To this One all the prophets testify. (Acts 10:43)
God has spoken in many portions and in many ways. (Heb 1:1)
The second step needed to understand visions in the Bible (and remember all texts are visionary) is synthesis. To synthesize is “to combine so as to form a new, complex product.” Synthesis is “the combining of separate elements or substances to form a coherent whole.”
Watchman Nee says,
There is a central line in the divine revelation. God’s revelation to man comes in many portions and in many ways (Heb. 1:1). It comes a little here and a little there….Therefore, we have to study in the way of synthesis. We have to find the complete revelation of the entire Bible through synthesis.
Peter’s Synthesis in Acts 10
This is exactly what Peter did on numerous occasions (and Paul, et al). His first gospel message in Acts 2 is a synthesis of Joel 2, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110. He works backwards from the event of revelation and discerns in the previously written text a prediction and explanation of what God has done in Christ.
In Acts 10, he does the same thing, we just have to work a little harder to figure out what passages he was working with. The big clue that he is even doing this is in v. 43 when he says that “all the prophets testify.” From the chart below, it is clear that he combined numerous Old Testament texts to arrive at a new understanding of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. This was a major step in God’s move to baptize the Gentile believers into the Body of Christ. As Paul will later say, the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the Body and fellow partakers of the promise (Eph 3:6), and that there is now no distinction (Rom 3:22). “There is no distinction” is one of Paul’s oft repeated refrains, but it turns out that Peter actually beats Paul to it in Acts 15:9.
The following chart tries to get behind Peter’s words in Acts 10 to lay bare the texts that he may have been considering. The verses in Acts are in the left column and two sets of supporting OT verses are in the center and right columns (except for row two, which shows Peter’s conclusions based on God’s speaking in the vision).
Scripture interprets Scripture
One of the most recognized principles of biblical interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. The Reformers were huge on this. Luther states, “Scripture is therefore its own light. It is a grand thing when Scripture interprets itself.” But Augustine had already said the same thing a thousand years earlier: “One should proceed to explore and analyze the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones.”
To ponder the vision (or the text) is not fanciful imagination, but scriptural consideration. Pondering shouldn’t lead us out of the text into flights of fancy, but deeper into the text. We’re not considering a forest from afar, we are exploring the woods from within. We’re discovering what the whole text says and in light of that, we make sense of the individual parts. This requires synthesizing a collection of verses scattered across the Bible to understand the meaning of a particular text. God’s speaking is “fragmentary and varied” (Heb 1:1, ISV). God’s word is “here a little, there a little” (Isa 28:10), just like puzzle pieces that require assembly. When we correctly assemble the pieces, a composite image emerges—the big picture.
But the strange thing is that we must see the big picture FIRST to know how to assemble the pieces. The big picture of the Bible is the central line of the divine revelation that Watchman Nee referred to above.
Hiring a Hermeneutic
Synthesis requires at least three things: collecting, comparing, and interpreting.
To interpret we need an interpretive principle to guide us. We need a framework of understanding—a hermeneutic. This is the big picture itself. Irenaeus, in the second century, called it Scripture’s “hypothesis”. This helps us know what we’re looking for in a text and helps us know what combination “works”. Every text has a context that helps determine its meaning, from verse to chapter to book to Bible. The entire Bible is the ultimate context of every verse, and so we are obliged to know the central line of the divine revelation, Scripture’s organizing principle, if we are to interpret any part of it properly and adequately.
If we fail to discern the big picture, an interpretation can be patently wrong. Or, it may be 100% true, but only 1% of the full truth. This would be like seeing, in high definition, a ladybug on a leaf, but missing the twig, branch, tree, and forest.
Irenaeus uses the example of someone reassembling the gems of a beautiful mosaic of the king to create a poorly executed picture of a dog. The gems are all the same, but they have been put together incorrectly.
Christ, Church, Economy
What is the hypothesis, the main revelation in Scripture, that governs every text and guides interpretation? Let’s ask the two most authorized speakers of God in the NT—Jesus and Paul.
Beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, Jesus explained to them clearly in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:27)
This mystery is great, but I speak with regard to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:32)
Charge certain ones not to teach different things… rather than God’s economy, which is in faith. (1 Tim 1:3-4)
In Luke 24, Jesus conducts the first Christian Bible study. Of course, He only has the OT to work with. But here we are witnessing the OT become a distinctly Christian book in His hands. Jesus’ interpretative key of the OT is… Himself! The Bible is about Christ Jesus.
Christ and the Church
But that’s not enough. Paul adds something to this hermeneutic—Christ AND the church. The Bible is about Christ and the church, and, according to Paul’s context in Ephesians 5, it’s about these two becoming one in a union of life and love for God’s corporate expression.
