Playing Marbles with Diamonds by Pastor John Samson
(This title is inspired by a song by Steve Camp, of the same name)
Is the way you study the Bible offensive to God? Did I get your attention? What!!? God can be offended when we study the Bible?
As Christians gather together for a Bible study, often what happens is that the leader reads a verse or short passage of Scripture, and then he turns to each member of the group, asking for their comments. Starting with the man next to him on his right, he asks, "Bill, what do you feel this means to you?" Bill struggles to think of something to say, but stumbles through the ordeal, and relates an incident he experienced at work that he thinks the passage might relate to. He seems to be encouraged by the reaction of the group because most people seem to be grateful for his comments.
Next up, its Mary's turn to answer the question. She feels very differently to Bill about the passage, and her answer takes the group in a completely different direction. This is all very exciting to some in the group. They marvel about all the different "facets of truth" being brought out in the Bible study. Yet, if we analyse what was said, what Bill said actually contradicts what Mary said, and what Michael says (who had the third turn) shows that there's yet another way to understand the passage being cited. Once each person in the group has taken their turn, the leader announces the end of the study, and thanks everyone for their participation. They'll meet again next week, and perhaps may even invite friends to come study the Bible with them.
But what was all this? Did each in the group experience new depths of understanding? Is everyone leaving the study with a greater knowledge of God's Word? I don't want to sound unkind, but the scenario I described here merely allowed for the pooling of the ignorance in the room.
Bill, may have never seen the verse before, and may have never read the verse in its context. He may be ignorant of the meaning of the words used, but with just a brief scan of the passage he is supposedly ready to give his insight to the rest of the group as to what the verse means. But is he ready? I think not!
Its a serious and holy thing to teach God's word (to many people or to few) and it is not something which should be done lightly. James 3:1 says, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."
Now I know what the reaction of some people will be to this. Some will be upset that I am raising the stakes, so to speak, and that my words will make some people scared to speak for God. What's my answer to this charge?
My answer: that's exactly my point! It should be a scary thing to speak for God. We are far too casual about it, and we need to be scolded for our abuse of God's word.
Strong words perhaps, but Scripture commands us, "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 Tim. 2:15) We should be ashamed if we fail to study and fail to rightly handle the word of truth. If we're talking about the average Bible Study that takes place as I've decribed it above, I believe that God can be very much offended by the proceedings. Let me explain:
Jesus, in the preamble to quoting a verse from the Old Testament said, "...have you not read what was spoken to you by God..." (Matt. 22:31). The testimony of Jesus and of the Bible is that "All Scripture is God breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, when we open up a page in our Bibles, we are treading upon holy ground. The Bible, although a book, is also unlike any other book. It is not simply a book giving facts about God. The Bible is a book written by God. Certainly, human writers were involved, but the text of Scripture is inspired or breathed out by God Himself.
Just having this concept in place would greatly help us in our Bible studies. What do I mean by that? Well, many people view the interpretation of God's Word as "no big deal" really. To them its nothing more important than the reading of any other book, at least in their methodology.
The Jews would wash their hands before touching the sacred scrolls, because these scrolls were seen as Divinely inspired. Though we do not need to become superstitious about the physical book called the Bible, so as to wash our hands before picking up or opening the book, the text of the Scripture is the very word of God Himself. We should approach the Word of God humbly, and with the utmost reverence and respect.
And that leads us to talk about how we interpret the Bible. When we recognize that we are handling the very truth of God, we should not be quick to come to conclusions about what it means. What do I mean by that?
Well, if the Bible is God's holy word, we should seek to gain the correct interpretation of what it means before we attempt to speak for God.
I can't think of a more holy assignment that to be called to preach or teach the Word of God to the souls of men. Therefore, before someone stands in a pulpit to preach or teach the Word of God, he needs to make sure he has interpreted the text correctly. The preacher's job is not to merely entertain the crowd or to tell a few stories that will connect with people. Don't misunderstand me, God gives no prizes to boring preachers who can't connect with people! But we must always remember that the goal of preaching is the honor and glory of God in accurately proclaiming the word of truth. It is a serious and holy thing to be responsible to proclaim God's truth and it should never be done lightly, whether heard by thousands, or simply by one precious human soul.
