We can’t live according to Scripture unless we have confidence that it means what it says, that it is reliable, and that it is credible.
Many problems that people have with Scripture are caused by heeding Scripture “experts” who don’t use common sense. For example, Jesus gave the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Sermon on the Plain.” Some “experts” consider that to be a contradiction. Was it a mount or a plain? They have forgotten something. Jesus was a traveling preacher who taught for three years. Therefore, He taught from many mounts, and many plains, and from ships, and from seashores, and in houses, and from every kind of place that a person could preach from.
Similarly, some people raise questions because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have different versions of a parable or a teaching. Again, they have forgotten that Jesus was a real live preacher. And in real life, traveling preachers use the same teachings and illustrations many times, with variations in how they present them.
Some people are troubled if Matthew, Mark, Luke or John have differences in how they relate something that happened. For example, with the beggar Blind Bartimaeus, one of the Gospels mentions two blind men but the others only mention one blind man. Well, in real life, if you had five people witness an event and write about it, you would have variations in the reports. Different people would focus on different things. And as far as the number of blind men goes, there were many beggars on the roadsides, and some of them were blind. It would not be unusual for a blind beggar like Bartimaeus to have friends who were also blind beggars, and to want to be with his friends. So one account mentions Bartimaeus’ fellow beggar, and the other accounts don’t. There is nothing unusual about that. It’s the kind of thing that often happens in real life.
Another thing that causes problems for some people is differences of writing style in Paul’s letters. In real life, writing style and vocabulary depends on who we are writing to and on the subject matter. We should expect Paul to write to Gentiles differently than he writes to Jews. We should expect him to write to mature Christians differently than he writes to immature Christians who are having a lot of problems. We should expect him to write to Timothy (a fellow minister who was close to him) differently than he would write to people he hasn’t met.
Think about your own letters and emails. Would you write to your boss the same way that you write to your son or your daughter? Would you write to a nonbeliever the same way that you write to your pastor? Would you write about a football game the same way that you write about a research project you are doing at school?
Sometimes Greek verb tenses can cause confusion. For example, 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So John is saying that we all sin. But later, in 1 John 3:6 he says, “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.” Now that could be confusing. The problem is the Greek verb tense. 1 John 3:6 is saying that if we abide in Him we do not keep on sinning. It’s not a one-time event. It’s a lifestyle. Any Christian can sin and repent. That is very different from habitually sinning. (I don’t know Greek, but I’ve heard that teaching from several preachers.)
Some scholars say that the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of teachings, rather than one sermon. They have forgotten something. We live in a televised world where many people have short attention spans, and many preachers have short sermons. Back in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas (the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates), each debate lasted for three hours.16 So people in those days were able to do serious listening for three hours straight.
I did an experiment. I read the entire Sermon on the Mount out loud, at a slow, conversational pace. (It’s the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7.) It only took 15 minutes. Surely Jesus preached longer than that to people who went to all the trouble to find Him and listen to him. He was only going to be with those particular people one time. So He had to get as much truth to them as He could during that one time of preaching.
We know that Jesus and His followers did some lengthy preaching. On one occasion, the Apostle Paul preached all night long, until daybreak. (Acts 20:7-12)
Therefore, I would expect that what the Bible gives us from the Sermon on the Mount is only a selection out of many teachings that Jesus gave on that occasion. And the quotations from Jesus that we have may only be the conclusions that He gave following longer teachings about those issues.
Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount is the result of the Holy Spirit showing Matthew which of the many teachings that Jesus gave should be included in the report, and which statements Jesus made should be quoted. It is also the result of the Holy Spirit enabling Matthew to remember accurately. Jesus promised His disciples,
Matthew 5:38-42 is a good opportunity to use some common sense. Jesus basically told people to be loving and forgiving instead of quarreling and vengeful. For example, He said,
First he said, don’t try to get revenge. Then he said to allow someone to slap you on the cheek. Being slapped is unpleasant, but it is a relatively mild degree of pain and hardship. Jesus did not say that Christians should passively allow people to rape their wives and murder their children. He didn’t even tell Christians to passively submit to persecution. He said,
Similarly, Jesus said that if someone sues us for our tunic, we should let them have it, and even our cloak as well. (Matthew 5:40) That is just some clothing. Although clothing was more difficult to obtain back in those days than it is now, it was still just clothing. Jesus did not say that we should allow people to take our home and our farm or business, so that we and our family become homeless and destitute.
Here is another example of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. It also comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said,
Some people interpret that as meaning that we should never criticize anything that other people say or do. However, that cannot be the meaning of this passage because, later on in the same chapter, Jesus said,
How can we beware of them if we can’t recognize them? How can we warn our friends and family to beware of them if we aren’t allowed to say anything negative about anybody? According to what Jesus said, He expects us to be able to recognize false teachers, and to discern the difference between good and bad fruit in a person’s life.
How do we reconcile that with not judging people? According to my study Bible, Jesus warned us against condemning the actions or motives of others, because only God knows their hearts and their motives. We cannot condemn people. However, we are expected to be “fruit inspectors” who can tell the difference between people who teach Christian truth, and false teachers. (Matthew 7:15-20) In addition, Jesus commanded us to “judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24)
Here is a practical example from real life. If we have reasons to question someone’s morality and their level of responsible behavior, we cannot condemn them, because only God knows their heart. However, we should not let them babysit our children. And it would be foolish to become business partners with them.
If we come across a passage in Scripture that doesn’t make sense to us, we can ask God to help us understand it. If we pray, and consider that passage some more, and we still can’t understand it, then we can just set it aside and go on reading. There have been times when a Scripture passage that I didn’t understand before suddenly makes sense. It’s like a light goes on, and I can see it.
Reading Scripture is a lifetime adventure. What we do understand is more than enough to guide us and help us know the Lord better. Let’s use what we can understand, and trust God to take care of the rest of it in His own good timing.