How To Study The Bible (#4)

"What Does God Intend?"

In our previous lessons in this series we have learned three valuable principles: (1) we must read the scriptures with the goal in mind of gaining knowledge about them; (2) we will only learn what the scriptures teach when we have a strong desire to do so; and (3) in order to study the Bible fairly and completely, we must study everything that it says about a subject. We must get the whole truth.

In this, our fourth lesson, we add one more principle: In order to study the scriptures effectively, we must search them looking for the meaning that God intended. That principles seems so obvious, but I assure you that it is sometimes lost in the midst of the actual search.

Far too frequently we read the Bible to find out "what it means to me." We might be looking for a solution to some matter that we have personal interest in and, as a result, our inquiry takes on a very personal nature. While it is not wrong to have personal involvement in seeking scriptural meaning, it is wrong to assume that because we personally come to some conclusion that such a conclusion must be right.

Studying the Bible to find out "what it means to me," though probably the most frequently used approach, is not the only perspective that we should have when we study. Consider the following guidelines that have been used to determine the intent of scriptures:

(1) What does the Bible mean to me?

(2) What did the Bible mean to the original hearers/readers?

(3) What did the Bible mean to the original speakers/writers?

And finally, (4) what did God mean (i.e., intend) when he wrote the Bible?

Each of these four perspectives is important, but only the fourth viewpoint should serve as our ultimate guideline. It is possible to answer the other three to our satisfaction and still not have an understanding of what God intended by some passage. Let me explain.

We have already observed that a purely personal perspective in studying the Bible can be dangerous. Listen to what the word of God says about it: "You shall not at all do as we are doing here today; every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes;" (Deuteronomy 12:8). The book of Judges tells us: "everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6; cf. 21:25) Proverbs concurs with the following: "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise." (Proverbs 12:15; 21:2; cf. 2 Corinthians 10:12)

These passages, and others too, warn about the dangers (and folly) of those who "measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise." (2 Cor 10:12) An over emphasis on the "what does the Bible mean to me" type of approach to Biblical interpretation tends to lend itself subjectivism and existentialism.

The second question, seeking the understanding of the original audience (hearers or readers), sounds like a proper perspective to keep in mind. But it overlooks the possibility that the original audience misunderstood what they heard or read. The Ethiopian eunuch read God's word, but he didn't understand it, at least not initially (Acts 8:26ff). Jesus often asked "have you not read" to his hearers because the truth was in the scriptures which the Jews had read, but for some reason some of them had not yet grasped the intent of the scriptures (cf. Matthew 12:3; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Mark 2:25; 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3; 10:26).

Note, for example, Paul's message to the church at Thessalonica. In his first epistle to the church there, Paul gave them instructions concerning the coming of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13 - 5:11). Evidently some in the church in Thessalonica assumed that those who died in Christ prior to His return (those who had "fallen asleep," 1 Th 4:13) would not witness the resurrection and had "no hope." Paul's message was one of comfort and assurance. Those who died in Christ would actually "rise first" (1 Th 4:16), then those who are alive at His coming would be "caught up together with them" (vs 17).

But even after writing to the church the first time, there seemed to be a misunderstanding concerning the Lord's return. In his second letter to the church Paul continued to address matters relative to Christ's return (2 Thess 1:7ff; 2:1ff). Though he already instructed them in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 that "the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night," he needed to remind them about the matter again in 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff. It seems that some in the church did not understand the message the first time.

Understanding the scriptures, therefore, from the viewpoint of the original audience is only beneficial if we can know that the original audience understood what God wanted them to know. To know that we first would have to know what God intended.

The third question, seeking to know what the original authors knew, also sounds like a proper position to assume in our study. If we had their understanding, then certainly we would know what the Bible means. A problem arises, however, when we learn that the authors did not always have a complete understanding of the things they were saying. That sounds ridiculous, but it is true. Peter tells us that the old testament prophets did not have an understanding of the things they were speaking about concerning salvation:

"Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace {that would come} to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven; things which angels desire to look into." (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Peter, though the primary spokesman on the day of Pentecost, obviously did not fully know the intent of what he said in Acts 2:39 about the universal nature of God's offer of salvation. In Acts 10 and 11 God had to reveal to him that the Gentiles were included in God's plan to save man. That salient point had to be taught over and over in the early church, yet it was plain in the mind and plan of God.

Only the last perspective, searching for what God intends, should serve as an absolute guideline for our efforts in studying the Bible. We have seen that we can misunderstand the scripture if we look only for what it means to us. We have also seen that we can misunderstand the scripture if we look only at the understanding of the original audience, or even if we look only at the understanding of the original authors. But we can not misunderstand the scriptures if we find out what God really intends.

As you study, keep in mind that though all of the other questions can benefit us, they can also mislead us. As you study, look for what God intended. God says that it can be done.

"And you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:32)


Jody L. Apple -

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