Interpretive Challenges NT



Matthew

      As note above, Matthew groups his narrative material around 5 great discourses. He makes no attempt to follow a strict chronology, and a comparison of the Gospels reveals that Matthew freely places things out of order. He is dealing with themes and broad concepts, not laying out timeline.

      The prophetic passages present a particular interpretive challenge. Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, for example, contains some details that evoke images of the violent destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus’s words in 24:34 have led some to conclude that all these things were fulfilled- albeit not literally- in the Roman conquest of that era. This is the view known as “preterism.” But this is a serious interpretive blunder, forcing the interpreter to read into these passages spiritualized, allegorical meanings unwarranted by normal exetical methods.

      The grammatical-historical hermeneutical approach to these passages is the approach to follow, and it yields a consistently futuristic interpretation of the Synoptic Problem.      

Mark

Three significant questions confront the interpreter of Mark:

  1. What is the relationship of Mark to Luke and Matthew?

  2. How should one interpret the eschatological passages?

  3. Were the last 12 verses of chap. 16 originally part of Mark gospel?

Luke

Luke, like Mark, and in contrast to Matthew, appears to target a Gentile readership. He identifies locations that would have been familiar to all Jews (e.g., 4:31; 23:51; 24:13), suggesting that his audience went beyond those who already had knowledge of  Palestinian geography. He usually preferred Greek terminology over Hebraisms (e.g., “the Skull” instead of “Golgotha” in 23:33. The other gospels all use occasional Semitic terms such as “Abba” (Mk 14:36), “Babbi” (Mt 23:7, 8; Jn 1:38, 49), and “Hosanna” (Mt 21:9; Mk 11:9, 10; Jn 12:13) —  but Luke either omits them or uses Greek equivalents.

Luke quotes the OT more sparingly than Matthew, and when citing OT passages, he nearly always employs the LXX, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Furthermore, most of Luke’s OT citations are allusions rather than direct quotations, and many of them appear in Jesus’ words rather than Luke’s narrations (2:23, 24; 3:4-6; 4:4, 8, 10-12, 18, 19; 7:27; 10:27; 18:20; 19:46; 20:17. 18. 37, 42, 43; 22:37).

Luke, more than any of the other gospel writers, highlights the universal scope of the gospel invitation. He portrays Jesus as the Son of Man, rejected by Israel, and then offered to the world. As noted above, Luke repeatedly relates accounts of Gentiles, Samaritans, and other outcasts who found grace in Jesus’ eyes. This emphasis is precisely what we would expect from a close companion of the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Ro 11:13).   

Yet some critics have claimed to see a wide gap between Luke’s theology and that of Paul. Ot os true that Luke’s gospel is practically devoid of terminology that is uniquely Pauline. Luke wrote with his own style. Yet the underlying theology is perfectly in harmony with that of the apostle’s. The centerpiece of Paul’s doctrine was justification by faith (Ro 3:24). Luke also highlights and illustrates justification by faith in many of the incidents and parables he related, chiefly the account of the Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14); the familiar story of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32); the incidente at Simon’s house (7:36-50); and the salvation of Zacchaeus (19:1-10).   

John

Because John composed his record in a clear and simple style, one might tend to underestimate the depth of this gospel. Since John’s gospel is a “spiritual” gospel, the truths he conveys are profund. The reader must prayerfully and meticulously explore the book, in order to discover the vast richness of the spiritual treasures that the apostle, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (14:26; 16:13), has lovingly deposited in his gospel. 

    The chronological reckoning between John’s gospel and the Synoptics presents a challenge, especially in relation to the time of the Last Supper (13:2). While the Synoptics portray the disciples and the Lord at the last Supper as eating the Passover meal on Thursday evening (Nisan 14) and Jesus being crucified on Friday, John’s gospel states that the Jews did not order “to avoid ceremonial uncleanness… because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” (18:28). So, the disciple had eaten the Passover on Thursday evening, but the Jews had not. In fact, John (19:14) states that Jesus’ trial and crucifixion were on the day of Preparation for the Passover and not after the eating of the Passover, so that with the trial and crucifixión on Friday Christ was actually sacrificed at the same time the Passover lambs were being slain (19:14). The question is, “Why did the disciples eat the Passover meal on Thursday?

