Understanding the Bible

Philip P Eapen

“Who needs a teacher? The Bible is plain and simple. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is there to help us understand it.” So goes a common refrain among Christians. Even so, anointed learning is better than anointed ignorance.

If you have read the sacred books of other religions, you will be surprised to note that the Bible, generally, is simple, clear, and to-the-point. We refer to this as the perspicuity of the Bible. Anyone who has a reasonable knowledge of a language will be able to understand the essential message of the Bible.

However, it should be noted that the apparent ‘simplicity’ of the Bible might make us believe that a casual reading is all it takes for us to understanding of a passage correctly.

A child who stands on a beach experiences an ocean as a body of water that is just ankle-deep until he begins to venture into the deep. Similarly, a casual reader might mistakenly conclude that the Bible is a mere puddle. Only a few take the effort to go any deeper.

Take, for instance, the case of an Indian mother who stumbled upon a secret correspondence between her son and his Christian friends. She was upset and angry that her son had chosen to follow Christ. This discovery disturbed her all the more.

“So, is this what your Christian friends are teaching you? Why do they want you to kill your poor father?”

Her son was puzzled.

“Look at what they have written to you: Put your old man to death.

The son heaved a sigh of relief. It was now the mother’s turn to be puzzled. “Putting the old man to death” is a biblical expression for putting one’s past ways of sin aside in order to put on a new virtuous self! That is the heart and soul of true conversion.

Indeed, the apparent simplicity of the Bible proved to be deceptive in this case.

One of the first Bible passages that a Christian child memorizes is Psalm 23. It may not be too difficult for a person to understand the first line of that Hebrew song.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.”

Who doesn’t know what a shepherd does? God Almighty was the song-writer’s “shepherd;” therefore, the psalmist didn’t lack anything. If the Lord is our shepherd, we too will not be in want. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it?

But what did Jesus mean by this statement?

“I am the good shepherd.”

Or, take for instance what God spoke through prophet Ezekiel about Israel.

“My servant David will be king over them; there will be one shepherd for all of them.”

What did God mean by the word “shepherd?” Yes, you guessed it right. “Shepherd,” in this verse, means king. The word is also used to refer to leaders. What a beautiful word-picture that reminds leaders and rulers of their basic duty to care for those who look up to them!

‘Mind the Gap’

Why is the apparent simplicity of the Bible deceptive? There are many unseen gaps between today’s readers and the Bible.

The better we understand these gaps, the better we can negotiate these. If we ignore the gaps, we might end up superimposing our imaginations and biases on the biblical text.

A good, dynamic translation of the Bible is supposed to help bridge the gap between the ancient text and the modern reader. However, translators are often caught between the need to be faithful to the text and the need to convey the meaning in today’s idiom.

Observe how different translators render the apostle Paul’s exhortation to Christians in the city of Corinth.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” – New International Version

“Give each other a warm greeting.” – Contemporary English Version

“Greet one another with a holy embrace.” – The Message

“Salute one another with religious affection.” – Mace New Testament

Majority of English versions render the mode of greeting as “a holy kiss.” A faithful rendering does help us understand that people of the Mediterranean world greeted each other with a kiss. A few versions chose alternate phrases because most people in the English-speaking world do not greet one another with a kiss.

Here’s another example of how translators choose a literal or a dynamic approach while rendering Proverbs 6:10-11.

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” – English Standard Version

“Sleep a little. Doze a little. Fold your hands and twiddle your thumbs. Suddenly, everything is gone, as though it had been taken by an armed robber.” – Contemporary English Version

“A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there, sit back, take it easy - do you know what comes next? Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life, poverty your permanent houseguest! Always Cooking Up Something Nasty.” – The Message

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest” — Your poverty will come in like a vagabond and your need like an armed man. – New American Standard 1995

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little clasping of the hands to rest, and thy poverty hath come as a traveler, and thy want as an armed man.” – Young’s Literal Translation

While literal translations give us a feel of the Hebrew world, dynamic translations seek to minimize “the gap” between the text and the reader. It is always a good practice to check several versions of the Bible in your language in order to get a richer perspective. Fortunately, these versions are available online for free.

