When interpreting the Bible, we should look for the valid meaning of the text. The primary consideration in doing this is context.
By exploring a variety of contexts, one can arrive at an accurate understanding of the meaning of Scripture. The valid meaning of a text might be a literal reading but it could also be a metaphoric or symbolic reading.
The important issue is to arrive at the valid meaning on carefully researched contextual grounds. This is especially important if a less expected meaning is chosen. Scripture is to be treated with great care as God’s Word (see: II Timothy 3:16-17).
Careless interpretation of Scripture will lead to incorrect beliefs and misguided living.
The following contexts should be considered when looking for the valid meaning of a text:
1. Historical – Involving culture, geography and over-all historical setting. This consideration will help distinguish primary and secondary distinctions when applying Scripture. Primary application is the one intended for the original recipients. Secondary applications are the applications of the text to our lives. Scripture was not written to us but for us.
2. Grammatical – Word meanings in their immediate context. Avoid word-study fallacies by giving priority attention to the immediate contexts of the words. Context determines word meanings. (see: Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson; Biblical Words and their Meanings, Moises Silva). Most important issues of interpretation surface when one considers the words and phrases of each verse in order and context. Let the words of the text lead to the interpretive questions (e.g. who? what? where? when? why? how?).
3. Immediate – Individual verses should be considered in the contexts of chapters and book. Note for example when the same author uses the same words in the same book of the Bible to address the same subject.
4. Theological – The Bible unfolds in a unified, complementary and supplementary way. It is important that individual interpretive conclusions are in harmony with Scripture as a whole. At this point, some distinctions should also be given consideration for understand the flow of redemptive history.
In an effort to arrive at a valid interpretation of the Bible, one must consider some of the distinctions in God’s unfolding plan (e.g. Gen. 4:9-15; 9:6; Matt. 10:5-6; 28:19; Matt. 15:24; 21:42-43; 23:37-39; Acts 28:23-28; Luke 16:16; John 1:17; Hebrews 1:1-2). Some interpreters who have recognized and classified these distinctions have been identified as “dispensationalists.” They use the term dispensation for some of the variety in God’s ways of dealing with humanity.
Unfortunately, the label dispensationalism has been a source of controversy and misunderstanding. It has also suffered a number of misrepresentations. Among the misrepresentations of dispensational teaching, the most misleading is the charge that dispensationalists teach two different means of salvation. The majority of those who accept a dispensational hermeneutic firmly believe that God only saves people by His grace through faith — based on the work of Christ (Acts 4:12). They reject the notion that God gives salvation based on human works (Eph. 2:8-10).
It’s best not to view dispensationalism as a movement. Instead, it should be understood as a tool or means used for interpreting Scripture. Those who have been taught to oppose dispensational teachings would be wise to investigate more carefully whether it offers some helpful insights.
The dispensational approach to Scripture, like most other approaches, has undergone refinement during its development. The essence of dispensational interpretation has to do not with how God saves people, but how He has chosen to unfold his revelation and plan for those whom He has saved (e.g. Israel and the Church).
In Continuity and Discontinuity (Essays in Honor of S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.): Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, John Feinburg identified the most important distinctions of dispensational teaching. The following quotes summarize his conclusions and are intended to help you understand the major points of dispensational teaching.
#1. RELATIONSHIP OF THE O.T. WITH THE N.T.
The crucial point is how we know whether something in the OT especially prophecy about Israel’s future is still binding in the N.T.
“If an O.T. prophecy or promise is made unconditionally to a given people and is still unfulfilled to them even in the NT era, then the prophecy must still be fulfilled to them. While a prophecy given unconditionally to Israel has a fulfillment for the church if the NT applies it to the church, it must also be fulfilled to Israel. Progress of revelation cannot cancel unconditional promises.” (p.76)
“If the NT explicitly rejects an OT institution, etc., it is canceled. But if God makes a point once (the OT), why must he repeat it in the NT for it still to be true and operative? So long as he neither explicitly or implicitly rejects the OT teaching, why assume it is canceled just because the NT does not repeat it? To argue that it is canceled because it is not repeated is a classic case of arguing from silence. On the other hand, it is not arguing from silence to claim it is still in force despite the NT’s silence, because God has already in the OT broken the silence and given us his thinking … the promises cannot be canceled even implicitly if they are made unconditionally! Unconditional promises are not shadows, nor are the peoples to whom they are given” (p. 76).
#2. UNDERSTANDING THE OLD TESTAMENT COVENANTS
“Concerning the covenants” dispensationalists see both a conditional and an unconditional element. What is unconditional is that God will fulfill the covenants to Israel. On the other hand, not every last Jew, ethnically speaking, will receive the benefits of those promises. Individual blessing under the promises is always conditioned upon obedience to the God who made the covenant. So, the particular Jews who experience the blessings of Israel’s promises are those who form the believing remnant of Jews throughout history. Unconditional promises guarantee that some Jews will experience covenanted blessings; through their obedience we learn who is of the believing remnant” (pp. 79-80).
“The ultimate difference on the covenants between dispensational and non-dispensational systems is not just conditionality v. unconditionality, but which aspect(s) of the covenant promises one emphasizes. Dispensationalists demand that one emphasize the variety of elements of covenant blessing, not just the spiritual, and that one take seriously the need for the whole covenant promises to be realized sometime in the life of the nation to which they were addressed unconditionally. The total complex of promises (spiritual and material), meant to be fulfilled simultaneously, has never been realized conjointly in the history of this nation” (p.80).
#3. THE FUTURE OF ISRAEL
“A distinctive future for ethnic Israel is essential to dispensationalism. The church neither replaces nor continues Israel. There will be a distinctive future for ethnic Israel, despite the fact that spiritual aspects of the kingdom are now being applied to the church. Because of passages like Zech. 12:10, Matt. 24:29-30, and Rom. 11:25-27, dispensationalists expect a grand ingathering of Jews to Christ at the end of the tribulation as they “Look upon me, the one they have pierced (Zech. 12:10). Jews saved during the church age are members of it and find their identity with it. But O.T. Jewish saints and Jewish tribulation saints after the rapture will form the believing remnant of Israelites who see the fulfillment of the O.T. promises to Israel in a 1000 year earthly kingdom. OT prophecies predict a time of spiritual, social, political and economic blessing for Israel (e.g. Zech. 12-14; Is. 60; Jer. 31:27-40; Zeph. 3:11-20). Those prophecies are still unfulfilled. Thus, one can reasonably expect a distinctive future for Israel” (pp. 81-82).
#4. UNDERSTANDING OF THE CHURCH
“Another distinctive of Dispensationalism is the belief that the church is a distinctive organism. By this, dispensationalists mean that the church does not begin until the NT era (most say at Pentecost). They also mean the church did not exist in any form in the OT. In the OT and NT eras, people are always saved by grace through faith in the truth God has revealed; but being saved is not the only defining characteristic of the church. A new organism began at Pentecost” (pp. 83-84).