Jesus’ Hermeneutical Principles
We live in a pluralistic society where differing, even conflicting, viewpoints are seen as equally valid. This attitude has become very prevalent in our culture since the 60s. Television and radio talk shows continually stress that no absolutes exist. Many consider truth to be subjective and relative. They insist that there are very few, if any, definites—very little black and white, but a lot of gray. The matter is further muddled by the fact that on any religious or moral question, there are knowledgeable, sincere authorities on both sides of the issue. The general American mindset is that since truth is so elusive, no one should judge anyone else. No one should be so arrogant or dogmatic as to insist that a certain viewpoint is the only correct viewpoint. Truth to one person is not truth to another.
But without even examining God’s Word, we ought to be able to see that such thinking is self-contradictory and unacceptable. Why? Because those who espouse it insist that they are correct. They are dogmatic in their insistence that “no one should be dogmatic.” They hold as absolute and certain truth the fact that there are no absolute truths. Therefore, they have to deny their viewpoint in order to hold it!
Especially in religion, people tend to take the foolish position that truth is elusive and unattainable. Only in the task of interpreting the Bible do people take the position that truth is relative, always changing, and something of which we can never be sure. We reason in religion in a way that differs from the way we reason in every other facet of our lives.
For example, when we visit the doctor, we communicate to him our symptoms and expect him to understand us. We expect him to gather all the relevant evidence (the verbal information we give as well as the signs our bodies manifest) and then properly interpret that evidence to draw the right conclusions concerning our ailment and proper treatment. He then writes down a prescription that we take to the pharmacist and, once again, we expect the pharmacist to interpret properly the doctor’s instructions. We take the prescription home and read the label, fully expecting to understand the directions. The fact that doctors and pharmacists may sometimes make mistakes by drawing unwarranted conclusions from the evidence they gather about our physical condition does not change the fact that if they gather sufficient evidence and reason properly about the information, they can arrive at truth regarding our medical condition.
Everyday we interpret thousands of messages accurately. We read the newspaper, fully expecting to understand what we are reading. We read novels with the same expectation. We watch the news on television, we go to the mailbox and get our mail and browse through it, fully expecting to interpret properly the messages being conveyed to us. The fact that misunderstanding sometimes occurs, does not negate the fact that more information can be examined in order to draw the right conclusions and arrive at correct interpretations.
We go through this process constantly—every waking hour of the day, day in and day out, year after year. We give ourselves credit for having the ability to operate sensibly and communicate with one another intelligibly. Yet we turn right around and imply that the God of heaven, the One Who created our minds and our thinking capacity, the One Who is infinitely wiser and more capable than humans, is incapable of making His will known to humanity in a clear and understandable fashion! When we come to the Bible, we do a sudden about-face and insist that we can’t be sure what God’s will is, we must not be dogmatic on doctrine, and we must allow for differing opinions on what is spiritually right and wrong!
Did God author the Bible through inspired men with the purpose of making known His will for us? Did God have the Bible written in such a way that we can grasp the meanings that He intended to convey? The Bible declares, “yes.” God has given man written revelation with the understanding that it can be comprehended correctly. This means that for every teaching, for every passage, for every verse, for every word in the Bible, there is a meaning that God intended to convey. That’s what Peter meant when he wrote: “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). He meant that men did not decide what information to include in inspired material—God did. God has given every responsible human being the task of ascertaining that one correct interpretation. There is only one correct interpretation to any given passage—the right one: God’s view!
Let us return to the New Testament and Jesus Christ Himself. Let us examine the very approach that Jesus took in interpreting Scripture. Let us discover Jesus’ attitude toward truth and revelation. Let us consider how He employed Scripture to face the assaults of those who would deter Him from conformity to the will of God. Then let us “go and do likewise.” Jesus’ own approach to interpretation may be viewed in terms of His attitude toward Scripture and His actual use of Scripture.
Jesus’ Attitude Toward Scripture
Concerning His attitude toward Scripture, several elements emerge from His life on Earth.
1. Jesus clearly considered Scripture to be divinely inspired through human instrumentality. He attributed David’s words in Psalm 110:1 to the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36). He treated Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9:27 as an inspired prediction that most certainly would come true (Matthew 24:15). On the very day He visited the synagogue in Nazareth and read aloud from Isaiah 61, He declared the passage fulfilled in their hearing (Luke 4:21). He maintained that Scripture’s affirmation that Elijah was to precede the Messiah’s appearance (Malachi 4:5) was exactly what transpired (Mark 9:11-13).
