Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 14, 1962
NUMBER 7, PAGE 4-5,12b-13

How To Understand The Bible

Cecil B. Douthitt

(Editor's note: This excellent article has been printed in quantity; copies of it may be obtained free and postpaid by writing to The Park Hill Church of Christ, 1900 Jenny Lind Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas.)

"Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." (Eph. 5:17) This command reveals that (1) God has a will toward man; (2) man can and must understand God's will, for the Lord does not require impossibilities.

Many Bible students are "ever learning, and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7), because they fail to observe certain requirements set forth in 2 Tim. 2:15. "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."

1. All Bible Study Must Be For The Right Purpose — "To Show Thyself Approved Unto God."

The Bereans in their daily search of the scriptures wanted to know "whether these things were so" in order to obey and to be approved of God. "Therefore many of them believed." (Acts 17:11-12)

In order for us to understand what the will of the Lord is, we must determine to "do his will" (John 7:17); abide in the Lord's word (John 8:31); "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matt. 5:8); pray for wisdom to know the truth that we might obey and meet with God's approval. (James 1:5)

God makes no promise whatever to the student who searches the scriptures to prove a preconceived theory, as the Sadducees (Matt. 23:23); or to ensnare someone, as the Pharisees tried to do (Matt. 22:15); or to justify himself like the lawyer. (Luke 10:29) It is not given unto such to know the truth. God sends strong delusions or "a working of error" to people who do not love the truth and do not intend to obey it. (2 Thess. 2:11-12) They may never learn how to become Christians or how to worship God acceptably, or how to please the Lord in the work and mission of the church, unless they study with the desire to do his will in the way he wants it done.

II. You Must Observe The Difference Between An Alien And A Citizen With Reference To God's Kingdom And Government.

An alien is one who is not in God's kingdom; a citizen is one who is in the kingdom. The Lord's requirements of the two are not the same; therefore, the Bible makes this distinction mandatory in the study of God's will. A failure to make this distinction has led many to look to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10), the penitent woman (Luke 7:36-50) and others whose sins Jesus forgave while he was here on earth, as examples of conversion for alien sinners to follow today. All these were citizens in the "commonwealth of Israel," and therefore, citizens in all the kingdom God had on the earth at that time, as all Israelites were, from the giving of the law on Sinai to the death of Jesus. Their forgiveness corresponds today to the forgiveness of erring children of God, and not to the conversion of aliens. These Jews were lost "sheep," not aliens.

A new kingdom, the church, began on that memorable Pentecost of Acts 2 and from that day the apostles preached a new birth of water and the Spirit for all who would become citizens in that new kingdom. Jesus taught Nicodemus that his being a Jew would avail nothing in that kingdom he was about to build; that in order to enter that kingdom, one must be born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:1-5)

Peter told alien sinners to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) Later he told "a certain man, Simon by name," who had become a citizen in God's kingdom, to repent and pray God for forgiveness. (Acts 8:18-22)

The citizens in God's kingdom, the church, have privileges that aliens do not have. They can commune with the body and the blood of the Christ in the Lord's Supper. (1 Cor. 10:16) Aliens cannot so commune with the Christ, even if they do eat the bread and drink the cup; because the Lord's table has been placed in his kingdom, and those outside of his kingdom cannot commune. (Luke 22:29)

A Christian's responsibilities to his follow citizens in the kingdom are different from his responsibilities to aliens, as shown in Gal. 6:10. "So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith." In 1 Cor. 5:9-11, Christians are taught to keep no company with any brother in the church, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner. But the writer explains that he does not mean that God's people are to keep no company with alien sinners. No Christian can know whose company to avoid unless proper distinction is made between citizens and aliens in his study of the Bible.

