Reading the Bible Literally

Some years ago I read something scoffing at Christians for taking the Bible literally. One example the author used was the Bible’s speaking of the sun rising and setting, because of course we know that the Earth revolves around the sun: the sun itself doesn’t rise and set. Yet meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset every day. We understand in the English language what those terms mean while not taking them literally.

Taking the Bible literally means we don’t interpret it as myth or stories, even though it contains a few stories in it. But we understand the Bible uses different expressions of literature which are not strictly literal without detracting from an overall literal approach to the Bible. What are some of these literary devices?

Idioms. Terms like sunrise and sunset, as mentioned, or phrases like “kick the bucket,”  a somewhat slangish euphemism for dying. Making a “bucket list” capitalizes on that idiom to mean having a list of things one wants to experience or accomplish before dying. On a side note, I was amused recently to see someone take that a step further in an article on “my bucket list for the summer,” apparently not knowing the significance of the bucket in that phrase.

A couple of Biblical idioms:

  • The land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” We understand that to mean plenty, not literal rivers of milk and honey.
  • To be “stiff-necked” or to stiffen the neck indicate stubbornness, not a need to see a chiropractor.

Metaphors. A simile compares two things using the phrase “like” or “as”: “Her smile is as bright as a summer day.” A metaphor does the same thing but without “like” or “as.” In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we have this famous metaphor: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

A few Biblical metaphors: ‘Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song of Solomon 1:15b. “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to something not human. “The flower lifted it face to the sun.” “The wind roared.”

Biblical examples: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Bible says that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and as such does not have body parts as we know them. Yet to communicate with us in ways we can understand, the Bible speaks as if He does. “ And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5). Psalm 17:6 says, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.” Deuteronomy 33:27 says, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” We understand that to mean that God’s care is just as real as if He were literally holding us in his arms.

Personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, meaning to treat something abstract or inanimate as if it was human. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems personifies death: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”

Biblical example: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:20-23).

Hyperbole exaggerates something for effect. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Biblical examples: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). “The cities are great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28b).

Poetry uses many of these devices, but poetry itself is often phrased in a non-literal way. To quote Emily Dickinson again:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Biblical examples: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God didn’t actual send in giant birds, a la The Lord of the Rings, but His care of them was just as if He did. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10).

Parables are very short stories with a moral or religious meaning, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They differ from fables in that they have human characters and are plausible, whereas fables use animals, sometimes inanimate objects or nature, and are usually obviously fanciful.

In the Bible, Jesus’s teaching abounds with parables: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the sower, the good Samaritan, etc. But there are parables in other parts of the Bible as well, especially among the prophets, like the one Nathan told that convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.

Symbols involve an item being used to represent something else, like a newscaster referring to the White House and meaning the government: “The White House issued a statement today…”

Revelation is full of symbols. The dragon and the beast, for instance, are not animals but evil people whose characters are represented by those beings. There has been argument over the elements of communion, or the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s table, for years, but it makes the most sense to believe that the elements of bread and wine are symbolic rather than actually containing the body and blood of Christ. One indication of this is the reaction of the disciples as they listened. They were not above questioning and even arguing with the Lord, but no one batted an eye at His statements at the last Supper, indicating that they didn’t think He was advocating cannibalism.

When we listen to the news, read nonfiction, or hear a speech, we can easily discern these literary devices, and we don’t dismiss everything else the speaker or writer says as symbolic or untrue because they use anthropomorphism or an idiom or a metaphor. We’re able to discern from the context whether certain phrases are literal or figurative, usually without even thinking about it, and we get the message the communicator is trying to convey.

I, for one, am glad the Bible uses different literary genres of devices rather than just giving us lists of facts and truths and teachings. Many of us “get” truth in different ways – some prefer it plainspoken, some benefit from a story or illustration. Hearing the same truth in the law, in a parable, in poetry, in prophecy, in an epistle, reinforces that truth to us.

The Bible uses these devices, but the Bible is not wholly a story or parable or fable. There are some who interpret the first two chapters of Genesis or all of Genesis or even the greater part of the Old Testament as myth. But much of the OT is literal history.

The better way to read the Bible is in an ordinary way like you would any other nonfiction, taking it as meaning what the words would ordinarily mean unless the context indicates it is figurative speech. For instance, there is nothing in the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation that indicate anything is meant other than normal 24 hour days. Sure, Peter says “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” but that doesn’t mean every time you see the word “day” in the Bible that it could possibly mean 1,000 years.The ordinary reading of this passage would indicate that creation took place in the span of a week. That’s certainly not beyond God’s power to do. Good people differ on this, and I don’t think anyone’s salvation hinges on whether they think the days in Gen. 1 and 2 are 24-hour days or eons. But I have read accounts where this is taken as mythic or symbolic that then skew other parts of the Bible to mean something quite different from what a more literal reading would indicate. Though good people can differ here and there on some of the fine points, overall a literal approach (except where obviously figurative) is the best.

And by saying that we read it in an ordinary way, I am not discounting that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to open our understanding. The Bible is a supernatural book and we need God’s help to understand it rightly. I just mean that we read it as literal unless it’s obviously figurative.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I am way past the time I allowed for this post, and it’s plenty long already.

A couple of other helpful articles are Taking the Bible Literally (though I’d disagree with him on a couple of points, like hell) and Do Faithful Christian Take the Bible Literally?

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Tell His Story, Faith on Fire)

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Word Studies in the Bible

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Generally it’s better to read a book of the Bible from start to finish, in one or consecutive sittings. You get the whole context then, the way the passage fits within the rest of the book, etc., and you get it the way it was originally intended to be read. But sometimes a topical or word or phrase study can be beneficial, too, either as a break from just reading, or because you have found something you want to study out a bit further.

We have to be careful with word or topical studies that we don’t string together a bunch of unrelated verses out of context. But if we take context into account, sometimes these studies can be real eye-openers. I’ll share a few of my own later.

The place to begin is a concordance. You probably have a small concordance in the back of your Bible, and that can be a good starting place. But you’re probably going to want to invest in a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, or, if you have a computer, learn to work with some online programs. There are several Bible computer programs you could buy, but for just a basic study like this, free online resources like BibleGateway.com, BibleStudyTools.com, or blueletterbible.org are all fine.

