This is the third part of a series of blog posts I have written addressing the ways that we use Scripture, and specifically the fact that often the passages we use for our life verses can be ripped from their context and used in ways that are actually opposite of the intended meaning of the text. We find verses that feel good, and fit on a coffee mug or a t-shirt, but often we end up misusing those texts. The previous two posts focused on this, and I would encourage you to read those to understand the main point.
But, you may say, “Mike, that’s all well and good for you, but you have a seminary degree. So you can figure those things out. But if I don’t know the Bible as well, how am I supposed to know the meaning.” In fact, some have actually come to the conclusion that we cannot know the true meaning, so the only meaning of a text is what it means to me. The truth is just the opposite. Since God is the author of Scripture, His truths are so deep that a life of careful study will not reach the depths of the meaning of any text, yet, the truths of Scripture are revealed in such a way that even a five year old can understand the basic message.
At Genesis, we believe two beautiful meshed truths about the nature of the Bible. First, it is a divine book, with every word inspired by God Himself as His self-revelation. When we read Scripture, we are not reading another human book about God, a new perspective on the mystery of God and the universe. In the Scripture, God has pulled back the veil between heaven and earth and has made His acts and His words known. This means that to know Scripture and rightly interpret it is of utmost importance, because to ignore the Scriptures is to dismiss God Himself, and to disbelieve the Scriptures or disobey is equal to disbelieving or disobeying God. So, to misinterpret and misquote Scripture means that we can actually misrepresent God.
Second, the Bible is also a human book, as God inspired His Word through the pens of normal people living normal lives with all kinds of normal problems and struggles. These people heard from God, but they wrote out of their experience and journey, and wrote to specific audiences to communicate their message. This means that to rightly understand the meaning of the text, we must understand the intended message of the original human author as written for the intended audience. This is where the true meaning is found. We don’t start with, “What does this mean to me,” rather we begin with, “What message did Paul (human author) intended to communicate to the church in Phillipi (audience of the New Testament book of Philippians).
So, here are some simple things that every person can do to understand God’s intended meaning of Scripture as revealed through the human authors.
- Read any text in context – The quickest way to avoid making the mistakes of misusing Scripture is to quote verses without understanding them in their context. Theologian Don Carson has said, ““A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” If you find a verse that speaks to you, make sure you read the verse in the larger passage to make sure the meaning you gleaned is in line with the thought of the larger passage.
- Read the book – Every book in the Bible is a work that both stands alone and fits into the larger story of the Bible. Therefore, each book has it’s own overarching purpose and message, but that message is always in line with the other Scriptures. Taking time to read entire books of the Bible give us good protection from misinterpreting individual texts in that book. If you have found a meaning of a text that actually seems to run counter to the meaning of the larger book, you might want to dig a little deeper (Jeremiah 29:11 is exhibit A to this).
- Let Scripture interpret Scripture – This is one of the key principles to Biblical interpretation, that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Make sure that your understanding of any passage lines up with the greater revelation of God in the larger story of the Bible and the understanding of God, ourselves, His purpose, and the Gospel within. This is especially true when it comes to obscure passages or those more difficult to interpret.
- Get a study Bible – The best way to avoid misinterpreting Scripture is to get yourself a Bible with notes written by scholars designed to help you understand any text. We recommend the ESV Study Bible. Such a Bible is an incredible investment in your own spiritual growth and journey. A good study Bible will begin each of the 66 Books of the Bible with an introduction that gives an explanation on the author, audience, background and history, issues in the book, overarching purpose of the writing, etc. Then in the pages of the book, the study Bible will give notes with an explanation of the meaning of the text. Now, these notes are not infallible (the Bible is, of course), but they are incredibly helpful in our understanding of the meaning.
- Lean in to your church – The Bible is best interpreted in community. Within the church, God has given elders who are able to teach and pass on the truths of the faith. We have Community Groups which provide a place to discuss, be challenged, and grow. We have friends who also have the presence of the Holy Spirit and can go have coffee. As we take the Scriptures seriously, we will discover that the best way to avoid error in my own interpretation is to make sure I am doing Biblical study in fellowship with my church community.
The Scriptures are a deep and glorious treasure. God has chosen to make Himself known, and in light of His glory, show us our true selves. We do not want to be people to trade the treasure for trinkets, deep and glorious truths for slogans that can fit on a coffee mug. So, let’s work together to obey the challenge set forth by the Apostle Paul to his son in the faith, Timothy.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)