In the latest post on 2 Thessalonians, I included a note on a Bible study principle that I think is very important. I wanted to share it here. It was written for a study on 2 Thessalonians, hence the references to that letter, but it applies to the study of any book or passage.
When we study a book or passage of Scripture, we must always strive to understand what the original author meant when he wrote the book or letter. In the case of 2 Thessalonians, what did Paul mean for the believers in Thessalonica to understand by what he wrote. If we interpret a passage in a way that could not possibly have been understood by the intended audience, our interpretation almost certainly cannot be the correct interpretation.
For example, we cannot interpret Ge 1:9 to be teaching the science of continental drift; the original audience—the nation of Israel coming out of Egypt—could not possibly have understood that.
- Ge 1:9. God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.”
Also, the several references in the Bible to God stretching out the heavens cannot give us a scientific treatise on stars’ red shift or on how time works. It’s impossible that the original audiences of those writings could have understood advanced astronomy.
Paul was writing to the Thessalonian believers to make things clear to them; he was not writing something that would take centuries of scientific study to understand. We must seek to get into the minds of the believers in Thessalonica to whom Paul wrote and we must try to understand what Paul’s writings meant to them. That is the correct interpretation.
I have mentioned many times (and I’ll probably mention it many more times) the principle It can never mean what it never meant. Whatever Paul meant by the contents of this letter to the Thessalonians is what the letter meant then, and that’s what it means now.
There is no reason or benefit in trying to find messages in the Bible that make sense to a scientifically advanced society in the 21st century, but would make no sense to the people in Bible times.
So, to your list of questions you must ask a book or passage, add these:
- What did the original audience understand about this book or passage?
- Is my interpretation of this passage beyond the possible understanding of the original audience? If so, I must conclude that my interpretation is false.
Of course there are typological prophesies in the Bible. A typological prophesy is a prophesy that had a near future fulfillment (or partial fulfillment) as well as a more distant future fulfillment. (Here’s a good article on typological prophesy: http://www.equip.org/article/typological-fulfillment-key-messianic-prophecy/.)
In the cases of typological prophesies, the near fulfillment or reference is to be understood by the original audience while a more distant future fulfillment may not be immediately understood. The good news about those far future fulfillments (most of which pointed to Christ’s first coming) is that we don’t need to seek some answer for them. They are either answered for us in the New Testament or some other Scripture, or they will be evident when, and only when, they happen.