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The Importance of Precise Biblical Interpretation

This is a lesson on the importance of precise Biblical interpretation. Watch the video or scroll down to read the text version.

When I was in college, I spent a year studying in Jerusalem, Israel. At the school I attended, there were a couple volunteers from Finland. One day some of my fellow American students and I were sitting around talking with these Finnish volunteers. The Finnish volunteers expressed some of the frustration they were experiencing communicating with us American students due to how we use our language. One of the examples they used was the question “How are you?”

When we Americans see someone, we say, “Hi, how are you?” However, we don’t really mean that as a question. The phrase “How are you” is merely a greeting, we don’t really expect an answer. The Finnish volunteers pointed out that we often say “How are you”, but we say it as we’re walking past somebody and we don’t even stop and wait for an answer. 

This was confusing to the Finnish volunteers. English was not their native language. When they heard us Americans say, “How are you?”, they heard it as a question because their knowledge of the English language indicated it was a question. However, we Americans didn’t treat it like it was a question. 

The point is we Americans are very sloppy in how we use our language. Unfortunately, we carry that sloppiness over to the Bible. We are also very sloppy with how we handle and interpret the Bible. 

The Bible is clear that we should not be sloppy with it. We see this in Galatians 3.

Gal. 3:16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.

Paul made a theological argument in Galatians in which he quoted from the book of Genesis. His argument was based on the fact that the word seed in the book of Genesis is singular, not plural. This tells us it is important to be precise in how we handle the Bible. We have to pay attention to tiny details.

The authorship of 3 John is an example of paying attention to details and being clear about what we know and don’t know. Let’s start with the first verse of 3 John.

3 John 1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

This verse tells us who wrote the book of 3 John, but it only tells us the elder wrote it. It doesn’t tell us who the elder was. However, for many centuries it has been accepted that this book was written by the Apostle John. Is that correct? If so, how do we actually know that?

There are a couple ways to know who wrote a particular book of the Bible. One is from the book itself. We see in this case that 3 John only tells us it was written by the elder. It doesn’t say for sure that the elder’s name was John. 

Another way we know who wrote books of the Bible is through what is often called church tradition. Another term for this is extra-biblical sources. Back in the first century AD, and the centuries following, there were a lot of documents written by Christians that were not included in the Bible. Many of those extra-biblical writings contain valuable information. We don’t treat them as inerrant because they’re not part of the Bible, and we don’t treat them as being inspired by the Holy Spirit; however, that doesn’t mean they’re not accurate, reliable, and valuable. 

Sometimes these extra-biblical sources give us good information on who wrote certain books of the Bible and who they were written to. However, in the case of 3 John, even the extra-biblical sources don’t tell us for sure that John wrote the book of 3 John. 

So why has it been assumed for centuries that John wrote 3 John? The reason is there are similarities between 3 John and other books of the Bible. Let’s take a look at these similarities.

Look at the first verse of 3 John and the first verse of 2 John.

3 John 1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

2 John 1 The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; 

The first four words of both verses are the same, and the last five words from each verse that are shown above are the same. In between we learn the recipient of the letter. These similarities indicate they were both written by the same person.

Let’s look at another pair of verses. 

2 John 6 And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments.

John 14:15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.

Both of these verses contain the concept that loving God means to obey Him. Again, the similarity indicates both books were written by the same person. 

We know that the Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John (See John 21:24). If 2 John was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of John, and if 3 John was written by the same person who wrote 2 John, then that means 3 John was written by the Apostle John. 

The problem is there are a lot of ifs in that argument. My inclination is to say that 3 John was written by the Apostle John. However, we don’t really know that for sure. And that is the point. This is an example of the precise detail we need to look at as we interpret the Bible. We need to make sure we’re honest and specific about what we know and what we don’t know. 

Another example in 3 John regarding the importance of detail has to do with the recipient of 3 John. The first verse tells us 3 John was written to a man named Gaius.

3 John 1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

The name Gaius appears several times in the New Testament. It appears in Acts 19.

Acts 19:29 The city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater, dragging along Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia.

Notice the last word of that verse is Macedonia. Acts 19 is a reference to a man named Gaius who was from Macedonia. Macedonia was in Greece. We also see a reference to a man named Gaius in Acts 20. 

Acts 20:4 And he was accompanied by Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus, and by Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians, and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia.

The man named Gaius who was mentioned in Acts 20 was from Derbe. Derbe was in Asia.

This tells us that Acts 19 and Acts 20 are referring to two different men named Gaius, because the one was from Greece and the other one was from Asia. 

In both Romans 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 there’s a reference to a man named Gaius.

Rom. 16:23 Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you.

1Cor. 1:14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,

Romans and 1 Corinthians don’t tell us anything about the men named Gaius, so we don’t know if these men are the same men mentioned in either Acts 19 or Acts 20, or if this is a third or perhaps a fourth man named Gaius. 

When we read 3 John and see that it was written to the beloved Gaius, we don’t know much about him. We don’t even know for sure that this is a man who was mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. This is an example of the precision we need to be using when we read and interpret the Bible. We have to take notice of these details. The reason we have to notice these details is because of what we read in Galatians 3:16 

Gal. 3:16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.

In this verse Paul made a theological argument based on the fact that in the book of Genesis the word seed was singular and not plural. Therefore, these details are important.

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“Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission.” (www.Lockman.org)