And that brings us to verse number 3: how this happens is God’s economy. Witness Lee puts these three things together when he says, “God’s economy is Christ with the church.” Paul tells us in the third verse in explicit language what the standard of all teaching, and hence interpretation, should be: God’s economy.
God’s economy is the master key to the Bible, the key that opens all books. God’s economy is defined in Ephesians chapter 1 (universal perspective) and chapter 3 (personal perspective) and illustrated quite clearly in 1 Corinthians. It is the Triune God’s plan to dispense Christ as life into His chosen people for their full salvation, for the building up of the Body of Christ for His expression, and for the heading up of all things in Christ. This involves the five steps of Christ’s process—incarnation, human living, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension—and what issues from these.
Unlike today, God’s economy was a broadly used phrase in the early church. R. R. Reno described the patristic view of Scripture as a whole, like this:
Scripture is the semiotic medium in which God encodes the pattern of the divine economy.
So now, we know our principle—Scripture interprets Scripture. We know our hermeneutic—God’s economy. But we still need an understanding of the different senses of Scripture—literal and typological. We need to “type” set the OT.
The Old Testament is a picture book. Yes the events literally happened and they do have a literal meaning that is basic to everything else. But beyond that, the Old Testament is a figurative portrait of God’s economy, in which events happened as types of our present experience of Christ for the church.
Now these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, unto whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Cor 10:11)
These things are spoken allegorically. (Gal 4:24)
We have to approach much of the biblical material with the allegorical method. Not a free-wheeling, arbitrary allegorization, but one that is sober and sensible and responsible to the text itself. Textual echoes and verbal resonances were planted in Scripture by the Spirit through inspired authors with the intention that inspired readers would connect the dots through implication. This is why pray-reading is so important. It fills us with the inspiring Spirit who guides us into the truth.
All interpretation must be guided by and anchored to the entire canon of Scripture to be legitimate. This establishes a connection between the two testaments in their meaning. The Old Testament is not just the preparation and expectation of the events in the New (the coming of Jesus, etc). The OT is more than just history and prophecy. It is the divine economy encoded in types and figures. Augustine asked, “For what is the ‘Old Testament’ but a concealed form of the new?” Origen said, “For us, who understand and explain [the Old Testament] spiritually and according to the gospel-meaning, it is always new. Indeed, both are ‘New Testaments’ for us, not by the age of time but by the newness of understanding.”
So we must bring the New Testament revelation to bear on the Old Testament record to discern its spiritual significance and deeper denotation. The Old Testament pictures convey New Testament spiritual realities, so they must be discerned spiritually and interpreted with spiritual words (1 Cor 2:13-14). We can honor the literal sense of the text while still doing justice to the spiritual sense.
The early church fathers were major proponents of this method, going way beyond any direct identifications the New Testament makes of the Old. Nothing to them was off limits from searching out deeper meanings. In fact, the more difficult the text, the more promising was the concealed meaning. Again, the Spirit, sometimes, in inspiring a certain text, has ulterior motives that are hidden from the author.
Augustine finds in Noah’s ark striking portrayals of the reality of the church. He says:
No one, however stubborn, will venture to imagine that this narrative was written without an ulterior purpose; and it could not plausibly be said that the events, though historical, have no symbolic meaning, or that the account is not factual, but merely symbolical, or that the symbolism has nothing to do with the Church. No; we must believe that the writing of this historical record had a wise purpose, that the events are historical, that they have a symbolic meaning, and that this meaning gives a prophetic picture of the Church.
But not just Noah’s ark, the whole book of Genesis is about either Christ and the church for him.
The whole narrative of Genesis, in the most minute details, is a prophecy of Christ and of the Church.
If this seems like a stretch, remember that these teachers are simply following Paul’s inspired pattern of interpretation—using Scripture to interpret Scripture, under the New Testament light of God’s economy, and often times “going beyond the letter, historical events, and persons and things to explore and to receive the revelation of life.”
This is what Peter and Paul did. We should complete the trio and be Mary, sitting at their feet and learning their ways.
1. The American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition
2. Watchman Nee, CWWN Vol. 61: Matured Leadings in the Lord’s Recovery (1), p. 45
3. Martin Luther, WA 10 III, 238
4. Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.9.14
5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.8.1
6. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Ephesians, p. 629
7. Witness Lee, The Move of God in Man, Ch. 1
8. R. R. Reno, Christian Theologies of Scripture, p. 24
9. Augustine, City of God 16.26
10. Origen, Homilies on Numbers 9.4.2
11. James O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography, p. 129
12. Augustine, City of God 15.27
13. Augustine, Answer to Faustus 12.8
14. Witness Lee, The Full Knowledge of the Word of God, p. 26