At His arrest, He asked Peter two questions, the second of which further confirmed His belief in the inspiration of Scripture: “How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?” (Matthew 26:54). He attributed His selection of Judas to the inevitable fulfillment of Psalm 41:9 (John 13:18). Indeed, He was so sure of the inspiration of the Old Testament that even at His death, He quoted Psalm 22:1 (Matthew 27:46). Clearly, Jesus recognized Scripture as originating in the mind of God, thus imparting a controlling unity to the whole of Scripture. To Jesus, the Old Testament from beginning to end is inspired of God.
Jesus consistently approved the idea that Scripture has been preserved from error and is the Word of God in all of its parts. Not only did He receive the predictive elements of Old Testament Scripture, but also He acknowledged the credibility of the didactic and historical portions as well. Daniel’s historicity (Mark 13:14), Jonah’s fish experience (Matthew 12:40), the divine creation of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:4), the reality of Noah and the Flood (Luke 17:26-27), Lot and the destruction of Sodom as well as the fate of Lot’s wife (Luke 17:29,32), the widow, famine, and drought of Elijah’s day (Luke 4:25-26), and the leprous Syrian commander, Naaman (Luke 4:27)—all attest to His conviction that Scripture is inspired fully “in all of its parts.” The credibility of the inspired writers was unquestioned and their literary productions contained no mistakes.
For Jesus, Old Testament inspiration extended to the verbal expression of the thoughts of the sacred writers. Jesus clearly embraced this understanding of the matter. He based His powerful, penetrating defense of the reality of the resurrection of the dead upon the tense of the grammar of Exodus 3:6. If God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the very moment He was speaking to Moses, though the three had already died, then they must still exist beyond the grave (Matthew 22:32). [NOTE: The claim that Jesus made an argument based upon the “tense” of Old Testament language needs clarification. Actually, Hebrew has no past, present, or future tenses. Rather, action is regarded as being either completed or incomplete, and so verbs occur in the Hebrew Perfect or Imperfect. No verb occurs in God’s statement in Exodus 3:6. Consequently, tense is implied rather than expressed. In this case, the Hebrew grammar would allow any tense of the verb “to be.” Of course, Jesus clarified the ambiguity inherent in the passage by affirming what God had in mind. Matthew preserves Jesus’ use of the Greek present tense: “Ego eimi.”] The argument depends on God having worded His statement to convey contemporaneity.
When Jesus challenged the Pharisees to clarify the identity of the Messiah, He focused upon David’s use of the single term “Lord” in Psalm 110:1—“If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” (Matthew 22:45). His whole point depends upon verbal inspiration. On yet another occasion, Jesus was on the verge of being stoned by angry Jews because He identified Himself with deity. His defense was based upon a single word from Psalm 82:6—“gods” (John 10:34-35). His whole point depends upon verbal inspiration.
Jesus’ allusion to the “jot and tittle” constituted a tacit declaration of belief in verbal inspiration (Matthew 5:18). Not only the thought of Scripture, but also the words themselves and the letters that formed those words, were viewed as inspired. The same may be said of Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24 in His discourse on divorce. Notice the wording: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said...” (Matthew 19:4-5). The verse to which Jesus alludes occurs immediately after a statement made by Adam. No indication is given in the text that the words are a direct quote of God. In fact, the words seem to be more authorial, narratorial comment by Moses, the author of the Pentateuch. Yet Jesus attributed the words to God. In other words, God was the author. The Genesis passage is not a record of what God said; it is what God said.
2. On the basis of this divine origin, Jesus also clearly demonstrated His attitude that Scripture is authoritative and that men are obligated to follow its precepts. When He described Abraham’s chat with the rich man in Hades, He quoted Abraham’s remark, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). In so doing, He manifested His high regard for the authority of the Old Testament as the ultimate voice and guide for Israel.
To Jesus, Scripture is the foundation of belief. He declared, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). He told the Jews, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life.... [H]ad you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:39,46-47). Jesus asserted that the Old Testament bore authoritative divine witness to Himself and, in so doing, bore witness to the authority of the Old Testament itself.
Many instances demonstrate Jesus’ recognition of the authority of Scripture. In Matthew 12:39-40, Jonah’s experience (Jonah 1:17) foreshadowed Jesus’ own burial: “For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation” (Luke 11:30). In Matthew 4:17ff. Jesus opposed Jewish traditions and scribal commentary for making void the Word of God. In Mark 12:10, to confirm the point of His parable, Jesus introduced an authoritative Scripture with the rhetorical query, “Have you not read this Scripture?” In Luke 4:21, Jesus declared Isaiah 61:1-2 to be applicable to those who were in His presence on that occasion. In Luke 24:27,44, Jesus expounded the Old Testament Scriptures and declared the necessity of their fulfillment—a superfluous, futile exercise unless they were authoritative for His listeners. In John 15:25, words from a Psalm are described as “law.”
