By Cecil Willis
The Bible is the only safe and reliable standard in religious matters. Most religious organizations accept the Bible as authoritative, but we are told that it is impossible for us to understand the Bible alike. So, we want to study the subject, “Can we understand the Bible alike?” The religious world is tragically and pathetically divided. But we are told that we can never have the unity for which Christ prayed because men cannot understand the Bible alike. So, we can never be united. But is this true?
I would like to suggest in the outset of this study that if we understand the Bible at all, we understand it alike! It might be that we can misunderstand the Bible differently, but the Bible, when properly understood, does not teach one person one thing, and another an entirely different thing. Differences do not come from understanding the Bible differently.
God gave us the Bible, a revelation from God to man, to guide man from earth to heaven. Some day each of us who studied this Word, and for that matter, even if we have not studied God’s word, will have to stand before God for judgment. Jesus said, “the words that I spake, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jno. 12:48). 1 ask you, would God be treating us justly if He gave us a revelation by which we shall be judged, and to which we are amenable, and yet have clothed this “revelation” in language that is ambiguous and incomprehensible? Would God condemn us for failing to keep a law which it was humanly impossible to understand? I am sure all of us concur in saying He would not. So we can understand the Bible, and understand it alike.
Paul says we can understand it. He said, “If we have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:2-5). Paul said that when you read, you can understand the Bible. The revelation that Paul gave was an understandable one. And if it is understandable, it is understandable to you and me alike. But Paul does call it the “mystery of Christ.” Why is it called a “mystery”? Is it because it cannot be understood? “Mystery” simply means something that previously had not been known, but that now has been revealed. That which has now been revealed through the Apostles, and recorded in the Bible, is understandable.
But there are certain definite rules that must be followed in order properly to understand the Bible. (1) We must recognize that the secret things belong to God. There are some things that we might like to know about the economy of grace that we have not been told, and upon which speculation is useless. Moses said, “The secret things belong unto Jehovah our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). Man needs to learn to stop where the Bible stops, and much of the religious misunderstanding automatically would cease. (2) A second rule for correctly understanding the Bible is to accept unquestionably what God says. Man is prone to rationalize, and omit that portion of God’s word that he thinks is unimportant. But God said what He meant. Isaiah said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8, 9). (3) Religious misunderstanding would be cut to a minimum if preachers would preach the Word and not so much about the word. We need to study the Bible; not just to study about the Bible. Paul commanded Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). And Peter adds a much needed admonition when he says, “if any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). (4) Another rule in Bible study is that we must preach the Bible, without addition or subtraction. Preach all that it says, and only what it says. John commands this very thing in Rev. 22:18, 19 which says, “I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book.” And if the Bible is preached without addition or subtraction, our preaching will be just like Paul’s in substance, and this is just as it must be, for Paul said, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which is preached unto you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8, 9). If these rules are carefully followed, much of the misunderstandings and divisions in religious matters would be eliminated.
We do understand the Bible alike. I would like to suggest to you that our religious divisions are not over what the Bible says, but over what it does not say. We understand the sayings of the Bible alike. It is what it has not said that we understand differently. Let us take the time to point out some examples of how we understand alike what the Bible says, but may be divided over what it does not say. In Gen. 3, we find the record of Adam and Eve eating of the fruit that God had forbidden them. For many years men have told us that the kind of fruit that Adam and Eve ate was an apple. Now where would you turn in your Bible to find that this fruit was an apple? All the Bible says about it is that it was of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The Bible no where says it was an apple. But men have not stopped where the Bible stopped. They have gone beyond what was written. I might vigorously argue with the man who says this fruit was an apple, and I might declare it was not an apple, but was a pear. We would be divided, but would we be divided over what the Bible says? We certainly would not be. Our division would be over what it does not say.
In Ex. 3:1-5, we read of Moses seeing a burning bush which was not consumed. What kind of bush was this? The Bible does not say. All of us understand the Bible when it says a bush, but suppose you and I were to argue as to what kind of bush it was, would our argument be over what the Bible says? Certainly not.