What is true for the preacher is also true for all of us as Christians. When we sit down and start reading the Bible for ourselves we need to remember that though there may be a thousand applications of Scripture, there is only one correct interpretation - the one the Holy Spirit meant when He inspired the sacred words of the Bible. We should be prepared to do some serious study to seek to understand what the Holy Spirit was and is communicating to us.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. James White when he writes, "Remember when you were in school and you had to take a test on a book you were assigned to read? You studied and invested time in learning the background of the author, the context in which he lived and wrote, his purposes in writing, his audience, and the specifics of the text. You did not simply come to class, pop open the book, read a few sentences, and say, "Well, I feel the author here means this." Yet, for some odd reason, this attitude is prevalent in Christian circles. Whether that feeling results in an interpretation that has anything at all to do with what the original author intended to convey is really not considered an important aspect. Everyone, seemingly, has the right to express their "feelings" about what they "think" the Bible is saying, as if those thoughts actually reflect what God inspired in His Word. While we would never let anyone get away with treating our own writings like this, we seem to think God is not bothered, and what is worse, that our conclusions are somehow authoritative in their representation of His Word."
To some people it would seem to be "un-spiritual" to invest time in studying the historical backgrounds, the context of a text or passage in Scripture, or the original language... no, many today want to "feel" something about a passage... or better still, just want the Holy Spirit to whisper His interpretation in their ears supernaturally. This tends to become highly subjective... and the hard labor of the study of the Scriptures is thrown out of the window. Every thought or supposed insight we have needs to be subject to Scripture, and we are not permitted to subject the Word of God to our impressions or feelings about it.
We would never consider someone qualified to practice as a medical physician who read just one paper containing a dozen rules on being a good doctor. Though knowing these 12 rules would be helpful, I'm sure we would agree that there's far more that is needed. Certainly, before a medical board would certify a person as competent to practice medicine they would want to make absolutely sure that the candidate knew far more than a dozen rules for good health. In the same way, there's so much more that could and should be said about how to study the Bible. Yet, with this qualifier, here are a dozen simple rules of interpretation (hermeneutics) which should at least get us started:
1. Consider the Author - who wrote the book? (what was his background, language, culture, vocation, concerns, education, circumstance, what stage of life?)
2. Consider the Audience (why was the book written? who was the audience? what would these words have meant to its original recipients?)
3. The Meaning of Words (this has become a lot easier in our day with all the information and technology at our disposal. The computer program Bibleworks 6 is especially recommended).
4. Historical Setting (avoid anachronism - trying to understand the past while viewing it wearing 21st century glasses - will not help toward understanding the original meaning of the author).
5. Grammar - (how things are being expressed - imperative is a command, a subjunctive would be "would you like to do this?" - two quite different meanings result)
6. Textual Issues - (are there any questions about the earliest or most authoritative manuscripts in comparison with others of a later date - and how does this influence our understanding of what was originally written)
7. Syntax - this refers to words and their relationship with one another. For example, Romans 5:1 says "Having been justified (a past tense action) by faith, we have peace with God." It would be incorrect to think that we have to gain peace with God before justification takes place. The syntax is clear that it is a result of first being justified that peace ensues. Correct syntax is a vital component of sound interpreation.
8. Form of Literature (we should interpret the Bible literally, but that doesn't mean we don't recognize that parables are parables, and that to interpret them correctly, we interpret them as literal parables! Historical narrative is historical narrative, nouns are nouns, verbs are verbs, analogies are analogies)
9. Immediate Context (a text out of context becomes a pretext. It can be made to say something not intended by the author). Always check the immediate context of a verse or passage to determine the correct interpretation.
10. Document Context (in Romans, there is a certain argument which Paul is pursuing, and this helps us to determine what is meant in isolated verses when we know the purpose for what is being written. Always keep the author's broad purpose in mind when looking in detail at the meaning of texts). This, like the others, is a very helpful rule.
11. Author's Context (this refers to looking at all of a person's writings - John's writings, Paul's writings, Luke's writings, etc.).
12. Biblical Context (the broadest context possible, the entire Bible; allowing us to ask if our interpretation is consistent with the whole of Scripture). Scripture is never contradictory to itself.
1. Its fine to play marbles with marbles, but not with diamonds. Handling the word of God is a priceless duty and delight, not a trivial passion or pursuit. May God use these brief words to encourage you as you search out the rich treasures of God's word, for His glory.
2. "Exegesis (correct interpretation) involves much more than the bare analysis of words. It involves context, train of thought, historical considerations, situational considerations, cultural considerations, etc. The analysis of words is merely the starting point." Eric Svendsen