Can a Bible verse or passage have different meanings?

I am sure you have experienced it before. You are in a small group Bible study and you are discussing a particular verse or passage. The leader offers their interpretation and subsequently opens the floor to others to offer their input. “Well I think the verse means this…” one participant shares. “I like that, “ another chimes in. “But for me it means this…” Before long a multitude of different meanings have been seeped out of a few words of scripture. The obvious question however is can there be different levels and even differing meanings to the same verse or set of verses? In answering this question I want to tackle three simple things. First, what does it mean when we ask “what does a passage mean?” Second, what is the difference between meaning and application? Finally, I want to offer a biblical example that hopefully elucidates the point.

What Does this Passage Mean?

What does it mean to ask “what does this passage mean?” The basic goal of any biblical interpreter is the discovery of authorial intent. Authorial intent is “the meaning [the words of scripture] would have conveyed to the readers at the time they were written by the author (Blomberg, Craig L., et al. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. 185). ” In other words, when we seek to understand the words of scripture we are asking what did the author mean to convey when he wrote what he wrote? This task (commonly known as exegesis, or broadly referred to as hermeneutics) involves what is called the grammatical-historical method. That is, when we study the Bible we must use all of the tools to properly interpret an ancient document. We must take into consideration the text’s literary genre, historical background, and grammar.

But what does all of this tell us about discovering the meaning of scripture? Simply this: the original authors of scripture meant to convey only one meaning to their readers and the task of the interpreter is to discover that meaning. This is not to say that any given passage cannot have several points or more than one lesson. “We seek only the intended meaning, though it could have several components (Blomberg. Introduction.187).” As one author points out:

“no text of Scripture can have many different, mutually contradictory meanings. A text might have a complex meaning that can be summarized in different noncontradictory ways. The text’s meaning might have different practical applications to different people depending on their particular situation. But if two people read a text and find contradictory meanings, one or both of the readers must be wrong. They cannot both be right.”

Thus, when we ask what does this verse or passage mean? we are asking what was the author’s original intent. This is what Gordon Fee calls the the “plain meaning of the text (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 18).” This also implies that when we come to any given passage of scripture the interpreter is not seeking to discover some “secret” or “deeper” meaning of the text. Some advocate that “biblical authors intended only one sense, though later readers may imply creative exegetical techniques to discover additional valid senses not intended by the original authors (Blomberg. Introduction, 185. emphasis theirs).” The problem with this endeavor is that the practice of seeking a deeper meaning is completely subjective. Who is to say one’s deeper rendering not observed in the plain reading of a text is better than someone else’s different deeper rendering? “Scripture becomes, as Martin Luther put it, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever form the interpreter likes. When this happens, the interpreter cannot be corrected by the text; rather, the interpreter becomes lord over the text.” Therefore, when we seek to discover the meaning of scripture we are seeking the plain meaning as the original author intended.

The Difference Between Meaning and Application

If we go back to our illustration in the beginning what we may discover in that small group bible study is that the various individuals offering their take on a given passage are not necessarily offering different meanings of a text, but offering a variety of applications derived from the one meaning. When someone says something like, “I can read the same passage several times in my life and gather different meanings for it,” I argue they are not deriving a different meaning but are gleaning a different application from the one meaning the author intended. Application is how a particular verse’s meaning can be applied to a variety of circumstances or situations in one’s life. Another way to put it is that the meaning of a text answers what the scripture meant to the original author then; application answers the question of how that meaning understood then applies to my life now. The danger comes when we try to apply a text before understanding the meaning of a text. Failing to discover the meaning first will inevitably lead to misapplication.

A Case Study

Let me close by offering a simple example from the New Testament. In Matthew 18:20 we read this popular verse: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Growing up I always heard people interpret this text to mean that Jesus’ presence is with those who come together to worship the lord; usually when there was low church attendance! Now this idea is not wrong in and of itself. It is true that when the church gathers Jesus is with us; no matter how few are there. However, it is also true that Jesus is with us even when we are alone! This idea is true but is it what Matthew meant when he wrote it? This is where good exegesis is needed.

When you read the verse in its broader context you discover that this verse is in the context of church discipline. Backing up to verse 15 we see that Jesus is offering steps for those who persist in sin. If one sins they are to be confronted privately. If they do not repent 2-3 witnesses are to be brought into the situation. If repentance is still refused then the individual is to be brought before the entire assembly (church). Then Jesus closes his teaching by saying that when this procedure is done Jesus gives his approval of it (verses 18-20). Thus, the meaning of where two or three are gathered is not about church worship but about the agreement the church has in expelling an immoral brother from the community! Oh what a difference in meaning this is! Thus, Matthew 18:20 cannot mean both—Jesus is with us when we gather to worship AND Jesus offers his approval of expelling an immoral brother. It must be one or the other. Matthew meant one thing, and discovering it is the job of the interpreter.

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