The following is a condensed crash course in the basics of biblical interpretation for personal study and teaching others in small groups. Each topic discussed is oversimplified, but the purpose is to provide a fly-over of each to facilitate further conversation that considers each point in depth. Consider this a primer on the basics of Bible study.
I initially wrote this material while living in Africa as a missionary. Though I've refreshed the content since then, many of the illustrations relate to my time in Africa. I left those in the primer for color.
What happened to delighting in the Law of the Lord?
There is a saying that, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” While I feel this may not be completely true, I do feel familiarity often breeds apathy. Is it simply part of the human condition that we tend to overlook the things we see every day, that our eyes become blinded to what is right in front of us? Why is it those things most familiar to us, over time, lose their efficacy, despite how powerful they may be? The breathtaking vistas that we pass on the daily commute eventually command less and less awe as they blend into our expected environment.
Why have most western Christians today lost their love for God’s word?
As I write these words, I realize I may be offending the sensibilities of many who stumble upon them, but I challenge you to read this with introspection. For instance, when was the last time you picked up your Bible for the purpose of listening to the Holy Spirit? Notice I said your Bible and not some lifeless devotional reader that stays parked on your toilet so you can get in your 15-minute “quiet time” for the day.
While a missionary in West Africa, I was preparing a study of God’s word for students in my area. Some of them were already believers; however, others were not. In my preparation, I found it necessary to begin by addressing some basic presuppositions we as evangelicals believe about scripture. Much that we take for granted about the Bible is simply not part of the worldview there.This statement was made about a West African context; however, it is increasingly true in the North American context today. Therefore, I am starting at the very beginning. In doing such, I realize an unsettling fact—that I indeed take much of what I believe about the Bible for granted. Truly, I imagine most of us who have grown up with easy and continuous access to these writings of God may need to take the time and consider just how precious a gift we have received.
I honestly cannot remember the first Bible I received. I am almost certain it was before I could read it. Over the course of my life, I cannot tell you the total number of Bibles I have owned, a fact I have taken for granted. In Africa, most people cannot read. By most, I mean 90 something out of every 100. What is more, even if they could read, they had no access to God’s word in their own language. Until 2010, it did not exist.The New Testament was finally made available in the language of this West African people while I was serving there in 2010. Let that soak in for just a minute. These people never saw the familiar words of John 3:16 in their own language until 2010. They never had the opportunity to sit down and read about Noah and the ark or Jonah and the whale. They never saw it written that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
In my estimation, God’s words handed down to us in this 66-volume work we call the Bible is the greatest gift mankind has ever been given, save the Word given in flesh so that we may have life and have it abundantly. It is our measuring stick by which we gauge all of life. It has the answers to all of the most important questions. And most significantly, it introduces us to God himself. In the process, it explains more to us about who we are than any other work in the history of mankind. This book knows me better than I do.
That being said, it appears we who should know it and cherish it best seem to neglect it more and more. I once read a Gallup poll statistic that said only 37% of Americans interviewed could name all four Gospels. (I understand the shaky nature of polls and statistics as evidence for a point, but I was flabbergasted at this one!) In a country full of Bibles, it seems fewer and fewer people know what is written between those bonded leather covers. My guess is that this not only points to a devastating trend of national secularization, but an unfortunate reality among our own Christian ranks. Do Christians even read the Bible?
Just as I prepared for my discussion with those students, I will hopefully take any of you interested along with me. My prayer is that we will learn together about this gift of God’s words to man and that you will be able to consider the Bible’s significance in your own life.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalms 1)
Part 1 – Revelation
How do you know God? For that matter, how do you know anything about God? Maybe it was your parents that first introduced you to this idea that there was some Big Someone out there in charge of everything. Maybe it was a Sunday School teacher or Saturday morning cartoons for that matter. Can you think back to a time when you did not believe a god of some kind was out there? I cannot. And for those of you who currently do not believe there is a god, I imagine you did when you were a child and your opinion has changed somewhere along the way. Of course, believing in a God is not the same as understanding and accepting the gospel of Christ. Nevertheless, I have never met a little kid that does not believe in God to some capacity. Perhaps as self-announced athiests and agnostics begin raising children, we might start meeting some. Feel free to peruse this issue if you’d like.See this article by the American Pscyological Association and this article by Deborah Keleman, "Are Children 'Intuitive Theists'?"
