Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Meaning of the Bible

I remember Ginger's room. She was much older than I and her room was a mysterious place of grown-up girls and make-up and women's dresses. Her room was a world of wonder for me, a four or five-year-old. I wasn't supposed to go into her room. I don't remember being told not to, I just remember feeling guilty when I once went in and she wasn't in her room. There, on a table or chair or something, was her purse and a writing pad and a pen. She had something written in cursive on a piece of paper. I was absolutely intrigued. 

I stared at those rounded scribblings and contemplated what they meant. I knew that all those black ink symbols held some very important information and I wanted to know what. It seemed a great mystery to me, a great challenge to figure it out. 

Then, I took a pen and next to her writing, I strained to copy it. I mimicked the little loops and the short straight lines. Somewhere in my child's mind I felt certain I had written something and that no one would ever know these weren't real words. 

And that is the end of my memory. 


"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path."
 Psalms 119: 105

Most Protestants believe that anyone can read the Bible and know the definition of many of the words. Okay, I would say to that, yes, most people can read the words, but that is not the problem. Reading words doesn't mean we understand them. The promises of God about His word, such as the text above, is not for those seeing the black symbols on paper. The writing itself contains no blessing, no insight. Many people will read and understand all the definitions of each word, but they will not be able to grasp what the text means. Jesus didn't promise us understanding of His words: 

"When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart." (Matt. 13:19)

The light we receive from God's word is when we understand what the author meant. We must know the intent of the words and that entails interpretation. What did God mean when He wrote (insert text here)?

This question must be asked with every single line of God's word. The blessing we receive from God's word doesn't come off the paper just by looking at it. We receive the Word of the Lord when the meaning of the words is understood. If someone gets the wrong meaning, the Bible then was of little value. In fact a wrong understanding of scripture can create a lot of theological angst in our lives. That promise above of a lighted path? Well, the path will remain dark if the meaning of the word is unclear. It all depends, not upon the reading, but upon the correct understanding of scripture. 

It takes more than reading scripture. God must open your mind to understand the scripture as Jesus said to His Apostles in Luke 24: 45 (See also I Cor. 2:12, 14). 

As the Ethiopian was returning from a trip to Jerusalem, he found out that he was unable to comprehend a passage in Isaiah. Christ's disciple Philip asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" and the man responded, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:29-31) Why wouldn't God have just sent the Spirit to guide the Ethiopian in his studies? Why send Philip? Evidently God didn't have in mind that the scriptures were always simple and direct. The passage in Isaiah that the Ethiopian was reading was confusing not because the man didn't know how to read, it was because he could not grasp the meaning. 

As obvious as this seems, many people have never really contemplated it. Just like my story above, being able to see the words doesn't covey what the writer is communicating. And when I was a year older and able to read the words, I supposed I still would not be able to understand a lot of what Ginger had written on the paper. Until I knew Ginger, until she explained to me what she meant, I wouldn't have understood her and been able to relate to her writings. And that is more than being able to read. 

The Bible contains things hard to understand. (Matt. 13: 13-15; Mark 4: 13; 6:52; 8:17, Luke 2: 50; John 8:43; 10:6; John 12:16) and the gift of the written word is lost when it is not understood. It must be "rightly divided" (2 Tim. 2:15) Peter writes of Paul's letters, "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do other scriptures." (2 Peter 3:16; See also Ephesians 6: 13-17)

So it all comes down to the correct meaning. Reading scripture wrongly can cause your destruction warns Peter. Rather than assume we know what God means in scripture, the critical question we need to ask is, "What did God mean to say in this story or passage?" We are to go and discover it. Seek and ye shall find. For unless we understand what God meant, we are no more than I was as a four-year-old just scrutinizing little loops and lines in black ink. 


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