Better Bible Study Tip #53: The Bible is Always True, but the Bible is Not Always Literal

In Amos 9:11-12, Amos prophesies of a day in the future.

In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name.

If we take Amos’s words literally, we might expect that one day some sort of physical structure that once belonged to David will literally be rebuilt. The rebuilding of this physical structure will be connected to Israel possessing the remnant of the Edomites, as well as all other nations called by God’s name.

But the apostle James didn’t read it that way. In Acts 15, when the apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to hear how Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles, James responded by opening to the book of Amos.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Acts 15:13-17

James didn’t hesitate to read Amos non-literally. He understood that Amos’s “booth of David” was a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to David’s dynasty (compare this with 2 Samuel 8, where God promised David that he would build him a “house”). James recognized that “Edom” could be understood as a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to all of mankind (the Hebrew word “Edom” is very close to the Hebrew word “Adam” or “mankind”. The book of Obadiah uses “Edom” in this same way).

This doesn’t imply that Amos’s prophecy was untrue simply because it wasn’t literal. “Not literal” doesn’t mean “not true”. It just means that biblical authors were open to using poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical forms of language to communicate truth. If we want to truthfully understand what Amos wrote, we have to recognize that the text was never intended to be taken literally.

This doesn’t mean that we can come up with any sort of weird interpretations of scripture we want. James didn’t just reinterpret Amos to say whatever he wanted it to say. He was reading the text responsibly, by paying attention to how the Old Testament develops certain images. By so doing, he was able to follow how the prophesy was intended to be understood.

For better Bible study, remember that scripture is always true, but scripture does not always have to be read literally.

Better Bible Study Tip #52: Sometimes The Bible Means Exactly What It Says

Sometimes the Bible says hard things that can make us uncomfortable. For example, many modern Bible readers find it troubling when they read that God would command Joshua to completely annihilate entire populations in Canaanite cites (Josh. 6:15-21). There is often a tendency among Bible students to look for interpretations that make what the Bible says more acceptable and more reasonable in our minds.

One one hand, it is true that sometimes we really do misunderstand the intent of certain passages. For example, if I wasn’t aware that God shown the Canaanites patience for over 400 years (Gen 15.16), that passage in Joshua would probably trouble me more more than it does. And if I read the annihilation command in Joshua 6, without considering the context where God had just spared a Canaanite family for their faith (Josh. 2), the annihilation command would probably sound more like genocide than an act of judgment on wicked people who refused to repent.

When we encounter difficult passages, it’s one thing to closely examine those passages to make sure we are correctly understanding the true intent of the author. But it’s another thing entirely to try to reinterpret a passage to say something it doesn’t intend to say. That’s dishonest.

When we read that God created the earth in six days (Gen 1), we might find that hard to believe. But we need to wrestle with it. We need to ask if that’s actually what the author was trying to say. And if it is, that’s what we need to believe.

When we read about a world wide flood that covered the whole earth (Gen 6-8), we shouldn’t be embarrassed by a story that many would find unbelievable. We need to try to understand the true intent of the author.

When we read about giants in the Old Testament (Num. 13:32-33; Deut. 2-3), we need to avoid the temptation to try to explain it away. If we believe that the Bible contains God-breathed scriptures, that means that God produced scripture how he wanted it, not how we wish it were. That means God really did intend for there to be giants described in the Old Testament. We need to wrestle with that.

When Jesus says “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:39), we shouldn’t try to water down his command so that we can respond to evil in a way that seems better to us. Rather, we need to be asking “Did Jesus actually mean what it looks like he meant?” And if that’s actually what Jesus meant, we need to follow it, even if it seems foolish or nonsensical to us.

There are few teachings in scripture as challenging as Jesus’s teachings about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. It’s one thing to read “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marriages a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt. 5.32), and to ask “Am I understanding Jesus correctly here? Did he really intend for us to apply this scripture in the way I think it needs to be applied?” But it’s another thing entirely to simply ignore or disagree with this scripture simply because we don’t like what it says.

