“Continue for 76 miles on I-90… Take the exit… In a quarter mile, turn left… In a half mile, your destination will be on the left… You’ve arrived.”
If you asked me which I’d rather use – Google Maps or the good ol’ paper map – I know what I would choose: Google Maps. But I might not be honest at first as to why. I might say, “I don’t have a paper map.” I might say, “I don’t want to pull over and look at it over and over.” I might say, “I’d rather use something smaller that takes up less space, like my phone.” But I’ll tell you the real reason why I wouldn’t choose the paper map: I’ve never practiced using one, so I’m uncomfortable doing it.
How similar might such a scenario be to the Christian’s Bible reading?
“I don’t have time… I forgot… I’m too tired.” Understandable. But could it be, in some cases, that the reason we don’t spend time in God’s Word is because we’re simply uncomfortable with it, afraid of starting only to end up in the middle of nowhere, or setting out for a destination without knowing how to get there. We want to understand what the Bible means, but we don’t know what roads to take.
That’s not an accusation; it’s just a proposition. If this is your struggle, maybe you’d benefit from breaking down the process into basic steps.
Give these five steps a look. They’ll provide you some direction to begin the trek toward “meaning” in your Bible reading.
The author of Scripture is God himself (2 Peter 1:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:16). And so, when we hear from Scripture, we ought to remember we are hearing from God, who has spoken clearly.
So, practically, how should we submit to the Author and authority of Scripture? Look up before you look down. Look up to God for his assistance, and then look down at the pages for your reading. Pray something like Psalm 119:73: “Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments.” Such words will remind you whom it is you approach, who you are before Him, and how needy you are for His enablement.
Human authors were the hand of the ultimate and divine Author. God communicated his divine will through human minds, human hands, human personalities, human contexts, human abilities, and so on. And so, there are two key questions we always need to ask: (1) What did the author intend by what he wrote? And (2) How would the original recipients have understood what was written?
This gets to the source of meaning – the author. Meaning is not found in the reader, or even in words themselves as if they existed apart from the author’s intent. So, seek to understand the author’s intent.
How do we go about doing this?
Literal interpretation: Unless the text gives reason to do otherwise, stick with the most simple, pure, non-coerced and natural sense of the words you are reading. This will usually provide the right explanation. The Bible is not “special code.” It was written to be understood within the normal constructs of human language.
For the sake of this article, and for the sake of daily reading, we’ll talk about literary context here (not mentioning historical, cultural, political, socio-economical, etc.).
For interpreting within literary context, ask some basic “W” questions: Who is writing; What occasion calls for their writing; Where are they writing from; Where/Whom are they writing to; When was this written; Why are they writing (e.g., problem to solve, instruction to give, records to recount, doctrine to explain, praise or thanks); How is this to be read (law, narrative/historical, epistle/letter, poetry, prophecy). This will provide the necessary background information for the remaining steps.
With single intent comes single meaning. “There is only one meaning for every place in Scripture. Otherwise, the meaning of Scripture would not only be unclear and uncertain, but there would be no meaning at all—for anything which does not mean one thing surely means nothing.”
The last thing we want to ask when studying God’s Word is, “What does this mean to me?” If every person asks this question as their way of understanding God’s Word, there’s potential for billions of meanings. If we’re open to many meanings, we claim the original writers wrote with no particular intent in mind. Meaning becomes relative and squishy.
Rather, as you get to know a text’s context, as you answer the W questions from Step 3, getting to know a book as a whole, you’ll have a better understanding of why individual texts have a singular meaning – for the same reason a preacher’s sub-points support their main point/big idea. The singular meaning should support the main questions and purposes of the larger text. If there’s a disconnect between the larger purpose/context of a book and the single meaning you’ve arrived at, check your work.
Interpretation should never be just a private affair. And if you desire to grow in your ability to arrive at meaning in your study of God’s Word, you’ve just given yourself another great reason for being closely knit to a local church. That’s where we can be best informed about the following ways to verify our studies of God’s Word:
1. William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John D. Eusden (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 188.
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