Difficult Verses and Bible Interpretation

Perhaps the best Bible interpretation advice I can give has to do with difficult verses.

There are verses that are actually difficult. For example, no one knows who Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Who was “baptizing for the dead”? No one knows. I read a scholarly paper recently with a theory, but the fact the scholar wrote that paper establishes that no one knows who Paul was talking about. I once searched the early church fathers for that verse, and Tertullian (Carthage, c. A.D. 200) mentions it. He says something to the effect of “whoever they are.” It is just unknown. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is truly difficult.

Most verses that get called difficult, however, are only difficult theologically. For example, I have heard both Hank Hanegraaff and Bob George call 2 Peter 2:20-21 difficult. That passage is not difficult. A first-grader could tell you what it means. It was difficult for those two radio hosts because they do not believe it, not because it is difficult to understand. (Hank has since converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, so he probably finds the verse quite simple now. The Eastern Orthodox believe that passage. They have a much harder time with Matthew 23:8-12.)

Don’t be like those two radio hosts! If you find a verse theologically difficult, CHANGE YOUR THEOLOGY!

This is wickedly hard. We are physically wired not to change our minds. Our flesh devotes itself to division and dispute (Gal. 5:19-20; 1 Tim. 6:3-5). If we want to please God, however, it would be good to believe the Bible and even be frightened of it.

Fearlessly and confidently ignoring the Bible or changing its words to fit your theology is a TERRIBLE idea, but doing so is normative for most Christians.

Here’s two examples:

1 Cor. 3:3: This verse quite obviously teaches us not to call ourselves Baptists, Pentecostals, and other names that divide us in any other way than geography (church in Rome, church at Corinth, etc.). Yet we say, “That’s why I’m a Christian first and a Baptist second.”

James 2:24: The verse says “justified by works and not faith only.” We say, “justified by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” You get 10 points for that cunning twist of James’ words in oratory class, but 0 points in heaven. Figure out what it means, folks, in such a way that you can repeat James words, not in such a way that you have clever changes to his words. There is a reason GOD said what he said through James, and it was not so that evangelicals could come along and improve it.

At least Witness Lee was honest enough to write (in his notes in the Recovery New Testament) that James did not understand the New Testament economy. Luther was honest enough to write that James and Hebrews had “nothing of the nature of the Gospel about them.” Unlike Lee and Luther, we claim that James’ words are the words of God, but we happily twist those words to make them sound like our theology rather than his.

The Bible says that God will reward those who patiently continue to do good with eternal life (Rom. 2:6-7). That seems like a pretty important verse, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of other verses you can use to build a theology that teaches something different than Romans 2:6-7. There are plenty of men who will gladly teach you that theology. I’d like to commend John Piper for dealing honestly with Romans 2:6-7 and other verses like it (ref).

Of course, at least one Reformed writer says, “This is heresy and a false gospel of which the Reformed Church used to preach against.”

Hopefully, this didn’t bother Piper, since the arguments in Paul Flynn’s article (<a href="https://themegiddoreview.com/2017/10/23/desiring-god-and-john-pipers-works-final-salvation-and-false-gospel/&quot; target="_blank") make Paul and Peter heretics too for writing things like Romans 2:6-7 and 2 Peter 1:5-11.

Back to my original point. Don't be like Paul Flynn. Believe the Bible. Do not argue against it from your theology. It's hard, but you MUST do it if you want to be a Bible believer. A verse is not difficult just because it contradicts your theology. Adjust your theology so you can believe the verse, and you will turn most difficult verses into easy ones.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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10 Responses to Difficult Verses and Bible Interpretation

  1. cgatihi says:

    “If you find a verse theologically difficult, CHANGE YOUR THEOLOGY!”

    Amen brother. Thank you. Last year I did this precisely with one of the verses you mentioned, James 2:24. It has not been met with approval by *any* brother I’ve shared this change in my theology with =(

    • Paul Pavao says:

      Isn’t it amazing how evangelicals have no problem saying, “Faith without works is dead,” but no evangelical would ever let “justified by works and not faith only” come out of their mouths? Piper managed to let that verse come out of his pen and mouth when he wrote that final salvation article, but I guess the many NT warnings about what will happen if we don’t continue to the end (e.g., Gal. 6:8-9) have not convinced him that everyone must work out their salvation with fear and trembling, or they will not obtain it (Php. 2:12-13 w/ most of ch. 3)

      • cgatihi says:

        It is amazing.

        I can’t get over the fact that the only place in the Bible where “faith” and “alone” appear in the same sentence is James 2:24 where God says we are justified NOT by faith alone. How did I ever let anyone convince me, on the basis of the Bible, that doctrine of justification by faith alone is the “chief article” on which the church stands or falls? =(

        • Paul Pavao says:

          Tradition and everyone believing the same thing can be a powerful influence. We have to overthrow that. While we should approach the Scriptures humbly and not trust ourselves, some things are just obvious once pointed out.

