The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

First Steps in Interpreting the New Testament

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The Bible was not written in such a way that only seminary-trained Christians are able to interpret it. Many young Christians believe that Bible interpretation is complicated so they lean heavily on study Bibles and the views of popular Bible teachers. To be sure, some passages are difficult to interpret. Even Peter admitted as much: “as also in all [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). “Some things” are hard to understand but not everything. Much of our inability to interpret the Bible is the result of not being shown how. A new Christian is often told to begin his or her day with a devotional reading of the Bible and the memorization of a series of out-of-context Bible verses rather than being introduced to the Bible as a whole.

When’s the last time your minister actually taught you the proper way to interpret Scripture other than saying that it must be interpreted “literally”? “The term literal comes from the Latin litera meaning letter. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature.” [1] This means being familiar with the literature of the Bible in all its forms.

For the most part, the Bible is filled with straightforward statements that are easily understood if we let the Bible speak for itself. Using the ever-popular topic of prophecy, six things need to be kept in mind. (1) Learn the content of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments so you can identify parallel accounts (what themes from the OT are being used by the authors of the NT?), (2) pay attention to time parameters (when is an event said to take place?), (3) the immediate context (what are the circumstances surrounding the events under discussion?), (4) the primary audience reference (to whom is the passage addressed?), (5) the actual words used in the text (what do the original languages say?), and (6) let the Bible interpret itself (comparing Scripture with Scripture). There are other points, but these will suffice for now.

When I first became a Christian in 1973, I didn’t have access to any of what I’ve just described. But I did know that after reading Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and comparing it with what I was reading in the Bible, something was wrong in prophecy land. Beginning with Matthew’s gospel, and with Lindsey’s prophetic paradigm swimming in my head, I found myself thoroughly confused. The first passage that did not seem to fit with what Lindsey was claiming for the Bible was Matthew 10:23: “But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes.” Even commentaries I checked were of little help. William Hendriksen’s comments on the passage from his commentary on Matthew were a big disappointment. Keep in mind that I had not formulated a prophetic position at this time. I was not looking for a way to defend any prophetic position. I only wanted to know what a particular passage meant. Many of you reading this understand what I’m describing.

Thomas Ice spends nearly three pages in End Times Controversy trying to show how this passage does not mean what it seems to mean to someone reading it for the first time with no preconceptions. “I believe,” Ice writes, “because of the nature of the vocabulary, Matthew 10:21-23 refers to events that will take place during the Tribulation and climax in the glorious second coming of Christ” (84). Here’s the problem with Ice’s claim: He is reading the passage through a system, and he never deals with the vocabulary or the context. He quotes a bunch of commentators who know what the passage says but are unwilling to come to grips with its unpleasant implications for their prophetic system. Ice does the same thing when he tackles Matthew 16:27-28.

Who is Jesus addressing in Matthew 10:23? The immediate context tells us: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Throughout His discourse, Jesus has His present audience in mind. Like in Matthew 24, Jesus uses the second person plural (“you”) throughout the passage to make this point more than clear. There is nothing in Matthew 10 and 24 that gives any indication that Jesus has any other audience in view other than His immediate audience. Ice never addresses the audience vocabulary. There is no discussion of how Jesus is using the second person plural and why it does not refer to those in His presence. How does “you” somehow come to have the generic meaning of “‘you of the Jewish nation’”? Jesus could have avoided any confusion by using “them” and changing the verb tense from a simple present to a future tense. Avoiding these issues, Ice instead jumps to a distant future “Great Tribulation” scenario that would require a discussion of a different audience that is nowhere found in the context of the passage.

How do we know that Jesus is not using “you” generically, for the “Jewish nation” of some future time? Notice how the discourse begins: “And having summoned His twelve disciples” (10:1). Jesus is not describing a future tribulation scenario with a post-rapture, newly regathered Israel. He is characterizing the conditions that existed in Israel in His own day: “These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them, saying, ‘Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (10:1, 5–6). The “twelve” are the “you” of the rest of the passage. They are the ones Jesus sent out. “Israel” is the Israel of Jesus’ day. Notice the context: “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6) and “you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes” (10:23). Nothing is said about a future tribulation period. Once again, Ice muddies what is very clear in the passage.

As I continued reading through Matthew’s gospel as a new Christian, the next prophetic passage I came across hit me hard. You know it well: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:27–28). Ice spends four pages trying to make this passage fit his system. There is no need for me to rehearse his arguments here since they are common attempts to get around the obvious. But Ice brings up one argument that I had never encountered:

A further problem with the preterist view is that our Lord said “some of those standing here. . . .” It is clear that the term “some” would have to include at least two or more individuals, since “some” is plural and coupled with a plural verb, “to be.” The word “some” nicely fits the three disciples Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1) who were participants at our Lord’s transfiguration. On the other hand, Peter notes that “John only survived” among the 12 disciples till the destruction of Jerusalem (88).

