Shortly after we arrived in New Zealand and were settling into life and ministry in Southland, I was explaining to a church member that we were still waiting for many of our belongings to arrive. I was particularly missing my library of Christian books and though I had come prepared with commentaries for my first preaching series; I felt under-equipped for anything else. The gentleman looked at me and gruffly replied, ‘you only need one book!’ He was right. As R. C. Sproul has said a little more eloquently: The principal rule of interpreting scripture is that scripture interprets scripture.
Many preachers quickly forget that! Even those who are ardently committed to the principle of scripture being the primary interpreter of scripture will face the constant temptation to grab a different tool from their toolbox and attempt to do work that only the Bible can do.
Imagine an ancient sculptor working with marble. He has various chisels of different shapes in his belt and uses all of them while at work. At any moment, any one chisel could be in his left hand, but in the right hand, the same trusty mallet is always firmly grasped.
That is how we go about the work of interpreting the Bible. We have many tools to give shape and form to our understanding of biblical truth. There is the history tool, literature tool, nature tool, and psychology tool. All have their value in different circumstances and we pick them up to use them at the appropriate time, but we never put down the most important tool of all.
The Bible is the tool we cannot be without if hope to really understand God's word. Just as Eleazar’s sword was stuck in his hand, so the sword of the Spirit should be fused in the hand of the Bible interpreter. Nothing must be preferred as a tool of interpretation over scripture and I would even go as far as to caution using these tools to speak where scripture does not.
Let me demonstrate what I mean from recent personal experience as I’ve been preaching through Jesus’ seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3. At the end of the letter to the church in Pergamum, Jesus promises a white stone to whoever overcomes. (v.17) There are at least half a dozen explanations of what that white stone could refer to, each with a different historical qualification. Some argue it is a marker given by a jury to declare the innocence of a defendant. Some suggest a token given to victors of the games to allow them access into an afterparty. However, there is no consensus among theologians and no obvious single answer historically.
What should the preacher do with that information? Should they preach a sermon on which option they think is most credible? No. Better to abandon them all than that. Better still to mention that nobody knows for sure what this refers to historically, but, we do not need extra information to understand the Bible. The Bible does not NEED history to be understood. There is no better interpreter of scripture than scripture.
So what does scripture reveal about a white stone with a new name? The Bible uses white to speak of purity. (Isaiah 1:18) The Bible uses stone as a picture of something lasting. (Isaiah 28:16) The Bible says (1 chapter later) Jesus has a new name which he will give to those who overcome (3:12) just like those who overcome in this verse (2:17). Using only the Bible to interpret the Bible, we can conclude Jesus will give His faithful people something pure, lasting with His own name. What could that be in the light of God’s redemption plan but His salvation, His Heaven, Himself?
Without relying on outside information, we have found Christ in the scriptures. Using the Bible to interpret the Bible, we have come back to Christ, just like the greatest biblical scholar did. And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:27
This article was contributed by Geoff Lloyd. Pastor at Wyndham Evangelical Church.