  2. Paul Pavao says:

    Okay. I get it. I can assure you that you are not beyond repentance, or you would not be able to write a comment like this. I would like to make more specific suggestions, but I have to ask you questions I don’t want to ask online. I will just email you. If your email address is still the same, you will get a brief email in a couple minutes. I have to board a plane soon, so I will send a longer email later. If you don’t get an email in the next few minutes, email me at paul@christian-history.org so I have your current email address.

  3. Philip Barker says:

    I understand what 2 Peter 2:20-21 means, but who are the “they” that it refers to? Is it those who Peter refers to starting in verse 10, who follow the flesh and despise authority (false teachers)? Or, as I tend to think the context implies, those that are escaping from those who live in error (verse 18) and are being led astray? Are the false teachers already condemned? However, if they repent, they will receive forgiveness won’t they? So I guess my question is, can one who turns ones back on the sacred command repent or not?
    To me, this is a difficult passage!

    • Paul Pavao says:

      Here is why I say it is not a difficult passage. Whether or not the passage is talking about the false teachers he mentioned, which of course it is, this also applies to everyone. It obvious that anyone who escapes the corruption that is in the world through lust, and then is again entangled in and overcome is going to be worse off than before they embraced the truth. As Paul says in Ephesians 5, the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience, so don’t be like them. Why not be like them? Because if you are like them the wrath of God will come on you as well because by being like them, you are them. Those who live according to the flesh die rather than live (Rom. 8:12-13) and reap corruption rather than eternal life (Gal. 6:7-9). Unfortunately, it is proclaimed widely that if we believe in Jesus, we do not have to worry about being condemned at the judgment, but that is a lie that the apostles warned us not to be deceived about. The passage I mentioned, Galatians 6:7-9, begins with don’t be deceived. 1 John 3:7, which tells us that only those who practice righteousness are righteous as Jesus is righteous, begins with a warning not to be deceived. Ephesians 5:3-6, which tells us that no sexually immoral, unclean, or greedy person will have any inheritance in God’s kingdom comes with a warning not to be deceived about this. It is only the deception that Paul and John warned about that could possibly make 2 Peter 2:20-21 difficult. It is simply impossible for a person not infected with Reformation tradition to read the New Testament and not understand the truth of 2 Peter 2:20-21, that we must continue to the end.

      As for your other question, if there is repentance for a person, whether a false teacher or not, who has been entangled in the corruption of the world after being delivered from it, I do not know. Perhaps everyone can repent after walking away from the commands of Christ, but Hebrews 6 says there are some who cannot. God will not allow them.

    • Paul Pavao says:

      This is my second comment. I never know what order they will turn out to be in after I post my comment. My second comment is that I hate to sound harsh to a friend that I admire (you, Philip). But the truth is that there is a deception the apostles warned about. They warned that there would be people who would turn the grace of God into a license for sin (Jude 1:4) Those people are rampant in Protestant churches. Thank God, their most brazen teachings seem to be more and more rejected in this information age. Even Baptists are teaching that a Christian must do good works in order to know they are saved. They (except John Piper) are not willing to say what the Bible says, that we will be judged for our works and that only those who have patiently done good will get eternal life (Rom. 2:6-8; Gal. 6:7-9; Matt. 25:31-46; Jn. 5:28-29; etc.), but at least they are saying people aren’t Christians who do not have a pattern of good works, which is so strongly emphasized in 1 John chapters 2-3. Now, if they could just get themselves to repeat the words in Romans 2:6-8 and James 2:24, they would actually be saying what the Bible says.

      This deception is warned about, as I pointed out in the previous comment. It is a deception that can and will lead to not reaping eternal life. It is a big deal. (And yes, I know, we can only do good by the power of the Spirit and of Jesus (Jn. 15:5; Rom. 8:2-4). This does not change the fact that we must use the great and precious promises of God to patiently continue to do good.

      • Philip Barker says:

        You’re not harsh. Maybe I missed the point. I’m not arguing with anything, just struggling with persistent sin. I don’t have the fortitude to run from it and that is what concerns me. I don’t know what being given over to it looks like, so for all I know, I could be and there’s no way back. I clearly have no desire to please God, given my actions at times, and there’s not a lot of evidence of good works; either in the flesh or in the spirit, so it doesn’t look good. I know this is all basic stuff that more mature Christians have long since come to terms with, but honestly, I haven’t. I know the truth but I don’t know the truth, as I’ve clearly not been set free. It’s the same old story I’m afraid. Still, I have no choice but to press on because Jesus is the Son of God and He is coming to establish His Kingdom on the earth, after which there will judgment for all. What He does with me will be just, and I will have no complaints.

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