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.

Better Bible Study Tip #43: Don’t Impose Foreign Contexts Into Scripture

We are often reminded about the importance of reading scripture in context. The flip side of this is also true. Don’t impose foreign contexts into scripture.

The early church fathers did not write the bible. The catholic church did not write the bible. Martin Luther did not write the bible. John Calvin did not write the bible. John Wesley did not write the bible. Alexander Campbell did not write the bible. Of course there have been lots of brilliant students of scripture through the ages, and we can certainly learn from what these people said about scripture. But biblical interpretations that arose from post-biblical times need to take a back seat to scripture itself.

Far too often, modern bible students, teachers, and preachers allow their denominational creeds and traditions to drive their theology. If we want to understand scripture, we need to ask what the original inspired authors of scripture were trying to communicate. We need to ask how scripture would have been understood by the original audience. In other words, the proper context for interpreting scripture is the context that produced it. Every other context is foreign to scripture. If we forget this point, we may end up assigning meanings to scripture that the inspired authors never intended to communicate.

Remember, the Bible itself is inspired; later interpreters of the Bible are not. Don’t impose foreign contexts into scripture.

On Recognizing Authority

A teacher walks into a noisy classroom, and suddenly all the students rush back to their seats and become silent. A policeman knocks on the door to interrupt a college party, and suddenly the music is turned off and the drinks are shuffled out of sight. A military officer walks into the barracks, and suddenly all the soldiers scramble to stand in attention.

In all three of these scenes, it is clear who holds the authority.  The children immediately recognized that the teacher had the ability to enforce rules. The college students immediately recognized the police officer’s uniform and badge, and knew he had the force of law to back him up. The soldiers knew better than to treat the military officer like a peer. When they saw authority, they recognized it, and they responded.

When Jesus finished teaching the sermon on the mount, Matthew tells us that the crowds were “astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt. 7:28-29). Immediately following the sermon, Matthew gives us several real-life examples of Jesus’s authority. Jesus had the authority to heal diseases (8:1-17), command a storm into submission (8:23-27), cast out demons (8:28-34), forgive sins (9:1-7), and overturn tradition (9:8-17).

Jesus’ authority was real, and yet it was different from that of a police officer or military officer. Jesus didn’t demand to be recognized as an authority because of his uniform, his badge, or his official position. He had none of those things. But Jesus had something none of the official positions of authority did not have. Jesus had real power over disease and even over the forces of nature.

This contrast between these two different types of authority makes Jesus’ interaction with the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 all the more interesting.

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith… And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.

In this scene, who had the authority? Yes, there was a high ranking military officer present, but this time, the centurion was powerless. Despite having an official position of authority, the centurion was helpless to ease the suffering of his paralyzed servant. But the centurion recognized in Jesus a different and real kind of authority. The centurion addressed Jesus as “Lord”, and confesses that was not even worthy to invite Jesus into his house.

The centurion recognized that Jesus had the same kind of authority over diseases as the centurion had over soldiers who were under him. Just as the centurion merely had to issue a command, so he recognized that all Jesus had to do was speak the words, and his servant could be healed. Jesus responded by praising the centurion for his faith.

In this context, we can see what is meant by the word “faith.” The word “faith” is used in all kinds of different ways today. Sometimes it is used to describe someone who has a general religious attitude towards life. Sometimes the word “faith” is used as an opposite of evidence, or perhaps the opposite of works. None of these uses of the word “faith” fit what we see in this text about the centurion.

“Faith” in this text is something much more specific. Faith was the recognition of the reality of Jesus’ authority.

What would it mean if we recognized that Jesus’ authority was real today? How would that impact the way we respond to the latest headlines? How would it impact the way we respond to threats of disease? If we recognize just how real Jesus’ authority is, and just how powerless earthly authorities are, how would that change the way approach life? What would it mean if we didn’t simply say “Jesus is Lord”, but if we really let the reality of His lordship determine our thinking?