Inductive Study

We can further “mind the gap” by prayerfully following the three steps of inductive method in our pursuit of truth. The inductive method, as opposed to the deductive method, pays careful attention to the biblical text at hand. Instead of bringing external ideas to the text, the learner strives to unearth what’s already before her.

The three steps are:

  1. Observation
  2. Interpretation
  3. Application

These three steps address three different questions.

  1. Observation: What does the text actually say?
  2. Interpretation: What did the text mean to its author and original readers?
  3. Application: What does the text mean today for me/us? How can I obey God?

A Prayer

Our heavenly Father, Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes. I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes! I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. I pray in the name of Jesus, Your son.Psalm 119:105,130,18,135,10-11,15-16; John 15:16 ESV

Observation

The first step towards understanding the Bible is to read it and to make careful observations. As far as possible, read every book of the Bible in the shortest possible time. If you are able to read a book in one sitting, that will help you understand the book better.

It is always advisable to study the Bible using a book-by-book approach. Each book is unique. Each book is situated in a particular context. Once we consider each book as independent units, and once we understand the message of a book as whole, it is a lot easier to understand individual passages or verses correctly. Sadly, a number of Christians work their way up from a verse. Trying to find the meaning of a verse before getting a grip on the message conveyed by the book leads readers to erroneous conclusions.

Do not read between the lines. Carefully observe what the text says. Ask questions. Let the text answer you.

Interpretation

Interpretation is the science and art of determining what a text or speech meant to the author or speaker. Only when we understand what the text meant at the time of writing, can we figure out what it means to us today.

Observation and interpretation often happen side-by-side. We observe and we interpret. Then again, we make further observations, and we interpret again in the light of our new observations. This process keeps repeating, and it takes us deeper into the text.

Several readers treat the Bible like a medium through which God speaks directly to them, often ignoring the context of the verses they read. For example, they may close their eyes, open the Bible to some page and lay one of their fingers on some random verse! They then conclude that that verse is God’s message for them for the day! That’s not very different from “promise verses” distributed by some churches.

A man once “got” the verse: “Judas went and hanged himself.” He was disappointed. He closed his eyes and touched another verse: “You go and do likewise!” Very distressed, he did it a third time and got this verse: “Go quickly and do what you have to do.” In each case, he plucked a portion of a verse out-of-context and applied it directly to himself! Although this is just an extreme case, such cases are not isolated.

Many Christians and skeptics read the Bible without any regard to the context of a passage or a book. Please bear in mind the fact that each book was written by a certain author for the benefit of a certain person or a group of people, addressing one or several of their concerns. Our aim should be to understand what the author meant and how the original readers understood it initially. Otherwise, we may end up assigning our own meaning to the text.

You might protest. Won’t God speak to us through random verses in the Bible even when we do not know what the author meant by the statement? I do realize that God speaks to a few people using random words or phrases from the Bible. But more often than not, those are people who are total strangers to the Bible or infants in the faith. The sad reality is that many Christians do not outgrow this stage. They keep searching for cryptic messages in the Bible. Since they think every verse is a direct message to them, they tend to avoid inconvenient passages that sound like a rebuke.

In order to understand the Bible better, it is important to pay special attention to the historical, social, political, religious, geographical and cultural context of each book.

For example, why did Abraham ask his servant to lay his hand under his thigh while he entered into an oath with the master? Why does it say that Abraham went ‘down’ to Egypt? Why were Jesus’ disciples surprised to find their Master talking to a Samaritan woman? Why was the woman surprised that Jesus asked of her a drink of water? It is not possible to answer these questions until we understand the context. Context is king!

