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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Tempter's Interpretation

As we saw in Matthew 4 last Sunday, the second temptation that Jesus endured entailed an unlikely figure quoting Scripture. That Satan himself would use the Word of God as a tool of temptation should lead us to be very careful when listening to teaching and preaching. Whether or not false teachers believe they are false teachers, they are out there. 24 of the 27 books of the New Testament warn us about false teaching, and a component of recognizing false teaching is to understand how the Word should be handled, that is, how to interpret the Bible correctly. 

This second temptation, found in vv5-7, offers us an opportunity to see the preeminent false teacher at work. There we find two Scripture quotations, one from Satan and one from Jesus. One leading to error and one leading to truth. This post will concentrate on Satan's quotation. It will be very instructive to look at what Satan says, what interpretation he gives it, and how his interpretation fits with the verse in its original context.

Matt 4:-56 reads, Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple
and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, "'He will command his angels concerning you,' and "'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'"

Satan is quoting Psalm 91:11-12. How do we know what his interpretation is? By what he is wanting Jesus to do in response to it (and by how Jesus responds, which we covered on Sunday). He is telling Jesus that God has obligated Himself to save Jesus, therefore, it is okay for Jesus to test God.

Sounds logical, doesn't it? God has said He will do this thing, so why not try it out? If God wasn't willing to do it, He wouldn't have made this promise, right? Satan has Scripture to back him up, doesn't he?

Pretend for a second that this isn't Satan, but rather a blond-haired, blue-eyed man with an engaging tone showing not Jesus, but you, from Scripture that some random act is acceptable and encouraged. I'm afraid that many people wouldn't bat an eyelash. Why? Because he's using Scripture.

So how does Satan's interpretation fit with its original context? The first problem is that Satan omits an entire phrase from the quotation. Psalm 91:11-12: For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.

Why would Satan omit this phrase? It is inconvenient for his purposes. This phrase implies a general protection over all of life. But Satan has presented it as a warrant for a specific act, taking a nosedive off the temple: if you jump, God has promised to have angels catch You. The phrase he has omitted doesn't lend itself to that interpretation, so he leaves it out.

Second, the larger context of the Psalm 91, will not allow Satan's interpretation. I don't want to reproduce the whole chapter here, but I would encourage you to look at it. The gist of the chapter is that God is a shelter from danger. The writer mentions a number of things from which God will protect him: snares, pestilence, terror at night, arrows by day, lions, and cobras. All of these are dangers that bring themselves upon the writer. They are not dangerous situations into which the writer can throw himself and expect protection. This chapter is not an invitation to live recklessly or to test God. It is simply an assurance that God will shield from danger the one who trusts Him. It is certainly not a mandate to intentionally put oneself in danger, demanding that God come to the rescue.

That Satan quoted Scripture should be striking. It should be even more striking that he is using it in an attempt to produce sin. It is sobering to think that what Satan has done here is something that happens all over the place every Sunday. No, the intent is not the same, but the treatment of the Word is. Many preachers and teachers are doing through negligence what Satan did on purpose. So we need to be discerning as we listen to preaching and teaching.

But there is a second reason to take note of this. Most of us are regularly in a position to speak the truth to family, friends, and neighbors. We may use Scripture to encourage, comfort, or admonish each other. When we do this, in a limited sense, we are teaching. Accordingly, we need to be very careful to not take Scripture out of context or mold it to fit some particular set of circumstances.

May the Lord build us up in His Word and in the knowledge of how to handle it rightly, so that we will not fall prey to false teaching or pass it on to those we love.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

1 comment:

Dan said...

Thanks, Greg. I believe the well meaning can provide error in teaching as well as counsel. There is plenty of opportunity to misuse Scripture to make people feel better or worse depending on your bent. You're right to remind us to teach and preach faithfully.