How Are There So Many Different Interpretations?

2 + 2 = 4

This, a formulaic approach to things, is how we like the world to work. There is no way that anyone could look at the equation and decide that the answer is 5, or 3, or 100. The answer to the question “What is two plus two?” will always be four. No questions.

So why is it then that when two people sit down and read the same passage from the scriptures, they can come away with such radically different interpretations?

First thing is first, the Bible is not, and never will be, a formula to be solved. A lot of people assume that if we could just crack the code, figure out the secret, find the missing scroll, then we would be able to answer all of life’s most difficult questions. A few folks have been able to sell a lot of books claiming that they had the secret, but they never get there. The Bible is not a problem to be solved. The Bible is a word from God. The Bible is a companion on the journey. The Bible in all honesty asks far more questions than it answers, and this is a good thing.

So take for example a short verse:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

Not that long ago, I would have told you that the interpretation for this passage was this: The treasure is the kingdom of heaven. I am the man. When I find God, when I have access to the kingdom, I should be willing to sell everything I have, to give everything away, to follow Jesus. This is not a bad interpretation. People have based their faith around this way of viewing this scripture, and have done so beautifully. Other scriptures back up this interpretation, like the rich young ruler coming to Jesus (go, sell everything you have, and then follow me) or some of Jesus’ warnings (no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is worthy of the kingdom). This is a solid interpretation.

But then a few years ago I met with a friend who offered a COMPLETELY different interpretation. The treasure is us, all of humanity. The man is Jesus. When he found us, in his joy, he sold all he had (literally, giving up his life) to buy the field. Every bit as profound as the first interpretation. We are every bit as able to back that up with scripture. So how is it that we are able to come up with different interpretations that are both true? The short answer is the Holy Spirit has inspired these words. This book is literally breathed into by God. Another way to put it, the Bible is the only book that will read you back. The Bible is the only book that knows our needs, our hurts, our longings, our desires, and through the Holy Spirit knows how to speak to us. All of this is mysterious and powerful and can be at times frustrating, but it never ceases to be awesome.

So perhaps for us we need to take some time to examine the Scriptures in light of new possible interpretations. Perhaps for us we need to take time to understand how God is speaking to us through the book that reads us back!

Next time: What’s up with translations?

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