Some people who read the Bible with the sole aim of finding fault with it come up with interesting observations. They might read about levirate marriages in the Old Testament. Some are fascinated by the Song of Songs. Some others stumble upon the passage that describes Amnon’s rape of his half-sister. They then go to town with their findings, claiming that the Bible is a lewd book full of incest, killings, war, and bloodshed. Obviously, they missed the author’s intent and the specific contexts of those passages.

There are several online and print resources that will help you understand the Bible. For example, the online IVP New Testament Commentary.

I hope these tips will encourage you to read the Bible prayerfully. Even if you may not be able to understand everything in the best way, it is vital for you to read the Bible and get familiar with its contents. A fuller and better understanding awaits all of us. Therefore, instead of being rigid and dogmatic about anything, you should allow God to teach you more about everything. A willingness to learn, and to submit to God’s authority in His Word, are the most important marks of a humble Christian.

Application

The goal of Bible reading or study should be to apply God’s Truth in our life.

When we seek to apply the Word to our life, we ask, What does a passage mean to us today? If we have correctly understood what the passage or book meant to its author and to the original audience, it is relatively easier to understand how the Word applies to us.

If God spoke a certain message to a people who faced a certain situation several centuries ago, that message applies to all who go through a similar situation regardless of when or where they live. We should match our situation with that of the original audience. In order to do that, we need to know the context of the passage under study.

Context is king!

For instance, if the Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, assured the church in Philippi that God would supply all their needs according to His riches in glory, that assurance applies to all Christians who are as generous as the Philippian church were despite their extreme poverty. Philippians 4:19 does not apply to all Christians.

Were you ever given a “promise card”? A verse that’s a hit among those who create “promise cards” is:

“For I know what I have planned for you,” says the LORD. “I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.”Jeremiah 29:11

This surely is a “feel good” verse, isn’t it? Who doesn’t like to be assured of God’s plan for their life? Indeed, God has a perfect plan for everyone. But do we need to cite this verse to tell someone that God has a plan for their life? If a random nice-sounding verse can apply to anyone, why don’t we consider this verse as applicable to every Christian?

“God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!”Acts 23:3 NET

Oh, that was said to a particular person under a certain circumstance, you might say. How can it apply to everyone?

That’s exactly what should be said about Jeremiah 29:11 too. That “promise” was given a specific set of people in a particular situation. To be precise, God spoke to exiles in Babylon through Jeremiah. When Jewish prisoners of war arrived in Babylon, false prophets misled them by predicting a quick return to their homeland. Therefore, the Jews refused to unpack their bags and settle down in Babylon.

However, God had another plan for them. Jeremiah prophesied that their exile would last seven decades. He encouraged them to build houses and to plant vineyards. God even asked them to pray and work towards the prosperity of pagan Babylon!“Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and allow your daughters get married so that they too can have sons and daughters. Grow in number; do not dwindle away.  Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the LORD for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.” - Jeremiah 29:5-7 NET

The Jews may have found that message quite counter-intuitive. How could a loving God ask them to “settle down” in a strange land? They couldn’t bear to even sing a song in a foreign country. They bound themselves with curses if they should ever forget Jerusalem.“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand be crippled! May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, and do not give Jerusalem priority over whatever gives me the most joy.” - Ps 137:5-6 NET

This is when God reassured them of His well-designed plans. God commanded them to do what was told even if it did not match their idea of a blessed life. Christians struggling to believe God’s counter-intuitive word in the midst of adversity can appropriate the message of Jeremiah 29:11.

“Cultural versus Supra-cultural Teachings”

What about Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian Church?

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”2 Corinthians 13:12 ESV

Should Christians actually kiss one another as a form of greeting? The British might say, “We’re not like the French; Englishmen don’t kiss each other.” South Asian men and women might prefer to greet one another with folded hands. West Asians may not have any problem greeting a loved one with a kiss.

Most western evangelicals are aware of cultural nuances. They might say, “That’s cultural; we don’t have to follow culture-specific instructions.” Yes, they are right.

