Once upon a time, someone saw me bent over my research books and informed me, "What you're doing is in vain. Christ has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). Therefore, if you have the Spirit, He will lead you. What does the Spirit need dictionaries, annotations, treasuries, and dissertations for? All these not only do not help His work, but perhaps hinder it as well. Besides, the Bible is simple. It doesn't need interpretations. We read it and obey it, that's all."
I listened to my friend with awe. It seemed almost unbelievable to me that texts from different eras, written by various authors in different languages, under different circumstances, could be interpreted so easily. However, I also had to consider my own interests. You see, as a human, I get tired of being immersed in books all the time. Was there an easier way? Perhaps, here I could find the quick solution. So, I showed my friend one of the Bible passages that had always puzzled me. I was eager to learn how exactly the Spirit would help him interpret it.
The Lord God says:
"Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years."
(Amos 4:4 NIV)
"Here," I said, "is a passage where God Himself tells us to sin! Tell me, tell me, what should I do? Should I sin because the Word of God says so?"
"No," he replied. "That's not possible." "Why?" I asked puzzled. "Because elsewhere in the Bible, it writes not to sin, and it can't tell us one thing here and the opposite there." "So," I said, "you're suggesting an interpretative rule of the Bible. You're telling me that we shouldn't interpret Scripture in a way that contradicts itself! Therefore, we limit ourselves to our interpretation. Agreed."
However, my question remained. I still had one more question: "Since I have passages telling me not to sin and this passage telling me to sin, why shouldn't I choose this passage over the others? Why should I consider the passages telling me not to sin as more important?" His answer was clear, and I admit it was a decisive one: "It's impossible for the holy God who sent His Son to be crucified for our sins to ask us to sin. The passage means something else, but certainly not that!"
I fully agreed. But I also drew my conclusion: "So, you believe that there are theological reasons why I can't interpret the passage that way. Therefore, theology plays a role in your interpretation! Interesting.
So, before we even begin to interpret the passage, we have already agreed on what it cannot mean. The Bible passage telling us to sin cannot mean what it says! And this is because we have an interpretive rule (Scripture cannot contradict itself), and we also have theological parameters (the holy God wouldn't ask us to sin). "You know," I say to him, "what you're saying aligns nicely with what the reformers said. They established the
'analogy of faith' as an interpretive rule. Exactly what you told me! Does it not surprise you that you agree with faithful people who wrote 500 years ago?"
But now another question arises: "If it doesn't mean what it seems to mean, then what does it mean?" "First of all," he tells me, "how do you know it's addressed to you? This is in the Old Testament." "So what?" I ask naively. "Well, the Old and New Testaments are not the same; some things change in the New Testament." "We haven't even started talking," I reply, "and you're already giving me a third rule of interpretation! But do you mean that while the New Testament is against sin, the Old Testament is in favor of it?"
"No, no," my friend protests vigorously. "Of course not! God forbid! I simply mean that here it's about Israelites who were going to a place called Bethel and some Galgala. These are names of ancient locations, and it's addressed to them; don't rush to assume this is a message for you!" "Oh," I tell him, "you disappoint me. There are times when I would like to sin, and I thought this passage would give me the freedom to do so. But now I hear you telling me something else: that I should also consider historical and geographical factors in interpreting the passage! And I thought things would be much easier!" So we looked up an encyclopedia together and found that Bethel and Galgala were places of worship in the northern kingdom of Israel. Interesting information. But I wondered: all the messages in the Bible were given to some people in ancient times. How can I know which ones apply to us today and which ones don't?
However, my friend wasn't giving up: "Take another look. You need to consider the context because if you examine the preceding and following verses, you might see a different meaning." Here, I had to concede. How right my friend was! How many times have people been unjustly judged because we took a sentence out of their overall thought and misunderstood them! Could the same not happen with the Word of God? Wouldn't it be an honor to the Holy Scriptures to scrutinize what was said before and after each passage? So, I had to conclude that there is a fourth rule of interpretation in the study of the Bible: consider the literal context!
So, my friend and I sat down to examine it more carefully. We looked at many verses before and after. One thing that struck me was how strongly the prophet Amos condemns the injustice and hypocrisy of the Israelites. And I wondered, if he had just criticized their injustice, why would he now urge them to sin? The next chapter (4:5) talked about offering sacrifices and tithes. This was interesting because it matched what we had found in the encyclopedia, that Bethel and Galgala were places of worship. But why would the text ask the Israelites to sin at places of worship?
