January 24, 2014 by Chris French
Some passages of the Bible are tough not because you don’t understand the culture, language or the history, but because the truth it espouses doesn’t fit in with what you know about the rest of the Bible. You’re missing something, but what is it? When you run into those passages there are some principles that’ll help you understand what’s going on.
Principle #1 – Specific or General
Is the passage speaking to a specific person or group or is it talking about a guideline for all people everywhere to follow? For example, in Acts 10 the Holy Spirit is poured out on Cornelius and his family before they were baptized. In Acts 2.38 you see those people receiving the Holy Spirit only after their baptism. So what’s going on? Did the Holy Spirit jump the gun in Acts 10? Certainly not! Look back in Acts 10.45-46. God gave the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his family to open the eyes of the Jews to the fact that He was welcoming everyone into His kingdom, not just the Jews. This was a specific instance of God’s power and grace, not a guideline for all people in the future. He only did this once. The principle for all people in the future is in Acts 2.38. Baptism THEN the Holy Spirit. If you’re struggling with a teaching from a passage and you’ve done everything else use this principle.
Principle #2 – State vs. Process
Is the passage talking about a process or a perpetual state you find yourself in? For example, in Mark 16.16 you find that if you’re baptized you’ll be saved, but to the group of baptized believers in Philippi Paul says that they should work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2.12). Are they in the state of salvation or are they in the process of being saved? In this case both are true and this is a general rule for people everywhere, including us. Baptism does save you, but you’re also in the process of being saved as you continue to work in the Kingdom. So if you’re struggling with the doctrine in a passage maybe you need to check whether the tough part is a perpetual state the person is in or if it’s a process they’re going thru.
Principle #3 – Literal vs. Figurative
We talked about this in Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible, so here’s a quick refresher. You should read Scripture literally until you have reason to read it figuratively.
Principle #4 – Purpose vs. Procedure
In Galatians 5.3-6 Paul says that circumcision doesn’t matter one bit, but in Colossians 2.11-12 he says that it’s everything. What’s up with that? Notice the purpose for circumcision in both passages. In Galatians Paul is referring to the literal circumcision the Jews still thought was a condition of salvation. The purpose of circumcision was to be saved in their eyes and that’s what Paul is refuting. In Colossians he’s telling them that they have to cut away the old man they once were to be saved. If you’re struggling with a passage you might need to take a look at the purpose or the procedure that’s taking place. You might have differing purposes as you do here.
I got this outline from the Long Island church of Christ’s page on How to Study the Bible which is definitely worth a read! Pedro has some great practical tips on how to better study, some of which we haven’t talked about this week.