Interpreting Scripture

In the book of Acts we read about an Ethiopian man who was reading Isaiah 53. He was reading the scripture that says: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7 NIV) Then the Ethiopian man asked Philip, who had joined him, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34) This is a very important distinction that most people would not even think to ask.

The Apostle Paul was very careful to distinguish between the word of God and his own thoughts. Here is an example of this: “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.” [1 Corinthians 7:12 NIV] Elsewhere Paul says, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.” [1 Corinthians 7:10 NIV] Paul makes the important distinction between what he feels are the word and teachings of God and his own words and teachings. It is in this same way that Jesus says, “My teaching is not my own” in John 7:16.

The task of discerning “Who is the prophet talking about” is a difficult and sometimes confusing endeavor. It is an especially critical and complex question with regard to the words of Jesus. Consider these three points:

  1. The statement “I am the Lord” occurs over 150 times in the Bible. At times it is a voice from heaven, the actual voice of God, but more frequently this statement is found in the written words of various Old Testament prophets. If someone were to interpret that statement to mean that the prophet was actually God in the flesh, it would not be a correct interpretation. One would be tempted to worship that person as God, rather than to live like that person (following their example) as a worshipper of God.
  2. Faith could be described as “the ability to accept an event or belief without having a significant body of factual, scientific, and statistical evidence.” By faith, a person can believe that something happened in the past or will happen in the future. Some people believe that “Jesus is the Messiah” even though Jesus described the coming of the Messiah as a future event (The day of the Lord, or the coming of the Son of Man). Someone who makes such a statement and holds to such a belief is relying partly on facts (Jesus did fulfill many Messianic scriptures) and partly on faith (a belief that Jesus will return as the Messiah on the day of the Lord). It is important to make this distinction.
  3. If we are to conclude that Jesus was only a first century Rabbi, then, like the Jesus Seminar scholars, we would conclude that many of the unusual statements attributed to him must have been fabricated. Yet, the words of the prophets are not considered fabricated even though they challenged the existing paradigms. The words of Jesus should not be rejected as fabricated just because they challenge us or the religious establishment in his day. If we conclude, “A Jewish Rabbi would never say that!” we may very well be tossing a prophetic word of God on the editing room floor. Why should the words of Jesus be rejected when the words of other prophets and religious leaders are accepted as their own? Rather than narrowing our scope, we should broaden our view.