As I listen to more and more people wrongly use passages in the Gospels, it seems that we need some simple rules for interpreting Gospel material. So here are some rules that I think will be helpful.
Rule 1: Listen to the Gospel writer and not the Gospel characters. Listen to John not Jesus. Listen to Matthew and not Jesus. I know it may sound a little odd to be asked not to listen to Jesus, but it is necessary. It is necessary because Jesus is not talking to you in the Gospels. In the Gospels Jesus is talking to His original disciples not his latter ones. He is also talking to Pharasees, Saducees, Scribes and others, but not you. The Gospel writers are writing about what Jesus said to someone else in order to communicate a message to the reader. Your job is to listen to the writer, because he is the one talking to you.
When we do not follow this simple rule we rob the historical persons of the significance of the situation recorded and inevitably see them simply as metaphorical figures to communicate significance to us. When we ignore this rule the the characters in the Gospels are only there to teach you something and, as such, they are no longer historical to you. There are no longer real. The Church is not simply personal but it is also historical. There is a reason Jesus said certain things to Simon Peter and not to you. He did so because the church was founded on the Apostles and Prophets. When the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus says to his disciples that they can ask whatever they will in his name and it would be done for them, the significance of the statement for us is that God would supply all of their needs in order to found his church. The significance is that the church was found through the power of God. If we apprehend Jesus’ words for ourselves we will erroneously believe that the passage is teaching that we can ask God for whatever we will and He will do it for us. Many a faiths have been ship wrecked on the rocks of unanswered prayer due to this mistake.
Rule 2: Don’t allergorize. Allergorizing is taking a concrete and real thing in the passage and using it to represent something else in application as if the concrete was metaphorical. The classic example is applying the real and concrete ‘storm’ in the passage and then using it to represent your financial ‘storm’ or your marital ‘storm.’ Then it is suggested that Jesus will quiet the storms in your life. The problem with allorgorizing the storm is that there is no indication in the passage that the storm can be made to represent anything other than what it really was. It was real wind and waves and not the wind and waves of trouble in your life. The Gospel writer is telling you about the real occurance of Jesus quieting a real storm. The Gospel writer is trying to get the reader to ask the right question about Jesus. Who can speak to real wind and waves and they obey him. The writer is not trying to get you to identify your troubles with the storm and then believe that Jesus will quiet them. The passage does suggest that He can quiet your storm(because He did) but it does not teach that He will.
When we do not follow this rule we minimize some of the amazing things recorded in the Gospels and rob them of their true significance. We make Jesus’ walking on water simply a metaphor for his ability to ‘walk’ on our problems. What an awful thing to do given the historical significance of a man actually walking on water. What kind of man walks on water? What do you do with a man who walks on water? Could it be that He is who the Gospel writers proclaim Him to be? If He is then respond to Him appropriately.
Rule 3: Read the Gospels like a newspaper and not like a yearbook. When you read a newspaper you read to find out what happened and then you interpret the significance of what you read for your life. For example if you read a newspaper article about gasoline prices and you read that an expert predicts that prices will spike just before the coming holiday, you interpret the significance to you and you fill your tanks before the coming holiday. When you read a yearbook the first thing you do is open the book and look for your picture. You open the book to find yourself in it. The problem with reading the bible this way is that your picture is not in it. You cannot read yourself into the stories. It is not written to give you a picture of yourself. The bible is a revelation of God in Christ Jesus. If you open it and read it right the only picture you will find will be His. Once you see his picture then interpret the significance of his revelation of himself to you. Believe, embrace, cling for all these things are written that you may believe and in believing you may have life in His name.
Hopefully, with these three simple rules, we can avoid misinterpreting some the most beautifully written, historically significant books ever written.