    The answer lies in a difference among the Jews in the way they reckoned the beginning and ending of days. From Josephus, the Mishna, and other ancient Jewish sources we learn that the Jews in northern Israel calculated days from sunrise to sunrise. That area included the region of Galilee, where Jesus and all the disciples, except Judas, had grown up. Apparently most, if not all, of the Pharisees used that system of reckoning. But Jews in the southern part, which centered in Jerusalem, calculated days from sunset to sunset. Because all the priests necessarily lived in ou near Jerusalem, as did most of the Sadducees, those groups followed the southern scheme. 

    That variation doubtlessly caused confusion at time, but it also had some practical benefits. During Passover time, for instance, it allowed for the festival to be celebrated legitimately on two adjoining days, thereby permitting the temple sacrifices to be made over a total period of four hours rather than two. That separation of days may also have had the effect of reducing both regional and religious clashes between the two groups. 

    On that basis the seeming contradictions in the gospel accounts are easily explained. Being Galileans, Jesus and the disciples considered Passover day to have started at sunrise on Thursday and to end at sunrise on Friday. The Jewish leaders who arrested and tried Jesus, being mostly priests and Sadducees, considered Passover day to begin at sunset on Thursday and end at sunset on Friday. By that variation, predetermined by God’s sovereign provision, Jesus could thereby legitimately celebrate the last passover meal with His disciples and yet still be sacrificed on Passover day. 

    Once again one can see how God sovereignly and marvelously provides for the precise fulfillment of His redemptive plan. Jesus was anything but a victim of men’s wicked schemes, much less of blind circumstance. Every word He spoke and every action He took were divinely directed and secured. Even the words and actions by others against Him were divinely controlled (11:49-52; 19:11). 

Acts

Because Acts is primarily a historical narrative, not a theological treatise like Romans or Hebrews, it contains relatively few interpretive challenges. Those that exist mainly concern the the book’s transitional nature and involve the role of signs and wonders.  

Romans

As the preeminent doctrinal work in the NT, Romans naturally contains a number of difficult passages. Paul’s discussion of the perpetuation of Adam’s sin (5:12-21) is one of the deepest, most profound theological passages in all of Scripture. The nature of mankind’s unión with Adam, and how his sin was transferred to the human race has always been the subject of intense debate. Bible students also disagree on whether 7:7-25 describes Paul’s experience as a believer or unbeliever, or is a literary device not intended to be autobiographical at all. The closely related doctrines of election (8:28-30) and the sovereignty of God (9:6-29) have confused many believers. Others question whether chaps. 9 - 11 teach that God has a future plan for the nation of Israel. Some have ignored Paul’s teaching on the believer’s obedience to human government (13:1-7) in the name of Christian activism, while others have used it to defend slavish obedience to totalitarian regimes. 

1 Corinthians

By far the most controversial issue for interpretation is that of the sign gifts discussed in chaps. 12-14, particularly the gifts of miracles and tongues-speaking. Many believe that all the gifts are permanent, so that the gift of speaking in tongues will cease (13:8) only at the time the gifts of prophecy and of knowledge cease, namely, when that which is perfect has come (v.10). Those who maintain that tongues and miracles are still valid spiritual gifts in the church today believe they should be exercised with the same power they were in NT times by the apostles. Others believe the miraculous sign gifts have ceased.  

The issue of divorce is a troubling one for many. Chapter 7 addresses the subject, but calls for careful interpretation to yield consistent biblical doctrine on the matter.

Advocates of universalism, the idea that all men will eventually be saved, use 15:22 in support of that view, claiming that, just as every human being died spiritually because of Adam’s sin, they will all be saved through Christ’s righteousness.

From that same chapter, the obscure phrase “baptized for the dead” (v.29) is used to defend the notion that a dead person can be saved by being baptized vicariously through a living Christian. There have been over 40 suggested explanations for this baptism. Regardless of how that particular verse is interpreted, the falsehood of dead people having the opportunity to be saved is proven by many other texts that are indisputable clear.

A much less serious issue concerns the meaning of 6:4, which pertains to Christians taking other Christians to court before unbelievers. The resolution of that problem lies primarily in being obedient to a verse that is unambiguous.   

2 Corinthians 

The main challenge confronting the interpreter is the relationship of chaps. 10-13 to chaps. 1-9. The identity of Paul's opponents at Corinth has produced various interpretations, as has the identity of the brother who accompanied Titus to Corinth (8:18, 22). Whether the offender mentioned in 2:5-8 is the incestuous man of 1Co 5 is also uncertain. It is difficult to explain Paul’s vision (12:1-5) and to identify his “thorn in [the] flesh,” the “messenger of Satan [sent] to torment [him]” (12:7). 