Here, my interlocutor was troubled. "Don't forget," he said, "what we're reading is a translation. Another translation might say it differently." "So," I asked, "what I'm reading is not the Word of God?" "No, it is," he replied. "But let's not forget it's a translation, and the translator could have made a mistake." So we opened the King James translation and then some other English ones. In this case, all the translations agreed. I didn't know if I should be glad they agreed or sad that the problem wasn't solved. "Does it say something else in the Hebrew text?" I timidly asked. There was a silence. It seems my interlocutor didn't want to address that question. Most likely, he didn't know Hebrew.
"No," he said, "I think I found the solution. When he tells them to sin, he says it ironically. In other words, he tells them to sin, but he means the exact opposite, he means not to sin!" Ironically. And that was very interesting. Why didn't I think of that? "In other words," I told him, "you're suggesting that there are also literary factors that affect our interpretation, so we must consider them too, because the passage might imply something different beneath the surface than what it says on the face of it!"
However, we were still not satisfied with our interpretation. Why should there be such an "ironic" statement here? Something was missing; something didn't seem to fit. I suggested to my friend that we open a reference book. I could see that he hesitated, but on the other hand, he was gripped by anxiety. Had he come up with the idea of irony on his own, or had others considered it too? It was obvious that he felt some insecurity about his interpretation and wanted to cross-check it. So, we eventually opened two or three reference books.
"There it is!" my friend exclaimed triumphantly. "Listen to this: in those days, there was an invitation from the priest to the people to come and worship God at the places of worship, in Bethel and Gilgal. So, at that time, the people would hear the priest saying, 'People of Israel, come to Bethel and worship! Come to Gilgal and worship even more!'"
"I don't understand," I said, "what does that have to do with it?" "Well, can't you see?" he replied. "It's a brilliant insight. Amos knew that the people were accustomed to hearing an invitation to worship from the priest, asking them to come and worship. And he takes this worship invitation and flips it around. Instead of telling them to 'come and worship,' he tells them to 'come and sin.' In other words, he's being ironic; he's showing them that since they had been committing injustices all along (remember the context we discussed in Amos?), their worship wouldn't be genuine worship; it would be hypocrisy and, therefore, a sin!"
I had to pause to realize what he was telling me. "So," I said, "could it be that in our worship, if our lives are filled with injustice towards others, God sees even our worship as sin?" "I have a feeling that's the message, that we must not be hypocrites. Our relationship with God goes through our relationship with other people," he replied. We both fell silent. God had spoken. Our hearts had been examined. I hadn't forgiven someone, and he remembered money he owed. We had to do something about it to be genuine worshippers, so that our worship wouldn't be a sin.
God had spoken. However, my friend seemed dissatisfied. Something hadn't gone well. "Sure, we interpreted it," he told me, "but in the end, we interpreted it without the Spirit of God. We interpreted it humanly, with our own abilities. Maybe we didn't have enough faith for God to show it to us directly.
Apparently, my friend and I come from different planets. Where was the Spirit? "Where is your faith?" I asked him. "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would have seen the Spirit of God everywhere. Didn't we meet and converse as two members of the body of Christ, helping each other under the guidance of the Spirit? Wasn't it the Spirit that troubled our thoughts about a dark corner of the Word of God? Wasn't it the Spirit that taught our hearts to accept the Word as the Word of God and therefore a Word that doesn't contradict itself? Wasn't the Holy Spirit the one who reminded us of God's holiness and prevented us from seeing the omission as an invitation to sin? Wasn't the Spirit the one who arranged it so that knowledge we had gained long ago about geography, history, and literature could come to our remembrance and be useful as we interpreted? Wasn't it the Spirit who gave us the grace to respect the context of the omission? Wasn't the Spirit the one who prompted and enabled others to question, research, and record their findings so that we could benefit today as members of the church that the Spirit has been building throughout the centuries? Wasn't the Holy Spirit the one who, through all this, led us to an interpretation that fit, that didn't do injustice to the message that the Spirit had inspired Amos to deliver? Didn't the Holy Spirit connect the ancient past with the present, making us realize its application in our lives here and now, thousands of years later? Didn't the Holy Spirit yield His fruit, of joy and peace, as we understood what we were told? The fruit of gentleness and humility, so that we wouldn't consider ourselves superior, so that we wouldn't think we were the exclusive agents of the Spirit, so that we would realize that He leads and guides others too? The fruit of patience, so that we wouldn't be impatient and demand to be given the interpretation as an instant miracle but have the patience to search for it diligently and enjoy its acquisition as the culmination of our reflection? After all, didn't this whole process shape our character to become more holy, just as the Holy Spirit desires?"
My friend, for the first time, grasped the obvious: the Holy Spirit doesn't replace us, doesn't nullify us! The Holy Spirit guides us in our struggle to better understand the Word of God. And the greatest honor to the Holy Spirit is to study and live the Word... with all our might!