Say you wanted to look up verses about God’s love. You look up “love” in the concordance, and there are tons of verses with that word in it. You go through them and find the ones that deal with God’s love rather than the love of people for each other, and either write them out, or, with a computer you can just “copy and paste” them into your word processing program. As you do this, you’ll find characteristics of God’s love (it is eternal, merciful, etc.), and you might want to organize the verses into categories. Even doing this you won’t find all the verses about God’s love, because some verses that may talk about it may not have the word “love” in the verse, and so won’t show up in that category in the concordance. So if you want to be really thorough, as you study those verses you can look up the cross references or look up the verses just before and after the ones you find in the concordance (that is a good practice anyway to make sure you are taking the verses in context).

If you wanted to take it a step further, you could look up the original Greek or Hebrew words. The Strong’s Concordance will have a number assigned to each word, and you can then look up words by that number. I believe Strong’s numbers are only available for the KJV and NIV. In BibleStudyTools.com, for instance, if you look up John 3:16, then you can click on the “Settings” icon and click on the Strong’s numbers. All the words with a Strong’s number will turn blue, and you can click on any of them to see the definition. If you click on “loved,” you’d be taken to a page which shows you the Greek word there is “agapao,” and you’ll also see the word origin, part of speech, definition, other places in the Bible where this word is used, and other ways the word is translated. You can even listen to what the pronunciation sounds like.

Once in a Child Care class in college, we had to do a study on what the Bible says about child discipline. For that kind of a study, you might go to verses you are already familiar with first, then look up the cross references listed beside them, then look up pertinent words in the concordance, like “rod,” “discipline,” “train,”, “child,” “son,” etc. Then you might go from the actual verses telling about child discipline to examples in Scripture of parents disciplining their children in good or bad ways or examples of how God disciplines us.

When you go back to your regular reading, you’ll likely find other verses that would fit in to your study, and your study will likely heighten what you get out of that passage as you read it again.

I’ve done studies on particular problem areas I’ve wrestled with, like anger, pride, anxiety, gluttony, that have been very helpful.  One pitfall is that it be can be very easy to look these verses up and get them all neatly categorized and organized….and then file them away without really going back to read and study them to see what they teach. But they can be a handy and helpful study guide.

Once I did a study on the words “in Christ” or “in Him.” I had noticed a few verses that detailed some things that we have in Christ and wanted to study it out further. It was a very rich study! Here are just a few of those verses:

Romans 3:24   Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

 Romans 8:1  There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 8:38– 98   For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 1 Corinthians 1:30   But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.

 1 Corinthians 15:22   For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

 2 Corinthians 2:14   Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place.

John 1:4   In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

 Colossians 2:10   And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.

Another time, to try to fight against my desire for my own way so much of the time, I did a study looking up verses like “own way,” “own understanding,” “own thoughts,” “own sight,” “own eyes,” etc. I ended up with four pages of very convicting notes! Here are just a few:

Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Proverbs 14:14a The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways

Proverbs 21:2 Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the LORD pondereth the hearts.

Romans 10:3  For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Proverbs 1:31 Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.

Proverbs  3:5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

Proverbs  3:7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

Philippians 3:9   And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.

One of the most impactful word studies I did was on the phrase “God is able.” I saw a few verses with that phrase in the March 8 evening reading of Daily Light on the Daily Path, and decided to look up more.  Some of those:

II Chronicles 25:9: And Amaziah said to the man of God, But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the army of Israel? And the man of God answered, The LORD is able to give thee much more than this. (See II Chronicles 25:1-9 for the bigger picture.)

Daniel 3:17: If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.

Daniel 4:37: Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.

Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Acts 20:32: And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

Romans 4:21: And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.

Romans 14:4: Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.

2 Corinthians 9:8: And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work…

Ephesians 3:20-21: Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

Philippians 3:21: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

2 Timothy 1:12: For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.

Hebrews 2:18: For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.

Hebrews 7:25: Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

James 4:12: There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?

Jude 1:24: Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy….

Matthew 9: 28, 29: Believe ye that I am able to do this? . . . Yea Lord. . . . According to your faith be it unto you.

What a great boost to faith, and how much we have to praise our God for!

Have you ever done a word or topical study in the Bible that impacted you? If not, I hope you’ll give a word or topical study a try!

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival)

Book Review: Taking God At His Word

Taking God at His WordTaking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung discusses…well, exactly what the subtitle says it does, “unpacking what the Bible says about the Bible.”

He begins with Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, an acrostic “love song” about God’s Word in language that would seem excessively emotional by many today, even many who read and love the Bible. He wants Psalm 119 to be the goal, the application, that the rest of the book leads to rather than a “ho hum” or skeptical reaction.

I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day.

He then goes on to discuss what we should believe about the Word of God – it says what is true, it demands what is right, it provides what is good – and what we should feel about the Word of God – delight in it, desire it, depend on it. He then discusses what we should do with the Word of God (with supporting points for each section).

He discusses the “feeling as though God speaking to us through the Scriptures is an inferior, less exciting, less edifying means of communication. We can’t help but conclude, ‘Yes, the Bible is important, but oh, what a treasure it would be if I could experience God really speaking to me! If only I could hear from the sure and infallible voice of God'” and assures us that that’s exactly what we do have in the Bible.

He devotes a chapter each to God’s Word being enough, clear, final, and necessary, concluding with “Christ’s Unbreakable Bible,” which shows what Jesus believed about and how He responded to the OT Scriptures, and “Stick With the Scriptures.”

A few more quotes:

The authority of God’s Word resides in the written text–the words, the sentences, the paragraphs–of Scripture, not merely in our existential experience of the truth in our hearts.

The goal of revelation is not information only, but affection, worship, and obedience. Christ in us will be realized only as we drink deeply of the Bible, which is God’s word outside of us.

To deny, disregard, edit, alter, reject, or rule out anything in God’s Word is to commit the sin of unbelief.

Just because God cannot be known exhaustively, that does not mean he cannot be known at all.

We should not abandon faith in anything God has taught us merely because we cannot solve all the problems which it raises. Our own intellectual competence is not the test and measure of divine truth. It is not for us to stop believing because we lack understanding, but to believe in order that we may understand (This is a quote from J. I. Packer’s book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God).

There is an objective standard of truth which supersedes private impressions or experience.

