How exactly does a book that was written thousands of years ago have relevance for readers today? It can be easy to look at the Bible as nothing more than a collection of hard to understand, unrelated stories. For Christians, however, the driving passion of our lives should be to understand God’s Word. Our aspirations are not to be known as some distinguished theologian but rather to simply want to know what God’s Word means and make that truth known to others.
Even with this driving passion we still come across verses that trip us up. For example, what does Christ mean when he says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). If you are the kind of person who likes to just flip open their Bible at random each day for your devotions and find some golden nugget or “verse of the day” this passage can be particularly troubling. Does Jesus really want me to hate my parents? A cursory reading seems to indicate just that. But maybe that’s not what Jesus is saying. Maybe there is a better way to read your Bible.
Reading your Bible is good. No one is arguing against that. Your pastor encourages you to read it. Your Christian friends keep you accountable to do it. Jesus wants you to do it. But the Bible is 4,500 years old. The newest portions of the Bible are at least 1,900 years old. The world has changed since that time. It’s fair to say that we live in a different world than the one in Bible times. It is my conviction, however, that the Bible is not difficult for the believing heart to understand. The purpose of reading the Bible is not to find self-fulfillment, although occasionally that’s an easy snare to get snagged in. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves as we read Scripture to make sure we are reading for the right reasons. Asking these questions as we read will help us see more than just the people and places of the Bible. These questions will help me understand and the more I understand, the more unshakable is my conviction that the Bible is the living, authoritative, inerrant Word of God.
What Does the Text Say?
This may seem rather obvious but unfortunately in Bible reading we often neglect this important question. We must carefully observe what the text actually says. Many mistakes in interpretation could have ended at the beginning if the person reading the text would have started with this question.
As you pay attention to the text that you are reading keep these important questions in mind:
Failure to ask this first important question has resulted in many different faulty interpretations of Scripture.
Exodus 14:14 is one such example of misinterpreting a verse due to a lack of a simple reading of the entire passage. This verse comes out of the Exodus narrative in which the Israelites, are fleeing their Egyptian oppressors. The Israelites become caught between the imminent doom of Pharaoh’s oncoming soldiers and the Red Sea. In their fear the Israelites began to cry out to Moses that they would have been better off had they never left Egypt. Moses responds to their cries of fear by saying, “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (KJV). The NIV translation of this verse (“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still”) has been plastered on bumper stickers and pasted on T-shirts. Many Christians use this verse to say that in the midst of trials they need only to stand still and wait for God to see them through the suffering and pain.
Oddly enough, when you read the next verse you see that indeed the verse is not teaching you to just stand still. Verse 15 reads, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.” Move on?! In 14:14 Moses tells the Israelites they just need to be still, and in 14:15 God says to Moses, “move on!” And people have gone and quoted what Moses said here. Why is that? Moses says be still. God says get moving. When we read these two verses the message becomes clear. This is a two-fold message. We should remain calm in the midst of trials and move forward in faith.
This is a famous verse to be posted on the walls of Christian coffee shops. We even confidently display it on our sports team’s shirts for our Christian school. The problem, of course, is that we are often misinterpreting the verse. This verse, while extremely powerful, is often grossly misrepresented in a variety of different ways.
A simple reading of the book lets us know that Paul has finally reached Rome but only after facing prison, a shipwreck, being bitten by a poisonous snake, and being held in house rest. When he comes to this verse, Paul is not saying that through Christ’s strength you can do anything and overcome any obstacle. Paul is saying that through Christ’s strength you can press forward and endure all hardships, even the hardship of death. The previous verse is the verse that should shed light on this interpretation. “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Phil. 4:12).
It’s important to keep in mind that just because the Bible says something does not mean that it condones it. Much of the book of Job is made up of dialogue between Job and his four friends (Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu). Job’s friends give Job all kinds of counsel. In fact, this counsel in the book of Job goes on for several chapters. There are those who see these verses and carelessly start quoting them to support their own ideas. If we are using our first question we will be sure to keep in mind that God told Job’s four friends that what they had spoken about Job was not right (Job 42:7).
What is the Context?
Perhaps no standard of interpretation is more comprehensively agreed upon than the idea that studying the context of the word, phrase, or passage is unequivocally essential.
Context is defined as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.”
Understanding context begins with four principles:
Warning Against Taking Verses Out of Context
Taking verses out of context leads to all kinds of error and misunderstanding. You may have heard someone say that a particular verse was pulled “out of context.” Critics of the Bible often pull verses out of context when they attack the Bible’s veracity. The reason they do this is because you make the Bible say almost anything if you choose to pull a verse out of context. For example, did you know the Bible says “There is no God.” Without the context that verse seems to indicate that the Bible contradicts itself. When we look at the context, however, we see what is really being taught. The whole verse reads, “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God” (Psalm 53:1). So while it is true that the Bible says “There is no God” the context of the verse indicates that this is describing the thoughts of a foolish person. The context clarifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, etc.
