How to Interpret the Bible, Part 2: Standard Definitions Don’t Depend on What the Meaning of the Word “Is” Is

Chinglish sign on train; I have no idea what that means
Photo by Gaius Cornelius

3 Some may deny these things, but they are the sound, wholesome teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ and are the foundation for a godly life. 4 Anyone who says anything different is both proud and stupid. He is quibbling over the meaning of Christ’s words and stirring up arguments ending in jealousy and anger, which only lead to name-calling, accusations, and evil suspicions. 5 These arguers–their minds warped by sin–don’t know how to tell the truth; to them the Good News is just a means of making money. Keep away from them.

~ 1Ti 6:3-5 (LB)

This is part 2 of the series “How to Interpret the Bible“, so if you have not yet read the introduction, you should do so.

Language is not an exact science.  Some people will look up various words and portray it as such even while exhibiting their bias, but I’ll address that somewhat as I go through here.  It points out the reason it is important to first humble yourself and ask God for help, because it is too easy to massage the meaning to make it mean something other than what it says.

You know what I’m talking about.  I’ve pointed out various false teachers who lie, twist and distort news events, other people’s words and even Scripture in order to gain a following for themselves.  They openly do this using words that “lead to name-calling, accusations, and evil suspicions”, and of course they are the true teachers, and by the way can you spare a dime, brother?

However, there is more than one way to misapply definitions to words.

Standard Definitions

1) The rule of DEFINITION: What does the word mean? Any study of Scripture must begin with a study of words. Define your terms and then keep to the terms defined. The interpreter should conscientiously abide by the plain meaning of the words. We must not violate the known usage of a word and invent another for which there is no precedent….

~ Ecclesiastical Commonwealth Community, “The Eight Rules of Bible Interpretation

Let’s face it: Religious people like to fudge definitions.  I’ve seen Protestants do it, I’ve seen Catholics do it, I’ve seen Muslims do it, and I’ve seen COG teachers and preachers do it.  In fact, I’ve seen agnostics do it.  As far as the COG goes, however, sometimes it seems that we gravitate far too much towards evangelical lines of thinking even when their rationale is not supported by the Bible.

Unless the context dictates otherwise, there is very little (maybe even no) reason to go outside of standard definitions.  However, context is the next rule of thumb, and it rightly deserves its own space.  For now, just be aware that context is a continuum that can span from internal to external, and the more internal the context the more important the meaning in the immediate context.

However, the difficulty even for sincere people can (not must, but can) be that the Bible was not written in English.  Even if it were written in Ye Olde English, it would be difficult to understand, but it was actually written in two different languages thousands of years ago.

Even translating modern texts from one language to another is fraught with problems.  Ever hear of Chinglish?  Leading up to the Bejing Olympics, it was a big deal cleaning up the various nonsensical signs that were sometimes amusing, sometimes contradictory or even downright head scratchers.  They can go from simple confused adjectives and adverbs, like “Carefully hits to the forehead”, to more objectionable, like “Deformed man toilet”, to some I cannot even quote here.

In any translation to English, there are two sides to the coin: What the word means in the foreign language, and what the English word itself means.  If either one is misused, then true understanding will not be end result.

However, the abuse of word definitions does not end there by any means.  Words translated correctly can be given connotations that did not exist in either language until given spiritual significance.  Not only that, but some words have become so abused that they become smoke and mirrors whenever something is to be spiritualized away.

So, we are left with two issues: The abuse of mistranslating a foreign word and abusing English itself.

Abusive Love

An example I’ve pointed out before is the entire notion of agape love being pure and above the capabilities of normal human beings.  Note that this is not the same exact thing as saying God’s love is pure and perfect and above human beings.  One is a word definition, and the second is God’s character.  Of course God’s character is perfect and no human being alive in the flesh today is capable of this.

Yet, I’ve heard more than one sermon harping on phileo vs agape love.  I’ve even heard some that claim that agape was a word coined by NT writers because it was supposed to be so pure, but that is quite frankly a false idea.  It is found in other literature as well, although certainly not frequently.  Not only that, but between the four Gospels, phileo and agape are sometimes interchanged.

