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.

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