But, someone may ask, doesn’t Jesus sometimes argue that the Old Testament was wrong? Doesn’t he actually correct the Scriptures on a few occasions? It may look that way, but upon closer inspection we see that Christ never corrects a verse of Scripture when rightly interpreted and applied. For example, the claim is made that Jesus relaxed the requirements of the Sabbath, thus violating his own principle and tweaking Scripture to be less rigid. But actually Jesus appealed to Scripture—to the story of David and his men eating the bread of the Presence—to show that the Pharisees were imposing standards which violated the teaching of Scripture (Mark 2: 23–28)…Jesus is not correcting Scripture itself, but the misapplication of it.

Scripture doesn’t tell us everything we may want to know about everything. But it tells us everything we need to know about the most important things.

The author covers a lot of ground in a short book (146 pages) in a way that is thorough, engaging, clear, learned but not full of academese, easily accessible, I believe, for non-Christians, new Christians, or experienced Christians. I enjoy Keven’s writing, and though in other posts and books of his I may not agree with every little point, I don’t recall anything I objected to in this book. Highly recommended.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

 

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With All Our Minds

I admit I enjoy learning. I liked reading the encyclopedia when I was a child. When I was in college, I once remarked that I could be a professional student. I loved taking classes, and as graduation came, I lamented that I couldn’t get to all of them that I wanted to. But I had a huge college debt already and needed to actually get on with life beyond college.

However, I’ve known women whose eyes glaze over when a pastor or Bible teacher mentions verb tenses or Greek words, things I love because they help me understand the text better. I’ve known some women to fidget, sigh, squirm, and make funny comments during a more academic Sunday School lesson and then become thoroughly engaged listening to a speaker with more froth than substance.

Sometimes these women are gifted in other ways. Some are more outgoing, easily engage with people socially, and are great at making people feel welcome – all things that don’t come naturally to me and that I have to work at.

Just as those of us who are introverted and do not easily begin conversations have to go outside our comfort zones sometimes, so those who are not naturally academically inclined have to go beyond their natural grain sometimes. By “not academically inclined” I don’t mean not smart. There are different kinds of smart, “book smart” being just one of them.

And granted, there are some speakers and writers who overdo the academics with a plethora of multi-syllabled theological terms that only a seminary graduate would know. I’m not talking about that kind of academics. I’m talking about this:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30, ESV.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2, ESV.

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:13, KJV. (The ESV renders “gird up the loins of your mind” as “preparing your minds for action.“)

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:11-14, ESV.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15, NASB.

God doesn’t want to touch just our hearts from His Word, He wants us to use our minds, to engage our brains.

I think one reason that so many spiritual books marketed to women are so shallow, as Aimee Byrd wrote, is that we tend to want to be spoon-fed processed “inspirational” food without having to think too much about it. And, as I wrote recently in regard to doctrine, sometimes we approach the Bible just wanting “something to get me through the day” or something uplifting rather than wanting to study it.

There are times, like when there are young children in the house, or during times of illness or exhaustion, when there is not as much time or our brains aren’t quite as up to exercise as usual.

And we have to be careful to keep things in balance and not become like the Pharisees, who were all academic knowledge and no heart and soul.

But next time we pick up our Bibles or listen to someone preach or teach, let’s seek to be taught, to think, to learn.

Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. Psalm 86:11, ESV.

Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! Psalm 119:29, ESV.

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Psalm 119:33, ESV.

Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments. Psalm 119:66, ESV.

Thy Word is Like a Garden, Lord

Thy Word is like a garden, Lord, with flowers bright and fair;
And every one who seeks may pluck a lovely cluster there.
Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine; and jewels rich and rare
Are hidden in its mighty depths for every searcher there.

Thy Word is like a starry host: a thousand rays of light
Are seen to guide the traveler and make his pathway bright.
Thy Word is like an armory, where soldiers may repair;
And find, for life’s long battle day, all needful weapons there.

O may I love Thy precious Word, may I explore the mine,
May I its fragrant flowers glean, may light upon me shine!
O may I find my armor there! Thy Word my trusty sword,
I’ll learn to fight with every foe the battle of the Lord.

Words: Ed­win Hod­der, The New Sun­day School Hymn Book, 1863

(Sharing With Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire)

Why Study Doctrine?

Doctrine can seem like a cold, dry concept, something stuffy theologians fuss over when they should be trying to reach others. We’re more excited by a group study on relationships or parenting or womanhood or just about anything rather than a doctrinal study. We don’t usually approach our time in the Bible or church rubbing our hands eagerly anticipating what doctrine we’ll learn about today. We’re usually looking for help, encouragement, affirmation. We want to feel something. But feelings don’t last. If I get a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling in my devotions, that can dissipate in seconds when someone crosses me or something goes wrong. Winsome sermons and books may inspire me for a short while, but unless there is meat to them, that inspiration won’t last.

But doctrine is vital. You can hardly read a NT epistle without coming across a mention of doctrine and warning against false doctrine. If we think of sound doctrine as a manifestation of God’s truth and character, we can in turn worship Him by knowing and sharing the doctrines of His Word.

A.W. Tozer once wrote that “there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

So what are some advantages to studying right doctrine in the Bible?

Doctrine leads us to true worship. When we don’t worship God for Who He truly is, then we are worshipping a god of our own making, and that is idolatry. Now, of course, all of us are imperfect in our knowledge of Him and are, or should be, ever growing in Him, and He’ll correct our understanding along the way. But that is different from not knowing Him for Who He is due to neglect or misapplication of the Word.

Doctrine increases our intimacy with God. We can’t know Him aright apart from what He has revealed of Himself in His Word. As we learn more of Him, we love Him and worship Him more, and what seemed like “dry doctrine” then does become something that warms and thrills our hearts as the Holy Spirit brings that truth to mind.

Doctrine protects against error and therefore the wrong path. For example, years ago when cult leader David Koresh was in the news, I watched an interview with someone from his compound. I was shocked to hear her say that she was impressed that he knew his Bible so well. Nearly everything he brought from the Bible, he twisted. Knowing doctrine would have kept this person and others from being deceived by him and others like him.

Doctrine bolsters our faith and confidence in God.  Recently I was troubled by a question I had no answer for that cast doubts on God’s character. I still don’t have an answer for it, but I rested on the previously studied truth that He is good, righteous, kind, and merciful.

