Dan Popp
Why disbelievers can't understand the Bible
By Dan Popp
August 10, 2010

Speak, LORD, for Thy servant is listening. — 1 Samuel 3:9 NASB

These days it seems that every time you turn around you hear another nonsensical leftist "interpretation" of the Holy Scriptures. Where is all this hermeneutical wackiness coming from? Maybe from people who literally cannot grasp God's written message. I'm using the term "disbeliever" here to mean someone actively opposed to the Biblical Jesus, as distinguished from someone without Christ but not openly hostile to Him. Here are some possible explanations for the bewildering explosion of bad exegesis:

1. Disbelievers don't know the context, and sometimes don't even know that context is necessary.

The Bible is a big book, and people who aren't interested in hearing what God has to say aren't likely to take time to read the whole thing. But quoting a verse without knowing its context is like the squawking of a parrot. Polly can mimic the sounds of speech, but you can't carry on a conversation with her. The disbeliever can copy and paste verses, but the meaning is opaque to him (though he insists he sees it perfectly). The old chestnut, "Judas went away and hanged himself; Go thou and do likewise" satirizes the skeptic's disregard for context.

When such a bird lights upon a sentence like, "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1a), he's likely to create an instant doctrine: "Shut up and pay your taxes." He doesn't know that the Apostle who penned those words was executed for disobeying the governing authorities. He's unaware that all the Apostles ran afoul of the Roman rulers, and tradition says that all except John died horribly, rather than shut up. He's ignorant of Peter's retort to the religious leaders, "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29) Hundreds of thousands of Christians were burned, flayed alive or torn apart by wild beasts, rather than obey the governing authorities. And without these martyrs, today there might be no church, no Bible, and thus no way for us to read Romans 13:1a.

That's the historical context. If we stick only to the textual context we find Daniel and his three friends defying an earthly king in deference to their heavenly one. Indeed, Moses — who wrote the five books on which the entire Bible is built — led the largest slave rebellion in history. Blinding himself to information mastered by every 5-year-old Sunday School student, the disbeliever makes half a verse into an absolute universal edict, rather than an instruction for a particular circumstance. This brings up the second problem:

2. Disbelievers don't know what kind of book the Bible is.

Opponents of Christ want the Bible to be a book of short prescriptions and proscriptions similar to The Analects of Confucius. But in addition to Proverbs, the Scriptures contain historical narratives, parables, lists, poems, songs, instructions, commands, prophecies — many kinds of text, each of which must be read in the way appropriate to its nature. You wouldn't read a court order the same way you would read a newspaper, but disbelievers can't seem to help reading Leviticus, the Sermon on the Mount and Revelation in the same way — and then accusing believers of "simplistic" or "literal" interpretation!

3. The Bible was not written to disbelievers.

One of the more anxiety-producing ordeals of courtship is meeting the future in-laws. Within this group of familiars, I am the stranger. It may take awhile for me to understand how the family communicates. "Was your dad kidding when he said...?" "That's just Aunt Harriet's way of telling you...." The family's shared experiences and values frame all of its communication. Until I experience life with the family over a period of time, I may feel like I'm losing something in translation. The only difference with God's family is that it has a much longer history, and even deeper values.

4. Effective communication must be species-appropriate.

I could write a letter to my cat, including the word "TUNA" in great big letters, and he probably wouldn't respond at all. Some human-feline communication is possible (or so I've been told), but this isn't the right approach. Communication must be adapted to the species.

Disbelievers are the wrong species to get a written message from God. To think about it from the other perspective, God would be sending Morse Code to turtles if He tried to get a complex message to scoffers. The disbeliever is still Man, Version 1.1. — the model with the Fatal Error. The believer is Man, 2.0. "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature" (2 Corinthians 5:17) — he is a new kind of being.

"But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." (1 Cor. 2:14)

Disbelievers shouldn't be offended by this. We have hints in the Word of God that even the holy angels are not the correct species to grasp that particular communication. The prophecies of the Old Testament as well as the gospel of the New are called "things into which angels long to look." (1 Peter 1:12)

5. God actively hides His message from disbelievers.

You remember that the Lord said, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6) Well, Jesus is no hypocrite; He practices what He preaches. Christ revealed the nature and will and plan of God to those who would listen, and with the same words He concealed God from those who would not.

    And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" And He answered them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. ...

    "Therefore I speak to them in parables, because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,

    "You will keep on hearing, but you will not understand;

    And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive." (Matthew 13:10,11,13,14)

Isaiah also ironically revealed, "Truly, Thou art a God who hides Himself." (Isaiah 45:15a)

A fascinating Old Testament scripture is Psalm 18:25,26 (This is also recorded in 2 Samuel 22:26,27):

    With the merciful
    You will show Yourself merciful;
    With a blameless man
    You will show yourself blameless;
    With the pure
    You will show Yourself pure;
    And with the devious
    You will show Yourself perverse. (RSV)

The words "devious" and "perverse" both mean twisted. Other translations variously render them as willful, contentious, a wrestler, astute, crooked, crafty and shrewd. If you desire an open and honest relationship with the Creator, He'll give you that. But if you want to play games with God, He'll look you in the eye and say "Set 'em up."

To those who earnestly asked the way to heaven, Jesus candidly said, "I am the Way." But to the rich young man who lied both to himself and to God, the Good Teacher responded craftily to the same question, "Keep the commandments."

The Bible is simply not open to scrutiny by the insincere. The Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had read God's word diligently every day of their lives. They didn't have the context problem of the present-day disbeliever. They knew what kind of material they were looking at; they even revered it, in a way. But when the Word-Made-Flesh, the Fulfillment of every prophecy, the long-expected Messiah stood right in front of them, they didn't recognize Him. Jesus told them, "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me." (John 5:39 NASB) They had scrutinized the sacred scrolls until their eyes bled, but missed the whole Point.

In His terrifying way, as He did when He hardened Pharaoh's heart, the Almighty is honoring the disbeliever's wish for God to "go away," by solidifying that decision. The scoffer waving the Bible is claiming knowledge that he has pointedly refused: the knowledge of God. That's what the Bible gives. That's what the disbeliever will not, and therefore cannot, have.

Someone will say that I'm proclaiming a "Secret Decoder Ring" theology. And in a way, that's true. No competent General announces his plans to the other side. But God in His goodness and love has given each human being a decoder ring. You have one, believer. You have one, too, unbeliever. Disbeliever, you have the very same secret decoder ring I do.

That ring is your will.

All you have to do is turn it.

Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. — Jesus (Luke 10:21, Matthew 11:25)

© Dan Popp


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