Have you ever wondered why God talks the way he does? So often, in Scripture, his words are shrouded in mystery, or stated in very curious ways. When people had the opportunity to ask him questions, his answers typically were given in ways that seemed to raise even more questions, rather than actually satisfy what was being asked.
This issue is so huge that theologians continue to struggle with biblical interpretation. Pick just about any passage, and you will be likely able to find someone, even entire denominations, that are convinced that what it says is very different from what you believe.
Two of three major keys, on this issue of rightly hearing God, are directly stated in Scripture. In confusion, the disciples finally got to ask God what all of us believers throughout history have wanted to ask: Why do you talk like this?
In a rare moment of directness, Jesus spoke clearly to his followers, that the reason he spoke in parables, figures-of-speech, analogies, and through mysterious declarations, was to hide the real meaning from the majority of those who listen to God. This truth is a reason why smart people are so easily deceived.
Biblical history records that it has always been God’s intent to speak to humanity in ways that appear obvious, but actually result in the wise and educated completely failing at being able to rightly understand what he says. Natural approaches, linguistic analysis, and face-value interpretations are designed to make most people who hear God’s words think they get it, when they actually don’t.
Although this reality certainly applies to unbelievers as well, the context of Jesus’ revelation was aimed at those who followed him, those who called him “Lord, Lord”, and at those who think they are his sheep. Their inability to actually understand the real meaning of what he is saying is divine evidence that they belong with the goats. They think they understand and they are convinced they will be saved, but their approach toward his words show they are deceived.
It would be in error to interpret this as meaning that God deceives people. God does nothing evil, but he does remain sovereign over such evil. It is easy to find biblical evidence for God intentionally doing things to mislead people, but one needs to be careful about what is actually occurring at such moments. It might be more helpful to recognize that God often gives the wicked what they want. His allowance for a person to choose evil, does not mean God caused the person to shift from what is right toward something wrong. We are all from the fall in the Garden, by nature, evil, so for God to set a temptation before a person who is already inclined toward such evil, is not the same thing as tempting them. Knowing that such a person would be inclined to do what is not right, and intentionally allowing that inclination to be exposed for what it already is, is very different that what Satan attempts to get those who are striving to obey God to disobey. In this way, God opens the door in speaking toward what such people are already wanting. This is why he tells his people, “Be careful what you ask for, for I may well give it to you.”
The second key, that God has directly revealed within recorded Scripture about right biblical interpretation, is that his spoken words are forever dependent upon Spirit illumination. In other words, they have been spoken and remain cloaked in mystery, for only “in Christ” can they be known. As our Lord told Nicodemus, a believer must become born-again through the Holy Spirit, before they will be allowed to travel along the path of starting to grasp the truths hidden in plain sight in Scripture.
Most Christians think they understand this, and assume that this is the core of what it means to interpret Scripture. Scholars, seminary students, ministers, and parishioners all want to study the word of God and all make great strides in identifying spiritual truths. Most are tempted to think that this ability is evidence of right understanding, but this is the same belief held by the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. The Lord confronted them because their diligent study of Scripture, and religious heritage, convinced them that they knew better than all “these people [who] are ignorant of the Law”.
Although everyone likely recognizes that a parable is not the primary meaning, few are as careful in their recognition, either that God intends such basic language to mislead most students of Scripture, or that apparent identification of spiritual meanings is not necessarily coming from the Spirit of God. When skilled interpretation is the pursuit, rather than seeking the Spirit to reveal truth the way the Bible says that it ought to occur, error is not far behind. It is probably safe to say that most people commonly assume that biblical meaning is simply a function of this second key in interpreting, and pay little attention to either the first or third in how they impact a person’s ability to hear the truth.
Paul confirmed this when he stated to believers in Corinth, that the things of God can only ever be understood through the Spirit of God, and that the spirit of man by itself is entirely incapable of figuring out truth by human effort, no matter how intelligent, no matter how reliant upon church tradition, no matter what position of high ministry.