Let me draw the lens out a little further. Historically, I have never heard mention of a “religionless” people group. I know of no ancient (or modern for that matter) tribe tucked off in the far reaches of the globe that were (are) intrinsically atheistic. It appears, at its core, the very idea of worshipping something is hard-wired into our skull. But from where did these wires come?
The fancy theological term is “revelation,” but we’re going to try and stay away from those. Instead, I will opt for a more fitting term… “tada!” You know, it is the word people use when they are showing you something special or revealing something that was hidden. Think back with me to the last time you watched The Price is Right. (If you are like me, it was before Bob Barker left.) That show is full of “tada!” moments. Until the door to that prize room is opened, the contestants and audience have no way of knowing what is back there. As simply as I know how to put it, God has tada-ed himself to us.
We did not find him. It was by no stroke of genius that mankind discovered him. He was not stumbled upon by some cosmic accident. No, God decided to show us the man behind the curtain, and unlike the Wizard of Oz, he is everything he claims to be. It is only by God’s doing that we can even know he is there.
He has made himself known to all peoples of all times. No one has ever lived without being confronted by the reality that there is One out there bigger than them, bigger than all of us. One only has to look at the sky to know there is something out there. God has clearly revealed himself through all creation. Mountains, valleys, rivers, oceans, and stars all cry out in testimony to his existence. Even as some work endlessly to try to disprove God’s activity in creation, they cannot answer the ultimate question of who cut on the lights. It had to start somewhere. What is the unmoved mover? Where is the uncaused cause?
Creation (and history for that matter) may clue us into the fact that God is out there, but who is he? What is he like? Why would he make all of this? Furthermore, if God made this place, why does it seem so messed up half the time? Answers to these questions cannot come from earth and sky. Instead, God has done something equally remarkable to fill in the gaps.
God spoke to us. He spoke so that we would hear. He spoke so that we would understand. Specifically, he spoke through a handful of men over the course of 1500-2000 years of creation’s history to progressively give us a clearer picture of himself. He gave us the view we could not get from the mountains or the sky in front of us. With these words from God, the picture becomes clear. It was a gift, given to man, so that we might know ourselves, our purpose, and most importantly, our God. The Bible is a piece of God’s special revelation to us. It is part of his particular “tada!” Save Jesus Christ himself (the fullest revelation of God to man), it is the greatest gift we have ever received.
Treat it as such.
Part 2 – The Bible
Communication is an interesting process. The transmission of information is a goal that is seldom achieved with the precision that was initially intended. For instance, I imagine most of you have participated in a “chain story” at some point. Being a communications major in college, I feel like I have done this exercise at least eleventy-two times, if not more.
The object is for one person to begin the telling of a story, either verbally or by writing it on a sheet of paper. Each person is responsible for one sentence and then is required to pass the story on to the next participant. Now, you can only imagine what happens as the plot advances. With each person’s twist on the story, the gradual result is a mad conglomeration of ideas. Rarely (if ever) does the storyline make sense by the end of the project, and I have never seen it finish with the original author’s intent staying intact. Usually, some goof in the middle throws in a random character like Batman or Michael Jackson and the plot winds up spiraling into anarchy. Needless to say, the idea of telling one coherent story through many authors seems like an exercise in futility.
Yet, I will assert that the greatest story ever penned on paper was written in precisely this manner.
The book we call the Bible is actually a multi-volume work. While most of us tend to think of our Bible as one single piece of literature (I bet many people reading this have it listed as such in their “Favorite Books” section on Facebook.), it is far from it. In reality, the Bible we carry with us today was handed down to us as 66 different books. Think of it as a book of books. Each of these books was written by a real person at some time over the course of history. Indeed, the Bible has between 30-40 human authors, each telling a different part of one grand story. Each book of the Bible carries the unique stamp of its author’s wording and personality, and these different works come to us in so many different ways. Some are works of history while others are works of poetry. The Bible exists in narrative form and poetic form. It is lists of kings and laws, but it is also sayings and parables. What is even more surprising is the length of time it took for the completion of these books. At least 1500 years passed from the time when Moses started writing Genesis until John put his last period in Revelation.
So many years and so many authors, and yet this grand work of literature has one grand story. From the very first page to the very last paragraph, a great narrative unfolds. It is the story of the universe. It explains where everything came from, and then it tells its reader where everything is going. It knows the past and it tells the future. It is the most acute description of mankind ever drafted. It knows our very nature, what makes us tick. It is without equal in its ability to explain all of history. It shows us not merely what has happened, but more importantly why and how it happened.