“Faith” in Christianity mean recognizing that Jesus’ authority is real – far more real than the authority of those who wear uniforms, carry badges, or hold official positions. If Jesus holds all authority, why would we ever pledge our allegiance to any other authority? Why would we ever look to earthly authorities to solve problems that only Jesus has the power to solve?

Who has the authority to save people from death?
Who has the authority to heal diseases?
Who has the authority to protect people from forces of nature?
Who has the authority to provide us with our daily bread?
Who has the authority to define right and wrong?
Who has the authority to demand our loyalty?

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

Better Bible Study Tip #42: The Meaning of a Word is Determined By Context

When I first started studying my Bible, one of my go-to resources was a Bible dictionary. If I wanted to know what a particular word in my Bible meant, I would look it up. That’s what a dictionary is for, right? At some point, I discovered lexicons, where I could actually look up the definition of the original Greek or Hebrew word that stands behind our translations.

Although I still use bible dictionaries and lexicons, at some point it dawned on me that looking up a word in a dictionary may or may not be the best way to fully understand how a word is being used. For example, think about the English word “run.” We all know what the word “run” means. It refers to a type of movement that is faster than a walk, where only one foot touches the ground at a time. Right?

But now put word “run” in a sentence. “Inflation is running wild!” Do you see how the word “run” changes meaning depending on how it is being used? I could also say “The Braves just scored another run”, or “You have a run in your sweater”, or “the river runs south” or I could talk about a politician’s “run for office.” If I didn’t know English, and I wanted to know what the word “run” means, I could look it up in a dictionary, but that would only get me part of the way there. Although dictionaries can be helpful, if we really want to understand what a word means, we need to understand the context in which the word is used.

When doing word studies, we must remember that a word may be used in different senses in different places. For example, the word “doxa” or “glory” might mean “splendor” (“…Solomon in all his glory…”, Mt. 6:29), or “praise” (“…he did not give God the glory…”, Acts 12:23), or “brightness”, (“the glory of Moses’s face”, 2 Cor. 3:7). The word “grace” may refer to “thanks” (2 Tim. 1:3), or “kindness” (Titus 2:11), or a “gift” (2 Cor. 9). The word “pnuma” or “spirit” might refer to “wind” (John 3:8), or a person’s character (Lk. 1:17), or part of man that exists after death (1 Pet. 3:18).

It’s also important to remember that words can’t mean anything we wish. We must avoid the temptation of looking up a word in a dictionary or lexicon, and picking out whichever definition best serves our purpose. While a word can mean many different things, we must strive to understand what meaning makes the most sense in a given context.

Ultimately, a word means what the author intended for it to mean. For example, in one instance when Jesus used the word “temple”, people were wrong to assign their own meaning to the word that Jesus did not intend. He meant the temple of his body, not the grand building in Jerusalem (John. 2:19-22). As hearers, we must strive to understand what the author was trying to communicate, and not make arbitrary interpretations.

Better Bible Study Tip #41: Context is King

For most of my life I’ve heard others talk about the importance of reading scriptures in context. They are exactly right. Context is king.

But what exactly does it mean to read scriptures in context? I used to think that reading scripture in context meant reading the verses immediately preceding and following the scripture, in order to get an idea for the flow of thought. I might even think bigger picture, and think about how the scripture contributes to the overall flow of the book, or even how the idea fits in the larger context of the whole Bible. If you think that’s what context is, you are exactly right. Those are some really important aspects of reading scripture in context.

Sometimes we might think of context in terms of genre. Is the author writing a discourse? Is he speaking historically? Is he speaking poetically? Is he speaking literally or figuratively? This is another important level of context to consider, and it can certainly help our understanding of the text.

But literary context is not the only level of context that matters. One level of context that is frequently overlooked is the historical and cultural context. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the writings of scripture through real life people as they experienced real life historical circumstances, we need to try to make ourselves aware of the circumstances that occasioned the text, as well as the cultural features of that time.

For example, when Paul wrote Romans, he wasn’t writing in the historical context of the reformation movement. He was primarily addressing the conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. This isn’t to suggest that principles addressed in the book of Romans can’t be applied to other historical contexts, but we need to keep our understanding of the text rooted in the original historical and cultural circumstances.

