One of the most important principles of Biblical interpretation that I ever learned had to do with pronoun trouble. (Daffy Duck had a good bit of Pronoun Trouble in the video above.)
The way I had learned, by osmosis and example, was: “If a passage of Scripture has a pronoun in it (you or I or he or we or pretty much any of them), then you can and even should apply it to yourself.” Unless of course it’s ludicrous to do it, like that holy kiss stuff.
But one day when I was researching something unrelated, I stumbled across an explanation that seems obvious now, but was revolutionary to me at the time. The writer said, essentially, “The pronouns in Scripture refer to certain people of that time. They may or may not refer to us.” For example, when Paul says “we,” he’s referring to himself and maybe Timothy or maybe the people he’s writing to or maybe the Jewish nation or maybe someone else. Is he talking about me? Well, maybe and maybe not. That takes prayerful Holy Spirit discernment to figure out, in the context of the writing.
What about when Paul says “you,” like, say . . . in Galatians 5:16-17? “The flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, and these things are contrary to one another, so that you cannot do what you wish.”
He is definitely referring to the Galatians, because that’s who he’s writing to. But is he referring to all Christians? This is the way I’ve always heard it presented.
But oh really? Is he also referring to all Christians in chapter 3 when he says, “Who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth?” It’s the same “you,” isn’t it? But I’ve never heard this passage applied to all Christians. Probably because it’s preceded by “foolish Galatians.” However, the context of Galatians makes it clear that the “foolish Galatians” are also the “you” of chapter 5 verse 16-17.
If Paul’s original recipients are no longer living, though, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any “foolish Galatians” in the world today. Anybody who fits the shoe he describes in this epistle should wear it. Is there a Christian who, after coming to Christ initially by faith alone, is now trying to live by the efforts of the flesh? Is there a Christian who is going back to the Old Testament Law after the Law has been completely fulfilled in Christ? Then he is a foolish Galatian, and he had better take heed to the prophecy of inevitable warring of the flesh and the spirit that will inevitably result in failure.
Do all Christians live continuously in this realm of constant defeat? No. Some, like Paul, have by the power of the Resurrection found their way out of Romans 7 into Romans 8. Some, as he states in Galatians 5:18, are not under the Law, because they are led by the Spirit. Some have seen Jesus Christ as the Complete Fulfilment of their Complete Righteousness, and have found freedom and joy in this complete salvation. For them, the works of the flesh will not be made evident, as Galatians 5:19 says they were for those people.
Instead, life will be more like II Corinthians 2:14: “Thanks to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and by us makes evident everywhere the aroma of His knowledge.”
So who’s the “us” in that verse? Is it all Christians? What do you think?
With each passage of Scripture, we know that it was written to the people it was addressed to. But it takes Holy Spirit discernment and a willingness to see ourselves as He sees us to be able to discern aright.
I’ve written another blog post on the same topic with a different passage of Scripture, Romans 2. That blog post is here.