of Christ’s finished work in the Epistle to the Hebrews seems like an inspired meditation on this awesome saying.

6.  Deliberate Pauline ambiguity

There are times when Paul uses a word which, in other contexts, has more than one meaning and which, in the Pauline context, has commentators arguing either for one meaning or the other.  It is possible that in a significant number of cases, Paul is employing such a word deliberately because of its ambiguity and because both meanings are true in his context.  We will look at some examples from three consecutive chapters in his second letter to the Corinthians.

In 2 Corinthians 3:18, he says, according to the NIV,

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

A marginal note gives “contemplate” as an alternative to “reflect”.

Which is correct? The Greek word can bear both meanings and is used elsewhere in both.  If you examine the context, which is a meditation influenced by Paul’s study of Exodus 34:29-35, you will see that either translation fits perfectly.   Perhaps then Paul was led to this word for the very reason that it can bear both senses and that both are true.  It is as we contemplate that we reflect.  Here is the way God’s sanctifying Spirit works, for he conforms us to the image of Christ as we fix our eyes on him and in so doing, reflect his character.

Then there is 2 Corinthians 4:7, where Paul says, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.” Here it is not so much a question of translation as of the way Paul intends the word to be understood in a particular social context.  He is certainly likening Christians to jars of clay, but what is the purpose of these jars?

In that society such jars served different purposes.   Because there were no banks as we know them, some people hid their valuables in jars, often in very cheap, plain ones in order to divert attention from them.  Certainly the context would fit that, for Paul is talking about treasure.

There is however another way we may understand him.  The markets sold particular jars into which a torch could be fitted so that it constituted a lamp.  This too fits the context.

If Paul intends both, then we have a beautiful and challenging thought: God has chosen us, undistinguished as we may be, to contain the rich treasure of the gospel, which in fact is the light of  God shining out from us into a dark world.  This gospel is both extremely valuable and most illuminating, while we are simply its vehicles.  We receive in order to convey.

In 2 Corinthians 5:19, Paul says (translating literally) “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” What does this mean?

Is it a statement about the incarnation? It certainly could be, and it would make good sense, for it is the witness of the New Testament writers, Paul included, that the coming of God in Christ into the world led to the cross, where the reconciling act took place, and that in Christ it was none other than God who was personally present and reconcilingly active.

On the other hand, “in Christ” could be the virtual equivalent of “through Christ”, so that Paul would not be making a statement about the person of Christ so much as about his work as God’s Agent in reconciliation.  This too is a thoroughly New Testament and Pauline thought.

It is noticeable that all these verses we have been considering occur in 2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4, the great theological section of his epistle, where Paul has a great deal to say about the nature of the Christian ministry.  The reading and intense study of these chapters could elevate and revolutionise our whole conception of what it is to be a servant of Christ.  The nature of the ministry is determined by the nature of the gospel, and to Paul the latter is glorious almost beyond description.

In this section of his letter, his thought operates with various dualities to a greater extent perhaps than anywhere else, sometimes by comparing them, at others contrasting them.  He writes about physical and spiritual veils, the physical veil over the face of Moses and the spiritual one over the faces of unbelievers, including the unbelieving Jews.  In writing about glory or splendour, he contrasts the lesser glory of the law with the greater glory of the gospel.  When writing about the spiritual light that comes with the new creation, which became his experience on the Damascus Road, he compares it with the physical light that came when God said “Let there be light” at the very beginning of things.  He views the spiritual resurrection that has taken place in the lives of believers as a precursor of that day when the total person of the Christian will enjoy new resurrection life.

I will leave you, the reader, to look through these chapters and identify these items for yourself.  This should lead you not just to reflection but to praise.

All this shows how very rich Paul’s teaching is in this letter.  His mind and heart were filled with wonder at what God has done for us in and through Christ, and he found a multitude of ways of expounding this, as the Holy Spirit gave him one illuminating and enriching thought after another.  There is no doubt that to see deliberate ambiguity, and the richness of thought which it expresses, in such verses as 2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:7 and 5:19 would fit the tone of this whole section of his epistle.

It is important that we exercise restraint in this kind of interpretation.  If we suspect that there is deliberate ambiguity, we should use three criteria.  First of all, as with every other issue of interpretation, we should ask if the context supports such an understanding.  Then we should ask if a commoner, unambiguous word or phrase was available to Paul, which would certainly suggest that his ambiguity at this point is deliberate.  Finally, we should ask if there is an important theological connection between the two meanings, so that this is not simply word economy but makes a theological point.  The three passages we have been discussing pass all three tests.

It is interesting that in Galatians 3:16 and 29 Paul bases the fact that Christ is the great Seed of Abraham and that, in him, we too are Abraham’s seed, on the fact that the Hebrew word for seed can, as in both Greek and English, be either a singular or a collective.  This shows that he was alive to this feature of literature, so that it is not surprising to find him employing it himself.