The real question to those who hold to too strict of an understanding of agape is: In what language did Jesus speak to His disciples?  The NT was written in Greek because it was the merchant language of the day.  It was what the Roman Empire used unofficially because it was so wide spread.  It was the English of their day, if you will allow that expression to show the comparison.

Yet, Jesus mostly taught in and around Judea.  The farthest He traveled was Sidon, and that was during the third year of His ministry.  His target audience was mostly Jewish.  His disciples were Jews.  They undoubtedly spoke Aramaic among themselves, as it was the language of the day.

So, when His words were translated into Greek and written down, which was wrong?  The one who translated it phileo, or the one who translated it agape?  Neither.  They are synonyms, after all, and the translation wouldn’t have affected it that much.  In addition, what little difference it would have made would be because the stress the writer was trying to make on various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, for each Gospel writer had a different point to make according to a specific audience.

Sorry, but the nuances of agape vs phileo stand on their own without any additional restrictions.  Agape is considered to be a sacrificial love, and a common example is the love of a mother for her child.  In that sense, it is a “higher” form of love, but what really is love without affection?  Isn’t that what phileo really is about?

The hard thing isn’t that God has agape love or phileo love for humanity.  The hard part is that He can do both on a sustained basis, and He can do so perfectly.

I will eventually circle back to this.  The longer I see the squabbles and gnashing of wolves, the more I am convinced that the #1 issue facing the Church today isn’t understanding doctrine but understanding love.  The emphasis is often upon doctrine, but it is usually the doctrines and ideas of men over God.  You cannot have perfect doctrine without perfect love, and you cannot have proper love without proper doctrine.  If you fail in one point of the Law, you have failed it completely, and the 2 greatest commandments are about love.

A Sign, a Symbol and Smoke and Mirrors

I suppose that the entire agape thing could be a little too irritating if it weren’t for the fact that it seems fewer and fewer in the Church really understand what love is.

However, that’s not nearly as bad as putting a label on something simply because you do not want to or cannot answer a question.  I mean, English words have meanings as well.  We all have dictionaries.  We need to learn how to use them.

When Does a Sign Not Point to Anything?

For example, the premise of the so-called “Gospel In the Stars” nonsense rests upon a specific word manipulation in Genesis 1:

1:14 God said, ‘There shall be lights in the heavenly sky to divide between day and night. They shall serve as omens [and define] festivals, days and years.

~ Navigating The Bible II, Ge 1:14

Notice the word “omens” instead of “signs”.

The second definition of sign is something that conveys meaning, much like the failed Chinglish signs I pointed to were supposed to do.

However, the first definition is “a token; indication”.  Obviously, if there is a token or indication, it must be tied to something else.  The third definition is a mark, identifier or abbreviation of some sort for the word it represents.  This latter one reminds me of the 70s when people were debating changing the English “Do not enter” signs with the international sign with the red circle and the white bar going horizontally through the center.  The idea was that the symbol on the sign (like how I combined those?) stood for the words, and of course the entire sign stood for the larger idea of a rule that, if broken, could result in a penalty or an accident.

In both of these definitions is the idea that the sign is not the object of importance but rather what it points to.  For example, a speed limit sign isn’t of itself of importance, but the information it conveys about how fast you can safely drive is.

An omen also points to something, but it is much more specific.  It portends a future event.  In one sense, the usage here is correct, but it does have connotations, especially negative ones, outside of our understanding of “sign” that may not be warranted here.

Specifically, what do the heavenly bodies point to?  Future events?  Yes!  They point do to “[and define] festivals, days and years”!  They portend the calendar and feast days!  Why?  Because they govern the calendar!  That’s why a day is 24 hours, a lunar month alternates between 29 and 30 days, a year is approximately one revolution around the sun, and so forth!

No need to harp on esoteric stuff here!  This is a good example of breaking both the second and third rules of interpretation!  It requires a twisting of the word involved, “sign”, to the point of looking for a translation that satisfies a preconceived notion, but it also requires the clear meaning of the surrounding sentence!

In this case, the same misuse of the notion of “sign” and “omen” is then used to point us to Joshua’s plea for the sun to stand still in the sky.  Instead, the event simply shows God’s power and glory, just as the act of creation itself does.  It shows He does deem it necessary at times to intervene, sometimes rather dramatically, in the lives and affairs of men.