Galatians

  1. First, Paul describes a visit to Jerusalem and a subsequent meeting with Peter, James, and John (2:1-10). There is a question to be resolved in that text, as to whether that was his visit to the Jerusalem Council (Ac 15), or his earlier visit bringing famine relief to the Jerusalem church (Ac 11:27-30).

  2. Second, those who teach baptismal regeneration (the false doctrine that baptism is necessary for salvation) support their view from 3:27.

  3. Third, others have used this epistle to support their attacks on the biblical roles of men and women, claiming that the spiritual equality taught in 3:28 is compatible with the traditional concept of authority and submission.

  4. Fourth, those who reject the doctrine of eternal security argue that the phrase “you have fallen away from grace” (5:4) describes salvation.

  5. Fifth, there is disagreement shether Paul’s statement “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand” refers to the entire letter, or merely the concluding verses.

  6. Finally, many claim that Paul erased the line between Israel and the church when he identified the church as the “Israel of God” (6:16).    

Ephesians

The general theology of Ephesians is direct and unambiguous, presenting no ideas or interpretations whose meaning are seriously contended. There are, however, some texts that require careful thought to rightly interpret, namely:

  1. 2:8, in which one must decide if the salvation or the faith is the gift.

  2. 4:5, in which the type of baptism must be discerned.

  3. 4:8, in its relationship to Ps 68:18.

Philippians

The major difficulty connected with Philippians is determining where it was written. The text itself presents only one significant interpretive challenge: the identity of the “enemies of the cross” (3:18, 19).

Colossians

Those cults that deny Christ’s deity have seized upon the description of Him as “the firstborn over all creation” (1:15) as proof that He was a created being. Paul’s statement that believers will be “holy...without blemish and free from accusation” if they “continue in [their] faith” (1:22, 23) has led some to teach that believers can lose their salvation. Some have argued for the existence of purgatory based on Paul’s statement, “I fill up … what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (1:24), while others see support for baptismal regeneration (2:12). The identity of the “letter from Laodicea” (4:16) has also prompted much discussion.  

1 Thessalonians 

Primarily the challenges for understanding this epistle involve the sections that are eschatological in nature:

  1. the coming wrath (1:10; 5:9)

  2. Christ’s return (2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23)

  3. the rapture of the church (4:13-18)

  4. the meaning and time of the Day of the Lord (5:1-11)

2 Thessalonians

Eternal reward and retribution are discussed in 1:5-12 in such general terms that it is difficult to identify precisely some of the details with regard to exact timing. Matters concerning the Day of the Lord (2:2), the restrainer (2:6, 7), and the lawless one (2:3, 4, 8-10) provide challenging prophetic material  to interpret. 

1 Timothy

There is disagreement over the identity of the false teachers (1:3) and the genealogies (1:4) involved in their teaching. What it means to be “handed over to Satan” (1:20) has also been a source of debate. The letter contains key passages in the debate over the extent of the atonement (2:4-6; 4:10). Paul’s teaching on the role of women (2:9-15) has generated much discussion, particularly his declaration that they are not to assume leadership roles in the church (2:11, 12).


How women can be saved by bearing children (2:15) has also confused many. Whether the fact that an elder must be “faithful to [one] wife” (3:2) excludes divorced or unmarried men  has been disputed, as well as whether paul refers to deacons’ wives or deaconesses (3:11). Those who believe Christians can lose their salvation cite 4:1 as support for their view. There is a question about the identity of the widows in 5:3-16 — are they needy women ministered to by the church, or an order of older women ministering to the church?. Does “double honor” accorded to elders who rule well (5:17, 18) refer to respect or money?

2 Timothy

There are no major challenges in this letter involving theological issues. There is limited data regarding several individuals named in the epistle; eg., Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15), Onesiphorus (1:16; cf. 4:19), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2:17, 18), Jannes and Jambres (3:8), and Alexander (4:14).

Titus

The letter to Titus presents itself in a straightforward manner that should be taken at face value. The few interpretive challenges include: What is the “blessed hope” of 2:13?

Philemon

There are no significant interpretive challenges in this personal letter from Paul to his friend Philemon.

