E. W. Bullinger
III. The One Great Requirement of the Word:
"Rightly Dividing" It.
ii. Rightly Dividing the Word as to its Subject-Matter
It is the common belief that every part of the Bible is to be interpreted directly as referring to the Church of God; or as pertaining to every person, at every stage of the world's history. This neglect of the precept to rightly divide it is an effectual bar to the right understanding of it, and to our enjoyment in its study. This non-understanding of the Word is the explanation of its neglect, and this neglect is the reason why so many who should be feeding on the spiritual food of the Word are so ill-fed in themselves; and so ill-furnished for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).
While the Word of God is written FOR all persons, and FOR all time, yet it is as true that not every part of it is addressed TO all persons or ABOUT all persons IN all time.
1. The Jews, the Gentiles, and the Church of God.
The Gentiles, and
The Church of God."
According to the general belief, everything that goes to make up the subject-matter of the Word of God is about only one of these three: and, whatever may be said about the other two (the Jews and the Gentiles), all is to be interpreted of only the one, viz., the Church of God. This comes of that inbred selfishness which pertains to human nature: which, doing with this as with all beside, is ever ready to appropriate that which belongs to others. But no greater impediment to a right understanding of the Word could possibly be devised.
We are quite aware that, in saying this, we lay ourselves open to the charge which has been made by some, that we are "robbing them of their Bible." But the charge is groundless; and it arises from a total misapprehension of what we mean, or from a perversion of what we have said. It is necessary, therefore, for us to repeat, and to state categorically our belief that every word from Genesis to Revelation is written FOR the Church of God. There is not one word that we can do without: not one word that we can dispense with, without loss.
We deprive no one of any portion of the Word of Truth. We protest against robbery in this sphere, as in all others. It is not we who rob the church of God; but it is they who rob the Jews and the Gentiles. We would fain restore stolen property to the rightful owners; property which has been stolen by the very persons who charge us with robbery! We may indeed retort in the words of Romans 2:21: "Thou that preachest a man should not steal, Dost thou steal?" We are prepared to make this counter-charge, and to sustain it.
The charge against us we disclaim; while those who make it are themselves guilty of the very offence for which they condemn us. We hold that what is written to and about the Jew, belongs to and must be interpreted of the Jew. We hold that what is written of and about the Gentile, belongs to and must be interpreted of the Gentile. We hold that what is written to and about the Church of God, belongs to and must be interpreted of the Church of God. Is this robbery? or, Is it justice? Is it stealing? or, Is it restitution?
Evidence of the misappropriation (to use a milder term) is furnished by the Bible which lies open before us, to which we have already referred in speaking of the page-headings of Isaiah 29 and 30, in our current editions of the English Bibles, in which the former is declared to be "Judgment upon Jerusalem"; and the latter, "God's mercies to his church." (See page 28).
What is this but not only wrongly dividing the Word of truth, but the introduction of error, by robbing Jerusalem of her promised "mercies" and appropriating these stolen mercies to the Church? while the "judgments" are left for Jerusalem, just as burglars take away what is portable, and leave behind what they do not want or cannot carry away.
We believe God when He says that the Visions shown to Isaiah were "CONCERNING Judah and Jerusalem" (Isa 1:1). True, they were written FOR us; and "for our learning" (Rom 15:4); but they are not addressed TO us, or written CONCERNING us, but "concerning Judah and Jerusalem." It would be an act of dishonesty, therefore, for us thus to appropriate, by interpreting of ourselves, that which was spoken of Israel.
In like manner, if we take, as some do, the words of the Epistle to the Ephesians as though they were written to or concerning the Gentiles (or the unconverted world), then we not only rob the Church of God of its most precious heritage, but we teach the "universal Fatherhood of God" instead of His Fatherhood of only those who are His children in Christ Jesus.
It will thus be seen that unless we rightly divide the subject-matter of the Word of truth we shall not get the truth, but shall get error instead. Every part of the Bible is written "concerning" one or other of these three divisions, or classes of persons. Sometimes in the same passage or book there may be that which is concerning all three.
Sometimes a whole book may be concerning only one of these three, and the other two be altogether excluded. We may all three learn much from what is written of only the one; for the inspired, God-breathed Word is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction," FOR all who shall read it (2 Tim 3:16). That which happened to Israel happened unto THEM for ensamples; "and they are written for OUR admonition" (1 Cor 10:11). "Whatsoever was written aforetime was written FOR our learning" (Rom 15:4).
