How to Live the Bible — Reading With Understanding
This is the forty-eighth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Let’s say you’ve become convinced that the Bible may just have the truth and the power you know you need in your life, and you go out and purchase a brand new Bible because you want to make a new beginning. You remove the wrapping and are pleased by the smell of new leather, holding it to your nose. Its pages are clean and white, the printing and binding done with far more care than any average book.
This is the word of God. Read more widely than any other book in history, it has been the foundation of whole systems of law; it has shaped whole civilizations. When translated, it has become a defining landmark in culture and language like the English version authorized during the reign of King James I of England or like the German version meticulously rendered by Martin Luther.
Most remarkably, the Bible has been a transforming power in the lives of millions of people young and old, in every corner of the world, and across all the generations.
But how does the truth and power of God get from the printed page into your mind and heart? Reading with understanding is the critical event. The simple reading of the words of Scripture is where it begins. Whether the reading is done in a soft chair at home, or in a hotel room, or on a park bench, or in a meeting at a church, we are engaging in an inherently valuable pattern of devotion. But we need to seek understanding in what we read, not being discouraged or intimidated by those who believe that the Bible is open to anyone’s arbitrary interpretation.
Here are a few basic principles of the interpretation of Scripture. If followed, we will get out of the Bible what God put into it, which is the only thing we should be interested in. If we want to read into Scripture our own preconceived opinions, then we might as well be using a novel or a biography or a cookbook instead of the Bible.
1. The simplest and most natural understanding of a biblical passage is always the best.
Because God chose to use human authors in writing the words of Scripture instead of dropping the Bible from the sky, we are supposed to read those words the way communication through words normally happens. Paul wrote a letter to his friends in the city of Philippi and they read it, looking for the plain and simple meaning of what he intended to get across. If you get a letter from your mother, you open it, read it carefully and thoughtfully, assuming that she meant specific and concrete things by what she wrote. So it is with our reading of Jeremiah or Luke or Philippians. Ask yourself: what message was Jeremiah trying to get across to his listeners? What did Luke want people to get from his “orderly account”? What effect did Paul want his words about joy to have on his friends in Philippi?
Yes, of course there are statements in Scripture that are hard to understand, but we should focus on what is plain and clear, and trust that sooner or later we will understand more enigmatic sayings. Most of the Bible is straightforward when we take the time to read it carefully.
2. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.
We do not make the Bible meaningful; we discover its meaning. It is common for people to say “this passage means (such and such) to me,” but it would be far better for us to say “it seems like John meant (such and such), and here is how it applies to my life.” If we do anything in which we are importing meaning to the Bible instead of exporting meaning, then we are using the Bible as a writing tablet for our own preconceived ideas and opinions. Better to use clean paper for that than paper that is already printed on. We are putting words into God’s mouth, and then taking those words as authoritative. When friends do that to friends or kids to parents, we call it unfair and misleading. So it is with fanciful and arbitrary readings of Scripture. God has given us a body of truth that is wide enough and deep enough for a lifetime (no, for eternity!). We don’t need to add to it. And if we try to add to it, we end up confusing the essence of it.
Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.
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