During several public and private discussions lately over “literal Biblical womanhood,” I realized anew how the issue of understanding Scripture continues to plague the church. A decade ago, an assistant pastor at my old church told me the greatest piece of wisdom I have ever received on understanding Scripture—the Bible is the best commentary on itself. Since then, when I have read a New Testament verse that has the little footnote that links it to an Old Testament verse, I stop and flip to the Old Testament verse. This is Scripture telling me something about itself, linking important concepts in itself, and EXPLAINING ITSELF. My experience personally is that if you stop reading other books on interpreting the Bible and stop listening to other teachers on interpreting the Bible, and then listen for a bit to the BIBLE interpreting the Bible, a lot clears up.
Here is what the Bible has taught me about itself.
At times, God wrote out His revelation of Himself to us in the form of stories. Sometimes, He used clear commands and instructions. Within even those clear commands and instructions, God gave universal truths for all cultures and all times along with instructions that played a specific role for a finite period of time. The question then is how does Scripture reveal what parts were for a particular time and what parts transcend time or culture?
Most believers agree that not all parts of Scripture should be literally followed today, as evidenced by the fact that no modern Christian group offers animal sacrifices. However, beyond animal sacrifices, there are divergent perspectives within the larger evangelical movement on how we know what is required for today, especially in terms of application to women. The most important insight the Bible gives us for understanding itself is that Jesus’ life and death fulfilled the Old Testament Law. Jesus says clearly in Luke 24 that all of the Law and Prophets pointed to Him. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus also teaches something specifically about the Old Testament Law, which says some very odd things to women that we may be tempted to write off simply due to their weirdness. He says,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
He states this previous to His death and reinforces an impossible standard, that we need to keep the Law better than the Pharisees. After His death, Paul teaches that Jesus alone was the only one who could keep the Law as God intended, and His death marked the great exchange where our sins were contributed to Christ’s account and His righteousness was attributed to ours.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
We are now counted as having kept the Law as Jesus did! Paul says in Romans 10:4 that Christ is the end point of the Law for all who believe in Him.
The Law served several purposes. First, it served to show civilization what God values. We value the dignity of human life, care of the poor, fidelity in marriage, fairness in business dealings, rest, and worship because God first showed us through the Law that He cared about such things. Second, the Law showed from multiple different angles both our need for a Savior and what He would look like when He comes.
Some Christian groups distinguish between categories of the Law such as ceremonial, sacrificial, and moral law. But the Bible does not make such distinctions, and I find those distinctions confusing rather than helpful. There are many wrong ways to think about Old Testament laws. They should not be written off, ignored, or abolished. Instead, Jesus fulfilled them. He brought them to completion, and their purpose is concluded. The entire books of Galatians and Hebrews are spent exploring this point.
Galatians 3 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,
The author of Hebrews, quoting Jeremiah, says that the Law is now written on our hearts (Hebrews 10:16). What God did externally through His Law, He now does internally through the Holy Spirit.
Not only did Jesus fulfill the Law, He boiled it all down for us so that we could continue living in the essence of what the Law was meant to convey to us about God’s character and His desires for His children. Jesus summed this up with the Golden Rule and Greatest Command.
Matthew 7 12“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 22 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
After studying portions of the Old Testament Law over the years, I have a new appreciation for God’s purposes and protections to His children by way of them. There was no government but God at the time. His instructions through the law encompassed much more than simple morality as we perceive it today. There was no FDA or OSHA. God gave this law at the dawn of civilization, and at that point, civilization was not very civilized. What kind of instructions were needed for people dealing with the most basic of dietary and sanitary needs? For instance, it makes sense that God would instruct His people in Leviticus 11 not to eat bottom dwelling shellfish, the scavengers of the ocean. Even today, despite modern refrigeration and testing for bacteria, people often get sick from eating them. How much greater the risk for God’s children who had no refrigeration and no ability to test for bacteria.
That instruction is a fairly easy one to understand. There are others that are not. Some instructions simply seem odd. Others seem downright brutal. We do not know God’s exact reason for each, but understanding that God was giving basic instructions at the dawn of civilization to people with no government, police, or medical help gives insight into their general purpose.
Not only is the Old Testament Law fulfilled in Jesus, there is another helpful principle for understanding Scripture. Bible story is not the same as Bible instruction. Some Scripture passages describe what happened while others prescribe what we are to do. Just because the Bible tells a story does not mean we are to emulate the details of that story.
The book of Judges is helpful in demonstrating the difference. There, God describes ugly things in Israel’s history, and He does it without much discussion of whether the things described are good or evil. At the end of this story, He writes, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The description in Judges serves to show the need of God’s children for the true King of Kings who would save them from their depravity.
Combining these principles for reading Scripture together, we start to get a clearer picture of how to receive Scripture on any subject, especially the topic of “Biblical womanhood.” We start in Genesis 1 and 2 where God states in perfection that every woman is an image bearer of God reflecting especially His strong help and advocacy for His children. From there, I recommend studying Ephesians, where Paul lays out our spiritual inheritance via the gospel as the key to once again being the imitators of God (Eph. 5:1) that He created us to be in Genesis 2. In between, the Old Testament Law pointed toward Christ and was fulfilled in Him. Proverbs 31 gives insight, wisdom, and understanding (not law), which is best received under the press of the Holy Spirit who helps us apply it in ways that are actually wise in our own lives as opposed to the conclusions some may espouse when they try to convict us in place of the Spirit. The New Testament reaffirms the summary moral code of the Ten Commandments. Jesus even intensifies it in His Sermon on the Mount. The essence is summed up in the Greatest Command and Golden Rule. Much of the epistles then flesh out what such love looks like in the New Covenant, and we can trust those instructions even as we wrestle with the Holy Spirit to understand and apply them.
The Bible really is the best commentary on itself.
* Adapted from Chapter 8 of The Gospel-Centered Woman.