But while this is so, and remains true; what we mean is that every Scripture is written CONCERNING one or other of these three classes; and is specially addressed TO that particular class. This class has therefore the prior claim to that Scripture. The interpretation of it belongs to that class; while the other two may apply it to themselves, and are to learn from it. But, inasmuch as it is only an application and not THE interpretation, such application must be made only so far as it agrees with the interpretation of those Scriptures which are specially addressed to and relate to such class. Otherwise we shall find ourselves using one truth to upset another truth; we shall be setting what is true of one class in opposition to what is true of another class.*
All that we are concerned with now is the right dividing of the subject-matter of the Bible, which is three-fold. And the great requirement of the Word as to this is, that we should, and must, whenever we study any portion of the Word of God, ask the question,
Whichever of the three it may be, we must be careful to confine and limit the interpretation of that passage to the class whom it concerns; while we may make any application of it to ourselves so long as it does not conflict with what is written elsewhere concerning "the church of God."
We must not take that which concerns the Jew and interpret it of the Church. We must not take that which concerns the Church and interpret it of the world. We must not take what is said concerning the Gentile and interpret it of the Church.
If we do, we shall get darkness instead of light, confusion instead of instruction, trouble instead of peace, and error instead of truth.
To see this, we have only to notice the effect on such a Scripture as Romans 11.
2. The Gentiles.
But when we turn over one leaf (or two, perhaps in some Bibles), we read, in chapter 11 of the "Olive tree," and of the solemn threats, and warnings to the branches (that had been grafted into it in place of the natural branches): "If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee" (v 21): and "behold, therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee goodness, if thou continue in his goodness; otherwise thou also shalt be cut off" (v 22).
Having read these words in the eleventh chapter of Romans, the reader remembers what he had read in the eighth chapter, and is perplexed. He imagines that they are both written "concerning" him, and the result is he cannot understand either passage. God says in chapter 8 that "nothing can separate" the child of God from his love, and in chapter 11 God tells him that if he does not take heed he will be "cut off."
How is the reader to solve the difficulty? Only by "rightly dividing" this chapter according to the subject-matter; then, and only then, will he not only remove that which is the cause of the trouble, but at the same time he will produce new beauty, light, and instruction, out of the darkness and confusion.
He must ask what the subject-matter is about. Then he will look at the context to see if he can discover it. He will go back to chapter 8, which he remembers was all about the Church of God; and, on looking at the next chapter (ch 9) he finds that the subject-matter is no longer about the Church, but about "the Jews"; the Apostle's "brethren according to the flesh" (9:3). He finds it is the same with chapters 10 and 11, and notices that in 11:11, the "Gentiles" are introduced. Indeed, in verse 13 the Apostle distinctly says,
Thus he learns that those warnings and threats of 11:21, 22, are "for his learning"; but that thy are neither addressed to him, nor are they written concerning him as a member of "the Church of God." On following up this clue he begins to notice the figure of the Olive tree, and remembers that it is one of three trees to which Israel is compared in the Old Testament, the Fig tree being the symbol of Israel's national privileges; the Olive tree, of Israel's religious privileges; and the Vine, of Israel's spiritual privileges. Here he learns that the natural branches are broken off for a season, and the branches of the wild Olive (as the Gentiles are called) are grafted in, also for a season.
Israel is shown to have lost their religious privileges, which have passed over to the Gentiles as such. Israel once had their own land, their own metropolitan city, their own government, their own religious privileges, which are summed up in this context (9:4,5), and in 3:1, 2, where the question is asked, "What advantage then hath the Jew?" and the answer is, "Much every way, but chiefly that unto them were committed the Oracles of God."
Up to the rejection (Acts 28:25,26) of Peter's offer (Acts 3:19,20) no Gentile could get a blessing except in connection with Israel. In Acts 8, 9 and 10 we have three typical examples grouped together, as though to emphasize the fact by giving one from each of the three great branches of the human family: The Ethiopian (from Ham), Saul (from Shem), and Cornelius (from Japhet).
In the present dispensation no Jew can come into blessing except in Christ, in connection with Gentiles. But in the New Dispensation of the Acts of the Apostles the Israelite branches were already being "broken off," and Gentile branches were already being grafted in. These latter had no greater privileges as Gentiles as to standing than Israelites (as Israelites). Hence the words of Romans 11:18-21 applied to all such; for though the doctrinal foundation of the Mystery had been laid in Romans 1-8, the Mystery itself was not revealed until it was committed to writing in the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). The Epistle itself was not written until nearly the end of the Acts, and only a short time before Ephesians.
Now we can see the cause of all the confusion. The olive tree is almost universally taken as symbolizing the Church. We know of no commentary where this is not done. The Word of truth is not rightly divided as to its subject-matter; and, though the Apostle says, "I speak to you Gentiles," yet what he says is interpreted as addressed to the Church of God. Hence, the immutable truth concerning the standing of the Church of God in Christ Jesus is overthrown by what is equally true concerning the Gentile; and all this evil comes from not heeding the Divine precept of 2 Timothy 2:15.
