Summary: Today there are twelve hundred different denominations of Christianity, and what makes each one different from all the others is what they believe about Christ. What we know about the teachings of Jesus comes almost exclusively through what is written in the New Testament, yet, instead of there being twelve hundred different versions of the New Testament, there is only one, and even though there are a multitude of different translations of the Bible, they all basically say the same thing. Then why are there so many different beliefs about what the Bible teaches? This article attempts to answer that question.
The apostle Peter told the saints of his day, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scriptures is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:19-21).
Today there are an estimated 2.2 billion people in the world who believe that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. However, in just the United States alone, there are approximately twelve hundred different denominations of Christianity, and what makes each one different from all the others is what they believe about Christ.
What we know about the teachings of Jesus comes to us almost exclusively through what is written in the New Testament, yet, instead of there being twelve hundred different versions of the New Testament, there is only one, and even though there are a multitude of different translations of the Bible, they all basically say the same thing. Then why are there so many different beliefs about what the Bible teaches?
The answer is that people don’t interpret the words of God the same way, and there are a number of reasons why. One is that the New Testament was written in Greek and some words are not easily translated into another language. A good example of this is the word “logos. The scholars who wrote the King James Bible translated this as “word” in John 1:1, although it can also have other meanings. For example, in other places in the New Testament it has been translated as: cause, communication, sayings, give an account, to ask, and reckon.
But there is a more serious problem than merely translating a word from one language to another. For example, Peter said that the scriptures were written by mortal men who wrote “as they were moved [upon] by the Holy Ghost,” but what exactly does that mean? Biblical scholars have been debating that question for centuries. Did God dictate the actual words the Holy Ghost gave them as some claim, or did the prophets write down in their own words the impression they got from the Holy Ghost? Or was there some other process by which God communicated his word to men? Although there are those who adamantly believe that their understanding of this question is the only correct one, yet there are many who disagree with them. In fact, many biblical scholars will admit that they don’t know exactly how the Holy Ghost influenced the writers of scripture.
Another example concerns the birth of Jesus. We know that the mother of Jesus was a virgin at the time she conceived her firstborn son, but how did that happen? An angel explained to Mary that “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee” (Luke 1:35), but what does that mean? To this day, two-thousand years later, no one knows the answer to that question.
But there is still yet another problem in understanding the words of God as found in the scriptures. It’s understood that God can speak to man in any language, whether it is Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, French, German, English, Japanese, or any other tongue. Therefore, it is certain that God knows exactly which word to use in order to clearly communicate his thoughts and ideas.
However, there are somethings that are so unfamiliar to us that there are no human words to describe them. When that happens, the scriptures sometimes uses analogies, or speaks in symbolic language. The book of Revelation is the most striking example of this, however, there are still other things that are impossible to describe, which the scriptures refer to as being “unspeakable” (2 Corinthians 12:4)
But there is another problem we face when trying to understand what God has caused to be written that very few people even recognize. In order to understand the meaning of a word, we use a dictionary, and since the New Testament was written in Greek, we consult a Greek dictionary to help us understand what the English equivalent of that word should be. But what if God uses human words that have a different meaning to him than they do us? When that happens, we can very easily misinterpret what he’s trying to convey.
This happens quite frequently when people talk to each other. It’s called miscommunication and it happens when people think they know what someone is telling them but they misinterpret what they’re hearing. If we, as humans have trouble accurately communicating with one another, where we have a common language and culture, imagine how easy it is to misunderstand God when he tries to tell us things we have no knowledge of, nor are able to comprehend?
Take for example, the word “grace.” This comes from the Greek word charis which can be defined as “joy or delight, good will, loving kindness, favor, thanks, or reward” (from Strong’s Concordance). This is man’s definition of the word “charis,” but the real question is, what does God mean when he speaks of “charis?” Perhaps we can gain a better appreciation for this kind of problem by looking at a few examples.
Peter wrote that “no prophecy of the scriptures is of any private interpretation,” but what does Peter mean when he uses the word “prophecy”? To most people, it means “to declare the future.” In other words, when someone utters a prophecy, they are telling ahead of time something that will happen in the future. But is that its only meaning? To find out, let’s look at the context in which Peter made his statement.
Beginning in verse 13 Peter tells the saints that he knew his time on earth was drawing to an end, therefore he wanted to bear his testimony about Christ so that after he had departed from this life, the saints would have his testimony to strengthen their faith in Jesus (vs 13-15).
He then went on to say, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (vs. 16). What Peter is saying is that he knows, with absolute certainty, because he was an eyewitness, that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world, the promised Messiah, and the Son of God. Then, after saying this, he talks about how prophecy comes – through revelation from the Holy Ghost to man.
John the apostle, was told that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10), and the apostle Paul taught that no man can know the things of God except they are revealed to us by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10,11), It was Jesus himself who taught this same doctrine when he told Peter that his knowledge about him being the Christ was not given to him by flesh and blood but rather it was revealed to him from God (Matthew 16:7). Therefore, when Peter talks about prophecy at the beginning of his second epistle, he’s not so much talking about those who can predict the future, but rather his use of this word seems to more specifically refer to those who have received a knowledge of, a testimony about, or a witness from the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ. But that definition is very different from the one we usually give to the word prophecy.
Another example is found in the story of creation. In Genesis 2:16-17 we read, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
The Hebrew word used as “day” in this verse is the same word used to refer to a 24-hour span of time. If that’s the correct understanding, then we should have expected Adam and Eve to have died within twenty-four hours after eating the forbidden fruit. But, according to the Bible itself, Adam went on to live for over nine-hundred more years. So, what does God mean when he uses the word “day” in this verse?
