Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Nov 2022

Confidence and Difficulty: Instilling Interpretive Confidence while Teaching on Difficult Passages

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I knew I had a difficult task ahead of me. The next passage to teach in my Adult Bible Fellowship was 1 Peter 3:18–22. If you have ever preached or taught through 1 Peter, you got goosebumps when I mentioned that passage. In just five verses there is complexity upon complexity. Even if we determine the meaning of the “spirits in prison,” we have to deal with the phrase “baptism saves you.”

I planned to spend significant time walking through the identity of the spirits in prison today, and I thought I would get to the meaning of the baptism phrase next week. I actually got to neither of them. We were thrown off-course by a great question. One of the ladies in my ABF asked why her Bible did not say what my Bible said.

I was reading from the TMV (Tim Miller Version) while she was reading from the ESV. In my translation, Peter says that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh but raised to life by the Spirit.” The keywords are both the capitalized Spirit and the English preposition (representing the Greek dative). The ESV reads, “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

Now the ESV does have the capital Spirit option as a footnote, but this did not resolve the problem for the questioner. After a brief explanation of the ambiguity of the dative and the fact that Greek authors would not capitalize a divine name, we still had not resolved the problem. The questioner suggested that maybe she should learn Greek, which though warming this Greek professor’s heart, seemed to be the wrong answer.

I pontificated some more and then had to move on. I am resolved to revisit this next week, as I feel like there is more to be said. Somehow, we must instill confidence in the readers of Scripture yet also allow the reader to see challenges to interpretation. I would hate for people to fall into either ditch—thinking on the one side that there is no difficulty in interpreting Scripture or thinking on the other side that the Bible is too difficult for them to interpret. 

There are two major points I think need to be made so that we give readers confidence in their ability to understand the text, while also giving them an appropriate sense of the interpretive challenges of reading the Bible.

First, one of the greatest weaknesses of the West is our commitment to autonomy. We think that interpretation is an individual thing. We think we should be able to read the Bible and come up with its proper interpretation all by ourselves. But such solipsistic interpretive methods have wreaked damage on churches and individuals. God told us that one of His chief gifts to the church is teachers (Eph 4:11). If we could understand the text without the aid of others, why would we need teachers?

This has application to the 1 Peter 3:18–22 passage, for though Luther lamented that he had no clue what the passage meant,[1] modern interpreters have numerous gifted teachers at their fingertips. When facing difficult passages, modern readers have commentaries, online sermons, and study Bibles to help. These are part of God’s good gifts to His people. No one should be ashamed to use such resources (and sometimes they should be ashamed if they do not!)

Second, we are helped by Peter’s admission that some things in Scripture are hard to understand:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16; emphasis added)

Importantly, Peter notes that only some things are hard to understand. Of course, there is great irony here, for 1 Peter 3:18–22 has historically been considered one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the New Testament! Accordingly, Paul could easily have written the same thing about Peter!

But the passage at hand illustrates an important principle of biblical interpretation. Perhaps I can put it this way—when in doubt, zoom out. In other words, when there is evident disagreement among interpreters about a passage, one should zoom out and look at their larger interpretation of the passage.

In the case of 1 Peter 3:18–22, I know of at least five different ways the passage is interpreted (in fact, there may be three different interpretations here at DBTS!). Nevertheless, when zoomed out, we all agree on the overall meaning of the passage.[2] The main theme line of the passage is contained in verses 18 and 22. Verses 19–21 are details of the argument, not its main line. Importantly, the central debates concern 19–21.

So yes, there often are disagreements that are hard to resolve today. But in God’s good kindness, the things debated are not usually the central matters.

In sum, let us read confidently. And when we chance upon difficult passages, use these as opportunities for thanking God that He has made the main theme lines of His revelation clear and has given us gifted teachers and resources to help in all the other cases.

[1] “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so I do not know for certain just what Peter means” (Luther, Peter and Jude, 166).

[2] For those interested, the meaning is that Jesus suffered to give us access to His Father, and He did this by dying, rising, and entering the presence of God. His suffering resulted in great glory to Him and others, and so our suffering should be viewed in light of His. If He suffered and it was shown to be worth it, then we should likewise recognize that “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17).

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