True, it is all written for us, for the Church, "for our learning." There may be a kind of general application for us as to our use of any privileges which God may have given us as individuals; but, the true interpretation as it concerns the Gentiles, as such, will alone give us the "truth" of this portion of the Word. Oh, what confusion is brought into the Word, and what trouble is brought into our minds by not rightly dividing the subject-matter of this Scripture. We have only to take up almost any commentary on this chapter, and we see at once the struggles that have to be made to bring Romans 11 into harmony with Romans 8. It cannot be done; hence it is that the effort is so painfully obvious.
Look, for example, at one of the best commentaries on Romans, by one of the best commentators (the present Bishop of Durham, Dr. Handley Moule). He sees the difficulty, and he grapples with it. He dare not ignore the truth of chapter 8, and yet he treats chapter 11 in a way that practically upsets it. His words are:
These words would be true if slightly modified and spoken of the Gentile, as such. But they are not true as addressed to "man," as such; still less as a warning to the individual child of God, who can never be separated from that goodness and love of God by all the powers of earth and hell combined (Rom 8:38,39). We could hardly have a more suitable and powerful example of the importance of attending to the one great requirement of "the Word of Truth"; as to rightly dividing its subject matter.
In the matter of letters, or epistles, it is very important in our social life to carefully observe the address written on the envelope. It makes for peace and harmony, and prevents awkward mistakes and misunderstandings.
It is a mistake that is sometimes made, and it may be that when we have opened a letter that is not addressed to us we commence to read it; and as we read on we find things said that are exceedingly interesting and most instructive; but we come upon other things which we cannot make out, and we find references to matters which we do not understand, and to circumstances with which we are unacquainted, because we are not the persons directly written to.
Then, if we are wise, we turn to the address, and there we discover the mistake we have made, and the cause of all our confusion. It is exactly so with
Doubtless they were believers, up to a certain point; but exactly what they believed, or how far they believed we are not told. They evidently, as Jews, believed that Christ was the Messiah, and had a certain amount of light: but the question is, Did they, as sinners, believe in Christ as their Saviour; or know that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth"? It is clear from the surface of the Epistle that they did not have the standing of those who were "called to be saints": or of members of the spiritual Body of Christ, as set forth in the Epistles addressed to the churches of Ephesus, Philippi, and Colosse.
They were "Christians" as distinguished from Jews and Gentiles, but were they members of "the Church of God?" Who are the "ye" in chapter 4? Who are the "rich men" in 5:1? The stand-point of the epistle is wholly Jewish. They were monotheists as appears from 2:19. Their place of worship was the "Synagogue" (2:2, margin). In 5:12 the prohibition of swearing is according to the Jewish formula; and, in verse 14 the anointing with oil is in accordance with Jewish practice at that time.
Spiritual and vital Christianity is nowhere seen. Only twice is "Christ" named at all (1:1; 2:1). The word "Gospel" is not used, and the "Mystery" is unknown. The fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are not even alluded to: such as Incarnation, Atonement, Redemption, Resurrection, or Ascension.
The Morality of the Law is there (2:8,13). The coming of the Lord as the Judge is there (5:8,9). Justification by works is there (2:20-26). All the errors combated refer to Judaism. Religion (threskeia) is there, but it is shown that the works of mercy and charity are better than all the outward forms of religious worship. Fatalism, formalism and hypocrisy, arrogance and oppression, are specially dealt with; but surely these are not the sins which distinguish and characterize the Church of God.
All the phenomena are Palestinian or Eastern, as we may gather from the references to the early and latter rain (5:7); to the fig, oil, and wine (3:12); to drought (5:17,18); to salt and bitter springs (3:11,12); and to the hot wind (1:11). The Epistle is full of references to the Sermon on the Mount, which (as we shall see later) has reference to the past Dispensation, not to the present. We may compare
These phenomena in the subject-matter, when interpreted of the Church of God, and appropriated by those who are "in Christ," and "complete in Him," led to such confusion that, though the Epistle was in the primitive Syriac version from the first (cent. ii.), and was quoted as Canonical by the great Greek Fathers or cent. iv., yet there were always great doubts about its canonicity, and delays in receiving it.
These doubts were revived when translations of the Bible began to be made at the Reformation. Erasmus, Luther, and others questioned the canonicity of the Epistle; and it is well known that Luther went so far as to call it "a veritable Epistle of straw" ("Eine rechte stroherne Epistel").