Think back with me to my earlier analogy. How is it humanly possible that mankind could construct such a monumental work of literature through so many people over so great a length of time? I assert to you that I do not think it is possible. Most of these authors never met each other, and several had not read the work of another. Some were writing from different places at the same time, and yet, despite its apparent impossibility, this grand story comes together with remarkable clarity. No, it is not humanly possible that such a feat would be accomplished. There is a force at work behind all of history and the unfolding of this grand narrative. This force is not a what but a who. This book we call the Bible is no ordinary book. Many hands may have penned this masterpiece, but it was inspired by the mind of one. God himself. Through his Holy Spirit, God superintended (there is one of those theological words I wanted to avoid) the writing of these 66 books. Each word was given to us with the personality and thoughts of its human authors but uniquely indwelt with the Spirit of God himself. These words were breathed out by God almighty.
They are perfect, they are without error, and they are completely sufficient. They are God’s gift to man. Furthermore, as one reads this gift with the understanding of what they have in their hands, the story comes to life. Truly, God’s Word tells us it is alive. There is a power found in these words; a power no other book possesses. It is the only book I know that can pierce one man’s heart to the core with conviction while healing the broken heart of another. These truly are the words of life, and they were given to man for exactly this purpose; that we may have life.
Part 3 – Using the Bible
There are a lot of things in life that we want to make sure we do not misuse. For instance, those little signs that have replaced the words “Men” and “Women” on most public bathrooms are important. Another example is the inappropriate way the referee used his whistle in the USA-Slovenia game last week. Or perhaps the way “Ke$ha” completely misuses that dollar sign in the middle of her name. It is important to get those things right.
It is important to get Scripture right too. If indeed the Bible is the second greatest form of revelation given to mankind, if indeed these 66 books are the best and most complete understanding we will receive of God almighty this side of heaven; then it is of the utmost importance that we use this tool in the proper manner. However, I have a hunch that many (if not most) people sitting in the pews of our churches today have at best a misunderstanding of Scripture, its purpose and its use. The last couple of sections discussed Scripture’s purpose. Now, I am going to look at its use.
Let us get introspective for a moment. How do you use the Bible? We have probably all been tempted to use a method of Bible study that is not exactly what God intended for his holy words. Perhaps you have followed the “Pray and Point” method where you expect God to direct your finger to his specific word for your life in that moment. Or maybe you preferred to use it like a telephone book, where you look at that index in the back of your Bible based on your mood. “For sadness, look at these verses… for forgiveness, go here.” Then there is the prescription approach where a couple of verses are ingested daily for the sole purpose of saying you have read your Bible that day. I have actually heard the phrase, “A verse a day keeps the devil away!” from the pulpit.
However, I feel the approach most Christians may be guilty of in the States is osmosis. It seems that people feel if they carry their Bible around in their book bag at school (you know those kids… I was one of them) or their hand at church, it will soak in somehow. They probably never open the thing, but they have it prominently displayed so others can see. Or maybe it sits on the coffee table or desk in the office next to the other decorations, raked to just the right angle so it appears it has been read instead of sitting there for weeks. People lay Bibles around like they are emitting some magic, spiritual wi-fi that will bless their house, family or life. Yet, an unread Bible blesses no one.
Growing up, I was guilty of most of these at some point. It seemed whenever I would do the finger point though, I would wind up in some obscure passage and discover that I should not boil a goat in its mother’s milk. I became a veteran at the osmosis technique. I usually had a Bible with me, whether I was at school, church, or in my car; however, it was rarely opened. Truth be told, I was kind of intimidated by the thing. I heard at least once a week in youth group or a sermon that I should read the thing everyday and study it often, but every time I picked it up, I had no clue where to start. I would go to conferences and see these dynamic guys up on stage talking about how this book had the power to change lives if you would just live in it (whatever that meant), but I felt there was some kind of secret to understanding it. What did these people know that I did not?
The answer to that question was nothing. Nothing. There was no extra tool I needed, no special training or degree necessary to unlock the “secrets” of God’s Word. All I needed was a little common sense and an ear to listen.
I will be honest with you, it was not until I had already graduated from college the first time that I came to that realization. When I did though, it changed my life. That power all those conference speakers were yelling about, come to find out, really is between those leather covers. The best news is it is available to all who call upon the name of the Lord.