Warning Against Taking Commands Out of Context
Context is also important as we see how the passage fits into the flow of Scripture. For example, did you know that God commands his people to sacrifice a lamb at Passover? Does this mean that we should still be making sacrifices to God? Context informs our answer. Jesus died on the cross as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). This act of Christ was the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. Since the Bible is revealed to us progressively, there are instances in Scripture where later revelation supplants earlier revelation.
Remember the Principle of Progressive Revelation: Later Revelation Supersedes Previous Revelation
God does not reveal himself all at once, nor does he always lay down the same conditions for every period of time. Critics mistake this as being a contradiction. The mistake is not in the Bible, however, but in the critics interpretation. For example, a parent might allow their child to eat with their fingers only to tell them later to eat with silverware. Is that a contradiction? No. This is progressive revelation being played out in the home. Each command from the parent is age appropriate.
Here are a few more examples of how we can see this played out in our Bible reading.
How Does this Passage Line up with the Rest of the Bible?
This is a key principle in Hermeneutics. When reading the Bible it is important to compare Scripture with Scripture. This question is based solely on the Bible’s own teachings about itself.
The Bible could best be described as a “Great Meta-Narrative.” The Bible claims to be God’s story for the whole world. In the Bible we find the one great story (or metanarrative) that helps us answer all of life’s toughest questions. The great truth about the Bible is that it is the great metanarrative that we can hang all of life on. The Bible may appear to be just a collection of random stories. On a higher level a unity appears. God is conveying a unified message through the individual stories, events, and teachings being recorded.
Warning Against Postmodern Thinking
Postmodern thinkers do not believe in metanarratives. Quite simply they do not believe that there is such a thing as a great story which gives meaning to life. Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), the postmodern philosopher, said: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”
This reticence towards metanarratives is why postmodern thinkers are awestruck when they can be convinced that the Bible does indeed have a unified message. The magazine Christianity Today once issued a compelling article in their 2002 September/October issue. The article was entitled “I Was a Witch” and was the story of Kimberly Shumate and her long conversion to Christ. In the article she wrote of the power that understanding the Bible’s metanarrative had on her own life.
“As Lisa drove me home, my mind ached as I replayed Scott’s words. All the Old Testament and New Testament verses had one oddly familiar voice – one tone, one heart. I wondered, How could a book written by so many different people over the course of hundreds of years fit together perfectly as if one amazing storyteller has written the whole thing? The Holy Spirit began melting my vanity and arrogance with a power stronger than any hex, incantation, or spell I’d ever used. Suddenly, the blindfold Id worn for almost 30 years was striped away, and instant’ly I knew that I’d been searching for: Jesus!”
The postmodern thinker views the Bible as a sort of multi-voiced tapestry. They believe the diversity of the voices leads to a myriad of different interpretations. They see no central interpretive principle at all in the Bible.
The Incarnation = The Central Interpretive Principle in the Bible
If the Bible is indeed the record of the self-revelation of God to the world, we would then expect there to be a plot and a sort of direction to the story. This is what we see in the teachings of true Christendom for centuries. The self-revelation of God to the world reached a culmination in the incarnation. It was at the incarnation that the “Word became flesh.” The incarnation is thus the central interpretive principle of the Bible.
Jesus himself believed in this great metanarrative. In Mark 1:15 he indicates that God had a plan throughout all of history when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” The Kingdom of God has finally arrived with Jesus being the fulfillment of this plan.
How Comparing Scripture with Scripture Helps in your Bible Study
What is the Genre of this Passage?
When we are interpreting the Bible, we must never forget to understand the genre of the passage that we are studying. A genre is the literary style being used by the author. The Bible contains numerous different genres. Each genre being used needs to be interpreted according to the principles that coincide with its particular style.
How does genre affect interpretation? A whole lot actually. For example, suppose we sat down with a group of men to discuss football. All of the words they would use would be English but their meaning as associated with the game of football would be very different than those same words would mean if we were talking about baseball or soccer. If someone was listening to that conversation that didn’t know football, they would be completely lost. The reason for this is that in order for us to understand something we need to know how the words, phrases, and illustrations are being used. We use different genres all the time in English. We have stories, comedies, tragedies, novels, and epics just to name a few. Each genre carries a different set of interpreational rules.
So it is with the Word of God. Each book is a different genre and as such it carries a different set of rules for interpretation. Just as I wouldn’t interpret Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the same way I would his play A Comedy of Errors. I would never interpret Proverbs the same way I would the Gospel of John.
Here are the rules you should keep in mind when interpreting these different genres.
1. History – Descriptive
2. Poetry – Demonstrating
3. Prophecy – Declaratory
4. Epistles – Didactic
These questions should help form a foundation for you as you read your Bible. In the midst of your own personal study it is also important to remember that the goal of studying Scripture is not just to amass knowledge. You don’t study God’s Word to win some Bible trivia contest. The reason it is important to study and accurately interpret the Bible is so that we can know God better.
In short, we need to read the Bible with its majestic mission in mind: The Glory of God. It is only by living for His glory that we discover what is best for us. Obviously, the better we know God the better we will know His will for us.
Posted by Caleb
This post was part of a series developed by Caleb for the youth ministry at Colonial Hills Baptist Church. You can listen to the lectures from that series here.