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Practical Rules for Interpretation: Rules 8-9

Rule 8  – Observe the Difference between the Spirit and the Letter of the Law

The reputation of the Pharisees in the New Testament is legendary.  They were scrupulous in keeping the letter of the law by ignoring the spirit of it.  There were a variety of legalists in New Testament times.   Then, and always, there are people who distort the Law and fall into several types.

First, and most famous, was the type that created rules and regulations beyond God’s command.  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for making the tradition of the rabbis as authoritative as the Law of Moses.  Attributing divine authority to human laws is the chief type of legalism.

Second, some try to find “loopholes” to keep the letter of the law while avoiding its Spirit.  The Pharisees were famous for figuring out ways they could keep the Law of Moses.  The Sabbath day’s journey was such an example.

Thirdly, some try to distort the Law by saying they obey the spirit of the Law but ignore the letter.  Letter and Spirit are inseparably related.  The legalist destroys the spirit while the antinomian (means literally “against law”) destroys the letter.

The Sermon on the Mount illustrates the weight and absolute perfection required of the Law.  Whether it be adultery or murder, everybody regularly breaks the Ten Commandments in one way or another.  That is not to say that there are not degrees of breaking the Commandments and wicked men distort Christ’s meaning to make all offenses equivalent.  To murder a man in cold blood is a much more heinous sin than just hating a man in your heart.  Christ’s point, however, is that no man is justified before the Law.  The Bible even differentiates between degrees of evil and degrees of punishment.

Rule 9 – Be Careful with Parables

Of all the literary forms found in Scripture, the parable is often considered the easiest to understand and interpret.  People usually enjoy sermons that are based on parables because they’re real stories based on life situations.  They seem easier to handle than abstract concepts.  What most people don’t reflect upon is that, without an underpinning of understanding, the meaning of parables is often “filled in” incorrectly by the mind of the listener.

Most New Testament teachers and scholars realize that the parables present some very unique difficulties in interpretation.  Why?  What is so hard?  Why can’t short stories be easily explained?  There are several answers.

First is the problem of the original intent of the parable.  Jesus was fond of using parables to teach but did Jesus teach in parables to make His meaning plain?  The answer is found in Mark 4:10-12.

Christ gave parables to the masses but explained them only to His disciples (remember the rule that the explicit is interpreted by the implicit and that the narrative is explained by the didactic?).

The parables were not meant to be perceived by those who had not been given the secrets of the kingdom of God.  Consider well those who say “I like reading what Jesus says but don’t like Paul or Peter or John or James…”  They like Jesus many times because He spoke in Parables and they don’t like the explanation (the Epistles) but prefer to read Christ’s parables with their blind eyes.

See Isaiah 6:8-13.  God judges those with “fat hearts”.  The people do not want to hear God so he takes away their capacity to hear Him.  Jesus frequently announces:  “He that has ears to hear let him hear.”

If Jesus is to be taken seriously about the use of parables then we must acknowledge there is an element of concealment in them but, in the final analysis, a parable is not a riddle.  It was meant to be understood by those who were open to it.  He also gave explanations (as noted by the fact we have Epistles).  He also was plain enough to infuriate some listeners.

Another problem with parables is their relation to allegory.  When Christ interprets the parable of the Sower, He does so in allegorical fashion.  Some might assume that all parables are therefore allegories.  Not so.  To do so will get us in trouble.  We could let our imaginations run wild.  Not all characters are presented to represent some deeper spiritual meaning but may be characters simply to make a general point.

The safest and most accurate way to treat parables is to look for the central point in them.  Avoid allegorizing them unless the Scriptures elsewhere indicate it.  Just be careful with parables and consult several commentaries when working with them.

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