Think with me for a minute. Why would God inspire all of these authors over all of these years to write and compile this masterpiece of revelation, his way of disclosing himself to mankind, and then require some secret trick to unlock its knowledge? That makes about a much sense as North Korea paying Chinese actors to play the role of fans in the World Cup (check it out) or canned unicorn meat. Why would God give mankind a gift they could not unwrap? That would be a sick joke.
Instead, he has made it available to everyone. It is plain, if you use your common sense. It is powerful, if you listen to its words. It will change your life, if you just let it.
Part 4 – Overcomplicated?
Why do we overcomplicate things? Is it part of human nature, possibly a result of the fall? Take for instance that master of ingenuity, Wile E. Coyote. There are few things in life that bring me as much happiness as laughing at his misery. In his eternal effort to snare the Roadrunner, or more precisely to satisfy his hunger, he stops at no lengths. I know I personally have watched him strap himself to a rocket, shoot out of a catapult, construct the most absurd Rube Goldbergs and single-handedly keep the ACME company in business with endless purchases of iron birdseed, fake holes, and industrial-size magnets. Indeed, would it not be far more cost effective for him to save the money he spends at ACME and go buy a burger?
Yet, there is some mystical force behind the gimmick. We have all been guilty of using gimmicks. Each of us have a secret love affair with that particular “as seen on TV” item. At current, mine is the Snuggie®. What a great gimmick. You can have your blanket on and still use the remote! (If you order now, you will receive a free book light.)
For many years my approach to Bible study was no different, grossly overcomplicated and littered with one gimmick after the other. How many years I wasted assuming there was some trick to understanding the Bible that I did not know. How many of us have sat back and assumed that really understanding the Bible’s teaching was the responsibility of our pastor who would just explain it to us on Sunday? People have written books, produced videos, and created an endless rack of “tools” (read gimmicks) for the purpose of making money off of this incorrect assumption that you need some key to interpreting God’s word.
Please understand, I am not criticizing useful academic works such as commentaries, lexicons and other tools that aid in the study of God’s Word. However, I certainly do not think even these appropriate tools are essential to an accurate understanding of the Bible. Truly, a man stranded on an island with nothing but his Bible can receive deep, spirit-filled truth from it. The Bible is enough. It is sufficient.
Indeed, there are keys to interpreting the Bible correctly. There are essential tools we must use in understanding God’s truth, but they are not available in stores. You cannot purchase them on any late-night infomercial. Here is the best news; they are free and readily available to any Christian that desires to understand the Bible. As a matter of fact, if you are a Christian you already possess them.
When I became a Christian, God’s Holy Spirit began to indwell my life. Do not ask me to explain exactly how that works. I do know my relationship with God has been restored. He speaks to me and I speak to him. The Spirit of God lives inside of me, the very spirit that inspired each of the authors of the Bible. Let me rephrase that. The author behind the authors indwells me and speaks to me.
Imagine sitting down with Tolkien himself and having a conversation about The Lord of the Rings. What better interpretive key exists than a relationship with the book’s author? Through prayerful study of scripture, the Holy Spirt speaks to the reader. If you want to understand scripture as you read it, try genuinely asking its author for some help. God wants us to understand the Bible, or he would not have given it to us. Ask the Spirit to speak to you as you read.
There is another important interpretive key that must be considered. It may not seem near as exciting, but is honestly as important to our understanding of the text. At birth, God blessed each of us with a brain. While some work better than others, we all still have one. This brain is indeed capable of miraculous things, if only it is engaged. Unfortunately, most of the time I think people try to approach the Bible with said brain in neutral.
Much of reading the Bible with understanding is truly common sense. Yes, it is the words of God himself. It is powerful beyond comprehension, and second to none in its importance. Nevertheless, God chose to give us this word in literary form. He used the styles of our own works of poetry and story, of history and law, and spoke to us in a verbal and now written form we already understand. He was trying to communicate in a way we would be able to comprehend.
For some reason, we tend to overlook this reality and expect something different. We look for other keys to reading it, as though it is not a book. Understanding scripture requires many of the same techniques used for understanding any written work. That being said, a consideration of things such as context, genre, and style round out our understanding of what the Bible is trying to say. It helps to know some background on the section you are reading. Just like understanding The War of the Worlds is in fact science fiction will keep one from locking themselves in their basement with a box full of non-perishable food items.