There is nowhere in the passage that I can see that says it is a “sign”, however.  If that word is in there, could someone please point it out to me?  And, if it is a sign, then what does it point to?  I cannot fathom what it points to other than the power of God!  The text is silent about any sort of prophetic meaning to this event!

When Is a Symbol Empty?

Another much more often maligned word is “symbol”.  “That’s just a symbol,” is a phrase I hear sometimes.  OK, so what does it symbolize?  What does it mean to be just a symbol?  Nothing is just a symbol.  A symbol without meaning is of as much worth as an empty eggshell.

“Angels always appear as men in the Bible,” is something I’ve heard numerous times.  “They never appear like women or cute little children.”  OK, I grant you the “cute little” cherubs do not exist.  In fact, cherubim are powerful angels that I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of while still flesh and blood.

But never women?

We’ve already covered one interesting symbol of a woman in the Bible.  However, she is not the only woman in the vision.

5 Then the angel that talked with me went forth, and said unto me, Lift up now thine eyes, and see what is this that goeth forth.

6 And I said, What is it? And he said, This is an ephah that goeth forth. He said moreover, This is their resemblance through all the earth.

7 And, behold, there was lifted up a talent of lead: and this is a woman that sitteth in the midst of the ephah.

8 And he said, This is wickedness. And he cast it into the midst of the ephah; and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth thereof.

~ Zec 5:5-8

Notice how you can never get around context!  Right here, we see that the woman in the ephah is a symbol for wickedness!  She is a symbol, and it is correct to call her as such.  However, we cannot say, “She’s just a symbol”!  No!  We must be able to read the text and say, “She is a symbol for wickedness”, or “She stands for wickedness”!  “For” might only be three letters long, but it is still an important word here.

Otherwise, we are misusing the English word “symbol”!  We cannot ignore the definition of “symbol” willy-nilly whenever we please!

9 Then lifted I up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came out two women, and the wind was in their wings; for they had wings like the wings of a stork: and they lifted up the ephah between the earth and the heaven.

10 Then said I to the angel that talked with me, Whither do these bear the ephah?

11 And he said unto me, To build it an house in the land of Shinar: and it shall be established, and set there upon her own base.

~ vv 9-11

We cannot simply throw up our hands and claim, “These other two women are symbols”!  If they are symbols, what are they symbols of?  What does the text say?  It says nothing!  That’s because, while they are part of the vision, they are not symbols.  Since they are human in form but have wings, the only reasonable assumption is that they are angels.

Seriously, are men in the Church so insecure that we cannot handle the thought that a spirit being might resemble a woman?

And why not?  It isn’t like angels marry or have children, after all, for Jesus’ words are quite clear on that subject.  We see all sorts of creatures, many with four legs and six wings, many with eyes all around, some with four faces, and some that even with a description, it is difficult to picture exactly what is being described.  Why not feminine portrayals?

I have a problem when ministers say, “It’s just a symbol”, as though the smoke and mirrors will make it go away.

Clear Definitions We Understand

Some of this entire concept amazes me, for we should be schooled already in this concept.  After all, how many of us were shocked that “hell” doesn’t mean what we’ve always been told it means?  How many of us were shocked to learn that the “Kingdom of Heaven” will not not be in Heaven because the definition of “of” isn’t the same as the definition of “in”?  How many of us were fumbling around on our fingers trying to figure out how a night, a day and another night equals 3 days and 3 nights because we realized the expression meant 3 full days and 3 full nights and, besides all of that, 3 full days and nights means 3 and not 1-1/2?

I daresay, most of us were called into the Church through clear definitions!

We should understand how important it is to understand the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew word!  We should understand how important it is to have a clear idea of what words like “grace”, “justification”, “salvation” and more means!  Furthermore, we should have a clear understanding of the mapping between the Greek or Hebrew and the proper English word!

These are the very concepts that Herbert W Armstrong came to grips with!  The very first thing he had to understand was what the Christian Sabbath is!  He assumed it was Sunday!  However, he had to prove which day it was!

What would have been the result if he simply waved his hands and said, “It’s just a symbol”?

Would we even be having this conversation?

From here, you may:

Go back to the Introduction

Go back to Part 1

Go on to Part 3

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