Doctrine meets our deepest needs at the most basic level. If I am feeling lonely, what most helps except the truth that God is present everywhere, even with me? If I am afraid, what helps most but meditating on God’s power? When a trial comes and people feel forsaken, what most comforts but the precious truth that God will never forsake us? If I am feeling ashamed, sinful, and unworthy, my only help is turning to the only One who can wash away my sin and remind me that I am in Him and beloved by Him.

Doctrine is stabilizing. “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14, ESV). I’ve known women and read women who do just this, float around with whatever is popular with little discernment. 2 Timothy speaks of “silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” who are “lead captive” by a whole host of wrongdoers in the “perilous last days” (2 Timothy 3:1-7, KJV). By contrast, Titus 2 exhorts us to “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (v. 1, KJV).

Doctrine determines deeds. Our beliefs affect our behavior. When a lie seems the only way out of a tough situation, what keeps us from it but the knowledge that it will displease a God whose essence is truth? Even the Titus 2 admonition to older men and women is couched in the context of sound doctrine.

Doctrine honors God. He is the one who determined what sound doctrine us. If we love Him we should want to know what He says and live accordingly. It’s so important to Him, He inspired John to write, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (1 John 1:10, ESV).

Doctrine is not an end in itself. If it is, then it does become dry and stale. The point of doctrine isn’t to line up our beliefs in neat, orderly systems and leave them there. The point is to know God better, serve Him in the ways He desires, and minister His truth to others.

People concerned about right doctrine can seem pesky and picky, and, true, it’s too easy to be that way. We shouldn’t be nitpicky just to be so. But we should “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB), and as kindly and gently as possible bring His truth to bear in our conversations and interactions. We have to remember to let our speech be always “with grace” (Col. 4:6) and to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We don’t need to “pounce” on every comment or reference another person might make, but graciously seek what the Lord might have us say. We also have to distinguish between clear doctrine and those areas where good people can differ or personal preferences.

II Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (KJV). We “behold Him” through His Word. And, the more we behold Him, the more we are changed into His likeness.

Learning doctrine doesn’t necessarily mean digging up systematic theology books, though some might like to do so. In our everyday reading and Bible study, it means looking for the truth about God when we read. The Bible is so much more than moralistic stories (“Be like Joseph and Daniel; don’t be like Jonah and Judas”). Look at what God is doing in the passage, what we see of His character and wisdom in what He is doing.

So, don’t be dismayed by that word “doctrine.” II Timothy 4: 3-4 says, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” That is a warning to us not to turn away from sound doctrine, but also possibly an admission that sound doctrine needs to be “endured.” Learning doctrine may not always feel warm and fuzzy, but the Holy Spirit will use it in our lives in blessed ways.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire)

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Book Review: A Place of Quiet Rest

Quiet RestThe subtitle of A Place of Quiet Rest by Nancy Leigh DeMoss (now Wolgemuth) is “Finding Intimacy With God Through a Daily Devotional Life,” and that sums up perfectly the aim and emphasis of the book.

“Devotions,” for those who might not be familiar with the term, is what we call spending time alone with God in the Bible and prayer. Some people use the terms “God and I time” or “quiet time” or other phrases as well.

In Nancy’s introduction she tells a bit of her own and her family’s history, especially her father’s example of making time to spend with God, her struggles, and finally her conclusion that:

I have come to believe with all my heart that this is something worth fighting for. I have come to understand that one of the reasons it is such a battle is that the Enemy of my soul knows if he can defeat me here, he will ultimately be able to defeat me in every other area of my spiritual life.

Satan hates God, and he works tirelessly to convince Christians that they can operate on their own, independently of God. If we concede the battle to him, he knows that we will end up defeated, frustrated, barren, and useless to God. Worse, we will end up doubting God, despairing of His goodness, in bondage to our flesh, resisting His will.

…I have come to see that “devotions” is not so much an obligation of the Christian life, as it is an incredible opportunity to know the God of the universe. He has issued to you and to me an invitation to draw near to Him, to walk right into the “Holy of Holies” to enter into an intimate love relationship with Him (p. 16).

She discusses the challenges of setting apart that time in a busy schedule, the examples from the Bible of those who drew near to God, the wrong motivations for having devotions, the inward and outward purposes of devotions, elements of a quiet time, preparing for it, the high value of the Word of God, different approaches to it, questions to ask of the text, journaling, resources, our responses to what we read, prayer, and the influence our time with the Lord will have on the rest of our lives. She quotes many Christians of past years and closes each chapter with tips for making the information personal as well as the testimony of another woman, some famous (Elisabeth Elliot, Joni Eareckson Tada), some not.

I have multitudes of places marked, but here are just a few quotes that especially stood out to me:

A carefully structured quiet time with the Lord is good, but a growing life of devotion to the Savior is more – much more – that “Do A, B, or C and you will know Him better” (p 9, forward by Joni Eareckson Tada).

Developing intimacy with the Lord Jesus requires a conscious, deliberate choice. It is a choice to spend time sitting at His feet and listening to His Word, even when there are other good things that are demanding our attention. It is a choice to put Him first, above all our other responsibilities and tasks (pp. 42-43).

“Your company means more to Me than your cooking. You are more important to me than anything you can do for me” (p. 43, from a paraphrase of what Jesus was trying to get across to Martha).

Setting aside time for devotional activity, in and of itself, does not necessarily make us any more spiritual. (The Pharisees were renowned for their “devotional habits,” but they were far from spiritual.) Neither is a quiet time some sort of good luck charm that gets God on our side, guarantees our day will go better, and keeps us from having problems. Daily devotions are not a way of bartering or negotiating with God (p. 52).

Keep in mind that it is not enough that we should just read the Word. The object is that the words that are printed on the page would become indelibly written on our hearts. God never intended that we should merely get onto His Word – His intent is that the Word should get into us.

I cannot set aside time for God sporadically, whenever I can squeeze Him into my schedule, and hope to enjoy a vital, growing friendship with Him. That isn’t possible in human relationships, and it is no more possible in our relationship with God (p. 92).

Don’t let yourself get hung up in the mechanics. The particular Bible reading and study methods that are most helpful to someone else may not be as useful to you. The important thing is to make sure that you are getting into the Word and that the Word is getting into you. Find out which methods work best for you, and use them (p. 185).