III. The Difference Between The Law Of Moses And The Gospel Of Christ Must Be Recognized.

The law of Moses, beginning at Sinai and ending at the death of Christ, has been "abolished" (Eph 2:15), "blotted out" and taken out of the way by the death of Christ. (Col. 2:14) "For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law." (Heb. 7:12)

One must look to the covenant this side of the cross, the New Testament, to know what to do to be saved and to please God. "For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth." (Heb. 9:16- 17)

A failure to distinguish between the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ has led to keeping the Sabbath, David's dances, and instrumental music, burning incense, polygamy, divorce and remarriage for every cause, and many other things which Christ died to abolish and which he forbids in the New Testament. To try to justify ourselves in the practice of these things by the law of Moses is to reject the authority of Christ, and such inevitably leads to total apostasy. "Ye are severed from Christ, ye who would be justified by the law; ye are fallen away from grace." (Gal. 5:4)

Some things that Jesus taught while on earth pertain to the New Covenant; while some other things he taught and did were of the law, and are not included in the gospel or New Testament.

The Lord's reiterated statement in the sermon on the mount, "but I say unto you," in contradistinction to what Moses said, makes it impossible for both the law and the gospel to be in force at the same time. What Jesus taught on divorce and remarriage in Matt. 19:3-9 clearly forbids the very thing the law permitted in Deut. 24: 1-2. Therefore, Matt. 19:3-9 and Deut. 24:1-2 could not both be in force at the same time. The offended brother of Matt. 18:15-17 could not "tell it unto the church" under the law for there was no church of Christ until after the removing of that "first covenant."

But the circumcision of Jesus and sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:21-24), his observing the passover (Luke 2:41-42), and his keeping the Sabbath were performed in conformity to the law of Moses, and are no part of the New Covenant.

IV. Proper Distinction Between An Individual's Work And A Church's Work Must Be Observed.

There is a great difference between a church and an individual Christian in meaning, in fields and scope of service, and in freedom of operation.

The word "church" in the New Testament is a collective noun like the words "group," "flock," "herd," etc., and is never used to designate only one person, because collective nouns are not susceptible to individual application. One quail is not a "covey," one goose is not a "flock," and one Christian is not a "church." In 1 Tim. 5:16, the "woman that believeth," an individual Christian, is one thing; "the church" that should be left able to "relieve them that are widows indeed" is quite another thing. The verse uses the two in contradistinction to each other.

Since one Christian is not and cannot be a "church," it does not follow necessarily that "what a Christian does, the church is doing." What a Christian does cannot be attributed to the church, except when that Christian is acting as agent, or messenger, or appointee of that church. One Rotarian is not a Rotary club, and what a Rotarian does cannot be ascribed to the Rotary club, unless that Rotarian is acting as agent, or delegate, or duly appointed representative of that club.

The "good works" that a church may do are not always identical with the "good works" that an individual may do.

Every church is restricted in all its activities to only four fields of endeavor: evangelism, edification, benevolence, worship. Jesus is the head of the church; he is the only lawgiver, judge, and executive in his kingdom. (Eph. 1:22-23; James 4:121 The Lord's legislative enactments on the pages of the New Testament contain nothing to indicate that he wants his churches to serve in any field of service, except the fields of evangelism, edification, benevolence and worship.

The individual, the family and civil government have a right to serve in fields of secular education, entertainment, recreation, politics, and secular business for profit, because Jesus did not choose to leave these without earthly heads with authority to enact legislation creating other work and governing the way it may be done. The father is the head of the earthly family and the three departments of family government are vested in him. He makes rules and regulations, acts as judge and enforces his own laws in his family, because he is the head of the family as Christ is the head of the church. (Eph. 5:23) In the kingdom of Christ no one except the Lord can do that. Therefore, when churches go beyond the legislative enactments on the pages of the New Testament, they thereby reject Jesus Christ as the sole authority in the kingdom of heaven.

Even in that work which the Lord assigned to both individuals and churches as such, individuals are not bound by the same restrictions that bind the churches. For example, the work of evangelism and the work of benevolence have been assigned to both individuals and to churches as such. In the performance of this work, individuals are given the right to do some things which the churches have no right to do.

Paul devotes almost all of 1 Cor. 9, and a part of 2 Cor. 11 to the proposition that preachers as individuals have the right to "charge" and collect "wages" for the work of preaching and ministering to the churches. But no church has a right to hire itself out and to collect wages for services rendered in preaching the gospel. The fact that the Jerusalem church had rendered spiritual service to certain Gentile churches was used by Paul as an incentive to stir up certain churches to send relief to the Jerusalem church when she was too poor to take care of her own (Rom. 15:27); but this is not a case of a church's selling services to other churches; for the churches that had received nothing from Jerusalem were duty bound also to send relief to the church in Jerusalem in her distress. Also an individual has a right to make tents, to print and sell religious literature to earn a living and obtain funds with which to do this good work of evangelism and benevolence; but no church has a right to engage in such business enterprises to obtain funds with which to do its work, because the one and only legislator in the church made no provision for such.