There are few verses in the Bible that shock modern values like 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quite.” Sure, we need to closely examine the context. Sure, we need to make sure we are reading the scripture in a way that harmonizes with the rest of the New Testament. But what if Paul actually meant what he said?

When the content of the Bible seems embarrassing, troublesome, or offensive, we need to ask why. It might be that we are misunderstanding the true intent of the text. But it might be that the Bible troubles us is because we are the ones who have the incorrect worldview. After all, every culture has it’s own unique values, including our own. If the Creator has the authority to critique all cultures, including our own, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Bible shocks us every now and then. Sometimes the Bible means exactly what it says. Sometimes the Bible shocks us because that’s what it is designed to do.

For better Bible study, let the Bible be what it is. Don’t try to change or ignore it. Rather, try to understand it on it’s own terms.

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.

Better Bible Study Tip #50: Pay Attention to Repetition

Have you ever noticed how frequently the Bible repeats itself?

One of the most obvious examples of repetition are the two separate stories of God parting the waters. The first is the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14. Then nearly the exact same miracle occurs in Joshua 3, when God divided the waters of the Jordan River. The repetition is obvious. Most of us were pretty young the first time we noticed the similarity between these stories.

After we notice this one example of repetition, we will begin to notice the theme of “God saving people through water” showing up all over the place. During the flood, God saved Noah through water. Naaman was healed through water. Jonah was saved through water. Christian baptism is salvation through water. Isn’t it interesting how often this theme repeats itself?

Another example of repetition is how God can use really bad situations for good. One of the most obvious examples of this theme is the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery, wrongfully accused, and left in prison. At the end of Joseph’s story, after he saves his family by providing them grain during a famine, Joseph proclaimed, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50.20). This idea prepares us for the story of the Exodus, where God turned Pharaoh’s evil oppression into an occasion to deliver Israel. Later on, David was delivered after running for his life. The nation of Israel was purified through exile. And of course, in the most obvious example of God using evil for good, Jesus brought salvation through the cross. Over and over the message is clear: God is able to save his people through suffering.

With a little bit of reflection, you may begin to realize that these two themes are actually closely connected to each other. For example, Jesus referred to his suffering as a “baptism” (Mk. 10:38-39). Jesus look at Jonah’s deliverance through water as a sign of his own burial and resurrection (Mt. 12:38-42). It is in our own baptism when we are united with Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-4). Salvation through water is connected with salvation through death. Salvation through death is connected to baptism. Baptism is connected to our willingness to suffer and die with Christ.

All of these interesting connections flow from simply paying attention to repetition. There’s plenty of other repeated themes in scripture. The Spirit creates life. Man is created to reflect God’s image. Sin brings death. God providentially provides for his people. Atonement requires sacrifice. God raises up deliverers for his people. God is holy, and provides a way for his people to be holy. The kingdom of Babylon opposes the kingdom of God. God judges the kingdom of Babylon, no matter what form Babylon may take. The list could go on and on.

When the Bible seems to repeat itself, pay attention. Your ability to notice the theological message of these stories will improve.

Better Bible Study Tip #49: Most Scriptures Don’t Have Three Points

Yes preachers, this one is intended for you. One of the most popular ways to organize a sermon is to divide it into into three main points. Some preachers have a special talent of being able to craft sermons where every point begins with the same letter. Although I’ve never been very good at alliteration, I have found that there’s something about crafting “three main points” that makes sermon preparation easier.

But the thing is, most texts don’t have three main points. There is a difference between talking about the text and teaching the text. When our focus is on delivering a three point sermon, we can easily find ourselves squeezing the text into our three points. By the time we end up delivering the sermon, we end up delivering what is essentially a collection of our thoughts about the text rather than a lesson on the text itself.