The key word in this verse is “greet.” A kiss is a cultural expression of love. Therefore, Christians should greet one another in love. Just about any kiss won’t suffice. If there’s physical contact during a greeting, it must be kept within the bounds of holiness.

Please note that Paul doesn’t enforce holiness by prohibiting physical contact between members of the same sex or between members of the opposite sex. Instead, he insists that the intention behind the greeting be kept pure. Instead of kissing one another, Christians could embrace each other or shake each other’s hands or bow to one another. Certainly, a kiss is a cultural expression. Such expressions vary from culture to culture.

Even if the husk (outer covering) of cultural expression might vary, the inner kernel of truth remains supra-cultural (applicable to all cultures). Therefore, Paul’s apostolic exhortation can be safely translated from the original Greek to another language in one or the other culturally appropriate manner:

“Greet one another with a holy handshake.”

Or, as

“Greet one another with a holy embrace.”

Does this rule apply to the entire Bible? Do all biblical injunctions have a disposable cultural covering? Certainly not!

For instance, let us examine Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Jewish men in the first century, who followed Rabbi Hillel, believed that a man could divorce his wife citing reasons as trivial as an accidental burning of the husband’s toast! The rival school of thought followed Rabbi Shammai. He taught that a man could divorce his wife only for a serious transgression.

Some Pharisees, in order to test Jesus, brought this controversial topic to Him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” Jesus affirmed the permanence of marriage. He replied, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”Matthew 19:6

When they pressed him further, Jesus said there was only one valid reason for a man to put his wife away—infidelity. Jesus said,

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”Matthew 19:8-9 NET

The dissolution of a marriage for any reason – other than what is approved by God – will be laughed out of God’s court. A divorce certificate, in God’s eyes, is mere a piece of paper. As per heaven’s records, a “divorced” couple continues to be man and wife. That is why Jesus warned the Pharisees that remarriage after divorce leads to adultery.

"Everyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.Luke 16:18 NET

If couples live apart for whatever reason, they have to abstain from remarriage. There are thousands of Christians who, according to Jesus Christ, are living in adultery. Jesus’ words do not trouble them because they think Jesus’ teaching on divorce does not apply to today’s world. And even if it does, they say, “What’s the big deal? The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sins.”

Why must we take Jesus’ teaching on the permanence of marriage seriously? It’s because Jesus anchored his teaching in the creation narrative in Genesis.

“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?
So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Any teaching that is anchored in the creation narrative is supra-cultural. It is applicable to all human societies and cultures.Cf. 1 Tim 2:12-14 Similarly, teachings that are anchored in God are supra-cultural.Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2-8 We cannot brush those aside saying, “That’s cultural.”

“That’s from Old Testament”

A common objection we hear from Christians regarding certain teachings is, “That’s from Old Testament. It does not apply to Christians.”

Now, where does the Bible say that some books are to be called “Old Testament” and the rest have to be called “New Testament?” Those are titles given by people, not God. Jesus and the apostles referred to the Hebrew Bible as “the Scriptures.”John 5:39 “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” ESV
2 Tim 3:16 “All Scripture is breathed out by God …” ESV
The apostle Peter acknowledged that Paul’s epistles were part of the scriptures; he spoke of ignorant and unstable people who twist Paul’s words “as they do the other Scriptures,”2 Peter 3:16 ESV. thereby testifying that Paul’s epistles were as divinely inspired as the Hebrew Scriptures.

All sixty-six books of the Bible are binding on Christians. No book was abolished or declared obsolete by God.


“What about the law? Was it not abolished?”

Which law? The Law of Moses? If the Law of Moses had been abolished, why would you consider Jesus’ death as having any value? Why do you worship Him as the “lamb that was slain?” Slain under which law? Do you see my point? Jesus came under the law of Moses. He fulfilled the law of Moses in his life and through his sacrificial death on our behalf once and for all. If you set aside the law of Moses, you might as well set aside the sacrificial death of Jesus. That’s why Jesus said,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”Matthew 5:17 ESV.