7.  Paul’s Irony in 2 Corinthians 10-13

There was a time when I found this part of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence very difficult, not just difficult to understand, but actually distasteful.  Paul seemed here to be doing what no Christian should ever do: he was boasting.  He seemed arrogant.  Yet I was puzzled, for this did not seem to fit with the Paul we find elsewhere.

There is not often one golden key to unlock the problems of a lengthy passage but occasionally there is, and this is a case in point.  The golden key is the fact that through this whole passage Paul is employing irony. When we see this, the main difficulties disappear and the passage becomes not only meaningful but very powerful.

The most important word in the whole passage is “boast”.   It is the occurrences of this word that bind the passage together.  But what is Paul boasting about? His strength? No, his weakness!

You see, after Paul had left Corinth, other teachers came to have influence in the church there.  Their ministry was in many ways unhelpful, and they were apparently arrogant in manner.  Boasting was their stock in trade.  They were very critical of Paul.  He felt it necessary to defend himself, because it was essential that the Corinthians should recognise that his teaching was authentic, for their very salvation depended on the gospel he proclaimed.

But how did he do this? By outboasting these other teachers? Yes, but by the kind of “boasting” that actually plays down the boaster.

So, for instance, towards the end of this passage, there is a section (2 Cor 11:30-32) where he tells of being let down over a wall in a basket.  I used to think Paul was saying, “how brave I was to put myself in such danger!” but in fact he was saying.  “how humiliating this was for me!” The false apostles would never have submitted to such indignity!

I will leave you to go through the chapters looking at them from this angle and asking yourself what spiritual lessons we can learn from them.

8.  The Book of the Revelation

As this section of the study moves along, you will see the relevance of it to its theme.

Down the ages Christians have been somewhat divided in their attitude to the last book of the Bible.  Some have been fascinated by it and have spent much time studying it and seeking to penetrate its mysteries.  Others have been put off it by its difficulties and also by the fact that there seem to be so many different interpretations of it.  They probably love chapters 1 to 5 and 21 and 22, but tend to regard the rest of the book as the province of “expert” interpreters (plus a few cranks) only.

We have already suggested that Revelation’s special problems of interpretation are largely due to the fact that most readers do not know the rest of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, well enough.  Here, more than anywhere else, we need to remember that the literary context, and the theological context too, of any one verse, or passage, or book of the Bible, is the whole Bible.

This is not the place to go into the interpretation of the book very fully, but it might be helpful to say that there are four main schools of interpretation, especially in the way they handle the large central section of the book: The preterist school maintains that the bulk of the book was fulfilled in the apostolic age, the historicist that it traces the story of the church through the ages, the futurist that most of these chapters are to be fulfilled in the events of the end time, and the idealist that it does not deal so much with actual events as with the principles of God’s sovereign control of history.  All four schools have strong and weak points.  There are also mediating schools, combining features of two or more of these.

Now important as this issue of the general interpretation of the book is, we should not lose sight of the fact that, as a book of inspired Scripture, it has a message for every age of the church.  Like so many books of Scripture, it may seem to be specially applicable to Christians facing particular circumstances, but never exclusively.

This does not mean of course that contemporary application should be made without any grammatico-historical understanding.  We should never do this with any book of the Bible.

We need to ask first of all what it would have meant to the first century Christians who were its first readers before we go on to enquire as to its message for today.  In fact this level of interpretation is probably more needed in relation to this book of the Bible than to any other.   This would rule out many of the stranger interpretations of it straight away.  When flying a kite in a strong wind, always make sure your feet are firmly on the ground!

Without doubt the preterist school is strong on the grammatico-historical principle of interpretation, because it emphasises the fact that the book was written for the Christians of John’s own generation.  The idealist school stresses the relevance of the book to every age and place.  It has been argued that these two points of view could be well joined together, as historical meaning and significance for today are the two key elements in proper interpretation of the whole Bible.

The futurist school too can argue its case well, for it enquires whether there are other passages of Scripture which point us in the direction of a particular interpretation, and often seeks support from the future orientation of the prophetic and apocalyptic utterances of Jesus in the Gospels, such as those we find in Matthew 24 or Mark 13, although preterists have their interpretation of these passages too.   Perhaps the least easy to support is the historicist interpretation, which is in fact the least popular of them at the present time.

Because in this study we are interested in double meanings, readers may be interested to know that some students of Revelation combine preterism and futurism by applying the principle known as Inaugurated Eschatology.  The idea is that features of what Christ will bring in when he comes again have already come at his first advent.   So, for instance, Christians are to enjoy eternal life in the future, but, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they in fact enjoy this in a very real measure already.  Christ inaugurated the kingdom at his first advent and will consummate it when he comes again.  This would in effect make the first fulfilment rather like a kind of type of which the second is the antitype, because the antitype is always a more complete fulfilment than the type.

This seems particularly fitting in that Revelation is a prophecy and the phenomenon often occurs in the way Old Testament prophecy is interpreted in the New.  It would make it the final example of this, which again may appear fitting in a book which is rightly placed at the end of the whole Bible.  God always seems to provide anticipations of the really big things he intends to do through Christ, so that when Jesus comes again every last element of his earlier revelations will be summed up and revealed.

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