When we’re given the opportunity to teach the Bible, our aim is to deliver the same thoughts that were first delivered by the original author. Our first job is to understand the flow and development of what was delivered in the text itself. Once we understand what the text is saying and how the text is saying it, our next job is to figure out the most effective way to communicate those same thoughts to our audience.

Sometimes the Biblical author may make three supporting observations that lead up to their main point. In those situations, the lesson may translate quite well into a three point sermon. But in other places, the author may make eight or nine observations leading to the main point. Or he may make one point that leads to a second, that leads to a third, that leads to a fourth. Or you may find yourself teaching a section of poetry, where the author is more interested in painting a series of word pictures, and less interested in developing a structured argument. Or the text may be designed to be told as a story without any outline at all.

Preaching a sermon without three main points can be difficult. It requires a lot of work to really understand how a text works. But better Bible study requires extra effort. Keep God’s words front and center, and keep your own thoughts about the text out of it. Let the text drive your sermon. Don’t let your sermon drive your approach to the text.

Better Bible Study Tip #48: Be Disciplined In Your Thinking

Beliefs and opinions are formed by more than simply accumulating raw data. Emotions, attitudes, values, and worldviews all impact the way we think. They impact the way we process raw facts into a meaningful perception of what we think is true. That’s why it’s important that we are disciplined in every aspect of our thinking. We need to make sure we examine our attitudes, our emotions, our values, our worldview, our loyalties, and of course, we need to make sure we are informed by good data. Incorrect values will lead errors in how we process correct data. Incorrect data will lead to errors in conclusions we draw, which will in turn reinforce incorrect values. As we examine our own beliefs, it’s good to try to distinguish between beliefs that are based on good data, and those that are mostly driven by our feelings and loyalties.

When it comes to Bible study, the text itself is the raw data. For better Bible study, we need to carefully distinguish between exegesis and speculation. It can be fun to have speculate about things we don’t fully understand. It can be fun to speculate about angels and demons, or what will happen after Jesus returns. But if our beliefs are driven by speculative thoughts, rather than by the text itself, there’s a good chance that we will end up drawing some wrong conclusions.

It’s also important to examine our own attitudes and loyalties. People who are well versed in scripture often end up with incorrect beliefs, especially when their loyalties lie with a particular sect, denomination, or political party. Our loyalty must be to Christ and his church above any other group. We must strive to live with the same kind of attitudes and values that we see in Christ himself.

For better Bible study, be disciplined in your thinking. Examine yourself to make sure your loyalties are in the right place, and examine your beliefs to make sure they are founded upon good data, that is, upon the text itself.

Better Bible Study Tip #47: It’s Okay To Be Uncertain About The Meaning of a Passage

It’s important to understand the Bible correctly. For that reason, it can sometimes feel unnerving to be uncertain about the meaning of a passage. If you’ve ever felt uneasy about your own grasp of scripture, you’re not alone. None of us are omniscient (Better Bible Study Tip #11).

In fact, feeling uncertain about the meaning of a passage is sometimes a good thing. It means you understand that you have more to learn. If you never felt uncertain about your own understanding, that would imply that you think you have it all figured out. Are we really okay with that level of arrogance?

Yes, it’s important to understand the Bible correctly. We never want to be satisfied with our own ignorance. We should continue to do the hard work of continual Bible study. But if we don’t understand a passage with certainty, we can still faithfully apply what we are able to grasp. The Bible is usually quite clear when it comes to basic virtues we should practice and basic vices we should avoid. As long as we are being faithful and humble in our study, and as long as we are striving to obey the very best we can, it’s okay to be uncertain about the meaning of a passage.

Better Bible Study Tip #46: Try Hard Not to Filter the Bible Through Your Own Beliefs

There is no such thing as a purely objective bible student. We all have different experiences that shape the way our brain processes information. We all have a tendency to analyze information in such a way that reaffirms our preexisting ideas and convictions. When we study an idea that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right.