The same difficulties and doubts are felt to-day. But they are all caused by interpreting of the Church of God that which is written to quite a different class of people belonging to "the Twelve Tribes." The question is, Do we belong to "the Twelve Tribes"? Do we worship in a Synagogue? Is it our custom, as a People, to anoint with oil? Is not the "Assembly" of James 5:14* identical with the "Synagogue of 2:2?**
The answers to these questions will show that the Epistle is not addressed to us, i.e., to those who are "in Christ," and who are "the Church of God."
The moment we discern this, and rightly divide off, the class of persons addressed, there will be an end of all the laboured arguments to bring the Epistle of James into harmony with the Epistle to the Romans; and of all attempts to reconcile its teaching with that of Ephesians or Colossians. There will be nothing either to harmonize or to reconcile. James will be seen to be true in what he wrote to those whom he addressed, and Paul will be seen to be true in what he wrote. Both will be
seen to be true in what they said to those to whom they were respectively inspired to write, if we rightly divide these portions of the Word of truth.
(b) The Epistle to the Hebrews.
The epistle of James was addressed to the Diaspora. Two were written by Peter (compare 1 Peter 1:1 with 2 Peter 3:1): and another was written to them by Paul. This is distinctly so stated in 2 Peter 3:15, where Peter says "our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written UNTO YOU": i.e., you believers among the Diaspora.
Paul was thus the writer of the Epistle to Hebrew believers among the Dispersion; for no other such Epistle of Paul has ever been heard of. Who these Hebrews were, or what they believed, or what their earlier standing was, may be gathered from Acts 21:20, where James says to Paul on the arrival of the latter at Jerusalem: "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law." If they were "all zealous of the law," and continued to offer sacrifices for sins (as it is clear they did from verse 26), they could not have believed that Christ was "the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom 10:4); and they could not have known their standing in Christ. In Acts 21 they are not distinguished from those who beat Paul (v 32), and cried "Away with him" (v 36): and their zeal for the law was so great, that, they not only observed it themselves, but would persecute and destroy those who forsook it (Acts 21:21-24; compare 1 Thess 2:14-16).
It was to such Hebrews as these, who believed so little, and worked so much, that Paul was afterward inspired to write an Epistle. It was written to those who had "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, had not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law, for righteousness, to every one that believeth" (Rom 10:2-4).
To make this known to them the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. For Paul's name to have been prefixed to it, as it was to all his other Epistles, would have been (humanly speaking) fatal to its acceptance or usefulness, after the events recorded in Acts 21:17-40: events which ended his public ministry. The Holy Spirit therefore suppressed Paul's name, and put the name of "God" at the beginning of the Epistle. Thus, "God," who had given the law, was the God who showed how it had been fulfilled and ended in Christ.
In spite of all this, Christians, to-day, take the Epistle as addressed directly to themselves; and, when they come to passages like Hebrews 6:6, and read about "falling away," or to 10:26, and read how "there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins" for those who "sin wilfully," they are naturally greatly perplexed and perturbed: for all this is in direct contradiction to what is written and specially addressed to them concerning their own standing in Christ, in Romans 8 and the other Church Epistles.
All this confusion comes from not "rightly-dividing" the class of persons to whom, and concerning whom, the Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed. It may be applied by any and all believers who are still "zealous of the law"; and therefore it concerns such, and only such, to-day, whether Romanists, Romanizers, or Sacramentarians. Of course it is written "for" us, yea, "for our learning."
In the Epistle to the Romans we learn the fact, that "Christ IS the end of the law for every one that believeth," but in Hebrews we learn how Christ BECAME the end of the law, and the end of Priests and Sacrifices. We learn the true meaning of the types of Exodus and Leviticus; which we could never otherwise have known.
But to interpret the Epistle to the Hebrews now of, or as addressed to, those who are "complete in Christ," "found in Him, not having their own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith" (Phil 3:9), is to produce only confusion and trouble. And, to take what was perfectly true of such Hebrew believers who were still "zealous of the law," and to understand it of those who have died to the law in Christ, is not only to disobey the precept as to "rightly dividing" the Word of truth, but it is to pervert that very Word and make it teach error in the place of truth.
Many other examples might be given; but several others will come better under our fourth division of this ONE GREAT REQUIREMENT.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 God's children are compared to workmen, whose chief Work lies in connection with His "Word of truth." He who gave that Word has directed them how to work, so as to excel as His workmen; and that they may not be ashamed of their work at His coming. He has sent them a special message showing how they are to work in order to secure this happy result. He has sent them an inspired instruction so that they may find the "truth" they seek; and at the same time have the blessed assurance of showing themselves and their work, alike, "approved unto God."