Interpretation of the Scripture has become a new discipline of study for theologians now. Some people would like to explain Bible with the support of their knowledge and with the intention of satisfying the need of the audience. But there are Churches and theologians, who want to understand Scripture just as the Early Church understood it. Which were the basic principles of interpreting the Bible in the first century? To know this, we have to examine how the Apostles interpreted the Scripture of their days, namely, the Old Testament. Acts 8:25-40 is a good example in this regard. It will give us a bird’s eye view of the Biblical exegesis of the Apostolic age.
The story told here is very popular: An Ethiopian Eunuch is returning from Jerusalem. Then Philip, an Evangelist by himself, gets the divine message that he should meet the other soon. Philip rushes to the spot and finds the Eunuch reading the Scripture and the latter asks for some help. Philip interprets the Biblical portion the Eunuch was reading and that opened the eyes of the latter. As a result, the Eunuch expresses his willingness to be baptized to become a disciple of Jesus. After the baptism Philip disappears to another place for continuing his mission. We can learn at least five principles of Biblical interpretation from this story:
Both the Reader of the Scripture and its Interpreter are inspired by God
Interpretation of the Bible is a responsibility, which we get from God. God chooses such people, trains them, opens up their mind, broadens their vision and equips them with all kinds of capabilities. Even Moses, who had disabilities for speech, became a powerful speaker in the court of Pharoah, when it was his turn for arguing for God’s People. Amos, neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, could spell out the injustices of his day. God was empowering both of them; even today, He does it. However, some people forget this aspect and they think that their interpretation is based on their language and communicative skills. They start reading “Seven Ways to Win the People…” like literature more often than the Bible. They become professional Evangelists and their stage shows are aired around the world. Do they fulfil the divine instructions regarding the exegesis of the Bible?
A divinely appointed Bible Scholar receives his wisdom directly from God
Daily devotions, meditations and silence will equip him understand the Scripture in the proper way. Since people, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote the Scripture the readers should also have that spiritual anchorage. To cut it short, a proper understanding of the Bible requires the reader’s spiritual inspiration as well as the writer’s. In our story of Acts both the Ethiopian Eunuch, who reads the Bible, and Philip, who interprets it, are moved by the Holy Spirit. Everybody expects the dependence of the latter, because he was an Apostle of the Early Church. But it is unusual that the Eunuch, being a high ranking officer of the Queen, was so spiritual that he kept on reading the Scripture on his way back home from the pilgrim city Jerusalem. Normally, the pilgrims will be reciting psalms and prayers on their way to the pilgrimage centre and what they do on their way back will be merry making. But here the Eunuch was much impressed by his visit to the City and Temple of Jerusalem, which was originally built by Solomon, whom the old queen of Ethiopia called Sheba praised much. He was so inspired by the presence of God there that he kept on reading the Scripture on his return journey.
Discussion is a good method of Bible study
The Bible study circles lose their orientation once there is no interaction between the speaker and the audience. Most of the time it will be a lecture, or more precisely, a monologue. Some of the hearers will be attentive, but most will be under severe boredom. Either the topic will be out of context or the speaker will fly over their heads. Wise speakers create situations for discussion, by which they can measure the level of understanding on the part of the audience and their field of interest.
In our case of the Acts of Apostles the Eunuch does not understand the real meaning of the portion he covered. The comment that “he was on a lonely road” (Acts 8:26) is a description not only about the path he is running through but also about the journey of his mind. While Philip asks whether he needs any help the Eunuch welcomes the support of the Apostle. This kind of a giving and taking should be there in every Bible study circle. Both the reader and interpreter should work together. Then only the meaning of a text will be clearer. Even though the educational background, language, cultural heritage, thought process and social rank might be different, God can unite them for the sake of the Word of God. See how Philip and the Eunuch sit together to learn the Scripture.
Jesus is the central message of every Bible text
We live in an age when Bible conventions become mega events. The number of speakers is increasing and they provide whatever is required for the modern client. All kinds of marketing will be made before so that the convention becomes an event. It will be reported both in the newspapers and visual channels and Internet discussions will do the follow up work. But do they communicate the truth about Jesus really? The sound system, stage settings, appearance of “cheer makers” and the number of the audience will fascinate the audience. They will remember the illustrations and stories told by the speaker and the points on which they became sentimental, but do they recollect the main things related to Jesus?
The preachers of the Apostolic Age were very particular that the central message of all texts should be Jesus Christ, the incarnated Word of God. They read the Old Testament not to understand the history or culture of the period of Abraham, Moses or the Prophets, but to see what is there, which points to Christ, who became a sacrifice for our sins. They had no doubt that the whole of Old Testament contains promises regarding Jesus Christ. Philip does the same thing: the Eunuch did not have any idea regarding the person mentioned in Isaiah 53, which he was reading. Is it about the prophet himself or somebody else?, asked the Eunuch. Philip explained him that it was Jesus, who was intended here. Is 52:13-53:12 is called the “Gospel of The Old Testament”. It contains many words and usages we read in the Passion Narratives of the four Gospels of the New Testament. The matter prophesied by Isaiah was really about the suffering, which Christ was expected to go through.
Bible learning should lead to repentance and a change of life
A model Bible study should end in the repentance of the audience and their pledge to take a new route in their life. Neither the modern audience is ready for this nor the speaker is able to create that atmosphere. Tears will be shed in hearing about the sufferings of other people, funds will be collected either for the preacher or an institution or a project, big applause will be made; but nobody is able to cry for his own sins.
Once he realized the meaning of the text read and the real Gospel the Ethiopian Eunuch made himself ready for baptism. He was baptized on the way. Modern Conventions are called “Harvests”. What is the harvest? Who gets the harvest? The real harvest should be the change of heart. The new believers should be baptized and the old ones should make some new decisions in his life. Then only the Bible Study will become ideal and it will be in tune with the Age of the Apostles, who “saw, heard and touched the Gospel”.