For this reason, we all need to own up to the fact that we might believe certain ideas only because a belief was handed down to us. We might believe something is true simply because we’ve filtered the Bible through our beliefs.

So what do we do about it? We shouldn’t pretend that we’re immune from being biased towards certain beliefs. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge our own beliefs, and be aware of the tendency towards confirmation bias. Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. It doesn’t take humility to admit when we are right. It takes humility to admit when we are wrong.

In other words, the best way to avoid filtering the bible through our own beliefs is to develop the humility necessary to filter our own beliefs through the bible. We need to be self aware of the need to examine our own ideas just as critically as we would examine the ideas of others.

Better Bible Study Tip #45: Don’t Ignore Weird or Difficult Passages

We all understand that it’s important to apply our personal Bible study to our lives. There are some passages of Scripture that have such a clear and transparent meaning that it makes practical application easy. But sometimes it’s not immediately clear what a passage means or how it should be applied.

At other times, fear of getting an interpretation wrong encourages Bible students to avoid difficult passages. What if, as a result studying a difficult scripture, we discover that we have been wrong on a particular subject? What if we discover we’re wrong on a deeply held belief? What if studying a difficult scripture ends up undermining our entire doctrinal worldview?

For these reasons, it can be tempting to avoid the study of difficult or strange passages. Some passages are hard to explain, and they are difficult to apply. If we currently hold an incorrect belief, there will surely be some passages that just won’t make much sense given our current understanding.

Can I be frank for a moment? If we think that the only “relevant” passages are those that are easily applied after only a surface level reading, this is a sign of lazy Bible study. “Study” is a verb (Bible Study Tip #17). It requires work. It requires effort. It might require that your rearrange your schedule to make more time for study. It might require that you read books, research the opinions of others, reread the text multiple times, and have long conversations about the text with Christian friends. It might require that you wrestle with observations that challenge previously held opinions. Sometimes it may take weeks, months, or even longer to feel like you have a good handle on a passage, but that shouldn’t matter.

If it’s inspired scripture, it’s worthy of attention. In many instances, the strange and difficult passages of scripture are part of greater themes and concepts that point to Christ. From my experience, if it’s in the Bible, it’s important. If it’s in the Bible and it seems strange or difficult, it’s in a sense even more important, because there’s a good chance you are misunderstanding something. There is a purpose for every passage in the Bible. It is our job to discover what it is.

Better Bible Study Tip #44: Read Material That Helps You Understand The Bible’s Times and Cultures

One of the most important keys to better Bible study is understanding context, and one of the most important aspects of “context” is the historical and cultural context that produced the text (See Better Bible Study Tip #41). Although the Bible is 100% the inspired word of God, God inspired the text by using real life people who wrote in real life historical situations (see Better Bible Study Tip #30). Since our goal is to understand what the original authors of scripture were trying to say, and how the text would have been understood by the original audience (Better Bible Study Tip #43), it is important to gain at least a basic understanding of the culture in which the original author lived.

As we seek to rightly understand scripture, we need to learn to think like the author and like the original audience. Now of course, all cultures have their flaws. I’m not suggesting that ancient worldviews were somehow more correct than our own. I’m simply saying that it helps to understand the culture that produced the text. Understanding their culture is the best way to make sure we are not imposing our foreign context onto the text (Tip #43).

The key to understanding the Bible’s time and culture is to read books (Better Bible Study Tip #22). If you want to understand how people from Egypt, Canaan, or Babylon viewed the world, there’s books written about that. If you want to understand what life was like in the Roman Empire, there’s books written about that. If you want to understand how the various Jewish sects approached scripture during the time of Christ, there’s books written about that. You can even find English translations of tablets and manuscripts that were written during the Bible’s times.

There are lots of good resources out there. You just have to put in the work (Better Bible Study Tip #17). But if you want to be a better Bible student, it’s worth the extra effort to gain a basic understanding of the ancient world.