Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
God has made it very clear in the Scriptures how important it is for us to properly interpret what He has said. If we want to be found pleasing in God’s sight, we must handle His word properly. Let us consider how we ought to interpret the New Testament so as to be workmen who are not ashamed.
As always, we must first read to understand the text, considering the author and the message. Before we begin to directly apply passages from the New Testament to our lives, however, we must first establish the level of relevancy of the particular passage to ourselves. A good guideline is to consider all passages relevant to our lives unless the context provides a good reason to the contrary. Many passages are very relevant, such as Galatians 5:18-24, Philippians 2:5-11, and many others: while Paul may have written such things to particular churches in the first century, they are just as relevant to us today. Other passages, like Romans 2:17-29 or John 14-17, are more moderately relevant: the context in each shows that they are written or spoken to a particular audience (Jews and the twelve Apostles respectively), yet we can still gain valuable insights from the message to such persons so that we may follow God properly. Other passages, like Paul’s concluding messages to specific people (cf. Romans 16:1-15, Philippians 4:2-3), have a low relevance level; we can certainly learn from them, but there is not much to apply directly to our lives.
Once we have established how relevant a given passage is to our lives, we can then begin to establish Biblical authority. Many times, passages that are in the low to moderate relevancy range can help illuminate the authority present within more highly relevant passages. Regardless, we can establish Biblical authority in three main ways: command, apostolically approved example, and necessary inference.
- Command. Many times God provides specific directives that are to be followed: Christians either are to do a given thing or not to do it. These are commands, and they are found throughout the New Testament (e.g., Romans 12, Ephesians 6:1-4, etc.). Commands establish precisely what we are or are not to do, and they are most necessary to follow (1 John 2:3-5).
- Apostolically approved examples. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, we see a command to follow the example of Paul as he followed the example of Christ. Therefore, we can know that if we follow the examples approved by the Apostles in the New Testament, we are on firm ground and are not wrong. Examples include Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 which indicate that Christians met on the first day of the week and such was approved by the Apostles; we know that we can meet on the first day of the week and also be approved.
- Necessary inference. There are many times in the Scriptures when certain details are left unsaid but must be true– such are necessary inferences. In Acts 8:34-39, for instance, we necessarily infer that Philip preached baptism as part of “preaching Jesus” since the eunuch’s response to Philip was a desire to be baptized. Lessons can also be gained through necessary inference, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 22:23-32.
Establishing Biblical authority proper as previously established, however, is not enough: we must also establish the scope of the authority presented. Authority is either general or specific in scope.
- General scope. General scope is often called generic authority, and it means that we are given a broad outline of authority. When there is a broad outline of authority there is often liberty in the details. Commands often provide general scope of authority for practicing the command: the command to preach the Gospel, for instance (Matthew 28:18-20), does not provide specifics on how to travel to preach, and we therefore have liberty in that area. Examples often leave many details to liberty: for instance, we know that brethren assembled on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), but we do not know precisely when; therefore, we have liberty to assemble at any time on the first day of the week. Examples also demonstrate a generic scope of authority when they are not consistent: since we see Paul and others going to preach the Gospel in a boat, on a chariot, or by walking (cf. Acts 8, 17, 27), the inconsistent examples indicate that we have liberty. Inferences often provide authority in a general way: the inference that we need to help people based on the Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 does not specify precisely how we are to do so.
- Specific scope. Specific scope is often called specific authority. When God has specified a thing, we must follow the specifics without variance, as Hebrews 7:12-14 indicates. God’s specific command to sing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) thus excludes instruments. Many specific examples, when appropriate, should be followed, as is true with the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The scope of authority establishes what we can do in matters of silence: if the scope is general and there is silence, God has established liberty; if the scope is specific and there is silence, God has prohibited a matter. We must also show great concern with our liberties that we do not provide reason for offense (cf. Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8).
Let us strive to interpret the New Testament properly!