Sometimes when discussing a disagreement about what a Scripture teaches, we may hear the response, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This may be said in an attempt to backpedal a previous statement, devalue another’s point or even end the discussion. Though this is a difficult barrier to overcome in a Bible study, disciples must try to build a bridge of understanding as we work toward unity (Jn. 17; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:1-6). Here are a few principles to keep in mind if you are ever met with the common response, “That’s just your interpretation.”
First, try asking, “What’s your interpretation of the passage?” This is what the Lord Himself did (Lk. 10:26). To interpret something is to explain its meaning. It’s only fair to honestly hear out another’s explanation. It could be that their interpretation was correct all along! Listening to someone else’s understanding of a passage demonstrates the virtues of integrity, fairness, humility and open-mindedness, all vital qualities of the honest truth-seeker (Prov. 18:12-13). A great example of this wisdom playing out in real life is found in Acts 18:24-28 when Priscilla and Aquilla gently and privately taught an honest preacher “the way of God more accurately.”
Then you might ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?” For an interpretation to be valid or at least believable, one must provide some evidence for its validity. In math class, the teacher called this ‘showing your work’. This is an important tool for Biblical exegesis and Christian apologetics (Acts 17:11; 1 Pet. 3:15). By providing evidence for your beliefs you are being reasonable (Phil. 2:5) and persuasive, practices common to Paul’s method of evangelism (Acts 18:4). For faith to take shape through studying God’s word one must be convicted of its truth (Heb. 11:1).
Finally, it is critical to note that “There is a correct interpretation,” otherwise every interpretation would be equally valid. The common belief that one view is just as good as another is called pluralism. Another extreme is to be so skeptical of every interpretation so as to believe that truth is unattainable. This belief is born out of postmodernism. But Jesus said all will be held accountable to the words that He spoke (Jn. 12:48). If His words cannot be understood then there is no hope for any of us!
The denial of the existence of absolute truth is becoming more commonplace but is no less philosophically inconsistent. The claim “there is no truth” is a self-defeating argument because the statement “there is no truth” is an absolute truth claim. If it is true that there is no truth then the statement “there is no truth” cannot be true! Thank God His word can be read and understood (Eph. 3:4; 4:12-13; 5:17). Working towards a correct interpretation of Scripture is an important part of developing our faith but is also an indispensable tool for explaining the gospel to unbelievers and working toward unity among disagreeing brethren.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the message was lost,
For want of a message, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the war was lost,
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost,
For want of a nail, the world was lost.
The poem illustrates an important truth. Something that seems insignificant at the start, like a blacksmith’s lack of a horseshoe nail, can set in motion a series of events that lead to an egregious outcome, like losing the world. This chain of causality always seems clear in retrospect but far less so in the moment. Historical events are complex and intertwined but in hindsight it seems that if X had not happened then Y would never have happened. And if Y had never happened this present reality wouldn’t be the same.
Suppose the British never decrypted the Enigma code during WWII. Would they have starved as the German U-Boats blockaded the British Isles? Would the Allies have even won the war? It’s enough to make your brain hurt!
Let’s approach this from a spiritual angle. Why did Jesus die? Peter meets this question on two levels. In his sermon in Jerusalem he points out certain historical events that took place and, as a consequence to those events, Jesus died. Yet at the same time, he does not give the impression that if those things had not taken place Jesus would not have died. Peter saw God’s hand working behind the scenes to bring all these things together to accomplish his eternal purpose.
In Acts 2:23 Peter says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In this statement we see the sovereignty of God working in concert with the freewill of man to bring about God’s eternal plan. God orchestrated events to bring about his purpose but he still held the Jews who condemned Jesus and the Romans who crucified him to account.
Luke also meets the same question on the same two levels. When Jesus took his last Passover meal with his apostles he said, “But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Lk. 22:21-22).
We see both the “hand” of man and the ‘hand’ of God at work to bring Jesus to the cross. So why did Jesus die? Because he was “betrayed” but also because God had “determined” it. Judas’ personal responsibility is not mitigated in any way by God’s providence. But we notice that it would not have been possible for Jesus to die if Judas had slept in that morning or got run over by a horse or was in any other way delayed. God’s control over all things is such that he can “determine” something to happen while allowing Judas freewill to make his choice.
How does the issue of God’s power and control shake out with us, his new covenant people? We have a special role to play in God’s work. He is no less in control of the world today as he was two thousand years ago. His will is to work in and through us but even if we drop the ball, our faithlessness in no way nullifies his faithfulness, “for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
But God’s control does not absolve us of our responsibilities as his redeemed children. If his will is not brought to bear through us he will still accomplish his purposes, we just won’t be part of his purposes. His Kingdom will not be lost for want of a Christian but for want of a Christian a soul very well may be lost! On the positive side, just think to what effect the Lord could use us in his service if we showed him the loyalty and trust he deserves!