Some point to 2 Peter 3:8 which says that one day to the Lord is like a thousand years to us, as evidence that the “day” spoken of in Genesis 2:17 is according to God’s reckoning of time, not ours, Therefore, there are those who interpret the word “day” as used in these verses as meaning “a thousand years,” but if that’s the correct interpretation, shouldn’t God have used a different word to distinguish between his meaning of “day” and our definition of a day?
Then there are those who say that God wasn’t talking about man’s physical body dying as he was about Adam and Eve dying spiritually by being cut off from God’s presence. And, indeed, it was less than twenty-four hours from the time that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit that they were cast out of the garden and from the presence of the Lord. However, it is understood that both Adam and Eve would have lived forever had they not eaten that particular fruit, but they did die physically, specifically because they disobeyed God’s word. So did the curse apply to them physically or spiritually?
However, modern science tells us that the earth is four and a half billion years old and that the universe is thirteen and a half billion years old. But according to the Bible, it took God six days to create and populate the earth but it took on one day to create the entire universe (Genesis 1:14-19). Therefore some teach that the word “day” in these verses could mean a period, stage, or epoch time that it took to complete that part of creation.
Since it is believed that God inspired the very words found in our Bible, we are left to wonder what exactly did God mean when he used the word “day” in the first and second chapters of Genesis? Does it refer to when Adam died spiritually or physically? Is it according to our reckoning of time, or God’s, or does it refer to a different meaning of time? Obviously, God knows what he meant when he used the word “day” but it’s clear that we don’t fully understand what he meant.
Another example concerns the central message of the gospel of Jesus Christ which promises us eternal life. According to the dictionary, the word “eternal” means that something lasts or goes on forever. Therefore, the most common way people understand the term eternal life is that we will live forever. But most Christians believe that all of us will live forever, either in heaven or in hell, in which case, all of us will gain eternal life.
The counter-argument is that the term “eternal life” means to live forever with God in heaven. Although that is strongly inferred in the scriptures, it is not a very accurate way of saying that because the Bible also tells us that those who don’t believe in God will live forever in hell. In that case they too are promised eternal life, except it will be with Satan. Therefore, in order to distinguish between these two different forms of eternal life, the scriptures could easily have used different words, but they don’t.
Worse yet, in John 3:15 we read “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The clear implication is that those who don’t believe in Christ will perish. When we look up the word perish in the dictionary, it means “to die” or “cease to exist.” Yet all of us will die or perish physically. Even Jesus, who was the most perfect man to ever live, “perished.” On the other hand, because of Christ’s atonement, we will all rise from the grave and live forever in either heaven or hell. Therefore, none of us will really “perish.”
What most Christians understand by this verse is that those who don’t accept Christ will perish spiritually. That is, they will remain cut off from the presence of God forever. But what this illustrates is that the word “perish” has more than one meaning, therefore God is using one English word to describe two, or perhaps more different kinds of situations, and it’s words like these that creates confusion.
The writer of Hebrews said, “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1). In the sense that the word “rest” is used here, our dictionary definition would tell us that it means to refrain from activity, or to lounge around not doing any work. With that understanding, to enter into God’s rest would seem to mean that when we get to heaven we’ll just sit around all day resting and doing nothing.
But what if God’s definition of “rest” doesn’t mean that? For example, in a modern-day revelation, when speaking about the rebelliousness of the Israelites who were led out of Egyptian bondage, God revealed, “they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.” (D&D 84:24). According to this scripture, when God speaks about entering into his “rest” what he means is being able to enter into or to dwell in the full presence of his glory. And, indeed, that definition could easily be applied to Hebrews 4:1.
According to the Greek word for “rest” it can also mean that we rest from the struggles and tribulations of life, including such things as pain, sickness, heartaches, disappointments, or persecution. But that kind of definition doesn’t mean we won’t be busy doing work in heaven. Therefore, if we say that God was the author of every word in the Bible, then we are left again wondering what does God means when he uses the word “rest”?
There are many other such examples that could be cited where we are left to wonder how to properly interpret them. Therefore, to understand what God is trying to tell us, we have no choice but to interpret the meaning of his words, which leaves open the possibility that we could be misinterpreting them, especially when we consider that what he’s trying to explain is something that we are very unfamiliar with. That would be like trying to explain what a computer is to a caveman.
But Peter said that the scriptures are not open to private interpretations and the reason why is because the words God uses to teach us about his ways are not always according to our human definition or understanding. As God has said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heaven are higher than the earth, so are my way higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
When the Holy Ghost reveals God’s words to man, they have so much more meaning to them than what our human language can convey. Therefore, when we study the scriptures, we have to understand God’s words according to his definitions, not ours. When we try to use human reasoning to understand the meaning of God’s words, it’s like a five-year old trying to correctly comprehend what someone who is much older is telling them. They hear the words but they don’t really grasp the significance of what those words mean because in the simplicity of their minds, they aren’t able to appreciate the higher level of meanings that those words contain.
The many different denominations of Christianity we see today are a direct result of people applying their own private interpretation to what they think God’s words mean. But, if we’re not supposed to depend on private interpretations, then whose interpretation should we use? Peter gave us the answer when he said, “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
Christians consider the ancient prophets and apostles to be “holy men” because it is to them that the Holy Ghost spoke and it is the divinely inspired words they wrote that we follow. Therefore, it is their interpretation that we should rely on. But when churches no longer have divinely sent “holy men” then they are left to themselves to understand God’s word.
More articles can be found at The Nature of Scriptures