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More on Interpretation: Literal Interpretation and Israel

There seems to be some controversy in the Christian world about biblical interpretation as it regards the nation of Israel. There apparently are many who insist on a literal biblical interpretation of scripture, especially concerning Israel, and I think they see this as an issue because they see Israel as slighted by many modern Christians, who should be lovers of Israel, but have instead disregarded them in Godís purposes and prophecies. I will comment on this later.

It appears that some also see literal biblical interpretation as a great need today because of what they see as liberties taken by those who seek to twist scripture to match their pet ideas or doctrines when the text, simply taken literally, says something else. I understand both of these concerns, and to some degree, I agree with both. I also believe in a literal interpretation of scripture, but not exclusively. In other words, I believe God literally created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, that He literally flooded the earth with water and saved only Noah and his family, and that He literally parted the Red Sea. However, I reject outright the idea that in the biblical record of these and all other biblical events, God has no deeper spiritual meaning intended than that which is obvious to any born-again person in the plain sense of the text. I know this is not the case, for the Holy Spirit has taught me otherwise.

One author wrote the following:

If God be the originator of language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His message to humanity, then it must follow that He, being all-wise and all-loving, originated sufficient language to convey all that was in His heart to tell mankind. Furthermore, it must also follow that He would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal, normal, and plain sense. The Scriptures, then, cannot be regarded as an illustration of some special use of language so that in the interpretation of these Scriptures some deeper meaning of the words must be sought. [Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 81.]

As I already expressed, I disagree with this view, for "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter" (Pro. 25:2 NKJV). Jesus said, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes" (Mat. 11:25 NKJV). Jesus said to His disciples, "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ĎSeeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understandí" (Luke 8:10 NKJV). "For we know that the law is spiritual..." (Rom. 7:14). "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63).

Obviously, from scripture, we see that scripture is unlike any other document, in that, it is spiritual, and the natural mind of man is not capable of, nor is it intended by God, to grasp the deeper revelation of Godís ways revealed in Godís words beyond what is understood in its "literal, normal, and plain sense." Only he who has ears to hear can hear. Only he who has eyes to see can truly see the things of God that are spiritual and eternal and are revealed, not to the "wise and prudent", but to those of child-like faith.

I know from the Spirit of God, that there is an ocean depth of meaning in all scripture that lies just below the surface of the "literal, normal, and plain sense of the text", and that a deeper meaning truly must be sought. That is the work of kings, and it is the glory of the King of kings to reveal the wisdom of God that is hidden in Christ Jesus to only the most diligent of seekers (Col. 2:2-3). The true treasures hidden within the scriptures are only revealed to those who find Jesus, "in whom are hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." As Jesus Himself said of the "wise and prudent", "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40 NKJV). To the extent that Jesus uncovers to someone the secrets of His heart in a love relationship is the extent to which the wisdom of scripture will be opened to that one. It comes not just through diligent study, but through an experiential relationship with Him who is the Living Word, for all true knowledge is relational knowledge.

Paul himself gives us an example of this principle when he quoted the law, and then uncovered a deeper meaning in it than the "literal, normal, and plain sense" of the text. To the Corinthian church, he wrote, "Say I these things as a man? Or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope" (1 Cor. 9:8-10). Here, Paul shows that the plain text does not convey the true heart of God that is more concerned for His servant (the hidden meaning of the word ox) than He is for an animal, and that the "deeper meaning" of the verse is meant to convey to us that "they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel."

In regard to Israel, some insist that all Old Testament prophecy regarding Israel is only applicable to natural Israel, and not to the church as "spiritual Israel". They criticize what they call "replacement theology": the idea that the church has replaced Israel in Godís plan and as Godís people, and the idea that the Old Testament scriptures that speak to Israelís purpose and destiny are no longer applicable to natural Israel, but only to "spiritual Israel." In contrast, they contend that the scriptures that speak of Israel are applicable only in a literal sense to natural Israel and do not carry a spiritual meaning for the rest of us. I believe the truth lies in between these two perspectives.

I believe that God still has a plan for natural Israel. If not, the miracle of the restored nation of Israel, of the preservation of the Hebrew language, and of the six day war would never have occurred. These were obvious divine interventions on behalf of Israel. From that alone, I must assume that God still has a purpose for natural Israel, and I know that God will watch over His word to perform every promise that He gave to natural Israel, down to the last jot or tittle (Mat. 5:18, Jer. 1:12). However, I don't yet know God's full purpose for natural Israel, for God has not revealed that to me.

What He has revealed to me are His purposes for and dealings with those of us who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, "whether Jew or Greek", and He uncovered to me many of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven through Old Testament scriptures that applied to natural Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem. In fact, many of the New Testament principles of the Kingdom of God are found fully in the Old. The book of Genesis, for example, contains many of the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven about which Jesus preached. Someone said, "The new is in the old concealed and the old is in the new revealed." I believe itís foolish to insist, as some do, that the Old Testament scriptures, including prophecies, that apply or applied to natural Israel do not and cannot have spiritual application to all who are in Christ, and an application that is not only valid, but on an even greater and more eternal level as they apply to the Kingdom of Heaven than they did as applied only to the kingdom of Israel. I think scripture itself teaches otherwise (Eph. 3:6 for example).