Hebrews

A proper interpretation of this epistle requires the recognition that it addresses three distinct groups of Jews:

  1. believers

  2. unbelievers who were intellectually convinced of the gospel

  3. unbelievers who were attracted by the gospel and the person of Christ but who had reached no final conviction about Him.

Failure to acknowledge these groups leads to interpretations inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.

The primary group addressed were Hebrew Christians who suffered rejection and persecution by fellow Jews (10:32-34), although none as yet had been martyred (12:4). The letter was written to give them encouragement and confidence in Christ, their Messiah and High Priest. They were an immature group of believers who were tempted to hold on to the symbolic and spiritually powerless rituals and traditions of Judaism.

The second group addressed were Jewish unbelievers who were convinced of the basic truths of the gospel but had not placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their own Savior and Lord. They were intellectually persuaded but spiritually uncommitted. These unbelievers are addresses in such passages as 2:1-3; 6:4-6; 10:26-29; and 12:15-17.

The third group addressed were Jewish unbelievers who were not convinced of the gospel’s truth but had had some exposure to it. Chapter 9 is largely devoted to them (see especially vv. 11, 14, 15, 27, 28).

By far, the most serious interpretive challenge is found in 6:4-6. The phrase “once been enlightened” is often taken to refer to Christians, and the accompanying warning taken to indicate the danger of losing their salvation if they “have fallen away” and “are crucifying the Son of God all over again”. But there is no mention of their being saved and they are not described with any terms that apply only to believers (such as holy, born again, righteous, or saints). This problem arises from inaccurately identifying the spiritual condition of the ones being addressed. In this case, they were unbelievers who had been exposed to God’s redemptive truth, and perhaps made a profession of faith, but had not exercised genuine saving faith.

In 10:26, the reference once again is to apostate Christians, not to genuine believers who are often incorrectly thought to lose their salvation because of their sins.   

James

At least two significant texts challenge the interpreter:

  1. In 2:14-26, what is the relationship between faith and works? Does James’s emphasis on works contradict Paul’s focus on faith?.

  2. In 5:13-18, do the promises of healing refer to the spiritual or physical realm?

1 Peter

1 Peter 3:18-22 stands as one of the most difficult NT texts to translate and then interpret. For example, does “Spirit” in 3:18 refer to the Holy Spirit, or to Christ’s Spirit? Did Christ preach through Noah before the Flood, or did He preach Himself after the crucifixión (3:19)? Was the audience to this preaching composed of the humans in Noah’s day, or demons in the abyss (3:19)? Does 3:20, 21 teach baptismal regeneration (salvation), or salvation by faith alone in Christ?  

2 Peter

Perhaps the most important challenge in the epistle is to rightly interpret 1:19-21, because of its far-reaching implications with regard to the nature and authenticity of Scripture. That passage, along with 2Ti 3:15-17, is vital to a sound view of the Bible’s inspiration. Peter’s remark that the Lord “bought” false teachers (2:1) poses a challenge interpretively and theologically with regard to the nature of the atonement.

The identity of the angels who sinned (2:4) also challenges the interpreter. Many who believe that the saved can be lost again, use 2:18-22 for their argument. That passage, directed at false teachers, must be clarified so as not to contradict a similar statement to believers in 1:4. Further, whom does God not want to perish (3:9)?  

1 John

Theologians debate the precise nature of the false teachers’ beliefs in 1 John, because John does not directly specify their beliefs, but rather combats the heretic mainly through a positive restatement of the fundamentals of faith. The main feature of the heresy, as noted above, seems to be a denial of the incarnation, i.e., Christ had not come in the flesh. This was most likely an incipient or begining from of Gnosticism, as was pointed out.

The interpreter is also challenged by the rigidity of John’s theology. John presents the basics or fundamentals of the Christian life in absolute, not relative, terms. Unlike Paul, who presented exceptions, and dealt so often with believers’ failures to meet the divine standard, John does not deal with the “what if I fail” issues. Only in 2:1, 2 does he give some relief from the absolutes. The rest of the book presents truths in black and white rather than shades of gray, often through a stark contrast, e.g., “light” vs. “darkness” (1:5, 7; 2:8-11); truth vs. lies (2:21, 22; 4:1); children of God vs. children of the devil (3:10).