For another example, the book of Genesis wasn’t written as a science textbook for the purpose of addressing evolutionist in the early 20th century. It was written in an ancient near eastern context, and interacts with and confronts some of the ungodly worldviews that were prevalent in that culture at that time. This doesn’t mean that Genesis is historically or scientifically inaccurate, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider it when interacting with modern worldviews. It just means that we need to be careful to keep our understanding rooted in the original historical and cultural context.

The Bible was not written in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation movement, the Restoration movement, or a modern context. Two of the best questions we can ask are, “What did the original author mean when he wrote this?” and “How would this have been understood by the original audience given their cultural and historical context?” If we’re going to rightly apply the Bible in our own cultural context, we first need to make sure we are understanding it correctly in it’s original cultural context. For better Bible study, remember that context is king.

“Shall Christians Go to War” by J. W. McGarvey (1861)

The August 1861 edition of the British Millennial Harbinger was themed “The American Civil War”, and contains the following article, as well as a very interesting reply from Alexander Campbell. The entire edition is available online here.

Our Heavenly Father has ever governed the world according to this maxim, “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted; and he that exalteth himself shall be abased.” A few months ago, the citizens of the American Republic were the proudest people under heaven. They boasted of a present grandeur, a historic renown, and a future glory, such as had not fallen to the lot of any nation. Christians shared in this pride, forgetting that a love of country is but a refinement upon self-love. The God of heaven has never been pleased with such pride, and when it has swelled itself too high, he determined to abase it. It was while King Nebuchadnezzar was in the very act of looking from his palace upon the lofty walls, the splendid buildings, and hanging gardens of Babylon, and saying to himself, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of my kingdom, by the might of my power and for the honor of my majesty?” that the hand of the Lord smote him with an insanity that made him think himself a beast, so that he herded with cattle, and ate grass like an ox, thill his hair was like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws. So it was in the midst of our national pride and glory, that the Lord has smitten the people with a similar madness, and like ferocious beasts, they have fallen into butchering one another. God grant that when their understanding is returned to them, they may be able to adopt the language of that unfortunate monarch, at the close of his dreadful aberration:

I blessed the Most High and I praised and honored him that liveth for ever and ever; whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation… I praise and extol, and honour the King of heaven, all whose ways are truth, and his works judgment; and those that walk in pride, he is able to abase.

Daniel 4:34, 37

I think I will never feel proud of my country again. If so, I shall be better able to sympathize with Paul when he exclaims: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.”

He who uses famine, and pestilence, and war, to scourge the nations, is now scourging us. The call for soldiers is sounding through the land, and Christians are urged, like others, to join the red ranks of war. The pulpits, presses, and prayers of sectarian churches are strangely mingling with the strains of martial music, and the turbulent eloquence of partisan leaders and recruiting officers, to heat up the blood of the people and drive them to the battlefield. The din of preparation and the whirl of passion are surging so wildly around us, that the coolest head grows dizzy, and we scarcely know where we stand. In such an hour the heart of the true disciple instinctively turns back to the Great Teacher, and seeks repose under the yoke of his authority. Shall no we, who have discarded all human traditions, and assumed before heaven and earth that the New Testament is our only and all-sufficient guide, be true to it in this trying hour? If we do not, then we deny the Lord who has bought us, and he will certainly deny us.

When we ask the question, “Shall Christians from either of the contending sections go into this war?” remember the question is not, “Which section is in the right?” With that question, as religious teachers, we have nothing to do. Neither do we ask whether it would be justifiable, according to the honor and the law of nations. Nations and mere men of honor are governed by this code, but Christians by one far different. It is not even a question as to whether a Christian may, under extreme circumstances – such as the immediate protection of the lives of his wife and children – use deadly weapons. But the question is the one right before us, “Shall Christians take part in the war that is now raging? Will we be justifiable in so doing by that Book which is to judge us in the day of eternity?”