In the next couple of posts, I plan on outlining a few simple considerations when reading the Bible. If only we will keep our brain engaged while we read and remember some common sense characteristics of literature, God can, and will, speak loudly through his word.
However, if you think this is too simple, if instead you prefer to overcomplicate things, then maybe you should look into one of these.
Part 5 – Technique
I have a confession. Pulling water is not one of my spiritual gifts. For those of you too pampered to have ever experienced this, “pulling water” is the euphemism applied to dragging buckets of water up a rope and out of a 50ft-deep well.
Pulling water, that sounds easy. At least I thought so when I first heard this would be part of my daily routine in the village. That was one of many stupid assumptions I would make adjusting to life in the bush.
Before I ever tried this activity for myself, I watched as the women and little kids would go casually over to the well, throw the bucket down into the chasm and effortlessly lift the water out of the hole and pour it into their own containers. It appeared to be a cinch, and the concept was simple. Drop in bucket, pull out water. Anybody could do that.
However, my first trip to the well to pull water turned out to be quite a different reality. I carried my little containers out to the well and set them down, grabbed the rope and bucket and chunked it off into the well. As I pulled the bucket out of the dark hole, I thought to myself that this was not as hard as it had been made out to be. The bucket rose effortlessly out of the well, and I soon realized why. It was empty.
Realizing how poorly I had performed, I quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching so I could play it off if need be. Perceiving no laughter or mockery, I pretended it never happened and tried again. Off the bucket went into the water. This time, I used a slightly different strategy… I jiggled the rope a little, feeling this would increase my odds of water entering the bucket. I began to lift, and yet again it was far too light. Apparently, the bucket was floating on top of the water.
I sat there perplexed, looking like a monkey trying to solve a math problem. Finally, one of the little girls was sent over by the people who had indeed been watching me the entire time. She took the rope from my hand and began to teach me the technique of pulling water. After I watched someone else do it from up close, I realized much of it was truly common sense. For instance, if you turn the bucket upside down before you drop it, it sinks.
I am by no means an all-star in the water pulling department, but I am getting better with continued practice.
Bible study has technique too, and just like pulling water, when you see someone do it up close, you begin to realize that much of it is common sense.
If there is one presupposition that the student of God’s Word must keep in mind, it is this: God’s Word was written a long time ago to people very different than us; nonetheless, it applies to us today as much as it did to the original audience.
So how do we make sense of texts that were written to a completely foreign culture? This is the basic question of biblical interpretation. Everyone who reads scripture interprets scripture, whether they realize it or not. Everyone is an interpreter. The real consideration is whether or not you are interpreting it correctly.
Most people will read a passage and assign it some meaning they have determined. From that point, most will apply this meaning in some way to their life, maybe without ever realizing that is what they are doing. How do we now we are being honest with the text though?
The first step is to realize you are reading a document that was not originally written to you, but certainly applies to you. Think of a journey into scripture as a trip through time. To see what it means now, you must do your best to understand what it meant then. It is often said that, “It can not mean now what it did not mean then.” Scripture’s truths are timeless. They apply to all generations and cultures for all of time. A passage may not apply exactly today as it did to its original intended audience, but the truth will certainly be the same. Therefore, it is imperative to go back to its original setting as best as possible and find the truth. It is this truth you will bring back with you to your own time to apply today.
Practically, this means the student of the Bible must take into consideration the historical context of whatever passage they are reading. Remember back to when we spoke about the Bible’s authorship. The Bible was not written in one sitting and the events in scripture took place over thousands of years. We cannot simply assume it all happened at the same time in the same way.
What time in history did this story take place? Where is the setting? Who are the main players and what is their significance in history? What are the things about their culture that are necessary to understand the point of this passage? These are questions to ask about every passage you read. By answering these, you begin to place yourself in the shoes of the original audience.
It is possible to find out added historical information like this from outside sources such as a good Bible dictionary or background commentaries, but it is not essential to search through these to understand scripture. Much of this information is available right in the text itself. Read the Bible with these questions in mind. Try reading around your passage to get a fuller understanding of it. Read the whole book of the Bible where it is located, after all, the author originally wrote it as one piece of literature. Should we not take it that way?
Historical context and background is not the only consideration when reading the Bible for interpretation, but it is a good place to start.