In other words, just because a person thinks they have evidence of Spirit activity through them, or just because they can do amazing miracles, or just because they have lots of evidence of a successful ministry, or just because they are a long-time believing Christian, they remain easily deceived, unless they rightly “hold to” the teachings of Jesus. Those who put his words into practice as he expects will be firmly grounded in their faith and will be granted the grace to endure eventual storms; whereas, those who are firmly convinced of their belief in Jesus, but do not rightly understand and then apply some passage of what he requires as recorded in Scripture, will find that “even what he thinks he has will be taken away”.
Lots of people think they understand Scripture. Every denomination, non-denomination, and pre-denomination is led by trained ministers who are absolutely convicted of their rightness in understanding God. They all firmly believe that their doctrines are right, and that everyone else is wrong. Very few will ever show the continuous humility of the original 12 Apostles, when confronted with the possibility of self-deception in thinking they are right with the Lord, and say “could it be me, Lord?”
A suggested third major key in rightly dividing the word of truth can be discovered within Scripture, but only through observation of the repeated patterns. Of course, the first two keys still govern this third insight, so this isn’t about human skill or extra-biblical interpretation. This key is about three levels of intention.
Whenever God spoke directly to his people, or when he so often spoke in such odd prophet-talk through his chosen human instruments, or even when he inspired Scripture to be written by ministers who really, really wanted believers to understand the truth, it has always been presented with three distinct layers of intended meaning.
Those who approach the words of God with this insight are far more likely to get it, than the vast majority who have no clue about the different meanings. If you want to hear God rightly, you must understand that everything he says has more than one purpose to it. Yes, this means that God has several motives at work in everything he says and does. If you don’t understand this, and thus don’t look for it, you will always misread his words.
A caution here. This key about multiple intended meanings in every declaration of God, does not mean there are different interpretations that are equally correct. That lie is very common in Christian history and continues to enjoy rampant application in every denomination that I have ever come across. Do not be deceived. God’s words do not have competing truths or different meanings. The word of God is always in agreement with itself, such that any apparent conflicts are always in the interpretation, not it the text.
By different intended meanings, I am referring to different purposes, not different interpretations that are acceptable. So let’s take a look at several easy passages that might help reveal this important truth about how to begin to understand rightly.
You may recall when Jesus said to his faithful disciples that “Lazarus has fallen asleep”, that they all immediately thought he meant natural sleep. So ask yourself, is that what the Lord meant?
Most who know the story would be inclined to answer, no, but that is incorrect. Jesus is fully aware of what his words cause in human minds. Those who answer yes, are also incorrect, because Jesus made it very clear, after they revealed their understanding about sleeping, that Lazarus was actually dead.
If you said nothing to yourself, then you are not likely to have trusted the Spirit to be guiding you into all truth, because you chose the safe path of not being exposed. Been there, done that; so I can easily relate. However, the answer that more likely will lead into all truth, is either a yes-and-no answer, or an answer of partly-yes.
This is why understanding the three purposes of intention can be so helpful. Jesus said that his friend Lazarus was asleep, when he knew that he was actually dead, because he fully intended for his disciples to think about natural sleep. Remember the first key noted earlier, that God speaks in mystery so that most people will go with the obvious and be fully convinced that they understand, when they don’t. That is what Jesus was doing with his Apostles at that moment. He led them into the natural interpretation to expose the error of a quick interpretation. He fully intended for them to go there. Jesus was not deceiving his followers. It was his purpose to get them to think that way, so that he could teach them how to listen rightly to God, but it was not the ultimate meaning about Lazarus.
It would seem likely that the next layer of meaning could be seen in the classical pattern of physical-spiritual, where this is then the actual spiritual meaning. That is partly correct, but the second and third purpose should divide the spiritual yet again, in order to understand God’s real intent in speaking.
When Jesus used the word asleep to reference a dead man, he had two more major reasons for saying this. The first of these two (or the second major intended reason for speaking in what some refer to as prophet-talk) was to reveal something true about that moment, circumstance, immediate time, specific context, or named person. This is the layer of intended meaning where the Lord would explain the meaning of a parable to a select group of followers at that time.
