Christians deal with the Bible. That is, most Christians read the Bible for devotional purposes, study it to lead small groups, Sunday schools, or whole congregations, or hear it as part of an assembly of believers. But, whatever a Christian’s level of “exposure” to the Bible, understanding it is critical to the Christian life (I don’t think I can overstate the importance of understanding).
As a Bible teacher, it is my responsibility to not only know and understand the Bible myself, but to help others understand the Bible too. This is not merely an imparting of knowledge or facts. Teaching for understanding involves telling, showing, and applying. Ezra and the Levites seemed to follow this pattern:
“So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”Nehemiah 8:8
However, standing in the way of a clear understanding of the Bible is the fact that our culture is influenced by a constructivist view of life. By that I mean that we read texts (like the Bible), news headlines, situations in life, and even our own choices, morality, and spirituality through the prism of our own interpretation. How we see something is what it means. Or, stated another way, “Here is what this means to me.” And, if it means that to me, that is what it means. We are “constructing” our own realities with this way of thinking.
How this perspective influences the entirety of our lives is too broad of a topic for this simple blog post. I will only address one critical aspect of our (Christian) lives here: how we should understand the Bible. Here are three presuppositions every Christian should have when trying to understand the Bible as God intended.
(1) We cannot know what God is saying to us until we know what He was saying to them.
As I said before, we often read the Bible looking for impressions of meaning, the “what it means to me” approach. However, though the Bible was given for us (Romans 15:4; I Corinthians 10:6, 11), it was not written to us; that is, not to us in our twenty-first century, post-modern, technological setting. It is ancient and, culturally, eastern; we are modern and, culturally, western.
Therefore, we should be asking questions of the text every time we read it. For example: Who is speaking/writing? To whom is it spoken/written? Why is it spoken/written? What historical situation brought this about? What kind of writing is this (letter, poetry, history, parable, prophecy, etc.)? This will provide us with context (the story that goes with the text). A good Study Bible can help answer a lot of these questions for you (remembering, of course, that the study notes are not inspired).
Let me give you one example of this concept. Psalms 120 – 134 are all titled “A Psalm of Degrees.” The word “degrees” does not refer to temperature: it means ascent, or going up. Although there are different opinions about the specifics, nearly all commentators believe this has some reference to the Temple: the Israelites going up to the Temple. Now, with that understanding in mind, read these psalms as poems about beginning a journey, journeying, arriving, worshiping. Oh the depth of meaning they contain for our Christian lives! Yet we are content to read a single verse, “Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue” (Ps. 120:2), and interpret it to mean, “Lord, don’t let my feelings be hurt by people who just don’t understand me.” We miss the intent of the poem: as we journey through this life, we will be surrounded by the enemies of God; but He sustains us and calls us onward toward Him even in the midst of them.
(2) We don’t need to make the Bible say something; we just need to let it speak for itself.
Sometimes I get the impression that preachers (especially) go to the Bible and ask, “Okay: how can I preach this?” To my preacher friends I would simply say this: You cannot improve on what God has actually said; so, find out what He meant and preach that.
I also get the impression that good people read the Bible and try to add meaning that God did not intend. The classic joke that people “dig in” to what the little toe of the statue in Daniel’s dream represents stretches the truth (only slightly). If we are following the first presupposition (see above), this kind of scriptural speculation could be avoided.
One piece of advice I can give is this: read all the verses. Not all the verses in the Bible (though eventually, you should); read all the verses in your section, paragraph, or chapter. One of my biggest peeves is how people (ab)use First Corinthians 2:9.
“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”First Corinthians 2:9
This verse is often quoted at funerals to comfort the grieving with God’s promise of Heaven and God’s purpose in everything, even when we don’t understand it. “Beloved, God has things prepared for us that we have never seen, heard, or imagined…” But I want to pull out my hair and scream: “READ THE NEXT VERSE!!!”
“But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.”First Corinthians 2:10
I recognize that wouldn’t be appropriate at a funeral, but hopefully you get my point. More importantly than getting my point is that we get Paul’s point: whatever God had prepared (quoted from the Old Testament, by the way), He has revealed (in the New Testament, by the way). Reading all the verses will help us see what God is actually saying. We don’t have to make the Bible say things; let it speak for itself.
(3) We are looking for a natural/practical understanding of the text, not a fantastical interpretation.
Simply put: the Bible should make good practical sense. Depending on where you are reading, that may be harder to discover (see any of the prophetic books). However, if you are trying to interpret a verse by gathering together distant verses from all over the Bible, you may be concocting a fantastical interpretation rather than looking for the natural one. A classic example of this is Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23.
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”Genesis 1:2a
“I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light.”Jeremiah 4:23
Genesis 1:2 is a description of the initial creation; that is creation without landmass, lifeforms, or even light. This clearly, naturally follows Genesis 1:1. You can see that the phrase “without form, and void” is found also in Jeremiah 4:23. The context of Jeremiah 4 is judgment on Judah for their sins. It was this distant connection along with the discoveries of fossils below the earth’s surface that led nineteenth century Bible scholars to propose a “gap” between an original creation and this creation in which we live now.
Since the phrase “without form, and void” was used in Jeremiah 4:23 to describe judgment, it must mean the same thing in Genesis 1:2, they surmised. So God created; His creation fell into sin; He judged them (that’s where all the fossils are from); and Genesis 1:2 describes the re-creation in which we now live.
This is part of what I mean by concocting a fantastical interpretation rather than looking for a practical one. The natural understanding sees Genesis 1:2 as a straight up description of what the initial creation looked like. A natural understanding of Jeremiah 4:23 sees that Jeremiah is using the description of the initial creation to describe how bad the judgment of God was going to be on the land in Jeremiah’s day. See how they each have their own context and how they each have a very practical, straightforward interpretation? (We don’t even have time to delve into fantastical/subjective interpretations of passages dealing with the Holy Spirit; another time, perhaps.)
These are three presuppositions we should (at least) have as we try to understand the Bible, whether reading, studying, or listening. It will take practice; it will take thought (sometimes rigorous thought); it will take time. But, the investment will be worth the return: understanding what God has said!