The Bible is a big book. For a lot of our people within the schemes it is a VERY big book. Within its pages we find lots of different kinds of literature: poetry, prophecy, history, narrative, letters, and apocalyptic writings. It’s hardcore. Understanding it correctly is not easy, but it is certainly not impossible. We don’t have to go to Bible College to open up the Bible and understand it. An open Bible, in the hands of a Spirit-filled and eager reader, is a powerful thing.
There are a few traps and snares to avoid, however, and the following couple of posts will give us some very basic tips. So, what should we keep in mind as we think about reading and teaching the Bible in our housing schemes and council estates?
- Avoid being superficial. We can’t just read the Bible text and then jump straight to what it means to us. We have to do the hard work of interpretation. Time and culture changes, and so we have to understand its original meaning otherwise we can get into trouble. Imagine your wife is getting ready in the morning and it’s the usual palaver of an hour in the bathroom, half of that time doing her hair. “How does it look?”She asks? You reply, “Well, my poppet it looks a bit like Song of Songs 4:1, ‘Your hair is like a flock of goats’.”Don’t stop there, though. How about Song of Songs 7:4b? “Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus”. Neither comment is going to win us much love. But in Middle Eastern culture, the bigger the hooter the bigger the beauty, and to be compared to something as valuable as goats was a huge compliment! We have to be careful not to skim read the Bible or we can get into more (serious) trouble.
- Don’t over spiritualise the Bible. 1 Samuel 17 is the prime example. We all know the story. While King Saul and his army cowered in fear, David took Goliath’s challenge as an offence to God and his people. Armed with just a sling and five smooth stones, David felled the giant and beheaded him, sealing his destiny as Israel’s king. The application that I have heard countless times? We all face giants like Goliath in our lives. What are some of our giants? Drugs, Divorce, Disease, Difficulty, Death, etc. How can we, ‘Slay these giants like David did?’ How about the five smooth stones? What do they stand for? How about, our Past (past victories?), Prayer, Priority (God’s reputation/glory), Passion, and Persistence? Applying these to our lives and we will slay our own giants.
What’s the problem with my interpretation and application? Well, for a start, it puts us in David’s position. It puts us at the centre of the story. It makes us the hero figure. But we are not the hero. David is the hero. If we are anywhere in the story then we would be with King Saul and the Israelites cowering in fear against Goliath. In fact, it is we who need a hero, a champion, a Saviour. Therefore, Jesus is the true hero in this text. He’s the Son of David, the heir to David’s throne (Matt. 1:1, the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Luke 1:32, He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David). So, what we have here is really a foreshadowing of Jesus who slayed the true giant, death, when he stood against Satan and died on the cross so that we could live in fear no more. This text is about Jesus, not us. Beware of over spiritualising the Bible into little points about how we should live. It is not always, or ultimately, a book about us. It is a book about HIM.
- Be careful with language. Words change meaning. Gay being the most obvious choice. 30 years ago, being gay meant something completely different than it does now. Imagine, then, how many words have chopped and changed meaning(s) in a book that is thousands of years old? 1 Cor 4:1, for example, translates as ‘stewards’ or ‘ministers’ in some Bible versions, but the literal meaning is ‘galley slave’. Paul wanted his legacy to be thought of as nothing more than a galley slave. That is a much stronger thought (and translation) than merely being a steward or a minister as we think about those words today.
- History. Why did Pilate let the Jews kill Jesus when he knew he was innocent? He was certainly no friend to the Jewish people. History can help us here. It is well documented that Pilate hated being posted to Israel. It was almost the equivalent of an Englishman being sent to Northern Ireland in the late 70’s and 80’s to keep order among a populace who hated him and his nation. We read from history books that when Pilate first arrived at his job, he tried to force the Jews to worship pagans. Instead, he found himself with a major uprising on his hands. Many people lost their lives before order was restored. His boss, the emperor, was so mad at him that he threatened to take his job off him if he couldn’t keep the peace. So Pilate did what he could to keep the Jewish leaders happy and to keep from losing his job and status in society.
The art of interpreting the Bible is called hermeneutics. And hermeneutics has three stepsisters: authors, texts, and readers. Bad hermeneutics happen when we don’t take all the stepsisters out for dinner, or we favour one over the other. There is also a problem when we get to the restaurant if we don’t sit them down in the right order (This illustration sounded better in my head but I’m committed now!). Therefore, we run into problems when we open the Bible and interpret it just for ourselves (the reader) straight away. We must always start with the original author when we come to the text. Our job is to always find out what it meant to the people who first wrote and read these words. Then, and only then, can we start to apply it to ourselves. Getting this order of interpretation wrong can have devastating consequences for our understanding of God’s Word. Here are some basic guidelines to help us study God’s Word.
- What does the passage say? Read it three times (minimum).
- Why does the author say this here?
- Why does he say it at all?
- How does this fit into the whole Bible story? (Is this before or after the cross, for example?)
- What did the original readers understand the author to mean?
- What does it have to do with us today?
Sometimes an application shoots out at us. Just note it down and come back to it. It may be a brilliant thought, but it also might have nothing to do with this text. Sometimes it is helpful to rewrite the passage in your own words.
But, above all other considerations, remember that we are coming to God’s Holy Word. This is not an ordinary book. We need the help of the Holy Spirit, and we should always ask him to help us to understand what God is saying to us through it.
More to follow.