Ice is arguing that since only John lived after the destruction of Jerusalem, “some” does not fit the time period. If Jesus had said, following Ice’s argument, “one of you will not taste death,” then preterists would have a point, but the passage says “some,” more than one. The only immediate event that fits, according to Ice, is the transfiguration. Once again, Ice fails to consider the context and audience. Matthew 16:24 reads: “Then Jesus said to His disciples. . . .” The audience of 16:27–28 is made up of the “disciples” who, as I will show, include Peter, James, John, and others. Simply put, when Jesus described the time of His “coming” in Matthew 16:28, Peter, James, and John weren’t the only disciples present. The other nine apostles were there and maybe other disciples as well. While the apostles are often described as “disciples” (Matt. 11:1), the word “disciples” can and often does mean more than the twelve (Matt. 5:1; 8:21; Luke 10:1).

It’s a week later when Peter, James, and John go up the mount with Jesus. After the experience of the transfiguration, we read in Mark’s account of the event: “And when they [Jesus, Peter, James, and John] came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them” (Mark 9:14). Earlier we read, “But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter, and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ And He summoned the multitude with His disciples, and said to them. . . .” (Mark 8: 33–34).

It’s obvious that the disciples of Matthew 15–17 are a larger group than the three disciples Jesus chose to take with Him up on the mount where He was transfigured. This means that the plural “some” fits the context very well. “There are some of those who are standing here [Peter, James, John, and other unnamed disciples] who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). D. A. Carson’s exposition on this passage in his commentary on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary dismisses the interpretation advocated by Ice:

The problem [with this view] is twofold. First, “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see” is an extraordinary way to refer to Peter, James, and John, who witness the Transfiguration a mere six days later (17:1). Second, as magnificent as the Transfiguration was, it is not entirely clear how the Son of Man comes in his kingdom (Matt) or the kingdom comes in power (Mark) through this event (380).

Once again, Ice presents his arguments in terms that his dispensational readers will accept without debate not by sticking with the time texts, audience context, and letter Scripture interpret Scripture. By never raising the issue of how the second person plural (“you”) is used throughout Matthew 10, he is counting on his loyal readers not to notice. And who would think to go to Mark’s account of the Transfiguration to see that the “disciples” is a larger group than Peter, James, and John?

A little knowledge of Greek will help the serious Bible student. One young man asked me if it was necessary to know Greek in order to understand the Bible. He seemed to glory in the fact that he only had an eighth-grade education. I told him that while it wasn’t absolutely necessary to read and understand the rudiments of New Testament Greek, knowing basic elements of the language can help any interpreter avoid interpretive traps and the biases that impact every translation. The New Testament is written in Greek, so understanding a bit of it should prove helpful. One has to be careful, however, since a little knowledge of Greek can be a dangerous thing.

The Greek alphabet can be learned in a few hours. While there are some odd letters that do not correspond to our English alphabet (e.g., r = r, n = n), most do. If you can say “alpha-bet,” you know the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha (a) and beta (b). Jesus is said to be “the alpha and the omega” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet; it looks like a “w” (w), but it has a long ō sound. Math introduced most of us to the Greek letter pi (p). It’s the letter “p.” The Greek alphabet can be learned in a few days with a little repetitive study and frequent use. There is no reason why elementary-school children can’t learn to read Greek. It would be my first choice over Latin. Go here to watch a video on learning the alphabet.

Why is learning Greek important? Translators are notorious for importing their own beliefs in their translation work. With a Greek-English interlinear (the Greek text parallel with the English translation), you won’t be easily fooled. The best Greek-English interlinear that also includes James Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is the Word Study Greek-English New Testament edited by Paul R. Reynolds (Tyndale). It’s a magnificent work. No matter what side you come down on in a debate, you want to know what you’re talking about. A Greek-English interlinear includes a standard translation (e.g., NIV, ESV, NASV, KJV, etc.). The Greek text is included with the corresponding English word just below.

If you want to learn Greek on your own, I suggest that you get Learn New Testament Greek by John H. Dobson (Baker). It comes with an audio tape so you can hear the proper pronunciation of the Greek letters. There’s also Greek for the Rest of Us by William D. Mounce. There are numerous on-line courses available. Your immediate goal isn’t to be a Greek scholar but only to be able to pick up your interlinear, read the Greek text, and check a concordance to see what a particular word means and how it’s used in other contexts. Strong’s Concordance isn’t the final authority by any means, but it’s a good first step. For example, there is a difference with aion (Matt. 24:3; Heb. 11:3), kosmos (John 3:16), and oikoumene (Matt. 24:14; Luke 2:1; Acts 11:28) even though they are often translated as “world” in many translations (e.g., KJV and ESV). I have found www.studylight.org to be very helpful in supplying different tools to supplement the work of a Greek-English interlinear. The site includes the Greek New Testament, the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX). You will also find a Bible dictionary on the site as well as other Bible helps.


  1. R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48.[]

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