“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
In Revelation 12, God pulls back the curtain separating heaven and earth to show John a great battle taking place. In a grotesque image, the devil, described as a ferocious, enraged dragon, is seen standing between the legs of a woman waiting for a child (Jesus) to be born so he can devour it (Rev. 12:4). Historically, this played out in Herod's slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem attempting to destroy Jesus as a child to prevent him from becoming king. Later on in Jesus' life, the "dragon" was at work in those who tried to push him off a cliff (Lk. 4:29) or pick up stones to throw at him (Jn. 8:59; 10:31, etc.).
It looked as though the dragon had finally won as Jesus was being crucified. However, three days later he was "thrown down" hard to the earth as Jesus was raised from the dead and enthroned as king. Because Satan (which means "accuser," see Rev. 12:10) has suffered such a devastating and humiliating defeat, he turns his attention on the people of God.
This is the reason for all the hostility and challenges that the people of God face today. Satan has already been fundamentally defeated through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Now he rages against the church. But why does he even bother? The voice from heaven says it’s "because he knows that his time is short!" (Rev. 12:12) He continues to fight not because he thinks he has a good chance of winning but because he knows he has already lost! The war is over in principle just not in practice. Until Jesus returns in the ultimate Day of Judgment, the devil is doing his worst "because he knows that his time is short.”
In 1944, the Russians were pressing in on Germany from the East, while the Western Allies came from the South through Italy. In the spring, 1.1 million men were dumped onto the beaches of Normandy, France in the course of 3 days. Anyone who could count knew the war was over. Though there were many hard battles left to fight the outcome was already settled. And how did Hitler respond? Not by conceding defeat and going quietly! Instead, there was the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive, the largest and bloodiest single battle the American’s fought in WWII. The defeated foe fights all the more fiercely. So it is with Satan. Backed into a corner by his defeat on Calvary, he wages an all-out war in view of his impending doom.
But the Lord says that the people of God have conquered him in three ways (Rev. 12:11). We triumph over Satan “by the blood of the Lamb.” Though he accuses us by sowing doubt in our minds about our salvation or God’s love for us, our only reply is, “I have no other argument, I need no other plea; it is enough that Jesus died and that He died for me.” We triumph over Satan by “the word of [our] testimony,” by living and proclaiming the truth about Jesus’ victory that we share in by faith. Finally, we triumph over Satan by not loving our lives, “even unto death.” Death has been stripped of its power by Jesus’ victory through his resurrection to eternal life. We share in that victory when we stay faithful to our risen Lord and king (cf. Rom. 16:20).
“And though this world with evils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us; Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” (A Mighty Fortress, Martin Luther).
My great grandfather, Pietro (Peter) Cafarelli, lived out his adult life at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. My mother can vividly remember her father Dominic, Peter's son, a soft-spoken and wise man of few words, telling her soberly to “be careful who you run around with,” marking the story of his father as testimony.
Peter Cafarelli was one of many Europeans to immigrate to the North Hill area of Akron, Ohio in the early 1900’s. Growing tensions between the mostly Irish police force and the Italian and Greek immigrants reached a boiling point just before the Great Depression. The Greeks and Italians were viewed as the dregs of society, living in the poorest neighborhoods scrounging for work in sometimes unsavory places.
The story goes that Peter was stealing chickens with two ‘associates,’ one of whom was carrying a firearm. Apparently, the other men were in the employ of a local mafia. Peter pleaded ignorance to this fact but could never prove it. Nevertheless, they were caught in the act and traded gunfire with the police. Tragically, one officer was killed. The man with the gun escaped while Peter and the other man were taken into custody. They were each tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
At this time in history the media engaged in what came to be known as “yellow journalism.” What ought to have been an unbiased factual report would often turn into columns colored by local opinion rife with racial and ethnic slurs. For example, an article from this very story ‘reports’ that Peter was a “dark Sicilian” despite the fact that he was not born in Sicily nor had he ever lived in Sicily.
My great grandmother always said that Peter was by no means a model citizen but he was no killer. He was simply doing the wrong thing (stealing chickens) with the wrong people (the Italian mob) at the wrong time. She struck a sad sight in the courtroom; another tired Italian mother, swollen with child and nursing her infant son, whose prospects of putting food on the table were now even more dim.
