Biblical interpretation is not an easy process. The reason it is not easy is because every book of the Bible was written in a certain historical context that absolutely needs to be understood in order to find an interpretation that can be applied today. Another reason interpretation is hard is because, in a very real and tangible way, the Bible has two intended authors and audiences.
2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all of the scriptures are God-breathed. What this means generally is that while there are human authors of each book, there is also a Divine Author behind the entire Bible. For this reason, there needs to be a layered approach to interpretation.
What I mean by this is that in order to really understand what the Bible means to us, we must first understand what the Bible meant to the author when he wrote it, and what he wanted to convey to his original audience.
I like to explain biblical interpretation like walking through a two-story home. Let’s just say that the interpretation that applies to us today is found on the second floor. In order to get to that level of universal application, you have to walk through the first floor. The first floor in this illustration would be the historical context and interpretation of each text.
If we are to rightly interpret any given text, we must first understand authorial intent. It cannot go any other way. While the Spirit breathed out the scriptures, he did it through men who lived in their own time, with their own customs, with their own purposes. And while their purposes were Spirit-driven and inspired, in order to see how the scriptures apply to us today, we must understand authorial/audience context. In order to get to the second story of a house, you must start at the first story.
For example, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”.
At first glance, it would seem that this passage really only had meaning for his original audience — no one has ever told me to observe a “new moon” (what does even mean?). However, if we realize what is exactly going on with Paul’s audience, we can find massive implications for our lives today. Paul began the letter of Colossians speaking of the supremacy of Christ over all things. The world was created by and through him (Col 1:15-17), making him Lord over the creation. And by his death and resurrection, he also becomes the supreme Lord over the new creation (Col 1:18-20). Because of this, Christians should trust that Christ is victorious and King over all beings, and over all things, sovereign Lord (Col 2:15).
Paul was saying all of this because, as we see in chapter 2, some were trying to persuade his audience that in order to be righteous before God (a “good” Christian), they needed to follow certain “rules”. They were told they had to eat certain things, or celebrate certain festivals, or even pay homage to angelic beings (Col 2:18).
But in fact, as we learn from Colossians 1, Christ’s supreme rule over all things was enough to make them more than righteous! From discovering this context, we can gather that in Colossians 2:16-17, Paul is calling his audience to trust in Christ alone for salvation, not being pressured to add other religious necessities to their faith. Some clever false teachers had almost convinced them that they had to add something else to faith in order to be saved.
Consequently, the Holy Spirit (through Paul), is also exhorting us to trust in Christ alone! If we are trying to find confidence in anything we do (or anything we don’t do), than we are by definition letting go of Christ’s righteousness (Col 2:19). In this passage, the Spirit is calling us to recklessly trust in Jesus’ righteousness alone.
Hopefully you can see how we traveled from the first floor to the second. First, we find what Paul was trying to tell his audience in Colossians 2. He was calling his audience to disregard the false teaching that salvation must be associated with some sort of good work — in fact, salvation is in Christ alone. But also, as we arrive at the second floor of interpretation, we find that we too must let go of “works” we may be trusting in, and fall on Christ alone.
This is biblical interpretation: walking from the first floor up to the second.
I plan on writing a follow-up post on exactly how to examine the “first floor”, and the differing types of contexts within any given passage.