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Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Does It Mean?

…Is the first question most people will ask when exploring a passage of Scripture.  It should be the second or third.  The first question one should ask is, “What does it say?”  In the vast majority of cases the passage will mean just what it says.  Getting those questions out of order is a rich seedbed for misunderstanding or misconstruing what the Bible says.  But there are other places one can create problems for oneself.
What do we do with terms that show up over and over again in the Bible?  Do they always mean the same thing?
About 30 years ago I was in a Sunday school class.  The leader was working through the parables in Matthew.  In his teaching on the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13:31 – 32, he stated that the church would grow to have evil in it.  He based that on the statement in verse 32, that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.  When I asked him to clarify that statement, he said that birds always were evil in the Bible, and therefore it had to mean evil in this parable.  He would not accept questions on that logic.  He was wrong.  He is not alone.  He was committing a common error.

The error he committed was to take the meaning of a term or phrase in one part of the Scripture and apply its use there on another portion of the Scripture.  In some cases that is valid.  In most cases the comparison can help understanding.  But in all cases the context in which a term or phrase is used determines how the author intended the reader to understand his choice of words.

Isaiah 30:4 – 5 compares God and His actions to both a Lion and a flock of birds.  Using that teacher’s logic since Satan is referred to as a roaring lion in 1 Peter 5:8, Isaiah must be comparing or equating God to Satan.  Obviously not.  Further Isaiah’s use of the bird metaphor does not expect the reader to see God’s actions as evil.

Comparison of one passage to another is a core principle of solid Bible study.  Forcing terms to mean the same thing in all instances where the term or phrase is used, is not.