One thing is absolutely certain, and that is, that nothing short of a precept or precedent from Christ or the Apostles, can give us the warrant which the case demands. If we go into this war contrary to the will and word of Christ, the blood of the slain will cry out against us, and the curse of heaven will fall upon us. Do the will and word of Christ, then, justify it? I presume that there is no more decisive method of determining what Christ would have us do under given circumstances, than to inquire what he himself would do if he occupied our place. If he were alive and among us now, as he was in Judea, and teaching in either section of the country, what would be his conduct and advice? To ask this question is to answer it. No man who knows his history – who knows that at his birth exulting angels shouted, “Peace on earth, good will among men” – that his name is the Prince of Peace – that “when he was reviled, he reviled not again – when he suffered, he threatened not” – can for a moment doubt that, if here now, he would once more say, “Put up thy sword, for they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” It were not less that blasphemous to suppose that he who taught us to love our enemies, and to forgive as we would hope to be forgiven, would now tell us to butcher our kindred, or urge us to battle with his prayers. But he is our example, and if we take not up our cross and follow him, we cannot be his disciples.

But the inspired Apostles are also our example, for they followed the footsteps of their Master. Suppose, then, that the twelve were all alive today, and here in our country – six of them in the South, and six in the North. Would they, like the hosts of sectarian preachers on both sides, be urging their brethren to the war? How degrading is the thought! And yet the men who claim to be the successors of the Apostles, are openly, before heaven and earth, exulting in this impiety. The soul of one who has been taught by Paul and Peter sickens at such a scene, and well does he know that he who wrote to the Christians in the city of Rome, who were groaning under the cruelty of Nero, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath. If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink” – would now say to us, “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” He knows that, unless Peter has greatly changed for the worse since he left the body, he would still urge us to:

Be pitiful, be courteous – not rendering evil for evil, nor railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing, knowing that you are thereunto called that you might inherit a blessing. For he that would love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile. Let him eschew evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open to their cries; but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.

1 Peter 3:8-12

May the “very God of peace” be with us all, and the “peace of God, that passeth all understanding, keep our minds and hearts through Jesus Christ.”

Better Bible Study Tip #40: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

The Bible puts more emphasis on certain things, and less emphasis on others. For example, think about what the Bible teaches us about the life of Jesus. A vast majority of what the Bible tells us comes from about a three year period of his life. We know almost nothing about Jesus’s first thirty years on earth. We’re given details about his birth (Mt. 1-2; Lk. 1:1-2:40), and one story from when he was twelve (Lk. 2:41-51). Other than that, about all we know about Jesus’s early life is that he worked as a carpenter in Nazareth, and he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk. 2:52).

This absence of detail isn’t an oversight. It’s intentional. The writers of the gospels weren’t writing to give us a full biography of Jesus. They wrote with the purpose of convincing people about the gospel. They were intentionally selective about what details they gave us, and what details they omitted as unnecessary. Keep in mind that these writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The details we are given are precisely the details we are supposed to be given. When details are lacking, that’s important too. If the Holy Spirit wanted us to have more details, He certainly could have given them to us.

The same is true with points of doctrine. For example, the Bible includes a lot of teaching about the importance of baptism and living a new life in Christ, but there’s only a handful of verses that help explain the roles of angels and demons. The Bible includes several clear principles about the roles of men and women in the church, but it doesn’t give us all the details we might want to answer every question about application with precision. Remember, all of this is intentional. The inclusion and omission of details is all inspired.

It’s important to think carefully about what this means, and what it doesn’t. This does not mean that details don’t matter. They do (see Bible Study Tip #14). If the Holy Spirit chose to include a detail, it’s important.

What it does mean is that we need to be careful to keep the main thing the main thing. If the Holy Spirit continually emphasizes certain points of doctrine, we should recognize this, and try to emphasize those same points. Where the Bible gives few details, we should resist the temptation to fill in the gaps. “Speak where the bible speaks, and be silent where the bible is silent” is good advice, not only for our teaching, but also for our personal study. Keep the main thing the main thing.