So you are reading your Bible, and you come across a tricky passage or verse that you are having a hard time understanding. It seems like a straight-forward reading of it would contradict what the Bible teaches elsewhere, or at the very least it seems like the passage teaches something unusual. What should you do?
As one example, here is Jesus speaking to his disciples before his ascension:
“If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” (John 20:23).
Is Jesus saying that individual believers can forgive sins of “anyone,” even if they are not Christians? Do we really have that power? Do we have the power to withhold forgiveness, even of Christians?
This is a complicated passage. Here I want to give three steps to help understanding a tricky passage like this.
Examine the Context of the Tricky Passage
When you encounter a difficult passage, read around it, and see what is happening in the context. Does the context give clues about what is going on? Find out what was happening right before, and right after the passage in question, and see if those give hints about how to understand your text. Are similar words or concepts used in the near context, or perhaps even in the larger context of the book? If so, that should help your understanding.
For the example of John 20:23, the context is Jesus sending his disciples into the world to preach the gospel. He prefaces verse 23 with a prophecy of sending the Spirit to those who believe. The next passage (vv. 24-29) Jesus describes the blessing of believing in the resurrection by faith. The chapter concludes with John saying “these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
In this case, the context points to the forgiveness of verse 23 coming out of receiving the Spirit (Spirit baptism), then proceeds to connect forgiveness to our belief in the gospel.
2. Examine Parallel Passages for the Tricky Passage
This step is critical in passages where there are harmonies (Samuel/Kings & Chronicles; apocalyptic literature; Gospels). Often confusing passages in Revelation can be understood in light of Zechariah. Sometimes either Mark or Matthew will provide details which illumine the other. Read the parallel passage(s), and see if that presents the same truth in a more clear fashion.
Let’s go back to John 20:23. The entire scene is obviously predictive of the commission in Acts 1, and then Pentecost in Acts 2. That section of Acts ends in Acts 2:38, where Peter ties both elements of John 20 (forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Spirit) to faith in the gospel. This is a strong indication that John 20:23 is describing the forgiveness of sins that takes place through the preaching of the gospel, not arbitrary forgiveness dispensed by believers. At the very least, Acts 2:38 demonstrates how Peter understood what Jesus had said in John 20:23.
3. Examine the Analogy of Faith
When rightly interpreted, no passage should ever contradict truths taught elsewhere in the Bible. Rather, each section of the Bible compliments the rest. Systematic theology is the build-up of the truths taught in the Bible as a whole, which means that no teaching in part will contradict the whole.
But Analogy of faith is more than a fancy way of stating the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. It means that in addition to non-contradiction, each passage actually helps by making a positive contribution to the whole. Another way to say this is that easy passages help interpret hard passages.
John 20:23 is a hard passage, precisely because an initial reading of it could lead to an understanding of forgiveness that would contradict other teachings in the Bible on the same topic. So to understand this passage, it’s helpful to turn to the easier passages on forgiveness. Instead of easier, perhaps more straightforward would be a better term.What do the didactic passages of the Bible teach about forgiveness? The more you learn about forgiveness, the more you are strengthening your ability to interpret John 20:23.
In this case, the Bible teaches that there are two categories of forgiveness, horizontal and vertical. Of course Christians have an ethic of extending forgiveness on a horizontal level to others, especially other believers. Meanwhile, the Bible teaches that vertical forgiveness is granted at salvation, and comes only to those who have faith in the gospel.
Taken together, John 20:23 seems to be teaching that there is forgiveness that comes through believing the gospel, and the gospel goes into the world through the preaching of others. Thus, John 20:23 doesn’t teach that individual believers have the power to bestow forgiveness, but rather it points to how the gospel will go into the world—with the ministry of the Spirit and the preaching of the word. It indicates a church dynamic to saving faith, by teaching that conversions will take place in a context of a corporate authentication, which then connects the truths taught in John 20:23 to Matthew 16:18-19…another difficult passage.
Fortunately, these steps don’t only apply to John 20:23, but really to any passage. When you encounter a passage you are having a hard time understanding, follow them with humility and see if they don’t help shed light on what your passage means.
This article about understanding a tricky passage originally appeared here.