How to understand the Scriptures
Andrew Wilson, Brisbane, Australia | Dunstable, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
What does 1 Corinthians 15. 29 mean by speaking of those ‘baptized for the dead’? Who were the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6. 2? What does it mean that Christ ‘went and preached to the spirits in prison’, 1 Pet. 3. 19, or that it is impossible to renew some people to repentance, Heb. 6. 6?
Problem 1: What does the text mean?
There are many things in the Bible that we find hard to understand. It would, in fact, be a strange thing if we never struggled to understand the scriptures, for being God’s word, they are not always easy reading. Six times in John chapters 13 to 16 the disciples failed to understand what the Lord was talking about. Peter misunderstood the Lord washing his feet, 13. 6-10. The Lord reassured him,‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this’. Then the disciples were perplexed about the betrayal, 13. 21-22; the Lord’s departure, 13. 36; where the Lord was going, 14. 5; God’s plans for the world, 14. 22; and the resurrection, 16. 16-19. This phenomenon is found in all the Gospels. The disciples regularly failed to understand the Lord’s parables, prophecies of His coming death and His comments on numerous other subjects.
The preface to the Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic translation, observes that the modern availability of the Bible has hardly diminished disagreement over what it means. Ma ny t r u e Christians have quite different views on what the Bible is saying on certain issues. The only place on earth where no one disagrees over scripture is in a cult.
Problem 2: How does it apply to us today?
Sometimes we struggle in a second area. Perhaps we understand what we are reading but fail to see its relevance to us. For example, we may understand perfectly well what the words ‘bring the cloak . . . and the books’ mean, 2 Tim. 4. 13, but is God saying something to us from this verse? Is there a moral for us from the story of David and Goliath? Must every church have seven deacons, Acts 6? Should believing lepers expect healing today,Matt. 8? Should we greet one another with a holy kiss, 2 Cor. 13. 12, or sell all that we possess, Mark 10. 21? Or were these simply specific or cultural injunctions that do not apply to us? If so, how do I distinguish between what applies to me today and what was simply a 1st century situation?
Understanding the meaning of scripture and its message today is not always easy. What should we do? Is it necessary to go to Bible College to properly understand God’s word? Or should we simply accept everything taught by a particular authority: church, creed, commentary set or conference circuit? Should we abandon the doctrine of the perspicuity of the scriptures altogether?
Three Important Principles
In following articles we will consider how we 1) understand the meaning of scripture, 2) apply the scripture, and 3) avoid the dangers in interpreting scripture. For the moment, let us set out three basic principles.
Revelation. The Lord promised His perplexed disciples that the ‘Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things’, John 14. 26, and ‘guide you into all truth,’ John 16. 13. What better tutor could we ask for than the Author of scripture Himself? George Muller wrote, ‘We must remember that our own human intellect cannot fathom the scriptures.We must, in true humility of soul, wait upon God, that He, by His Spirit, would be pleased to instruct us’. Understanding the scriptures is not merely an intellectual exercise – it is a spiritual discipline, see particularly 1 Cor. 2. 9-16; but also John 6. 45, 2 Tim. 2. 7; 1 John 2. 27.
Meditation. Joshua 1. 8 and Psalm 1. 2 teach us that we must meditate in the scriptures day and night. This means to read the Bible carefully, continually and consecutively.We can hardly ask God to open our eyes that we may behold wondrous things from His law, Ps. 119. 18, if we never open the Bible. E. W. Rogers was reportedly once asked how to study the Bible. His answer was,‘Read it!’ Reading the entire Bible regularly is a broad and liberal education that will prevent spiritual staleness or doctrinal pettiness and promote Christian growth and progress.
Application. Psalm 111. 10 says, ‘a good understanding have all those who do his commandments’. The Lord warned, ‘Take heed how you hear . . . for whoever has, to him more will be given’,Mark 4. 24-25. If we do not act upon the light we receive, why should God allow yet further light to break forth from God’s word? God’s blessing is upon those who obey what they hear, John 13. 17; Jas. 1. 25.
Of books and helps
As in many areas of life, failure to get the basics right cannot be compensated for by advanced tools or technology. Lexicons, grammars, textual helps, translations, concordances, maps and dictionaries will give the Bible student some help. An argument could be mounted that all this knowledge could be gained by regular reading of the scriptures, but we cannot very well understand God’s message to us if we do not accurately understand the meaning of the words He uses to convey it. J. N. Darby felt reassured –from 2 Timothy 4. 13 – that he should hold on to his books. Yet dependence upon human help produces sterile scholasticism that has, in the past, sometimes led many astray. The scribes of Christ’s day could quote the various opinions of the learned rabbis, but not provide an authoritative word from God. On the other hand, we should not despise the gifts God has given other believers for our profit and blessing. Pride is another problem too – whether in one’s own private interpretation or in a knowledge of books, pride in my learning or pride in my ignorance. Faith in God’s help is paramount.
To be continued
AUTHOR PROFILE: Commended by the assembly at Bexley, Sydney, Australia, in 1994, and together with his wife, Gillian, has sought to serve the Lord in New South Wales, Australia, and then London, UK. Involved in evangelistic, children's and Bible teaching ministries. He now resides in Brisbane, Australia.