Better Bible Study Tip #51: Sometimes the Clear Meaning of Scripture Isn’t Immediately Clear

It’s not uncommon to hear people say “The Bible clearly teaches…”, followed by a particular point of doctrine. Although we should always try to follow the “clear” teaching of the Bible, we have to be careful. Sometimes the clear meaning of Scripture isn’t as clear as we might initially think.

Consider the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.” What is the “clear” meaning of that phrase? Unless you are from a completely foreign corner of the globe, you know that the phrase “clearly” means that it’s raining really hard. It is a phrase that is well known in our culture. But imagine how ridiculous such a phrase might sound to someone who isn’t familiar with our culture. If a foreigner insisted that the phrase must mean that cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky, they would be wrong. By insisting on what initially pops into their head, in their cultural context, they would completely miss the “clear” meaning of the phrase in our culture.

Hopefully I’ve made my point “clear.” Since the Bible was written in a foreign cultural context, the “clear” meaning of scripture depends on what the original author of scripture was intending to communicate in their cultural context, not ours. When we insist that the Bible must mean what initially pops into our heads in our culture, we might be completely missing the “clear” meaning of Scripture.

For example, consider what we find in Galatians 4:22-31. Here Paul cites the story of Hagar, Sarai, and their children in order to explain why Christians are not defined by the law that was given to Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai. In verses 25-26, Paul writes:

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

For most of us, when we read the story of Hagar and Sarai, it isn’t immediately “clear” that the text is communicating anything about the relationship between Gentiles and the Sinai covenant. But Paul, having a better understanding of how Genesis would have been read in it’s own cultural context, understood that he text contained a lesson that “clearly” applied to the Jew/Gentile relations in the churches of Galatia. How can we insist on the “clear” meaning of the book of Genesis, when the apostle Paul himself insists on a meaning that might not initially seem “clear” to us?

What we should be doing is seeking to understand what the original authors and the original readers were thinking and communicating, not what we’re thinking. The “clear” meaning of scripture to us might not have been “clear” to them.