There was one teeny little area where I wasn’t sure I agreed with the author: when she discussed Jesus’ example of making time to spend alone with His Father, she used phrases like, “This is where He discovered the will of God for His life” (I would say He knew that before He came); “This is where He gained the resources to do battle against Satan”; “This is where He received grace to love the unloveable and power to do the impossible” (p. 29); “Jesus had compassion on the multitudes and gave of Himself sacrificially to minister to their needs. But He knew that He could not meet their needs if He did not draw upon His relationship with His Father” (p. 101). I believe that when Jesus was in a human body on earth, He was still fully God as well as fully man (which I know Nancy believes as well), and some of these things were inherent in His nature as God, so I am not sure that His spending time with His Father was as much of a filling up after being depleted like we would need. But I hadn’t quite considered it this way before, so I need to think about and study it more.

I especially appreciated the emphasis on seeking intimacy, a close relationship with God. Making our way through the Bible, learning truth, learning doctrine, memorizing verses, are all important, but need to be exercised under the overarching purpose of getting to know Him better and drawing closer to Him in our hearts, not as an end in themselves.

The book is highly readable and I think it would be good for both beginners who haven’t really established regular devotional habits yet as well as those who have been having time set apart with God for years.

Even though many of these truths and tips were familiar to me, and even though making time for Bible reading has, by God’s grace, been a settled thing for me for some time now, I still find books like this valuable. I do learn some new things, but they reinforce what I have come to believe over the years and inspire me to keep on.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Faith on Fire, Carole’s Books You Loved), and Literary Musing Monday)

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Book Review: Knowable Word

knowable-wordKnowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible by Peter Krol lives up to its title. It begins with a section about why to study the Bible (to get to know the Person behind it). It concedes that Bible studies and commentaries and such are valuable in many ways, but promises to give the tools for the reader to mine from the Bible on their own and to get to know God better.

Sometimes…we seek a mountaintop experience where we can behold His glory and see Him face to face. We want to hear His voice speaking with clarity and power. We long to be wowed from on high. The apostle Peter had such an experience with Jesus, and he concluded that you and I don’t need to have to same experience.

“We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Peter 1:16b-19a) (pp. 13-14).

After a brief discussion of a few off-base approaches to Bible study, Krol dives into the method he advocates and teaches, which is not new but today goes by the acronym OIA:

  1. Observation – what does it say?
  2. Interpretation – what does it mean?
  3. Application – how should I change? (p. 16)

He discusses each in more detail, explains why each is important, illustrates it from everyday conversation and from Jesus’ teaching when He brought out truth from the OT. He reminds us that no method or set of tools replaces our dependence on the Holy Spirit to guide and illuminate us.

The next several chapters discuss each of these steps in more detail and shows how to use them by applying them to Genesis 1 and 2. Observation, for example, means that we don’t bring in preconceived notions or gloss over familiar passages because we think we know what they say. Observation involves considering genre, the author, repeated words, grammar, structure, and mood or tone. He similarly delves into more detail with interpretation and application.

This a short book at 117 pages, but it is densely packed and contains little to no fluff. I have sticky tabs and markings on almost every other page.

One area where I would disagree with Krol just a bit is in application. I agree that we need to be doers of the Word and not just hearers (James 1:22) and we need to be specific rather than vague. He does admit that he delves into this more in the book for illustration and that in reality he would just take one or two specific applications. I agree that we need to apply the Bible inwardly as well as outwardly, and as he advocates, apply it to head, hands, and heart. The point where I have a problem is in coming up with measurable actions steps from each day’s reading. Sometimes that might be the case. As we read, we need to be asking God for wisdom in applying what He teaches us and we need to act on anything He convicts us about. But I imagine a scenario like this: I’m convicted about my need to be more loving (often) and my need to get out of myself and reach out to others. So after reading a Bible passage about Christian love, I might sit and think of ways to show more love to others and interest in them. So I decide I’ll bake some cookies for my neighbor and make my husband’s favorite dinner. And that may be exactly what I need to do. But in my thinking, after I have done those things, I can check “be more loving” off my list because I have done my good deeds for the day. On the other hand, if I ask God’s help to carry the reminder to be more loving with me throughout the day, He can guide me into situations that I didn’t know were going to come up and apply it all day. (Actually I have found that telling myself to “be more loving” focuses on my lack and inability. But if I remind myself to “love as Jesus loved me,” that removes the focus from me to Him, from my lack to His fullness.) There are points in the day I know I will desperately need that reminder, like when someone interrupts me at the computer and I lose my train of thought for the paragraph I am writing, and I have to remind myself that people are more important than tasks. Or when I go in to change my mother-in-law. Since she’s not verbal and often groggy, it’s easy to fall into just doing the task at hand and forget the person. But I have to remind myself to look her in the eye, smile, speak even if she doesn’t respond, show love and care and interest in her as a person. As I read about loving as Christ loved, those two examples come to mind first. But I’ll need to apply that truth in multiple ways, not just the two I thought about while considering application. I think Krol would agree with this: he’s not advocating just generating lists to check off. And measurable action steps are not necessarily a bad result of Bible reading. I just don’t know that I would end every Bible reading time with such a list.

One other section that had me scratching my head a bit described his church hiring a brand new preacher who made some mistakes in his first sermon, realized it, and braced for some criticism from the leadership. I agreed with them in dealing with the issues but assuring him that Jesus had died for him, including these issues, and they’d rather he “give it his all, making a few mistakes in the process, than that he hold back out of fear of imperfection. He was free to live out his calling as a preacher with confidence that he was accepted by God and already approved” (p. 96). But what I thought odd was that, under the idea of “If you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one,” the author said, “So let’s study (and especially apply) the Bible with such great confidence that we can ‘sin boldly,’ as Martin Luther once advised his student Philip Melanchthon, ” and then he shares this quote from Luther: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.” I don’t know the context of Luther’s quote, and I do know that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20), and I agree that we should “give it [our] all, making a few mistakes in the process, [rather] than…hold back out of fear of imperfection.” But still – I don’t see any encouragement in the Bible to “sin boldly” because we’re under grace.

As I said, I have multiple places marked in the book, but I’ll try to share just a few of the quotes I found most helpful:

Careless presumption will kill your Bible study. It will strangle observation and bear stillborn application. It will make you look like the stereotypical, narrow-minded Christian, and it will diminish your influence for the Lord. By strengthening your confidence in questionable conclusions, presumption will cloud your relationship with Jesus and your experience of his grace. When it comes to Bible study then, guard yourself against every form of unexamined presumption (p. 47).