The problem with understanding the Bible is not insufficient knowledge, or its own incompleteness. In all honesty, it is simply the fact that people do not take enough time to answer these kinds of questions about the passage they are reading. We want immediate understanding without the work of pulling out the truth. We want the “TV dinner” version of scripture, and so often, we turn to little devotionals and quick fix books (read gimmicks) to get the meaning without looking for ourselves. And like a TV dinner, we wind up with something that is far less fulfilling than the original.
Just like pulling water out of a well takes work, so does appropriate study of God’s Word. At first, you may not get much in your bucket, but with practice, you pull out more and more. When the bucket is full, it is really heavy. Often times, it is hard to bear. When you get it to the surface though, you realize it is worth the work.
Part 6 – Context and Genre
If ever there was a strategy that would reach the world for Christ, it must be the church sign. Crowning the curb of church properties across America, these little, often backlit, beacons of truth shine out to a lost world. If am not mistaken (and I may be), the origin of the church sign can be traced back to the Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius himself has been quoted as saying, “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.” Indeed some of the earliest extra-canonical sources we have include such pithy statements as: “Dusty Bibles lead to dirty lives,” “Forbidden fruit creates many jams,” and “Searching for a new look? Get a faith lift!” If statements such as these are not going to do the trick, than what better solution do we have?
In all honestly, there are probably few things for which we Christians are more mocked. Statements like these are shallow. How do you sum up God’s grace in a sentence? I can tell you one thing, it is not by saying, “Free trip to Heaven… details inside!” In a world with hundreds of competing worldviews, we claim ours is the only true solution. We say that it answers all of life’s most important questions and explains all of existence. Then we hang the truth of God on statements that barely support themselves. These church sign slogans are weak nails indeed.
However, we do live in an age of soundbites and captions. Even pastors are looking for that “twitterable” little line they can slide in just before a pregnant pause, for effect of course. How many times have you sat in a service, palm to forehead, as a pastor said something like, “Fight truth decay… read your bible!”
The catchphrase is king in communications now. What an unfortunate reality.
You do not have to look into a pulpit to find this mistake. We all make it, and today’s info-on-the-go approach to life has just made it worse. We chop God’s truth up into quotes and soundbites. We try to make it catchy and wind up ditching the deep meaning in the process. Or worse, we completely misapply it. However, proper Bible study does exactly the opposite.
Instead of chopping scripture up verse by verse, good Bible study takes God’s Word as it was written, in context. Each book of the Bible is just that, a book. They were written as complete units of literary work. With the exception of the Psalms and Proverbs, which are truly collections more like an anthology, the books of the Bible were written to be a complete thought. They are literary works, just like the last novel or letter you read. They have a plot and a setting. They have transitions in thought and a context that fills in the meaning as you read.
Last time, I wrote about the need to ground a passage in its historical context, but that is not the only context to consider. A passage also has a literary context. Words and even sentences have little to no meaning when they are ripped out of their context. How many times have we heard someone blantantly misquoted in a news story? How often have we seen a one-sentence soundbite played out of some politician’s speech on television, only to hear him say it was taken out of context?
You can completely change the meaning of a statement if you take it out of literary context. For instance, go back and read the first sentence of this blog post. Is that statement by itself indicative of my feelings? Absolutely not, and when taken in its context, it is obviously satire. But If I were quoted with just that one line, it would completely miss my point. Are we guilty of that exact mistake with scripture? How often do we misquote God?
In order to truly understand the meaning of any portion of scripture, it is absolutely essential to understand its greater literary context. Find out what the author is saying in the entire section or book, not just what it seems like one verse means. As a matter of fact, stop reading verse by verse altogether. The verse and chapter markers in your Bible are not divinely inspired. They were put there by men many years after scripture was written to make it easier to find a passage’s location. Verse markers are good when you need to find your place, but awful when you use them as units of meaning. Think of them as a bookmark, not a complete thought.
Another consideration is the genre of the specific book you are reading. Scripture comes in many literary flavors. Some books are letters, others are narrative, and still others are poetic language. It is important to notice what style of writing you are reading.
If it is one of Paul’s letters, think of it as just that, a letter. It was written by him to real people that, in most instances, he knew. Just like the last time you sent someone an email, Paul had a reason for writing that letter. Try to figure out what the reason is, and it will go a long way to helping you understand the letter.
If it is a narrative like Acts, read it like a story. After all, that is how it was written. Look for plot development, and setting changes. Look at character development. Try to notice themes from passage to passage.
