Rightly Dividing and Perspicuity — Plain, but Not Always Easy

“That Book in Your Hand”

What is a “Sabbath day’s journey,” how big are city suburbs, and how far is “as far as to Bethany?”

In studying the nature of “That Book in Your Hand,” my sixth sermon was on the need to interpret Scripture correctly, which depends on what theologians like to call the “Perspicuity” of Scripture.  The meaning of Scripture is not hidden, but clear — but that doesn’t mean it is always easy.


Sermons on the nature of the Bible:

  1. The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16.
  2. The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21.
  3. The inerrancy of God’s Word (its complete reliability).
  4. The preservation of God’s Word.
  5. The illumination of the Scriptures, the work of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand spiritual truths.

Previous post on this sixth sermon on “perspicuity.”

Look for the Plain Meaning

A. God Wants to be Found.

Psalm 27:8

When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek.

James 1:5

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

We do not have to fear that God is hiding from us.  He tells us to seek His face, and He gives wisdom freely.  Our God is not one who is hiding behind obscure meanings.

We expect truths about an infinite, holy God (who is spirit while we are flesh and blood) to sometimes be difficult to understand.  But if God is going to talk to us, He is going to talk to us in words that we can understand.  We don’t have to look for mystical meanings or obscure allegories.  God wants us to seek Him and find Him, to learn of Him and know Him.

B. The Simple Can Learn.

Psalm 19:7

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

Psalm 119:130

The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.

You don’t have to be wise to understand and benefit the Scriptures.  You don’t need great insight to learn from them.  You don’t need to be a spiritual “guru.”  Their message is straightforward, so that even the simple can understand, learn, and be made wise.  You don’t have to take wisdom to the Scriptures, you gain wisdom from them.

The Bible uses normal language with normal meanings.  When I Samuel 17:40 says that David picked up five stones for his sling, it means that David picked up five pieces of rock.  It doesn’t mean he prayed five prayers, put on five pieces of spiritual armour, or had five spiritual mentors, it means he chose five stones.  Why did he choose five?  Some think it was one for Goliath and one for four of his relatives.  Others think it was one for each of the five cities of the Philistines.  We don’t know and we aren’t told — but we know it was five rocks, the kind you hold in your hand and that would get you in trouble as a boy if you threw them through a window.

Side note:  sometimes, Bible teachers will fall into the trap of looking for DEEP spiritual truths in a passage (instead of just accepting what it says).  It can boost a pastor’s ego.  People say, “OH, Pastor Complexity, I never saw that before!” and he feels really intelligent and spiritual to find those truths.  Often a pastor WILL mention something you never saw before — but if I preach something no one ever saw before, it might just be because it isn’t there.

Biblical preaching and teaching is not focused on finding new and deeper spiritual truths.  The goal is to help people see clearly the truths which were there all along, and helping them to think Biblically about how to apply those truths.

In general, the words that God used mean what they would normally mean.  The Bible means what it says.  There may be symbolism and figures of speech, but a normal reading of the text would tell us that we’re dealing with a symbol, and a figure of speech would be clear.

When God tells us that the heavens are the work of His fingers, we know that He is a spirit, so we know this is a figure of speech.  Even there, the plain meaning is in view — the figure of speech only has meaning to us because a finger is a finger.  In Psalm 8, “finger” is not spiritual mumbo-jumbo about a scribe writing down the word of God or some other obscure meaning.  An artist does fine and careful work with his fingers, and God created a masterpiece of the heavens.  The normal meaning drives the meaning of the figure of speech.

Occasionally, the Bible “redefines” a word.  For instance, the Greek word graphe (“writings”) is always used to mean “Scriptures.”  “God” in the Scriptures has very different meanings from the Greek gods.  This does not invalidate the principle that the normal or plain meaning is the true meaning.  It just means that the Scripture writers let you know what they meant by the word, and so that is the “normal” or “plain” meaning for Scripture writers.  A programmer’s normal meaning for the word “code” is different from a spy’s normal meaning for it — but within their context, you know exactly what each normally means by it.  So also do the Scriptures define the normal Scriptural usage of some words.

It is not always easy to recognise the “normal” usage or meaning of a word within a Scriptural context, and that goes to the next section.  But the principle is sound, and the old saying still has merit:

If the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense…
lest it result in nonsense.

“Plain” May not Mean “Easy”

It is not always easy to know what the “plain sense” was for the human writers and original readers of the Scriptures.  There are different factors at work which make this difficult, at times.

A. A Different World. 

Acts 1:12

Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey.

Luke 24:50-52

50 And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.
51 And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
52 And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy:

These two passages describe the same event.  One tells us that the place where Jesus ascended into Heaven was a sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.  The other tells us it was as far as Bethany.  How many readers of the Bible today know what a sabbath day’s journey is, and how far Bethany was from Jerusalem?  Do you know (without looking it up)?

