Tactics and Tools

A Verse That Illustrates Three Interpretive Principles

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 02/03/2022

There’s one topic I wish every believer would study. Even though I’m an apologist and have taught apologetics for nearly two decades, it has nothing to do with defending the faith (though it can help with that). It’s called hermeneutics, but it’s more commonly known as biblical interpretation. If I could, I would require every believer in the global church to learn its principles.

Now, I can almost hear the pushback. Hermen-what? It sounds like a dry, academic subject that has no practical value for my walk with God. It’s probably just for pastors, people say.

That’s just not true. Hermeneutics is an exciting topic because it helps us believers better understand what God is saying to us. You’re going read the Bible between now and the day you die, and what you read will define your theology, affect major life decisions, and determine what you teach others according to what you think it says. Hermeneutics is critical because it’s the connection between God’s Word and its application. The single most influential class I took in seminary was hermeneutics. It did more to enrich my knowledge and understanding of God’s Word than any other subject.

Let me illustrate how three key principles of biblical interpretation can help you understand a commonly misunderstood passage. It’s based on a verse that has fueled numerous skeptics to challenge the integrity of Jesus.

They claim that Jesus commands his followers to round up those who reject him and kill them. They cite Luke 19:27 where Jesus says, “Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.” That doesn’t sound like the tender and compassionate Jesus we all know. What’s going on? The problem is entirely a hermeneutical mistake—people are misinterpreting the passage. Consider how applying the three keys to biblical interpretation clarifies the meaning and application of this passage.

Context: The first key to interpreting any biblical passage is to read the verses before and after the passage in question. The more you read, the better. That’s why we say at Stand to Reason, “Never read a Bible verse.” Always read the whole paragraph, the chapter, or the whole book. When this verse is read in context, you discover that Jesus is telling a parable about a nobleman and his servants. Parables, of course, are fictitious stories intended to illustrate a point. This story is about a nobleman who leaves ten minas with his ten servants and departs to be crowned king. His servants hate him, though, and send an envoy to petition against his appointment. After he’s crowned king, he returns to judge his servants on how they’ve invested his money. After rewarding the faithful servants, he punishes the unfaithful ones and then orders his enemies to be killed.

Notice that when you read the Luke passage in its context, you discover that it’s the king in the story—not Jesus—who issues the command to kill his enemies. Though this clarifies the contextual concern, it raises another question: Why does Jesus identify himself as the king in the parable? Does that mean he was ordering his followers to round up his enemies and have them executed? To answer that question, we need to consider two additional keys to interpreting a biblical text.

History: The second key to interpreting a biblical passage is to discover any pertinent historical information that sheds light on the passage. It turns out that Jesus includes the king’s execution order in the parable because it was a reference to a historical event. After King Herod died, his son Archelaus went to Rome to claim kingship over Judea. The Jews sent an envoy to petition against his appointment because they opposed his rule. Nevertheless, Archelaus was crowned king. He returned to Judea and ordered the killings of those who were against him.

Jesus references this historical event in his parable. He is not commanding his followers to round up his enemies and kill them, though. Rather, he is referencing a recent event his audience was aware of—Archelaus’ return and his order to execute his enemies. Recognizing the history behind this passage helps to explain why Jesus included the execution order in his parable. But one final interpretive key will help clarify Jesus’ message.

Genre: The third key to interpreting a biblical passage is to determine its literary style (genre) and apply the appropriate interpretive principles. Although this passage is found in a Gospel (which is a genre), the subgenre is parable. Jesus preferred to use parables to teach his lessons. That’s why, when you read a parable, always ask, what’s the point? In this case, Jesus is telling his followers that he, like the nobleman, will depart and leave them with the responsibility to be faithful. Eventually, he will return and, when he does, will exact judgment on his enemies (Rev. 19:11–16). His judgment, however, will be just, and he will not ask his followers to carry it out but will do it himself.

Jesus, then, does identify himself as the nobleman in the story. Although he’s not ordering us to round up and kill his enemies, there’s still a sober take-home message. While Jesus is away, we’re responsible for investing our resources for his kingdom. When he returns, he will hold us accountable for what we did with what we were given and judge those who did not trust him as their king.

Notice how considering the context, history, and genre helps to neutralize the skeptics’ challenge and clarify the meaning and application of this passage. If this kind of elucidation is possible with just one verse, imagine how enlightening it would be to apply this kind of careful study to every passage we read in Scripture. God’s Word is Holy Spirit-inspired writ that he gave us to help conform us to the image of his Son. He is amazing!