One example of this fact is found in 2 Corinthians chapter six and seven. Paul quotes several Old Testament scriptures that recorded God's promises and prophecies to natural Israel in the following verses:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
"I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people." Therefore "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the Lord Almighty." (2 Cor. 6:16-18)

Paul then writes the following concerning these promises and prophecies that God spoke to natural Israel: "Therefore, having these promises [chapter 6 verses 16-18], beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). Paul wrote this to a church largely made up of Gentiles, by this showing us, without qualification, that the promises of God to natural Israel under the Old Covenant are transfered to us as spiritual Israel under the New. That does not negate or cancel the natural promise, which runs concurrently, or as a natural current under the current of the higher and more perfect stream of the spiritual.

I donít feel to cover this subject any further than to say that Iím only a biblical literalist in the sense that I believe that The Bible is literally true, except, of course, where it is obvious that it is poetic, allegorical, or where the plain sense of the text shows that it is not to be taken literally. However, that is really the extent to which Iím a literalist. I believe that there is infinite depth in any verse of scripture that lies hidden beyond its "literal, normal, and plain sense." The truth of scripture is hidden from those who read and study it as an academic exercise, rather than as a spiritual encounter. To study the word of God without entering into the experience of that word through a living and vital relationship with He who is The Living Word, is to partake of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that only brings death. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Someone has rightly said, "To truly know the word of God, you must first know the God of the word." I know that to be true from personal experience, and I have found, as has anyone who truly knows God, that the truth of scripture is as infinite as is the God of scripture, and to uncover the treasure that is Christ Jesus, is to uncover the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge contained within the scriptures.

Having said all that, unfortunately, I realize that many will use this approach to the scripture as license to bend and manipulate scripture to support error, such as dominionism or "the seven mountain mandate", or a myriad of other winds of doctrines, and even doctrines of demons, such as universal reconciliation (all men will be reconciled to Christ). Many will swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme from literalism in order to justify lies, while claiming a higher level of revelation. These do violence to the law, allegorizing or spiritualizing all of scripture, including clear New Testament teaching, in order to support beliefs that are not clearly taught in scripture and by the Holy Spirit who authored all of scripture.

For example, there are many today who allegorize scriptures regarding hell and the lake of fire, saying that there is no literal lake of fire, but that it is a cleansing process in Christ in the present, and not some future, literal, and eternal judgment.

In that sense, I agree with the biblical literalist that God "would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal, normal, and plain sense" rather than to purposely deceive man by clearly stating one thing throughout scripture, while meaning something completely different. That, God would never do. "He is not a man that He should lie" (Num. 23:19). All men are not children of God, all men will not be saved, and there is a literal lake of fire that will endlessly torment Godís enemies, including men and women, in spite of what the "more enlightened" would attempt to teach to the contrary. "Beware that no one deceive you" (Mark 13:5).

Now, having given you my views on biblical interpretation, it may surprise you to find that I am not of the Reformed or Covenant Theology "school of thought." I tend to see different "schools of thought" as nothing more than fruit from different branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I donít subscribe to any formal creed or sect, for Iím very uncomfortable in Saulís armor, therefore I adamantly refuse to wear a label.

Above all, I seek to convey that certain methods of extracting truth from the scripture, whether this method or that, are wholly inadequate, and can only lead to deception. Jesus said, "You do err, not knowing the scripture, nor the power of God." The scripture can only be rightly divided in so far as the individual comes into contact with the transcendent God who, by His power, created the universe, and by His power sustains it, and that same fiat of creation that brought light into creation must explode in the heart and mind of the individual by the creative word of Him who is the Word of Life, and that eternal and ever expanding encounter with Him, who is eternal, gives light, which weak and frail man attempts to fit into human language; a thing impossible. One must know, not only the scripture, but the power of God, or to err is their inevitable lot. There are no adequate methods, only an adequate Teacher - The Spirit of Truth, who will lead us into all truth; into Him who is The Truth. To truly know the scriptures aright, one must not only study, but must have a vision of Christ.

Tozer gave us this wonderful perspective:

Between the scribe who has read and the prophet who has seen there is a difference as wide as the sea. We are today overrun with orthodox scribes, but the prophets, where are they? The hard voice of the scribe sounds over evangelicalism, but the Church waits for the tender voice of the saint who has penetrated the veil and has gazed with inward eye upon the Wonder that is God. And yet, thus to penetrate, to push in sensitive living experience into the holy Presence, is a privilege open to every child of God.
- A. W. Tozer


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