So for those disciples, they were expected to come to rightly understand Jesus as referring to Lazarus as asleep, but in a way very different than either naturally asleep or simply dead. This sick man had naturally died, but Jesus didn’t want his followers to view this circumstance like any other death of a human. As you might imagine, the minds of these disciples were likely spinning with confusion at this point.
They were not to view Lazarus as asleep, even though that is what the Lord said about him, and then when they found out that he was naturally dead, they were also not to view him as just naturally dead. Jesus fully intended for them to understand the second layer of what he was teaching them, that Lazarus was asleep in natural death. But why not just say he was dead?
This gets us to the third, and most often missed layer of truth. This is where the real, full, and ultimate purpose in God speaking as he so often does is finally recognized. The third intended meaning in whatever God declares is to reference the ultimate truth as it applies throughout time to all people.
This is why everything God states, even those words that are now 2000 years old or more, are living, just as powerful in transforming, and relevant to our day, lives, and cultures. We are not in need of some fresh word from God, but rather to listen more carefully to what we have heard so that we will not drift away from how his recorded words speak truth into our every struggle and desire right now here today. But you can’t discover it, if you don’t even know that you ought to look for it and ask for it, without expecting him to update it to better fit with modern preferences.
In this incident, Jesus was teaching his disciples that for anyone who is viewed by God as “in Christ”, their natural circumstances are not the most significant or final answer for their life.
A Christian who dies naturally should be viewed by fellow believers as preserved differently by God than all others who experience that similar end of life. God is the God of the living, not the dead, as Scripture interprets it: because he “speaks of things that are not, as though they were”. All humans will be raised again to life, so this truth connected to Lazarus is not about simply being “raised in the life to come”, but rather about shifting how we view genuine believers who physically die as still possessing a living hope in Christ. To God, a deceased believer like Lazarus is simply in a temporary condition that is no different in God’s eyes than a person who is naturally sleeping. Scripture says about such people that they simply “rest in death” for what they have coming at the return of Christ is more reliable and certain than even their physical passing from this life.
When God speaks he fully intends for all people who listen to grasp the face-value, natural words like some instructive fable or memorable narrative. Such a level of meaning, however, will leave such people convinced they understand, but blind to their own ignorance. Sadly, the evidence is this layer of biblical interpretation is extremely common within the church at all levels and on both sides of the podiums.
A dominant example of this revolves around interpretations of the word “body” and “flesh”, especially as used by Paul in Scripture. It is very common to hear preachers interpret this as the biological body of a person, and not as a reference to the natural person in this fleshly life. This popular meaning taken from the level-one surface is very likely the reason the Spirit inspired Paul to write as he did–so that most would think he meant the physical body as distinct from the mind, soul, heart, spirit, or person. Major doctrines have been established on this interpretation, and much blood has been spilled throughout history for those who said otherwise.
Many will show the grace of God to delve deeper into the mysteries recorded, and discover the intended meanings as they were delivered. This layer is very significant and can only be really grasped by the activity of the Holy Spirit in revealing truth, but again, many find their theology stunted by jumping off too soon in their interpretations.
In order to rightly hear the fullness of God’s declared word, a person will need to eventually discover how those words go beyond that initial, historical context and are intended to impact their own lives. Application is not so simple. For example, how should the revelation about Lazarus be applied in your life and how are you demonstrating that you get the actual intended meaning of what Jesus said then? If you believe what is most often stated at Christian funerals about deceased believers looking down from a better place, then you ought to go back to what he actually taught.
When Jesus stood in the Jewish Temple and said to that audience, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” there were as usual three layers of intended meaning. People didn’t typically refer to themselves as temples. That would have been odd, and Jesus didn’t tell anyone at that moment what he actually meant. Rather, he said it like that with the full intention of his audience thinking he was speaking about the Jewish Temple. It was impossible for anyone, including his immediate followers, to have any reason to think he was speaking of his own physical body. Such a view was not made clear until later, and even then, it was only revealed to his faithful disciples. Everyone one at that time thought he meant one thing and he fully intended for them to think that.
It is very important for biblical interpretation to understand this first key that God speaks in ways that invite people to jump to conclusions in what they think he means, but have no clue about what they so confidently believe and teach.