Since we’ll continue observing new things in God’s Word until Jesus returns, our observations could be infinite in number. But interpretations are not infinite (though our grasp of them may mature over time). Biblical authors had agendas, and we are not authorized to add to those agendas. We investigate the facts of the text until we’re able to think the author’s thoughts after him. And since biblical authors wrote God’s very words, good interpretation trains us to think God’s thoughts (p. 49).

Don’t use minor details to make the text say what you want it to say. Don’t build a theology from one unclear verse (p. 51).

Ancient authors didn’t waste space with meaningless details. Every word has a purpose. Every sentence captures an idea. Every paragraph advances the agenda. And every section has a main point. The accumulation of these points promotes the goal of bringing the audience closer to the Lord. And once we understand how that main point directed the original audience toward the Lord, we’ll be ready to consider how it should shape us (p. 59).

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, whether a new reader of the Bible or one who has read it multiple times for years.

Genre: Nonfiction
Potential objectionable elements: A couple of minor areas of disagreement.
My rating: 9 out of 10

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carol‘s Books You Loved )

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Wiersbe “BE” Commentaries

I’ve mentioned before that I like reading the Bible through, for a number of reasons, but I don’t do it in a year’s time any more. I like to be able to stop when I want to spend more time digging in.

I like to really slow down in the NT epistles especially. Many of them are so short, they could easily be read in one sitting. But they’re so densely packed with truth you wouldn’t want to do that. Previously when I’ve come with them I’ve read the same one over several days in a row until I felt I had gotten a grasp on it.

For the past year or so a couple of friends have been posting when one of Warren Wiersbe’s “BE” Commentaries has come up on a sale for the Kindle app. I really enjoyed his 50 People Every Christian Should Know and With the Word: The Chapter by Chapter Bible Handbook , so I thought I’d look into these. He has written one for every book of the Bible. For larger books, like Genesis, he has taken 2-3 books to cover them. He has combined smaller ones together in one volume. I don’t have them all, but I’ve collected several.

Unfortunately I forgot I had them in my current trek through the epistles until I had already read a number of them.

I wish I had reviewed each one, but at the time, I thought, “How do you review a commentary?” But these are the ones I have read with some stand-out quotes from each:

be-readyBe Ready (1 & 2 Thessalonians): Living in Light of Christ’s Return

The Christian who is feeding others must be careful not to feed on the wrong things himself.

Paul also comforted them. This word carries the same idea of “encouragement,” with the emphasis on activity. Paul not only made them feel better, but he made them want to do better. A father must not pamper a child; rather, he must encourage the child to go right back and try over again. Christian encouragement must not become an anesthesia that puts us to sleep. It must be a stimulant that awakens us to do better.

How does God cause our love to “increase more and more”? By putting us into circumstances that force us to practice Christian love. Love is the “circulatory system” of the body of Christ, but if our spiritual muscles are not exercised, the circulation is impaired. The difficulties that we believers have with one another are opportunities for us to grow in our love.

The purpose of Bible prophecy is not for us to make a calendar but to build character.

Any teaching that encourages us to disobey another divine teaching is not Bible teaching.

be-faithfulBe Faithful (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon): It’s Always Too Soon to Quit!

But many prefer the “vain jangling” (1 Tim. 1:6) of those who teach novelties rather than the pure Word of God that produces holiness in lives.

It is not enough for a local church to teach sound doctrine and to proclaim the gospel. The church must also defend the faith by exposing lies and opposing the doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1).

The purpose of prayer is not to get man’s will done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth.

Not all unity is good, and not all division is bad. There are times when a servant of God should take a stand against false doctrine and godless practices, and separate himself from them. He must be sure, however, that he acts on the basis of biblical conviction and not because of a personal prejudice or a carnal party spirit.

“That they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:19) does not suggest that these people are not saved. “That they may lay hold on the life that is real” would express it perfectly. Riches can lure a person into a make-believe world of shallow pleasure.

What germs are to a physical body, false teaching is to a spiritual body, the church.

Note his emphasis on the person of Christ: “I know whom I have believed.” Salvation is not the result of believing certain doctrines, though doctrines are important. A sinner is saved because he believes in a Person—Jesus Christ the Savior. Paul had deposited his soul in the care and keeping of the Savior, and Paul was sure that Jesus Christ would faithfully guard that deposit.

be-matureBe Mature (James): Growing Up in Christ

The epistle of James was written to help us understand and attain spiritual maturity: “… that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1: 4). I like the way J. B. Phillips puts it: “… and you will find you have become men of mature character, men of integrity with no weak spots.”

In the Bible, patience is not a passive acceptance of circumstances. It is a courageous perseverance in the face of suffering and difficulty.

“A temptation is an opportunity to accomplish a good thing in a bad way, out of the will of God.

Christian love does not mean that I must like a person and agree with him on everything. I may not like his vocabulary or his habits, and I may not want him for an intimate friend. Christian love means treating others the way God has treated me. It is an act of the will, not an emotion that I try to manufacture. The motive is to glorify God. The means is the power of the Spirit within (“ for the fruit of the Spirit is love”). As I act in love toward another, I may find myself drawn more and more to him, and I may see in him (through Christ) qualities that before were hidden to me.

be-hopefulBe Hopeful (1 Peter): How to Make the Best Times Out of Your Worst Times

Hope is not a sedative; it is a shot of adrenaline, a blood transfusion. Like an anchor, our hope in Christ stabilizes us in the storms of life (Heb. 6: 18–19), but unlike an anchor, our hope moves us forward, it does not hold us back.

The Word reveals God’s mind, so we should learn it; God’s heart, so we should love it; God’s will, so we should live it.

We do not study the Bible just to get to know the Bible. We study the Bible that we might get to know God better. Too many earnest Bible students are content with outlines and explanations, and do not really get to know God. It is good to know the Word of God, but this should help us better know the God of the Word.

It is necessary to understand that God is not going to replace suffering with glory; rather He will transform suffering into glory. Jesus used the illustration of a woman giving birth (John 16: 20–22). The same baby that gave her pain also gave her joy. The pain was transformed into joy by the birth of the baby. The thorn in the flesh that gave Paul difficulty also gave him power and glory (2 Cor. 12: 7–10). The cross that gave Jesus shame and pain also brought power and glory.

I’m currently working through Be Real (I John): Turning From Hypocrisy to Truth.

