Copyright Rev. Stanley L. Derickson Ph.D. 1992


Some thoughts on how to properly interpret the gospels.

The importance of how you interpret a text was brought home to me many years ago in a graduate class where the professor would assign a text for study and then bring us together for a discussion. He was an expert at forming the class into the different positions that came from the study, and then pitting those groups against one another to show how poorly we had studied. He once assigned the text of Job 19:25-26 and asked us to determine what the text was about. The discussion went on for three class sessions before he taught the proper interpretation. There were three different views that seemed very good, yet all three groups failed to determine the context of the passage. Once the context was set before us we realized the meaning of the passage.

So it is in the gospels when you determine to interpret. The context, the audience and the speaker all go together to determine what age the information is meant for. There are some texts that are definitely for those living under the law, there are texts that are definitely for those that were going to live in the kingdom that Christ was offering, and there are texts that are for the coming church age. The question is, just which are which.

We submit the following as a guide to begin your interpretation of the gospels with.

1. Pay close attention to the context: For example Luke 10:1-3 is not for the church, but Matthew 28:16-20 is. Look at the context to determine.

2. Pay close attention to the recipient: If Christ was speaking to Jews, then the information is for Jews. If he was talking to Old Testament saints then He was not talking to you, however there may be some application to you since you are a saint. Just one outrageous example would be the account of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus wound up in bliss while the rich man ended in torment. Now, would we apply the rich man's situation to ourselves - believers and the position of Lazarus to the lost of our day? NO!

3. Determine whether the principle is stated elsewhere in the New Testament: For example some might suggest because of Matt 10:9,10 we should have no material possessions. "...provide neither gold, nor silver, nor copper in your purses, nor a bag for your journey neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet a staff...." This is not a principle for our day. It is not mentioned as a lifestyle anywhere in scripture. Indeed, Christ contrasts this Himself to another lifestyle for those in a different situation in Luke 22:35-36.

Don't claim promises blindly. Look at the context, recipient and whether it is taught in the epistles before applying it to yourself. The epistles are for church use and we have no question about them, so they can assist us in determining other texts.

If the truth fits the general tenor of the epistles then it probably is usable for today. Christ spoke of meekness in the sermon on the mount which is definitely kingdom information.

The fruit of the Spirit seems to give that principle validity in our day so that meekness should be desired by the church age believer. The problem is that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). Do the epistles mention that the church will inherit the earth? No, and indeed we will not inherit the earth. This is not a promise for us though we can draw the principle of meekness from it.

4. Determine what dispensation is in view: Christ made quite a promise in Matthew 6:33. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things shall be added unto you." See, he will give me everything I want. That is the usual misinterpretation. First the context speaks of those needs of living that we have and not desires. Second, the promise is to the one that seeks His kingdom. The kingdom in Christ's mind was the Jewish kingdom that He was offering - the Millennial kingdom. So, if you are seeking the millennium, He will see to your needs.

This text is for those looking for the kingdom and no one else. This is not a promise for me today. However, there is an application for me in this day. As I seek His righteousness and His future, I know that He will supply all that I need. This is a general principle throughout scripture. God always takes care of His people.

5. Realize that God's revelation is progressive: The gospel record is information for that day and time, while the epistles were meant for a later day and time. The information given to Moses was not meant to be carried forward to the church age. An example if this is the sacrificial system. It is no longer needed because Christ completed the sacrifice for sin on the cross. The Old Testament may relate to our day. The writer of Hebrews uses many of the people of that age in Chapter Eleven to produce the great text on living by faith. This shows that the information is not specifically for us, yet we can find application to our lives in those specifics.

The idea of examples of men is also related by Paul in Phil 3:17 and II Thess 3:9. Christ when he cleansed the temple was not telling us to cleanse the churches, we disagree with, though we can apply His action by being indignant at wrong activities.

There may be a truth for only one dispensation, or the truth may be a universal truth. John 3:3 mentions, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." This is a limited truth in that it was given in the context of the kingdom that is to come. A person cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again. This proves that all at the beginning of the kingdom will be believers. There is also a universal truth in that if you personally want to be a part of the kingdom you must be born again.

Remember that all Scripture is beneficial. II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that All Scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction, thus we need to search the gospels for information that can help us know our God and live rightly before Him. The danger is in applying before studying.

Let us draw some conclusions then.

1. If it's not for your dispensation, if it's not for your nationality (gentile), if it's not for your circumstance, THEN it's not for you!

2. If the same principle is restated elsewhere in the New Testament epistles then it's for you.

3. If it's a valid principle universally in scripture then it's for you.

4. If it's a spiritual quality of personality, life, or holiness then it's for you.

5. Primarily the synoptic gospels were written by men still looking for the kingdom to be set up shortly thus the specific information is meant for the kingdom. One should not weigh heavily on the gospels nor the book of Acts for church age promises.

It is hoped that this will be helpful in your use of the Gospel accounts of the life of our Lord and Savior in your own life.