November 26, 2020

iMonk Classic: How I Interpret the Bible

Note from CM:
This is an excerpt from Michael Spencer’s essay, “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen.”

Folks, don’t rush through this one. Ponder it. Print it off and carry a copy of it in your Bible to remind you what the Book is all about and what you should be looking for as you read it. This is the good stuff, the real stuff, the right stuff.

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How Do I Interpret the Bible?

Ever think of the Bible as….a grocery store? I worked at grocery stores for a long time. People come into the store with their grocery lists, and they know what they are looking for. They need some bananas, ice cream, a case of root beer, a head of lettuce. They run up and down the aisles finding what they want, find everything on the list, check out and go home.

That’s how evangelicals increasingly approach the Bible. They have a list of what they need. Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future. We run into the “Bible” looking for these things, and when we find them, we leave.

This “grocery store” view of the Bible is built on the idea that the Bible is an inspired “library” of true information. A “magic book” as some have called it, where passages contain unquestionable information and authoritative rules. This approach to the Bible is flattering to the human ability to catalog information, and it is used in many churches to build confidence that the use of scripture puts a person on a foundation of absolute certainty.

In this approach, interpretation is important, and good interpretation is common. But the problem is fundamental. Scripture is not a grocery store. It’s not a place to run in and find principles for parenting or prophecies about the future, even though the conversation contains discussions about these things.

No, the Bible is a cooking show. And if we are going to interpret any part of scripture correctly, we need to get out of the store- the encyclopedia of true things in a magic book- and get to the kitchen.

And, amazingly, here we are! If you look on the counter, you will see all the ingredients for a cake. This cake is really going to be magnificent, and we have all the ingredients to mix together and create this wonderful creation. Eggs. Flour. Salt. Sugar. Butter. Vanilla. And many other bowls of ingredients.

All these ingredients, of course, are the contents of the Bible. The eggs are Genesis 1-3. The flour is Leviticus. The salt is Proverbs. The sugar is Psalms. And so on. These are good ingredients. Crucial ingredients. Now…we need to ask an important question: What are we baking?

The cake the Bible is baking is Jesus Christ, the mediator of our salvation, and the Gospel that comes in him.

There are people who like eggs. There are, I suppose people who like to eat flour. There are other things you can make with these ingredients besides the cake. But if you follow the conversation/recipe, this cake will turn out to be Jesus, the Lamb of God, the bread of Life, the salvation of the world. The cake scripture is baking is Jesus. If you recognize that cake for what it is, and eat it believing, you will be saved.

Using this analogy, we must interpret the Bible backwards. Reading it forward is fine and necessary. Interpreting forward is legal, but far from adequate. We must get to the Gospels. We must get to John 1 and Revelation 4 and 5 and Romans 1:1-4. We must get to Jesus, and then we can read Genesis 1 rightly. We can read it without Jesus, and do a lot of good or make a huge mess. But we will be missing the point of every part of scripture if we don’t interpret with Jesus in mind.

II Corinthians 3:4 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

One of the first times I brought out my thoughts on this approach to the Bible was at a seminar for local pastors, where I was asked to teach Genesis 1-11. I am sure most of the men in the room were ready for the usual approach to Genesis, with lots of hat-tipping to the creation-evolution controversy and explanations for how these events could “really happen.”

Instead, I said that Jesus was the one for whom and by whom all things were made. I said Jesus was in the beginning with God. I said we are made in God’s image, in a way similar to the way Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and that this is why Jesus is made like us so he can save us. I said Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. I said Jesus loves us when we are cast out of paradise, and he left paradise for us. I said Abel was a picture of Jesus, and his offering a portrait of faith. I said the ark was Christ, and the flood the wrath of God Jesus endured for our sake. And so on, for four hours.

At the end, one man said I was trying to be “provocative.” Let’s hope so, because the grocery store approach to Genesis is boring me and turns preachers of the Gospel into lecturers in creation science.

Why can’t we preach Christ Jesus from Genesis? Why do we talk about the length of days and the location of Eden and whether women should submit, when the whole story exists to send us to Jesus to be clothed in his righteousness? Do we really think God wanted us to have a book of inspired science and trivia? I need a savior, not a set of facts. As Robert Capon says, if the world could be saved by good advice, it would have been saved ten minutes after Moses came back from Mt. Sinai.

When I read Leviticus, I interpret it through Jesus. He is the sacrifice. He is the thief who is punished. He is the adulterer who is stoned to death. Jesus is the priest, the altar, the sacrifice and the temple. The good news is we don’t live in Leviticus any more. We live in a New Covenant where the threats of Sinai have been fulfilled at the Cross, and a new covenant in His blood is now available to anyone, of any nation, who believes in Jesus as Lord.

The first Christians didn’t use the grocery store method. They put it all together and said “Christ!” They found every part of scripture was, in fact, an ingredient in allowing us to see and understand the bread of life.

It is important to remember that Jesus’ existence isn’t determined by the Bible. He doesn’t need it to be God. We need it to know God. We need the language, the pictures, the law, the examples….the whole recipe that gives us Jesus and the Gospel. We need the whole Bible so we can start to understand Christ, his person and work, his Gospel and what faith means. All the complexities of the great conversation are for our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel. When we interpret, we need to avoid literalism and find Christ, who is the truest of all truths. Literalism that lessens the saturation of the scriptures by Christ is as bad as liberal criticism that denies Christ.

So Biblical interpretation is part understanding the conversation, and part understanding the final Word spoken and speaking. When we can hear the final Word in the words and images of the text of scripture, then we are getting it.


  1. One Hit Wonder says

    This essay reminds me of why I started reading iMonk a few years ago. Michael Spencer was speaking a language that I had heard in my heart but had never heard spoken by others. Because of his ability to communicate truth, I have changed the way I approach scripture, how I proclaim scripture….I am like a one stringed guitar player..playing the same tune…Jesus is the center of every sermon I preach, every scripture I teach…everything revoles around Him….proclaiming Him as the way, the truth and the life has changed everything….thank you iMonkers’ for posting this oldie but goodie!!!

  2. …don’t rush through this one – how could you, it is so rich, rich, rich with truth. So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.

  3. Great post by Michael Spencer. Thanks for reposting it, Chaplain Mike. I particularly like, “We must get to the Gospels” and “When we interpret, we need to avoid literalism and find Christ, who is the truest of all truths. Literalism that lessens the saturation of the scriptures by Christ is as bad as liberal criticism that denies Christ.” Also: “When we can hear the final Word in the words and images of the text of scripture, then we are getting it.”

    Think of this sentence, “This is how God loves you.” You only get the whole sentence once you get to Jesus. If you only read Genesis, you might have the word “This.” Keep reading and you may get to, “This is.” And then “This is how.” You are doing well once you get to “This is how God loves.” But it’s only when you get to Jesus that you get to know, “This is how God loves you.”

  4. I printed all nine pages out and will keep it by my Bibles.Without Jesus as our savior the Bible is only history. This is why I keep coming back to this site.

  5. Excellent essay, Mike, and exactly what I needed to read lately. Thanks for posting it.

  6. Whaat!! The Bible isn’t a handbook for living? Reading the Bible for tips on christian living just, in my opinion, cheapens it to a self-help book. Too many sermons and books and what not are all about application to a specific issue in our lives and not about applying Christ to our lives.
    Thanks to I-Monk I have learned to read the Bible with John 3:16 as the ‘point’ of the Bible; everything leads to this point and then fleshes out this point.

  7. Good stuff. Thanks for reposting – I only found this site a few weeks before Michael left us so there’s a lot I’ve missed.