The individual Christian's work of charity is much broader in scope than a church's charity work.

The indigent 'saints" are specified over and over as the objects of charity to receive relief for physical needs from church treasuries, as every one may learn who cares enough to search the scriptures to find out whether these things are so. The New Testament does not reveal even the remotest indication that any church used any of its funds for general charity work among the children of the devil, or for saints who were too lazy to work (2 Thess. 3:10), or who had near relatives able to support them. (1 Tim. 5: 4, 16)

But individuals are not so restricted in the use of their own resources to relieve life's unfortunate. Every Christian, to the limit of his ability, knowledge, and opportunity, must visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27), and minister to the material needs of all, both saint and sinner, who are in need. (Luke 10:30-37)

A poor lame beggar asked alms of Peter and John as they were going into the place of worship. (Acts 3:1-3) "Peter said, Silver and gold have I none." But there was plenty in the church treasury, that had been placed there at the disposal of Peter and the other apostles, to be used "as any man had need." (Acts 2:45; 4:34, 35) Why didn't Peter take money from the church treasury and give to this poor beggar? Because, as shown clearly in other New Testament passage; it was not God's will for money to be taken from church treasuries for charity work among aliens, and Peter would have been guilty of misappropriating church funds, if he had done such a thing. But Peter as an individual must do what he could for this poor beggar, and he did it (Acts 3:8) This is a part of the pattern, and it should move every Christian to do all he can for all the poor; it should also frighten all elders and others who are raiding church treasuries for the promotion of projects for which the sole legislator in the kingdom of heaven made no provision whatever in his book of statutes, the New Testament.

V. Every Passage Of Scripture Must Be Read In The Light Of Its Context And All Other Passages Bearing On The Same Subject.

Many people today read Paul's statement to the jailor, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 18.31), and they stop right there, and jump immediately to the conclusion that the jailor was saved by faith only. But the next two verses reveal clearly that the jailor's faith led him that same hour of the night to do just what Peter commanded the Jews to do in Acts 2:38 — repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.

Satan tried to lead Jesus into the faulty method of interpreting isolated passages separate from others bearing on the subject. Satan said to him, "If thou art the son of God, cast thyself down"; then he quoted a passage of scripture (Psalm 91:11-12) to try to prove that the angels would protect Jesus, even if he deliberately should cast himself down. But Jesus knew that Psalm 91.11, 12 must be read in the light of another pa ^sage, "Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God." (Matt. 4:5-7; Deut. 6:18)

Here is another example of isolating a passage from all others bearing on the same subject, and giving it an interpretation which plainly contradicts other clear statements in the word of God: In their desperation and failure to find any scriptural authority whatever for their practice of begging churches to surrender control of their funds for evangelistic work to a self-appointed "sponsoring church," some of our liberal brethren have wrested 1 Cor. 18:1-2 out of its context, isolated it from all other passages, and erroneously argued that since this particular passage says nothing about using funds from church treasuries for any work except benevolence, that there is just as much authority for churches' sending it to a "sponsoring church" for evangelism, as there is for taking from church treasuries to pay preachers' wages and to supply the things he needs for himself, his family, and his work. But they ignore or "willfully forget" this one thing: There are many other verses of scripture that teach churches to pay preachers and supply their needs (2 Cor. 11:8-9. 1 Cor.9:1-14; Phil. 4:15-18), but there is not one line in all the New Testament that so much as remotely indicates that the Lord wants any church to donate its funds to another church, except when the receiving church is unable to supply the needs of its own indigent members.

The Bible does not contradict itself; therefore, when any explanation or interpretation of one verse contradicts some other part of God's word, we can know that such explanation or interpretation is wrong. The only way to avoid this egregious blunder in the study of the Bible is to read and study all the Bible says on the subject under consideration.

1900 Jenny Lind Ave., Fort Smith, Arkansas