Perhaps the most striking proof that Jesus viewed Scripture as authoritative is the occasion when He ascribed legal authority to the entirety of Scripture—a view also held by the Jews (John 12:34). By maintaining that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), Jesus asserted that its authority could not be annulled, denied, or withstood. Scripture’s authority is final and irrevocable. It governs all of life and will be fulfilled, come what may. Clearly, Jesus’ uniform attitude toward Scripture was one of complete trust and confidence in its authority.
3. Jesus also viewed Scripture as propositional, absolute, and objective. Phrases such as “it is written,” “God said,” “through the prophets,” and “Scripture says” show that Jesus and His apostles esteemed the Old Testament as divine and regarded its precepts as absolute truth. Its objective and absolute quality is seen in His frequent allusion to the Jewish writings as a unit—a well-defined, sacred totality (Matthew 5:17-18; Luke 24:44; cf. Matthew 24:35). The apostles and gospel writers agreed with Jesus’ view that Scripture must be fulfilled (cf. Matthew 26:26; Luke 3:4; 22:37; John 12:38).
Even as a boy of 12, Jesus’ handling of Scripture as an objective body of truth was evident as He dazzled the doctors of the law with “His understanding and answers” (Luke 2:47). This characteristic continued throughout His earthly habitation. He contradicted His antagonists (e.g., the chief priests, scribes, and Sadducees) by pinpointing ignorance of the Scriptures as the cause of their religious error (Matthew 21:16; 22:29). He as much as said: “If you knew Scripture, you would not be in error” (cf. Mark 12:24). He prodded the Pharisees to consult Hosea 6:6—“go and learn what this means” (Matthew 9:13). On the other hand, Jesus knew Scripture (He ought to, He wrote it!), and used it as the basis of objective perception.
The propositional nature of Scripture is particularly apparent in Christ’s frequent use of isolated Old Testament statements (i.e., propositions) to prove various contentions. He used Psalm 110:1 to prove His lordship (Mark 12:36). He proved His Messianic identity and impending resurrection by alluding to an apparent conflation of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 (Mark 14:62). He proved His death and resurrection were imminent by referring to Psalm 118:22 (Mark 12:10-22; cf. Acts 4:11).
Jesus’ Use of Scripture
Not only does the New Testament enlighten us as to Christ’s attitude toward Scripture, it also gives us many striking samples of Jesus’ pragmatic use of Scripture in day-to-day life. At least three observations emerge from an examination of Jesus’ actual handling of Scripture.
1. He relied very heavily upon Scripture. He quoted from the Old Testament frequently. He constantly reiterated to His disciples how the written Word of God should permeate life (e.g., Luke 24:27). He consistently affirmed the certainty of Scripture’s fulfillment in the world (e.g., Luke 24:44-46). He possessed a sense of the unity of history and a grasp of its wide sweep (e.g., Luke 11:50-51).
Preachers were once distinguished by their “book, chapter, and verse” approach to preaching. This very quality was typical of Jesus’ own approach to life. Yet preachers and members today are far more impressed by the theologians and latest popular authors than with the words of John, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Moses. We have abandoned the primary sources in exchange for secondary, inferior, and in many cases, erroneous sources. We are now the most academically educated generation the church has ever known—yet we are the most ignorant when it comes to plain Bible knowledge. It is time to abandon the heart-warming anecdotes and reacquaint ourselves with the divine text. It is time to emulate Jesus’ own extensive reliance upon and allusion to Scripture.
2. In addition to a heavy reliance upon scriptural quotation, Jesus repeatedly demonstrated incredible proclivity for rationality in His sharp, potent, penetrating use of logic and sound argumentation. His first recorded responsible activity consisted of logical dialogue between Himself and the Jewish theologians at the age of 12. His logical prowess was evident not only to the doctors of the law, but to His parents as well (Luke 2:45-51). On the occasion of His baptism, He reasoned with John in order to convince John to immerse Him (Matthew 3:13-15). He advanced a logical reason to justify the action.
Immediately after this incident, Jesus faced Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). Satan posed three arguments, urging Christ to act on the basis of erroneous reasoning. The sequence of the disputation between the two demonstrates Christ’s superior (i.e., accurate) use of logic to defeat His opponent. Jesus used direct statement, account of action, and implication. His allusion to the behavior of the Israelites, His use of direct statements from Deuteronomy, and His implied applications to the situation He was facing, all demonstrate a hermeneutic analogous to the traditional one that calls for “command, example, or necessary inference” as authority for belief and practice.
