Discerning truth from falsehood

How do you know is something is true or false? How do you discern whether a teaching is true or false? We are called in various parts of the Bible to stand firm in the gospel and denounce false teaching. But how do we go about doing that?

Picture this scene. Bob is sitting at church listening to a sermon. He is looking at the passage that the sermon is being preached from with a confused look on his face. What is being said at the pulpit seems to be completely unrelated to what is written in the Biblical passage. Even worse it seems to be at odds with other passages in scripture. The congregation responds enthusiastically to the sermon because in truth the preacher is a charismatic and an eloquent speaker. At the end of the service, Bob’s friend comes over to him:

Bob’s friend: “Chaley, the message was powerful ooo”
Bob: “Hmm, I’m just confused about the verse he was using”
Bob’s friend: “Chaley, don’t worry. Didn’t you hear him say it was a revelation. Spiritual levels dey oo. This guy is powerful”
Bob: “But didn’t that point contradict that verse in Romans”
Bob’s friend: “My friend stop all this. The man of God said it, of course it must be true. Do you know the anointing on his life?”

This is how Bob’s friend discerns whether a message is “powerful” or not. The messenger authenticates the message. The anointing on the messenger is what validates whether what he teaches is true or false. The more anointed the messenger the less his words come under any scrutiny. And when challenged the messenger only has to appeal to his calling, his anointing or his ability to perform miraculous signs and wonders. But is that how we are to go about discerning truth?

The Unchanging Gospel

 In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he tells us of how he heard the gospel as revelation from Jesus Christ himself (For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ – Galations 1:12). After many years he goes to Jerusalem (Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also … I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain – Galations 2:1-2). He seems to suggest here that even though he received the message as a direct revelation from God, if the gospel that he had been preaching was different from what the other Apostles preached, he would have been running his race in vain.  This is in line with what he says earlier in chapter 1 (But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Galations 1:8-9)

The gospel Paul preached had to be in line with what was preached by the Apostles. The gospel the Apostles preached was what they were taught by Christ Jesus himself. Therefore both gospels must ultimately be the same message since they are from the same source. The gospel we preach today must be in line with that old gospel.  Those who stand behind our pulpits and preach are held to that old standard.  It’s not about how eloquent they are, what feats of the supernatural they can do, or how “powerful” they are but whether what they preach is in line what the Apostles taught in the Scriptures.

The Berean Attitude

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so; Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.” – Acts 17:10-12

Paul is in Berea and goes to preach at the synagogue. The Bereans are commended for not only listening to what Paul had to say with eagerness but also examining the Scriptures to see if what Paul was preaching was in line with what the Scriptures said. The mark of an authentic message is that it clearly states what is in the Scriptures. The Scriptures authenticate the message. So let us receive the Word with all eagerness but let us also examine the scriptures and ask questions when we don’t understand or aren’t clear about what is being said. As counter-cultural is this might seem, that is a commendable attitude that will help us discern truth from falsehood.

Here are some helpful questions we can ask when listening to a message. They are further expanded here.

1. Is God’s Word the most important part of this sermon?
2. Do you leave understanding the main point of the text?
3. Did the preacher preach Jesus?
4. Did the preacher apply the sermon to my life?
5. Does he speak as one who knows God or knows about God?

Author’s Intent

Knowing what a person intends to say is quite important when it comes to understanding the words they say.  Let’s say for example Bob says “He killed it today!”.  Depending on what Bob intended to communicate, the sentence could mean completely different things.  It could mean Bob saw someone killing a big cockroach(or some other terrifying beast) today or it could mean Bob saw a singer deliver a jaw-dropping performance(yeah urban slang can be weird).  In everyday conversation we are always trying to find out what the other person is trying to communicate.  That is how we understand each other when we speak.  Even when we read the newspapers, magazines, blog articles etc, we try to find out what the author is trying to communicate.  No one reads a newspaper article about Ghana winning the world cup (sigh!!!… one day!!!) and concludes that the author is writing about Skynet destroying the world with rainbow unicorns!!! That cannot be the case if all the author was doing was telling you that Ghana beat Germany in the finals.

The same principle holds when we pick up the Bible to read.  The Bible is made of a collection of books; each written by an author who intended to communicate something.  We can easily come up with wonderfully creative interpretations of verses if we don’t think about what the author intended to communicate when writing that particular sentence (like wrongly accusing Bob of violence against household pests when he was really talking about his friend Kwaku’s performance).

Words have different meanings in different contexts… When we consider a verse in isolation, one meaning may occur to us. But how do we know it’s the right one?
Let’s take this popular verse:“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Phillipians (4:13)
Looking at that verse alone, it could mean a whole variety of things.  One day I will be a millionaire because I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  I will pass that exam because I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  And I could keep coming up with different scenarios where I can use this verse and even feel comforted by it.

But the question we must always ask ourselves when reading a verse in the Bible is this: What was the author’s intent? What was the author trying to communicate? We can answer this question by looking at verse in the context in which it was written and see how that changes our understanding of the verse.  For example when I add the preceding verses, see how our understanding of the verse can change.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
– Phillipians (4:10 -13)

It now begins to sound less like a rallying call to be a millionaire.  As one writer put it: “Looking back at verse 11, we see that Paul is really talking about how he has “learned in whatever situation. . . . to be content.” He continues in verse 12, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” In context, it seems that “all things” refers to all manner of life circumstances we encounter, not all goals that we set for ourselves. While the American dream tells us that finding happiness requires continually striving for more, not settling until we are the best and have the most, Paul tells us that satisfaction has nothing to do with our circumstances. Whether life was going really well or really poorly, with Christ’s strength, Paul learned to to be content“.

Next time you read a verse, ask yourself.  Is the meaning I have in my head actually what the author intended to communicate?

Helpful resources for studying the Bible

I have been seeing quite a few helpful articles around that speaks on how we study the Bible.

Thats all for now 🙂

Helpful questions for studying the Bible

Found this very useful guide for Bible Reading and study.

Our desire was to create a simple, reproducible strategy that would facilitate this process. This led us to develop a simply strategy for small clusters (2-3 people) to meet together regularly and talk about the Scriptures and apply them to their lives.

The seven arrows of Bible reading were an attempt at developing a tool for proper hermeneutics to power these relationships. We did not want our people to simply talk about the Bible. We wanted them to understand the Bible and know how to apply it to their lives. Each cluster would read a predetermined passage of Scripture and discuss it using these seven arrows.

It is seven very helpful questions to ask and dwell on when studying a passage of scripture.

  1. What does this passage say?
  2. What does this passage mean to its original audience?
  3. What does this passage tell us about God?
  4. What does this passage tell us about man?
  5. What does this passage demand of me?
  6. How does this passage change the way I relate with people?
  7. How does this passage prompt me to pray?

I especially like how it not only ask questions that dwell on the original intent and purpose of the passage but also questions that aid in applying the passage to  one’s life.

Read more details here… 7 Arrows for Bible Reading.