What did Jesus say concerning how to interpret the prophetic word?
In Jesus we find an exceptionally interesting phenomenon. In Him, message and prophet merge. He was both the Father’s greatest revelation (John 14:9) and a great prophet (Heb. 1:2), as recognized by His contemporaries (John 6:14; Luke 7:16, 17). “Sir,” even the Samaritan woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet” (John 4:19).
Not only was Christ the revelation and revealer, message and messenger, but He was also a great interpreter of the Scriptures. As a prophet He conveyed direct messages from heaven, and in the traditional, school-of-the-prophets way, He was a great exponent and interpreter of the Torah. Even at an early age He left the teachers of the Law speechless, so that “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). His authority as an exponent of the Scriptures was recognized both by the people of Israel (Mark 1:22) and the religious leaders of Jerusalem, who addressed Him with the title of Teacher sent by God (John 3:2).
Although Christ did not come to change the source of the revelation (the Law) but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17), His mission was to bring the true meaning of the Scriptures to a people who had strayed from both the method of correct interpretation and the true practice of genuine reli- gion. Thus, Jesus constantly contrasted the methods of contemporary interpretation—alluding to what “was said” (verse 27), or what they understood concerning what had been said—with the “but I tell you” (verse 28) of the true prophetic interpretation.
And since Christ was not only a great teacher and prophet but also our example in everything, we would do well to follow His principles of biblical interpretation in our own study.
Did He outline His principles of biblical interpretation in any of His teachings or speeches? One episode shortly before His ascension to His heavenly Father can help us draw out a number of those interpretive principles. Let’s join Jesus on this path that leads us to discover the true meaning of the prophetic word. Let’s walk along with Him to Emmaus and let Him guide us through some principles of biblical interpretation that will leave our minds enlightened and our hearts burning.
The Hermeneutics of Jesus
In Luke 24, while addressing those two discouraged disciples
who were returning to Emmaus, Jesus presented them, practically
and schematically, with several principles of biblical interpretation that He had already given to His disciples and followers throughout His ministry.
The account informs us that the two disciples were walking along feeling saddened by the recent death of Jesus, because with His death all their messianic expectations had vanished. Then Jesus joined them, although they did not recognize Him. On hearing from their lips the reasons for their discouragement, He replied, “ ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
From His answer we can draw several principles of prophetic interpretation:
1. The canonical principle.
Christ did not interpret the truthfulness of His messianic mission in the light of the first-century reality around Him, nor through Jewish tradition or Greek philosophy, the predominant cultures at that time. On the contrary, He used “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (verse 27). That is, He used the Scriptures to interpret biblical information—His own role as Messiah. Hence, the information needed to interpret the Bible is found in the canon of the Scriptures themselves. The Scriptures are their own interpreter.
Christ Himself had established the supremacy of the Bible over
tradition (Matt. 15:3-6), and other writers underscored the fact that the Scriptures have preeminence over human philosophy (Col. 2:8), human reason (Prov. 14:12), and the so-called knowledge in the world, of which science might even be considered a part (1 Tim. 6:20).
The basic scientific procedure requires that our hermeneutical presuppositions stem from what we intend to understand. The dependence on philosophy to establish theological hermeneutical presuppositions implies a break- down with the canonical principle. Rather than following from philosophical presuppositions, principles of interpretation must be derived from the Scriptures themselves in order to interpret biblical information.
2. The principle of the unity of the Scriptures.
In the first article of this series we learned that although the Bible was written by many writers over a period of many centuries, all Scripture is inspired by the same Spirit and is altogether the Word of God. In this sense a crucial unity and harmony exists between its parts (Matt. 5:17; 2 Tim. 3:16).
Christ emphasized this principle before these two disciples on their way to Emmaus, when, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, NIV). By referring to Moses (the Pentateuch) and “all the prophets,” Jesus used in His explanation the whole Bible known at that time, the Hebrew Bible, emphasizing this principle of unity of the Scriptures.
3. The Christological principle.
One reason Jesus used the whole Hebrew Bible to indicate “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself ” was that all Scriptures “testify about” Him (John 5:39). The New Testament endorsed this idea by describing Christ as the fulfillment and the consummation of “the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom. 15:8), since “all the prophets testify about him” (Acts 10:43), “for all the promises of God in Him are Yes” (2 Cor. 1:20, NKJV).
4. The principle of the salvific purpose.
The Scriptures were not written just to satisfy intellectual curiosity, so we should not study them only to win a debate or to show that we have the right doctrine. By pointing out that He was the fulfillment of all the promises of the Scriptures, Christ presented Himself as the Lamb of God who is able to save. The revelation of His salvation is the overall purpose of Scripture and is the foundational interpretive idea as we study.
By using the right principles of prophetic interpretation, Jesus wanted the two men on the road to Emmaus to overcome their spiritual discouragement and go on to rejoice in the good news of a risen Christ who overcame death and brings eternal life. He achieved His goal, since, after the Bible study, they admitted: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
By following these principles established by Christ, we will not only understand the biblical truths but also let Him light our hearts with the salvation that the Scriptures them- selves affirm He came to give us.
Suggestions for Prayer
- As you enter into Bible study using Jesus’ principles of Bible reading, pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal links between Scripture passages that bring godly understanding.
- Pray for growing insight into salvation so that its meaning grows in your relationship with Jesus.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to give you a testimony of the value of the Scriptures in your life that you can share with others.
*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the
New International Version.
†Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version.