This incident also provides a marvelous demonstration of Christ’s mastery of debate and logical disputation. The example is not an isolated instance. Jesus employed logic and reason throughout His earthly sojourn. He responded to His contemporaries with piercing, devastating logic. He continually was besieged with questions and verbal tests to which He consistently displayed rational, reasoned response (Luke 11:53-54). Consider these few examples:
The exchange with the Pharisees over eating grain (Matthew 12:1-9);
The dialogue with chief priests and elders over authority (Matthew 21:23-27);
The interaction with the Pharisees over taxes (Matthew 22:15-22);
The response to the Sadducees concerning marriage and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33);
The argument posed to the Pharisees over the identity of the Messiah (Matthew 22:41-46);
The demonstrations of healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:14-16; 14:1-6);
The response to the lawyers concerning the source of His miraculous power (Luke 11:14ff);
The answer to the scribes and Pharisees concerning fasting (Luke 5:33-39);
The handling of Simon’s disgruntled view of the sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50);
The exchange with the Pharisees concerning His triumphal entry (Luke 19:39-40);
The comments upon the occasion of His arrest (Luke 22:47-53).
Jesus was so sensible and rational in His discourse that when hard-hearted Jews declared Him to be mad or demon-possessed, others countered: “These are not the words of one who has a demon” (John 10:21). Indeed, Jesus consistently provided evidence, even empirical evidence, to substantiate His claims (John 10:24-26,36-38). How could anyone possibly question the fact of Jesus’ uniform use of logic and correct reasoning? He was and is the Master Logician who created the human mind to function rationally as well! His inspired followers were no different.
3. Closely related to Jesus’ emphasis upon logic is His virtually constant use of implication. Modern scholars are surely uncomfortable with Jesus’ use of what many have called “necessary inference.” Indeed, cries that call for an abandonment of implication in interpreting the Scriptures have grown louder. Not only is such thinking self-contradictory, it is patently foolish in light of Jesus’ own frequent and accurate use of implication.
Over and over, Jesus used implication. In Matthew 4:1-11, every case of Jesus’ use of Old Testament Scripture to counter Satan’s arguments requires proper reasoning and drawing of correct conclusions implied by the explicit statements. In Matthew 12:1-9, Jesus implied that if the Pharisees accepted David, who clearly violated Old Testament law, they should have no problem accepting the disciples, who did not violate Old Testament law. In Matthew 21:23-27, Jesus implied that if the chief priests and elders believed John’s baptism to be from Heaven, they should have submitted to John’s teaching—and to Jesus’ teaching as well. He further implied that if they believed John’s baptism to be from men, they ought to have been willing to face the peoples’ displeasure. The chief priests and elders had enough sense to infer precisely what Jesus implied and so refused to answer.
In Matthew 22:23-32, Jesus implied that if God declared Himself to be presently the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then they were still in existence. He also implied that if they were still in existence after their physical deaths, then resurrection of the dead is factual. Further, in context, Exodus 3:6, 13-16 are intended to identify the One who sent Moses to Egypt. However, in making this point, God implied that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still in existence. Jesus, in fact, was basing His point on a minor side point of the Exodus passage, but a point that is nevertheless clearly and divinely implied.
In Matthew 22:41-45, in response to Jesus’ question, the Pharisees identified the Christ as David’s son, no doubt alluding to 2 Samuel 7:11-17. Jesus cited Psalm 110:1 in order to encourage the Pharisees to fit two distinct concepts together by reasoning correctly about them and inferring what they clearly implied. Notice also that in its original context, Psalm 110:1 referred to the supremacy and conquest of the Messiah over the world. But Jesus focused upon an implication of the passage—that the Messiah would be both physically descended from David and yet Lord over David.
The Bible presents itself in terms of principles by which its truth may be ascertained. We can transcend our prejudices and presuppositions sufficiently to arrive at God’s truth—if we genuinely wish to do so. There is simply no such thing as “my interpretation” and “your interpretation.” There is only God’s interpretation. There is only God’s meaning—and with diligent, rational study, we can arrive at the truth on any subject that is vital to our spiritual well-being.
Rather than shrugging off the conflicting views and positions on various subjects (such as baptism, music in worship, miracles, how many churches may exist with God’s approval, etc.), rather than dismissing religious differences as hopeless, irresolvable, and irrelevant—we must study and search God’s book, cautiously refraining from misinterpreting and misusing Scripture. If we give diligent and careful attention to the task with an honest heart that is receptive to the truth, we will know God’s will. We will be prepared, as Jesus said in John 12:48, to stand before God at the Judgment and be judged by His words.
It is evident that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, demonstrated several significant hermeneutical principles in His own attitude toward and use of Scripture. He approached Scripture with the abiding conviction that the Old Testament is the authoritative, absolute, propositional, plenary, verbally inspired Word of God. In His handling of Scripture, He relied heavily upon extensive Scripture quotation, proper logical reasoning, and implication.
As American civilization jettisons the Bible from public life, so many in the church are participating in the culture-wide devaluation of God’s Word. They are accomplices in the sinister dissolution of Christianity in American culture. May God bless us in our efforts to conform ourselves to the hermeneutical principles of Jesus.