Q&A: Ambiguous Scripture

Ambiguous Scripture

Question

Why did Jesus or the apostles who wrote the epistles, allow certain verses or sayings of theirs that could or would be misinterpreted to be left without better explanations?For example, when Jesus told Peter he would be the rock of the church, why didn't Jesus go on to say that he would be one of the many rocks of the church or to tell the gospel writers to be sure to point this out, assuming Jesus knew this would be misinterpreted.Another instance would be the 144,000 in Revelations, since Divine revelation was the way in which this book was written, why didn't John make it more clear this was or was not to be taken as the literal number of people that would be saved?These are just a couple of examples that came from the top of my head and I was hoping you could explain why this is possible.

Answer

On Interpretation

There are several reasons that Scripture is misinterpreted, and not all of them have to do with how it was written. In some senses, God purposed for some Scripture to be misinterpreted.

For one thing, Scripture communicates truths that are spiritually apprehended and received. This means that we need the Holy Spirit's help if we are to understand it rightly (1 Cor. 2:14). I know this may seem strange; one is tempted to think that words are words, and that anyone should be able to understand what is written. But according to Scripture itself, fallen man is so resistant to God's truth that he essentially blinds himself to what would otherwise be fairly clear (cf. Eph. 4:17-18).

Thus, even when Scripture reveals truth clearly, it is generally misunderstood to some degree because we lack the ability to perceive the spiritual truths conveyed by the spiritual words (1 Cor. 2:13). We do have the mind of Christ, and the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth (1 Cor. 2:12,16), but we submit to their influence in varying degrees, meaning that sometimes we see the truth and sometimes we do not (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

Also, not all Scripture was written to be easily understood by everyone. Some of it was written for those who are more educated and mature (2 Pet. 3:16). Thus, when those who are less prepared to tackle these passages attempt to interpret them, they can often go astray. Again, the shortcoming is not on the part of Scripture, but on the part of man. We would not expect Scripture to be able to communicate to an illiterate person; in the same way, we ought not to expect it to communicate clearly to someone who has not applied himself diligently to study its meaning.

If we fail to understand the theology of the authors, or the literary styles and devices they used, or the contemporary references they made, or any such thing, it is no failing on Scripture's part. We are to blame for not diligently researching these matters. Quite simply, it is impossible to write anything that will always be understood in the same way by all people. Therefore, the burden is on us to learn as much as we can about how the authors of Scripture communicated in order that we might understand what they communicated.

Moreover, because Scripture is revealing truths about God, and because God is in many respects beyond our finite comprehension, some of the truth that Scripture conveys is beyond our comprehension. The more gifted we are with understanding, the more of God's truth we can see. But some things will always be unclear or mysterious because we lack the infinite mental capacities necessary to grasp all truths about our infinite God.

Further, God has not provided Scripture in order to reveal everything, but only to reveal certain things. But in revealing certain things, other things that are not intended to be revealed are sometimes hinted at or implied. In these areas, we often speculate, but we cannot know. Scripture fulfills its purpose when it communicates what it was intended to communicate, as well as when it hides what it was intended to hide (cf. Deut. 29:29).

In this regard, it is also worth stating explicitly that some things in Scripture are intended to be vague. One reason for this is that the meaning is supposed to be hidden from some people (Matt. 13:10-13). Another reason, which we see frequently in prophecy, is that the vagueness allows the Scripture to be fulfilled in any number of ways. Also, it helps to remember that Scripture rarely reveals God's eternal decrees. Instead, it is generally a means of God's providential governing of the world. This means that God does not tell us about the future in order that we might know what will happen, but rather that we are motivated to obey him in order to obtain offered blessings and avoid threatened curses. The more vague a prophecy is, the more flexible it can be in helping to accomplish this goal.

Also, most of us read the Bible in translation. In a number of cases, the original languages present less opportunity for misunderstanding than do our translations. For example, you mentioned Jesus' words to Peter about building his church (Matt. 16:18-19). In the Greek text, it seems pretty clear that Peter is the rock Jesus is talking about, and that Peter is the one who is to get the keys of the kingdom. Now, people may have theological reasons for wanting to read this passage a different way, but it's much harder to make that kind of argument when you are looking at the Greek text.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.