I’ve been going through a study Bible this year, so I’ll read one chapter of the epistle with the study Bible notes. Then the next day I’ll read the corresponding chapter in Wierbe’s book. If it takes him more than one chapter in his book to cover a chapter in the epistle, I’ll read one a day (sometimes half of one a day) until I finish with with however many chapters in his book it takes to cover that chapter in the epistle.

So, for example, on Monday I’d read the introductory material on 1 John from the study Bible, and on Tuesday I’d read the first chapter of 1 John with the notes from it. Wiersbe takes two chapter to cover 1 John 1, so I’d read those on Wednesday and Thursday – or I’d take longer if I need to. The important thing isn’t that I finish a chapter in a day, but rather that I take the time to read carefully and understand what I am reading.

So I feel this has worked well to slow me down in those short epistles and really take time to soak in them and put them together as a whole rather than reading isolated chapters.

I appreciate that Wiersbe’s tone is, as one preface says, “theologically sound but not overly academic.” He tends to take the passages in sections, explains what they’re about, relates them to the rest of the book, sometimes provides cross references and illustrations or examples.

My only criticisms are that some chapters do get a bit long and might have benefited from being broken down even further, and I wish that, as he discusses the chapter in smaller sections of a few verses at a time, he’d put those verses at the beginning of that section. It would just make it easier than having to go back and forth between the Bible and the commentary.

I haven’t yet used one of his commentaries on a longer book, but I am especially looking forward to the one on Ecclesiastes after reading Hope’s review of it. That book is a little different from the rest, so I’d appreciate his expertise in studying it. Incidentally, she has a Facebook page where she lists free or sale books for the Kindle at Worthwhile Books.

I think when I finish 1 John I might try to review it: if not I may just share pertinent quotes then.

At any rate, I wanted to make you aware of these resources. I’ve found them very helpful.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)

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Principles For Interpreting the Bible

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Have you ever wondered why two people can take the same Bible passage and come up with different meanings for it? Have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say,” especially when you’re trying to bring spiritual truth to bear on a situation? It’s true that people wrest Scripture to make is say something it wasn’t meant to say. Whole false religions have been created by doing just that. How can we guard against doing that ourselves? By applying good principles of interpretation, called hermeneutics.

 “Biblical hermeneutics is all about finding the correct interpretation of the inspired text. The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to protect us from misapplying Scripture or allowing bias to color our understanding of truth.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-hermeneutics.html).

Some of you might think something like, “I will never be a preacher; I’m not even a teacher—so what does it matter how I interpret Scripture?”

It matters, first of all, because we’re instructed to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15). Even though that verse was written as instruction to a preacher, it’s also God’s inspired Word to us. Really, is there anyone who shouldn’t rightly divide the Word or study it aright? We want to understand what God said to us and not be led stray by misunderstanding His Word.

It matters, secondly, because each of us has a sphere of influence. Whether we ever stand in front of a classroom or audience or not, we come across people in our daily walk, we have relatives, friends, neighbors. What we read and how we read Scripture forms our understanding of spiritual matters (and our spiritual understanding of practical matters) and will influence our views, which in turn will affect our conversations and character and witness and influence.

Besides paying attention to the words themselves and how they are put together grammatically, like you would do with any reading, here are a few principles for rightly interpreting Scripture:

  • Pray. In Psalm 119:18, the psalmist prayed, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Several times he asked for God to give him understanding or teach him. In How to Master the English Bible, James Gray said, “The most important rule is the last. Read it prayerfully. Let not the triteness of the observation belittle it, or all is lost. The point is insisted on because, since the Bible is a supernatural book, it can be studied or mastered only by supernatural aid. … Who is so well able to illuminate the pages of a given book as the author who composed it?” (I don’t know anything about the author or book than this, but thought the last two lines especially good.
  • Take the passage literally unless it’s obviously not meant to be literal. Someone once said about understanding the Bible, “When common sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” There are some who “spiritualize” much of the OT, saying that the creation account, among other things, is just a myth and there was no real historical Adam. But the Bible presents creation and OT history as literal events in the lives of real, literal people. In Genesis 1, there is no reason to interpret the days of creation as anything other than 24-hour days. But when Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, we know He is speaking figuratively, partly because of the reaction of the disciples—or lack of reaction they would have had if they thought he was speaking literally.
  • Context, context, context. Taking a verse or passage out of context is one of the biggest violators of its meaning. Just one example: You can find nice plaques or Pinterest quotes that take Exodus 14:13-14 (“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace”) and condense it down to a pithy saying like, “Be still! Your God will fight for you.” But in the very next verse, God says, “Wherefore criest thou unto me?” And then He tells them what to do. Later, though there were times God supernaturally gave Israel the victory, most of the time they had to take up swords, spears, and shields, and fight. They still couldn’t win unless they were depending on Him rather than their own strength, but they trusted God to work through them.

Sometimes even good people will defend a stand or draw a good principle from a passage that isn’t teaching that principle. If the person you’re speaking with then does go back to look up the passage mentioned, your whole position is weakened if the context doesn’t support it. If the principle arises from the context, however, it is all the stronger and more enriching.