In all genres, attempt to find an outline of thought. Letters typically make an argument or form a case for a particular point of view. Narratives structure around movements of thought or action. The outline of poetic writing often follows symbols and imagery. Follow the authors outline, and you can find the intended meaning.
Part 7 – Application
The Romans had chariots, the cowboys in the Wild West had their horses, the modern American has the mid-sized sedan (or oversized SUV for some) and West Africans have the “bush taxi.” Labeled the bush taxi more for where it goes than its appearance (they look nothing like a bush), this fine mode of transportation is the staple in this area. For inter-village travel, there are few options other than walking, and this venerable vehicle has found its niche here in the jungles of West Africa.
The bush taxi starts its life some 20 years prior to its service in Africa as a compact, European sedan. It was cheap when it was produced in 1986, so imagine it now. After a long life serving its European owner(s), and sometime just after is falls completely apart, the loosely assembled pile of car parts makes its way across the ocean in a shipping container bound for the dark continent. Here, it will serve out the remainder of its life toiling down the dirt trails these folk call roads. When I say dirt trail, I want to be sure you understand that I am referring to something that would make the moon rover cry. I simply do not know how they do it, but they do.
My most recent experience with one of these contraptions I will now relate to you. I was in the capital city, a world that would only sound like fiction if I described it. I found myself needing transport from one side of the city to the other with no car available. My option… a taxi. I headed to the nearest intersection to bargain with a driver for the fare. (I think I paid roughly 20 cents.) Upon reaching consensus on the price, he escorted me to his vehicle. It was a fine shade of rust and missing one of the windows. Covering the back windshield was a large decal of Madonna, when she was young. He then untied the rope holding the passenger door shut, as there was no handle of any kind, just a hole through the door where it used to be. I got in and he tied the door shut behind me. Upon further inspection, I realized all of the interior panels of the car were missing. It was basically ragged seats, a frame, and the sheet-metal exterior of the car. Square in the middle of the dashboard, staring back at me, was a sticker of Osama Bin-Laden with RPG launchers in the background. When the driver got in the car, he reached under the steering column and grabbed two exposed wires in order to crank it. He quickly twisted them together so the vehicle would stay running and off we went, periodically untwisting the wires when we went downhill to save on gas. By the time I arrived at my destination, another five people had climbed into the car (a total of seven in a four passenger car, not including the chickens). However, I got to my destination.
I have yet to hear a local say, after getting out of one of these death traps, “Oh, I was just going for a joy ride.” No, the gas-powered mules are solely utilitarian. As crowded as these taxis get, the ride is certainly uncomfortable and usually tiring in this equator sun with no air-conditioning. Yet, they get you to your destination.
In this primer, we covered many different aspects of Bible study. We discussed what the Bible is and its origins. We talked about its purpose in the life of Christians. Furthermore, we established necessary technique for approaching the Bible in study. Yet, none of these are the destination. Stopping at simply knowing the purpose of scripture, or even finding a passage’s meaning in its original context, is like going for a joy ride in a bush taxi. Unless you, as the student of God’s Word apply what you have learned, the trip was in vain.
If you have placed a story in its historical context, and you have placed it in its literary context, then you can find the authors meaning for the time when it was written. This meaning is important and it is precious, but it is not enough. For the Bible to have its life-changing effect on you, you must bring that meaning back to today and apply it here and now.
Simply knowing Paul’s advise to the early church about meat sacrificed to idols does us little good unless we take the truth behind it and apply it to our lives today. Honestly, most of the people reading this will never be confronted with eating meat sacrificed to idols, but the truth behind it deals with our witness as Christians. That is an issue you will face every day of your life.
Find the timeless truths that rest in scripture, and then find the parallel situations that exist today. I have said it before, but a passage only has one meaning. There may be many applications that stem from that meaning. For instance, when Paul addresses those specific situations in his letters, in many instances, he provides the application to his original audience right there. Sometimes, that will be our application as well. An example is a statement like, “Flee from sexual immorality.” However, other times, there is a gap in culture (like the meat issue discussed earlier).
When you find that truth and see the parallel situations, the real test is what you do with it. God’s Word is just that, the words of the one, true and living almighty God. We must, in all we do, seek to live under the authority of scripture. Without getting too philosophical about what that means, it does mean to obey it. That is the real reason for studying scripture in the first place.
Find out what it means, find out how it applies to you, and then, do what it says. That is the destination.