A Sabbath Day’s Journey

A Sabbath day’s journey, according to Jewish tradition, was 2000 cubits, or sometimes defined as 2000 strides — just less than a mile, generally.  And the walls of Bethany were about two miles from the walls of Jerusalem.  Which means if you went as far as Bethany, you went two sabbath day’s journeys, which means Luke writing in Luke contradicts Luke writing in Acts, right?  Well, no.

Let’s look at this Jewish tradition.  In Exodus 16:29, God told them to “abide ye every man in his place” on the sabbath day.  This was a command to quit going out of your tent to collect manna, but the Jewish rabbis were skilled in making traditional restrictions out of nothing, and decided this was a travel restriction — you can’t travel from “your place” on the sabbath.  Numbers 35:5 defined the suburbs of a city as 2000 cubits from the wall.  Therefore, if you stayed within 2000 cubits of the city, you were still “in your place,” in your home city.  So a sabbath day’s journey became 2000 cubits or 2000 paces — about a mile.  You could hike from one border of the suburbs, through the city, and back and forth ten times, and you’d still be in “your place” so that was ok, but don’t go beyond those borders!

When we understand the tradition and the extent of the suburbs, and then bring Acts and Luke together, suddenly everything makes sense.  A sabbath day’s journey would take you just about half-way from the walls of Jerusalem to the walls of Bethany — to the border of Bethany’s “suburbs.”  When Luke wrote “as far as Bethany,” he wasn’t talking about city walls, but about the area known as the suburbs of Bethany.

A Different World

Ok, so why am I rambling on about suburbs and sabbath journeys?  The point is simple.  Luke’s original readers would have understood it all very well — and most modern readers won’t have a clue.  We live in a different world — different geography, different traditions, etc.  Luke was using normal language with the normal meaning of his day — but that doesn’t mean it is always easy for us to understand.  The world has changed.  The plain or normal meaning was and is the right meaning — but that doesn’t mean it is easy for us to recognise it in every case.

That said, anyone reading Acts 1 should be able to tell what happened.  Jesus ascended up into Heaven, angels appeared to the disciples, and they went back to Jerusalem.  It is generally the details that are difficult, not the overall message.

B. A Different Language.  Well, we should make that plural, languages.  The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew (partly in Aramaic), and the New Testament in Koine (Common) Greek.  Those languages are not spoken today (though their modern counterparts are close in some ways).  We may know some things about those languages, but no one alive today knows them as well as the original writers and readers.  We almost all have to rely on translations to some extent, and most of us rely on them exclusively.  Except in rare cases, we miss puns and other plays on words in our translations.  We may not understand figures of speech very well.  The plain meaning in Koine Greek may not be so easy for us to understand when we’re reading an English translation.

Again, though, anyone reading just about any translation (even heretical ones like the Jehovah’s Witness New World Abomination) can see that Jesus is God, He died for our sins, He rose from the dead, and we are saved by grace through faith.  Again, it is the details that may be difficult because of translation difficulty, but a good translation makes the overall message very, very clear.

C. A Different Mindset.  The Old Testament (and parts of the new) was written to people of a much different mindset than most of us have today.  God’s Word was given to a Biblically-informed culture, one in which allusions to the Scripture would have been instantly recognised, far more than our culture.  Though idolatry crept in, the culture was largely monotheistic, Biblically-informed, and accepting of prophetic truth.

The New Testament, in large part, was written to people who had been steeped from birth in polytheism and all kinds of strange superstitions.  Greek philosophies had a significant impact on their thought processes, but not necessarily in the same ways those philosophies have affected our cultures today.

We live in a culture today in which the dominant voices push the religions of secular humanism and existentialism.  The “you decide for yourself” mentality affects even believers far more than we would like to think — and often affects the way we read Scripture.

Back to Possibility and Responsibility

In my first post on perspicuity, I emphasised the responsibility of diligence in ascertaining the right interpretation.  The difficulty of working through a text in a different language, addressed to people with a different mindset, living in a different time and place with different cultural traditions, just reinforces that point.

But I also emphasised the possibility of right interpretation.  God gave it to us so that we could understand it.  This is why God used the plain / normal meaning of words.  His Word will accomplish His purpose.  The central truths are very clear for anyone who wants to understand, and it is all understandable, even if it some parts of it aren’t always easy.

Right interpretation is not always easy
It is sometimes hard to
figure out the plain / normal meaning of the text of Scripture.

Right interpretation is always possible
We merely have to
figure out the plain / normal meaning of the text of Scripture.

Main article on Perspicuity:  Rightly Dividing and Perspicuity — “Love for Dummies”?

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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