Later, my grandfather Dominic remembered visits to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus to see his incarcerated father. This prison was famous for its poor conditions, overcrowding and sweeping cholera outbreak of 1849. In 1893, a prison superintendent wrote, “Ten thousand pages of history would [not] give one idea of the inward wretchedness of its 1,900 inmates.”
On April 21, 1930, in one of the worst prison disasters in American history, a fire broke out on some scaffolding killing 320 inmates, some of whom died locked in their cells, and seriously injuring 130 after the roof eventually collapsed.
Peter died in the fire when his son Dominic was only 12 years old. Dominic would grow up without a father, living in squalor during the Depression. The county eventually came to take the children away from my great grandmother. This wisp of a woman allegedly barred the threshold with her broom, children behind her, and shouted in broken English, “You take my children over my dead body!”
The county officials thought better of it and decided to leave the crazy Italian lady alone. Despite the tragedy of losing a husband and father and the hardship that resulted, each member of the family grew up to be upstanding citizens. St. Vincent DePaul, a Catholic organization that provided for the poor, did much to improve their physical situation. Later, my grandfather Dominic would be an active member.
To this day, some of the only advice my mother can remember from her dad was to “be careful who you run around with.” I got the same advice growing up. The impact the people around us can have on our lives is truly staggering. For better or for worse the company we keep rubs off on us. We all have stories of being torn down by the wrong kinds of friends. Hopefully we can have more stories of being built up by the right friends. Thank God for the church, a community of friends that sticks closer than family! (see Prov. 17:17; 18:24; 27:17)
"Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you."
The apostle Paul's letter to Philemon has an interesting literary parallel in Pliny the Younger's letter to his friend Sabinianus. The two letters are only superficially similar. Sabinianus' freedman (one degree above a slave) had run away and come to Pliny for help in much the same way Philemon's slave Onesimus had run away to Paul in prison. Pliny was a powerful man, a Roman Senator. You may have heard of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a famous natural historian and contemporary of Paul, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvious.
Like Paul, Pliny (the younger) writes a letter requesting Sabinianus to accept the runaway freedman back. Unlike Paul, Pliny appeals to self-interest and sides with Sabinianus against the freedman. He says, "Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified... anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours."
He says of the freedman, "I've given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I've warned him clearly that I won't make such a request again." His request is not for full reconciliation and peace between the two but rather a concession to the freedman's youth and to Sabinianus' kindness ("He's young, he's in tears, and you have a kind heart."). Pliny wants the freedman to go back to Sabinianus and apologize and for Sabinianus not to beat him too badly for running away. He is perfectly happy to keep the heirarchy in place upon his return.
Compare all that to Paul in his letter to Philemon! Paul's motivations and appeal are entirely different. Paul is not simply asking Philemon to take Onesimus back and let bygones be bygones. He is aiming for the Christian virtue of love that will result in self-sacrificial forgiveness and full reconciliation. This requires humility on both sides - Onesimus must be humble enough to ask for forgiveness while Philemon must be humble enough to grant it.
Paul encourages Philemon and Onesimus to this humility by establishing the theological fact that they both share fellowship (koinonia) with God together in Christ. Now that Onesimus is part of God's new family in Christ he has become Philemon's "beloved brother" and spiritual equal (Phm. 1:16; cf. Col. 3:10-11).
Interestingly, Paul does not request that Philemon release Onesimus from slavery upon his return (though, I believe he may be hinting at such an outcome in v.21). Slavery, after all, was one of the great evils of the ancient world. Certainly, the dehumanizing practice of slavery was part of the old way and not in continuity with the new order of things that Jesus brought about (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Why not order all Christian slave owners to release their slaves?
Paul was committed to Christ's new way over against the old (Col. 3) but he never gave such a loud and clear protest against the institution of slavery. In fact, at that moment in social history, such an outcry might have done more harm than good, making life harder for Christian slaves and painting Christianity as a political and social revolution not unlike the many worldly rebellions before and after it.
His method was much subtler. He knows that, in principle, it is far better to be free than to be a slave (1 Cor. 7:21-23). But, like Jesus, Paul's way of changing the world is to plant a tiny mustard seed, which seems small at first, but grows into a large, speading tree. In the meantime, he teaches Christian slaves and masters to treat each other as human beings, with love, forgiveness, mercy and respect (Col. 3; esp. 3:22-4:1).
Paul appeals to the heart so that the love of God, shown to us in Jesus, takes firm root and his reign over us grows from the inside out. When that tree blossoms in greater understanding of God's love for us we are then equipped to love others in the same way.