On Knowing the Bible, by Witness Lee


In interpreting the Bible, one should not be confined by the background, nor should he ignore the background. For example, in the Lord’s sermon on the mount, many words are spoken with a Jewish background. The Lord says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has anything against you” (Matt. 5:23), and so on. This offering of the gift at the altar is based wholly on the background of Judaism. If you want to understand the original meaning of this word, you cannot neglect the background of the time. The Jews offered their gift at the altar then for the purpose of drawing nigh to God and fellowshipping with Him. If you grasp hold of this principle, you will realize that the Lord’s words refer to a man offering something before God and fellowshipping with God. Therefore, we cannot neglect the background. Rather, we should understand the background.

On the other hand, we should not be confined to the background. We cannot teach people to go to the altar to offer gifts now just because the Lord Jesus has spoken such a word. If you are confined by this background, you will have a big problem. Hence, we must see that we cannot neglect the background; if we do, we will not understand the exact meaning of the Bible. On the other hand, we must be careful not to be confined to the background lest we fall into error.


God’s words to man are divided into dispensations. Some words were spoken by God to man in the dispensation of the law. Some words were spoken by God to man in the dispensation of grace. When we try to understand these words, we must differentiate between the different dispensations. We should not apply the words spoken in the dispensation of the law to the dispensation of grace. This is the mistake of the Seventh-Day Adventists in keeping the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is a commandment that God gave to man in the dispensation of the law. When one comes to the age of grace, it is a different matter altogether. But the Seventh-Day Adventists hold on to Exodus 20 and say that since God clearly spoke about the Sabbath, we should therefore keep the Sabbath today. It is true that God spoke of keeping the Sabbath, but this is a matter in the dispensation of the law and not in the dispensation of grace.

There is another example. In Psalms it says that our children in the flesh are God’s blessings. Please remember that this is a word in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, this is no longer true. One cannot find anything in the New Testament that says that the children of the flesh are blessings. Although I cannot say that the children of the flesh are now curses, I dare to assure you that the children of the flesh are burdens and lessons. Today, in the dispensation of grace, the real blessing is the spiritual children.

In the same principle, God promised His chosen people in the Old Testament that they would prosper and enlarge their territory on the earth. But it is exactly the opposite in the New Testament. If you stood on the podium today and quoted the Old Testament words, telling the brothers and sisters, “Thank God, He has promised that if we fear Him, He will enlarge our territory and everyone will be a great landowner,” this would be entirely wrong. There is such a promise in the Bible, but this promise is not under grace, but under the law. In the New Testament age, God said that we should forsake our land and sell it to give to the poor. This is exactly opposite to the Old Testament age.

Although all these are words of the Bible and are all inspired by God, we should not take the words of the old dispensation and apply them to the present dispensation. The Catholics and many Protestants err on this point. There are many things in Catholicism that come from Judaism in the Old Testament. Even the clothing worn by their priests and their rituals of worship are all a borrowing of the principle of the Old Testament. Surely those things are mentioned in the Bible, but they are not for our present dispensation. In expounding and interpreting the Bible, one cannot say, “Is not this the word of the Bible? If it is, we should keep it.” We cannot speak in this way. We have to differentiate the ages; that is, we have to know clearly to which dispensation a word belongs. If you are not in a certain dispensation, then the words for that dispensation have nothing to do with you. In the future, we will speak on the dispensations more.

(On Knowing the Bible, Chapter 4, by Witness Lee)