Those who claim to be Christians must absolutely display the characteristics of genuine Christians: sound doctrine, obedience, and love. Those who are truly born again have been given a new nature, which gives evidence of itself. Those who do not display characteristics of the new nature don’t have it, so were never truly born again. The issues do not center (as much of Paul’s writing does) in maintaining temporal or daily fellowship with God but the application of basic tests in one’s life to confirm that salvation has truly occurred. Such absolute distinctions were also characteristic of John’s gospel.

In a unique fashion, john challenges the interpreter by his repetition of similar themes over and over to emphasize the basic truths about genuine Christianity. Some have likened John’s repetition to a spiral that moves outward, becoming larger and larger, each time spreading the same truth over a wider area and encompassing more territory.

Other have seen the spiral as moving inward, penetrating deeper and deeper into the same themes while expanding on his thoughts. However one views the spiraling pattern, John uses repetition of basis truths as a means to accentuate their importance and to help his readers understand and remember them.

2 John

Second John stands in direct antithesis to the frequent cry for ecumenism and Christian unity among believers. Love and truth are inseparable in Christianity. Truth must always guide the exercise of love (c.f. Eph 4:15). Love must stand the test of truth. The main lesson of this book is that truth determines the bounds of love, and as a consequence, of unity. Therefore, truth must exist before love can unite, for truth generates love (1Pe 1:22). When someone compromises the truth, true Christian love and unity are destroyed. Only a shallow sentimentalism exists where the truth is not the foundation of unity.

 

The reference to the “lady chosen by God and to her children” (v.1) should be understood in a normal, plain sense referring to a particular woman and her children rather than interpreted in a non-literal sense as a church and its membership. Similarly, the reference to “the children of your sister, who is chosen by God” (v.13) should be understood as a reference to the nieces and/or nephews of the individual addressed in verse 1, rather than metaphorically to a sister church and its membership. In this verses, John conveys greetings to personal acquaintances whom he has come to know through his ministry.  

3 John

Some think that Diotrephes may either have been a heretical teacher or at least favored the false teachers who were condemned by 2 John. However, the epistle gives no clear evidence to warrant such a conclusión, especially since one might expect that John would have mentioned Diotrephes’s heretical views. The epistle indicates that his problems centered around arrogance and disobedience, which is a problem for the orthodox as well as the heretic. 

Jude

Because there are no doctrinal issues discussed, the challenges of this letter have to do with interpretation in the normal process of discerning the meaning of the text. Jude does quote from non-canonical, pseudepigraphal (i.e., the actual author was not the one named in its title) sources such as 1 Enoch (v. 14) and the Assumption of Moses (v. 9) to support his points. Was this acceptable? Since Jude was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2Ti 3:16; 2Pe 1:20, 21) and included material that was accurate and true in its affirmations, he did no differently than Paul (c.f. Ac 17:28; 1Co 15:33; Titus 1:12). 

Revelation

No other NT book poses more serious and difficult interpretive challenges than Revelation. The book’s vivid imagery and striking symbolism have produced four main interpretive approaches:

  1. The preterist approach interprets Revelation as a description of first-century events in the Roman Empire. This view conflicts with the book’s own often repeated claim to be prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). It is impossible to see all events in Revelation as already fulfilled. The second coming of Christ, for example, obviously did not take place in the first century.

  1. The historicist approach views Revelation as a panoramic view of church history from apostolic times to the present— seeing in the symbolism such events as the barbarian invasions of Rome, the rice of the Roman Catholic Church (as well as various individual popes). the emergence of Islam, and the French Revolution. This interpretive method robs Revelation of any meaning for those to whom it was written. It also ignores the time limitations the book itself place on the unfolding events (cf. 11:2; 12:6, 14; 13:5). Historicism has produced many different— and often conflicting— interpretations of the actual historical events contained in Revelation.    

  1. The idealist approach interprets Revelation as a timeless depiction of the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. In this views, the book contains neither historical allusions nor predictive prophecy. This view also ignores Revelation’s prophetic character and, if carried to its logical conclusión, serves the book from any connection with actual historical events. Revelation then becomes merely a collection of stories designed to teach spiritual truth.

  1. The futurist approach insists that the events of chaps. 6-22 are yet future, and that those chapters literally and symbolically depict actual people and events yet to appear on the world scene. It describes the events surrounding the second coming of Jesus Christ (chaps. 6-19), the Millennium and final judgment (chap. 20), and the eternal state (chaps. 21, 22). Only this view does justice to Revelation’s claim to be prophecy and interprets the book by the same grammatical-historical method as chaps. 1-3 and the rest of Scripture.