The story is told of the man who believed that God would tell him exactly what to do by opening his Bible to a random page and placing his finger on a text. This went quite well for him until the day he opened his Bible and placed his finger upon Matthew 27:5: “and he went away and hanged himself.” He was sure he made a mistake, and so he tried the procedure again, and this time his finger fell on Luke 10:37: “go and do thou likewise.” Quite concerned, he tried a third time, and this time the Bible opened to John 13:27: “what thou doest, do quickly.” So he went and hanged himself!
We certainly hope this story is fictitious, yet it well illustrates the difficulties present in haphazard forms of Bible interpretation. While most people see the fallacy in attempting to ascertain God’s will for their lives through opening the Bible randomly and putting their finger on a passage, many fall prey to its near relation: interpreting the Bible without any regard to its original context as if everything found in its pages were written directly to them. We can call such a phenomenon the “tyranny of the present.” The present is “tyrannical” inasmuch as it is the default means by which we attempt to understand things. We naturally seek to understand all things according to our own perspective; in order to understand what a given text would mean to those to whom it was originally written takes more time and effort.
Much of what is written in the New Testament, especially in terms of moral exhortation, is universal; we have as much a need to avoid the works of the flesh and to manifest the fruit of the Spirit as the Galatians did 2,000 years ago (cf. Galatians 5:17-24). We can make sense of most of Jesus’ teachings in our own day and time as well. Even when we understand a text in its context, we ought to then seek to understand how we can apply the message to our own time and place, as has been done for generations (Nehemiah 8:1-8, Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). Nevertheless, we must avoid the temptation to immediately start thinking of how Bible texts may apply to us without first respecting its context; not a few false doctrines have been perpetrated on account of the tyranny of the present!
Distortions in the interpretation of Daniel, Matthew 24:1-25:36, and Revelation throughout time provide the clearest warning regarding the tyranny of the present. Many among dispensational premillennialists today are convinced, in all sincerity, that Daniel, Jesus, and John are speaking about an upcoming tribulation involving helicopters, nuclear weapons, and the armies of Russia, China, and Israel. Each successive President of the United States is reckoned by some to be the Antichrist. Jesus was supposed to return in 2000 or 2012. Yet this is nothing new: Hitler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Napoleon, the popes, and many others before them were considered the Antichrist in their own day and age. Jesus was supposed to return in 1975, 1914, 1843-1844, 1000, and many other dates that have come and gone as well. Each successive generation is convinced that the end of the world is happening in their own day; whereas one generation will be right by default when the Lord returns, all generations since the first century have been wrong. Yet that has not stopped people from being firmly convinced that current events represent the end of time, and that John saw what would happen in their own generation!
The tyranny of the present is not just found in eschatological matters. Many read the Law of Moses and other aspects of the Old Testament as if they are still subject to that legislation despite the change in covenant and law under Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, Hebrews 7:12-9:26). Many see the work of the Spirit empowering believers to speak in tongues and prophesy in the first century and believe that they should be able to receive the same abilities, despite the completion of the revelation regarding the Gospel of Jesus and our ability to learn of Him from the written Word, a privilege not yet realized at that time (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).
As Bible students we always do well to remember that nothing in the Bible was written directly to us; Peter and Paul did not write to the churches of America, nor did they speak or write in Elizabethan or modern English. Likewise, if our interpretation of a text cannot make sense of what the original author would be writing to his original audience, then our interpretation has not come to a good understanding of the text. We must resist the tyranny of the present, somehow confident that the Bible is really written to us today, and instead seek to understand what God was communicating to Israel and then the early church and ascertain how we may apply those messages appropriately to our own time and place. Let us seek to understand the Bible in its own context, and learn of God from its pages, and serve Him in the Kingdom of His Son!