The second layer of intended meaning, which likely remained hidden even from his closest followers until after his resurrection, was that he was speaking of his own physical body as that temple he would raise to life again. Academically, that truth is recognizable to anyone who reads what we have preserved in Scripture. Understanding that truth is not dependent upon further leading of the Spirit. As a result, I would strongly suggest that there is a deeper truth spoken there and intended by the Lord for us to grasp, if we seek out how he intends that truth to impact us now. Jesus’ words and life are not just ancient history any more than that which is recorded about the nation of Israel, for all of those real events and words were recorded for us today. They have a very real intended meaning that was designed to impact and transform believers today.
The natural benefit of stopping with the second key and not striving to grasp that deeper and ultimate application in the meaning, is we can inject our own preferences in what to do with our historic doctrines. In other words, Christians can take one level of assumed spiritual revelation and then apply it as they see fit in their culture or circumstances. In this way, we can still act like gods over our own lives; there is no desperate need to be led by the Spirit in how to rightly apply some old biblical words.
Unless a professing believer remains submissive to the continued leading of the Holy Spirit and strives to obey everything the Lord taught through his original Church leaders, their claim of historic church doctrines can never progress beyond that second intended layer. Tradition is important, but it is also very tempting to become complacent with our beliefs and no longer ask, seek, and knock with God’s recorded words. The more such a believer disobeys, the more their own understanding will grow darker.
Most Christians, it seems, are content with their church, their doctrines, their beliefs, their traditional explanations of God’s words, and even their own personal relationship with God. Few exhibit that required fear-of-the-Lord as they strive to hear his words rightly. Expecting that ongoing revelation of being led into all truth, as one puts his words into practice, is often set aside for the preferred comfort of “proven” and orthodox teachings, that when challenged by the actual wording of Scripture, convince many to protect their turf more than strive to honor His holy name.
As cautioned earlier, this does not imply that God’s words can morph into new truths, private interpretations, or other nonsense. It is about holding tightly to what he has said, recognizing his intent is to allow many to hear what they want and go astray, both at the natural level as well as at that initial spiritual level.
You may recall that genuine Christians are often compared to the true prophets of old who were persecuted and killed, in contrast to the false prophets who enjoyed the religious support of God’s people. If you are willing to consider it, that pattern is very likely the same today. The faithful will be marginalized, persecuted, fired, kicked out of church, and even killed by fellow believers, whereas the false believers who surround themselves with many leaders who sincerely agree with their distorted beliefs enjoy the favor of the religious. Their support and dominance, as well as their prophesied treatment of anyone who challenges their leadership, will develop into a majority with claims of orthodoxy that appear spiritual, but no longer show the ability to hear that third layer of what the Lord has already said.
This reality is the reason Jesus declared that there would be no need for him to judge such religious leaders, because “the words I have already spoke will judge you on that day.”
When the Lord told his disciples that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he gave no further explanation. He dropped a bombshell on their belief in God, knowing full well that most wouldn’t accept the underlying meaning because of their disgust at the surface meaning. His first layer of meaning was intended to clean house, to thin down the ranks of believers, to challenge every single disciple present on whether or not they would continue to follow him because of faith in who he was over-and-above their understanding of what he was saying.
Most thought they understood his words perfectly well, and turned away from following him. The second layer of meaning was to expose the primary need to follow by faith, not by sight. In this case, the mental sight of understanding was withheld from everyone, even from the 12. That moment was a critical test of faith, to which Peter revealed, that there was no better place to go, since those who were still standing there were convinced He was of God and alone spoke genuine truth.
It could be suggested that the spiritual meaning of eating and drinking of the Lord also involved the eventual revelation of Communion as a way of relating to the Lord’s crucifixion. In my mind, this is still another aspect of that second layer of intention. Participating in communion through this very important and special symbolic ritual is still not the primary meaning.