In John 3, we read an account of where Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Now why did he come by night? Many theories have been advanced. Some say Nicodemus was too busy to come during the day; others have said that he wanted to speak with Jesus alone; still others have said that he was a coward and afraid for the people to know he was friendly with Jesus. Now you and I might differ radically as to why Nicodemus came by night, but we would not be differing because we do not understand the Bible alike. We would both understand what it said: “Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.” It does not tell us why he came by night. So in each of these instances our differences would be over what the Bible does not say.
Now, let us apply these rules to more important instances. One of the greatest controversies that has ever existed in religious circles has been over what constituted baptism. Does a person have to be immersed to be baptized, or does sprinkling or pouring constitute baptism also? The world is divided over this point. But let me suggest that our division is not over what the Bible says, but over what it does not say. Let me quote the Bible’s description of baptism. I want us to read two passages from the Scriptures. First, Rom. 6:3, 4: “Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” Now, Col. 2:12: “having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Notice in both of these passages that Bible baptism is described as a “burial,” and’ there is a “raising” up from the water. Now let us see if we can understand the Bible alike? We are agreed that baptism is to be in water. The Bible says it is to be a burial. Now of the three so-called “modes” of baptism, do all and, if not, which one or ones constitute a burial? Is sprinkling a burial in water? Is “pouring” a burial in water? Is immersion a burial in water? I will guess that every one of us answered these questions alike. Sprinkling and pouring do not constitute a burial in water. Therefore they are not Bible baptism. What about immersion? Any religious organization that practices baptism will admit that immersion in water for the correct purpose is fiaptism. We are agreed that immersion is baptism. Then why are we divided? Because some insist that sprinkling and pouring will serve as well for baptism as a burial. What does the Bible say about sprinkling and pouring constituting baptism? Not a thing in the world. If you think it does, find it in your Bible, and if you find it, I would like to be notified where I can find it in my Bible. All admit a burial in water is baptism, for the Bible says so. So we do understand the Bible alike. Our division is over something not found in the Bible.
We might mention the subjects of baptism. Who should be baptized? The Bible says the believing penitent who confesses his faith is to be baptized. (See Mark 16:15, 16; Acts 2:38; 8:37.) But some insist that babies should also be baptized. Do they deny that penitent believers, who confess their faith, should be baptized? Not at all. We are agreed on what the Bible says. But they insist there is no harm in doing something for which there is no authority in the Bible. In this instance why are we divided? Because of something not found in the Scriptures.
Let us also apply these principles to the name of the church. The church is known by several different names in the Bible. It is called “the church of God” (1 Cor. 1:2) and “the church of the Lord” (Acts 20:28); several congregations are called “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). There is much division today over what name the church should wear. But I wish you would note that the division is not over whether these names found in the Bible are correct or not. All agree it is proper to refer to the church as “the church of God,” “the church of the Lord,” or the “church of Christ.” But many others want their church to wear some name not found or even remotely mentioned in all of the pages of the Bible. Again this is an instance of being divided, not over what the Bible says, but over what it does not say. We all admit that these names found in the Bible are correct. So why not just accept them rather than create a human name for the body of Christ.
There is division in the religious world over whether we should just sing, or whether it is right to have mechanical instruments of music in our worship or not. What does the Bible say? It commands singing in many passages. (See Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:15; Heb. 2:12 and others.)fAre we in disagreement on these passages? Not a bit. All agree it is perfectly right to assemble and have congregational singing. So none can say our difference in this particular is the result of misunderstanding the Bible. But our difference is over whether it is right to have something in our worship of human origin, unauthoritized in the New Testament and introduced centuries after the establishment of the Lord’s church.
Again I remind you. We understand the Bible and understand it alike. We are divided because some men want to add things to the church which are not found in the Bible. We need to resolve to speak where the Bible speaks, and to be silent where the Bible is silent; call Bible things by Bible names, and do Bible things in Bible ways. When we do this, our divisions will cease.
Truth Magazine, XVIII:49, p. 3-5
October 17, 1974