  • Don’t imprint your thoughts onto the text, but let the text reveal its meaning. A former pastor used to say that when he first started preaching, as he studied the passage he was going to preach on, he would ask himself, “What can I say about this passage?” After some time he realized that was the wrong question. The right one was, “What does this passage say?” For example, for years I heard that the people’s surprise at Peter’s release at the prayer meeting in Acts 12 was evidence that they weren’t praying in faith. But Dr. Layton Talbert, in his book Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God, brings up a different viewpoint. We don’t know that they were praying for Peter’s deliverance from prison. He points out that the text doesn’t say. James was killed by Herod earlier in the chapter: since he was not delivered they may not have expected Peter to be, either. “The only precedent we have for the church’s prayer under similar circumstances is in Acts 4:23-30. There, in the face of recent imprisonment, persecution, and renewed threats, the church made only one request. And it wasn’t for deliverance from prison or persecution; it was for boldness in the face of both (4:29)” (p. 203).
  • Compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. One of the most important reasons for reading it through is to keep balanced and to keep the “big picture” in mind. A lot of theological error comes from emphasizing one part of a truth and neglecting or deemphasizing of the rest of it. Sometimes seemingly contradictory passages balance one another out or present different sides of the same truth. For instance, Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Those sound like two different instructions, but there is a time to answer and a time it would be unwise to answer, and we need God’s wisdom to discern when and how.
  • Consider the genre. Though all the Bible is inspired and true, we would read Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Romans, and Revelation all a bit differently, taking into account the different kinds of literature each is as we seek to understand them.
  • Consider the historical setting or culture of the passage. Understand that OT Israel was under a theocracy and was given specific promises (like the promise of a particular piece of land) and were under certain restrictions that New Testament believers are not (Acts 15:1-31). Even though some situations discussed in the Bible, even in the NT, are not ones we have to deal with today (like eating meat offered to idols), it’s still important to read them and discern the principles involved.
  • Note the difference in passages of direct instruction and passages of example. I once heard a message that used Abraham’s seeking out a bride for his Isaac as a springboard for telling parents how to find spouses for their children. While there are good principles to glean (like seeking a godly spouse, praying, seeking God’s guidance, etc.), it doesn’t mean that since Abraham found a wife for Isaac, parents today need to find spouses for their children. That was the culture then (see #7), but nowhere in the Bible are parents instructed to find spouses for their children in this way.
  • Note what is said to whom, determine what it meant then, and then determine how it applies to us today. For instance, as a younger Christian I wrestled with whether what Jesus said to the “rich young ruler” in Matthew 19:16-26 about selling his possessions and giving to the poor was something every Christian should do. But then I realized no on else wads told to do that. Though the Bible has a lot of instruction about our possessions (“compare Scripture with Scripture”), that particular admonition was to convict that particular man about his core problem.
  • Don’t “surface” read. Take time to read carefully and meditate on the passage. Biblical meditation isn’t an emptying of your mind, but rather thinking over and over a passage and “chewing” on it.

There is much more that could be said. In fact, every time I come back to this post I think of something else to add. Whole books have been written about this, so I can’t possibly cover every aspect in one blog post. But this gives us plenty to ponder.

Even with these principles in mind, sometimes good people can differ in their interpretations. There are some mysteries that we won’t be able to resolve until we get to heaven. We need to pray, study it out for ourselves, and consult commentaries of those who have had more time and tools to study. Where the Bible speaks clearly, we need to stand firm. But in those areas that are less clear but aren’t a matter of heresy, we need to give grace to those who might not see it exactly like we do.

I’ve wondered through the years why God did not spell everything out so there could be no mistaking the meaning or application of it. Perhaps one reason is to test our own hearts, to encourage our study, our dependence on Him, and grace toward each other.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Mondays, Literary Musing Mondays, Works For Me Wednesday, Woman Word Filled Wednesday, Thought-Provoking Thursday)

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Communicating With God As a Person

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One of my passions is to encourage women to get into the Word of God for themselves. It’s not that I don’t think women read their Bibles, but we could all use the encouragement. Sometimes we struggle with making time for devotions either due to busy schedules or having small children at home; or, if we have a regular time, we can be tempted to go through the motions without really being “tuned in” and engaged.

It helps me to look at our having devotions from a communication or relationship angle. We’re told when we first become Christians that Christianity is not just a list of rules or a system of activities: it’s a relationship with God. But sometimes we can lose that focus and end up just doing things rotely. Remembering that we’re communicating with a Person can transform our viewpoint.

The Bible says that the marriage relationship pictures that of Christ and the church. So let’s compare the two in the realm of communication. Husbands understand if a wife has a super-busy day or if she is tired. But if that happens all the time, if he just wants to spend some time with her, and she is frantically running around taking care of children, housework, even outside ministries, and never has time to just sit down with him, he’s not going to feel loved and wanted. If she spends the time they do talk in losing focus, daydreaming, pondering what to put on her grocery list, he is not going to feel heard. If the only time she communicates with him is on the run while doing other things or when she needs him to do something, or if their only conversation is in the last few  minutes before sleep when they’re drifting off in mid-sentence, their relationship is going to suffer. Sometimes couple just need one on one time with each other.

There is nothing wrong with those types of communication in and of themselves — we are to pray without ceasing, all through the day, even while doing other things, and He wants us to come to Him with our needs, and ending the day talking with Him is lovely. But there needs to be some times of just pure focus on Him, on worship and learning from Him. Even though God doesn’t “need” us in the same sense a husband does, He wants to fellowship with us, and He knows we need to hear Him.

We can see this in other parallels, too: a hostess who prepares a sumptuous meal that no one shows up for, or, if they do, they rush through it; a parent whose child only wants “things” from him; a friend whose friend is drifting away because of a lack of time spent together.

Relationships are built on and maintained by communication. May we keep in mind that our time in prayer and the Word of God is not just one of the duties on out to-do list: it is communication with the One who loves us more than anyone else could and desires our fellowship and worship. May our desire and prayer be along the lines of Joe Zichterman’s hymn, “A passion for Thee, O Lord, set a fire in my soul and a thirst for my God. Hear Thou my prayer, Lord, Thy power impart. Not just to serve, but to love Thee with all of my heart.”

 O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is. Psalm 63:1

I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word. Psalm 119:16

In the secret of His Presence
How my soul delights to hide!
Oh, how precious are the lessons
Which I learn at Jesus’ side!
Earthly cares can never vex me,
Neither trials lay me low;
For when Satan comes to tempt me,
To the secret place I go,
To the secret place I go.

When my soul is faint and thirsty,
’Neath the shadow of His wing
There is cool and pleasant shelter,
And a fresh and crystal spring;
And my Savior rests beside me,
As we hold communion sweet:
If I tried, I could not utter
What He says when thus we meet,
What He says when thus we meet.

Only this I know: I tell Him
All my doubts, my griefs and fears;
Oh, how patiently He listens!
And my drooping soul He cheers:
Do you think He ne’er reproves me?
What a false friend He would be,
If He never, never told me
Of the sins which He must see,
Of the sins which He must see.

Would you like to know the sweetness
Of the secret of the Lord?
Go and hide beneath His shadow:
This shall then be your reward;
And whene’er you leave the silence
Of that happy meeting place,
You must mind and bear the image
Of the Master in your face,
Of the Master in your face.

 ~ Ellen L. Goreh, 1883

(I didn’t know until trying to find a video of this hymn that there was a new tune to it. The one I am familiar with is this one, only done a bit slower and more meditatively.)

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Testimony Tuesday, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday, Works For Me Wednesday)

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