The third layer of intended meaning, for those remaining disciples and for us today, uses his later revelation of the symbols of Communion, but goes beyond to a way of living. It is God’s expectation that we live our every moment, every thought, every detail through the indwelling of his Spirit as we embrace the struggle of how that leads us to constantly bear the Cross and identify with the Lord’s suffering. In this way we each commune with the Lord in his death, individually as well as in faithful community, by living out his New Covenant expectations, with the hope of resurrection. Just as the Israelites went out each day to gather Manna, Christians are intended to survive, live, and exist in constant eating of the Lord’s life through application of his words and dependence upon the leading of his life-blood Spirit.
To understand that the Lord didn’t mean his actually physical flesh, but eat of symbols that represented his flesh and blood, is only a surface read. To participate in Communion, of itself, is not magical, beneficial, or even wise. Unless we step forward and live by ingesting his every word and approach, in a very real and literal way, of a constant diet of Spirit activity, we can’t grasp the true and ultimate meaning intended in his shocking call to supper.
So here is a simple test to tickle your thoughts. In Proverb there are two declarations of truth: one says, “answer a fool according to his folly”, the other says, “do not answer a fool according to his folly”. So if you are to hear God’s words rightly, you may think you understand what answering means and what a fool is referring to. You may even think to understand the rest of those back-to-back verses which give the reasons why (kind of like when Jesus explained some parables). You may even grasp the explanation that both can’t be done at the same time or circumstance, so they appear to be giving directions that you can chose whenever you think one is better or the other. However, if you are to hear that third and ultimate layer of meaning, how can you know which one to apply and when, when faced with a fool?
Want to try a more challenging one? How about when Jesus said: “I will lose none of those given to me by the Father.” It is easy to think back to sermons that have interpreted this statement, or to recall official doctrines about personal assurance or destiny. His statement is intended to make most who hear it think it applies to themselves. Many will point to biblical evidence to help confirm their claim of belonging to that special group, but the Lord dealt with that by saying such people are wicked and will not enter his Kingdom.
If you are to grasp that primary, ultimate, intended meaning, if you are to show yourself approved as one who rightly handles the words of God, then how are you showing greater concern for upholding all of God’s words that address that subject? Jesus himself declared that the church would be full of both wheat and weeds, without any of us really knowing the difference for now, and that many would turn away from the faith, so have you considered what Scripture specifically says about who knows who has been “given to me”? A little hint, Scripture directly says there is only one who knows that.
This idea about multi-layered meanings within the words of God is a major contributor for conflicting theologies and church divisions. Many Christians will try to defend their practice, beliefs or traditions by quoting one or a few passages that seem to support their understanding, but intentionally avoid, hide, and even deny other passages that undermine such a view. Most creeds and statements of faith use this method. If however you really want to see yourself more clearly, try asking your opponents for their input rather than your friends.
It is shocking to hear sincere Christians using preferred passages of God’s word to beat up on other passages spoken by the same God. Such a surface level of interpretation can be often recognized simply by shining God’s words, which say something very different, on a belief or practice, and then observing that person’s response that either seeks to justify themselves or strives to keep God’s full words in agreement with itself.
The second layer of intended meaning often provides significant truth on a given subject. The third should never be expected without a firm grasp on this second. What the Lord is instructing may have multiple truths within it, or may have one main truth that is being highlighted, and although understanding it is dependent upon the work of the Spirit, it is not yet at the “what now” level.
This third purpose and layer of meaning is where genuine transformation takes place. This is the realm that Scripture speaks of living by the Spirit, not just understanding an answer or definition or doctrine. This is the level of living the truth, which will always remain rightly within the boundaries of the doctrinal revelation that often is grasped at the second layer.
This third layer of distinction is the reason why John writes about professing Christians who are actually liars, because their doctrinal claims don’t match with their living. It is why Paul warns believers that “those who live like this” in on-going sin, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. It is the reason that Peter confronts those false ministers who have come to faith, but then return to their vomit, and of whom he says it would have been better if they had never known the truth than to have actually known it and turned their backs on that sacred command.
By God’s grace, if you hear these words, I hope this will help you to know what to listen for when considering the words of God. More than that, I hope you will hunger deeply to hear and know the full gospel of Grace as the Lord taught it and preserved it in his holy Word.