All the laws related to sacrifices, rituals, etc., were fulfilled in Christ Jesus. Through His blood we have forgiveness of sins. Through the torn veil of His body, we have access to the holy of holies in heaven. The covenant that was mediated by Moses through the shedding of a lamb’s blood“For when Moses had spoken every command to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats with water and scarlet wool and hyssop and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God has commanded you to keep.’” Hebrews 9:19-20 NET was replaced by an eternally valid covenant ratified by the blood of Jesus our redeemer.“But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises.” Hebrews 8:6. NET Mind you. It was that older covenant that was abolished—not any portion of the holy scriptures.


“Do we need to keep the regulations in the Hebrew Bible?”

Any regulation that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ is not applicable to Christians. That covers all regulations regarding the tabernacle (including sacrifices, offerings, tithes, priesthood, et cetera); regulations regarding purification, festivals, foods; and civil laws that governed the social life of Israelites.

Christians in today’s world do not live in a “Christian country” the way Israel constituted a “holy nation” before the birth of Christ. Therefore, there is no need for a Christian civil law. The entire body of civil laws was replaced by the teachings and commands of Jesus Christ. The new commandment, to love one another as Christ loved us, takes the prime spot.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments, it is another story. The Ten Commandments constitute the moral law of God. Each of the Ten Commandments was affirmed and confirmed by Jesus and His apostles. They are as binding on God’s people today as they were, on ancient Israel. This is why Jesus said,

“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:19 ESV.

It is also useful to remember that the word “law” is used in five different senses in the New Testament. When biblical authors used the word “law” while talking about its abolition, they were referring to Judaism. When James wrote about the perfect law or the royal law, he had the Moral Law of God in mind. If we don’t understand such distinctions, we risk being lawless antinomians who may have to face the wrath of Christ:

“And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”Matthew 7:23 ESV.


Should Christians study the ritual and civil laws of ancient Israel? Of course, we should. Those laws reveal the heart of God—His concern for justice, mercy, and truth; for the poor and defenseless; and for the environment. In those laws, we see how much God detests sin. Some of those regulations inform today’s legal systems and public policy.

Consider this verse, for instance.

And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement.Deuteronomy 23:13 ESV

If only people in South Asia and other yet-to-be developed regions had heeded the wisdom in the above regulation! The simple acts of digging a hole and covering up human refuse would have prevented adverse effects of open defecation, such as the rampant spread of water-borne diseases! Other religions prescribe detailed instructions regarding toilet habits. But none of those laws require adherents to dig a hole or to cover their refuse with soil.

Christians were encouraged to ignore the regulation in Deuteronomy 22:5 that prohibited cross-dressing. “We are not Jews,” we were told. We certainly are not under Mosaic law. Most of us, being Gentiles, were never under the Mosaic law before we became Christians. Let’s see what the text says.

“A woman shall not wear a man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is utterly repulsive to the LORD your God.”Deuteronomy 22:5 Amplified Bible.

If something was utterly repulsive to God back then, how can it be pleasing to Him today? Did anyone care to warn the Church that, even though we are not Jews, the principle underlying this regulation was never abolished by Jesus or His apostles? Human sexual differentiation as males and females is fundamental to human existence.

God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall. He should know a thing or two about the expression of sexual differentiation through clothing. Our choice of male or female garments is a way of acknowledging and affirming God’s creation of humans as male and female.

If Christians in the West had held on to this biblical principle, the onslaught of gender ideology could have been prevented or its impact minimized.

First came unisex-this and unisex-that. Most Christians had no problems with those “minor” cultural changes. That’s where we faltered first. Then came the widespread propaganda about “gender-fluidity.” Several Christians too bought into this farce that presented manhood and womanhood as a continuum that could be traversed by anyone who felt like “transitioning.”

I could cite dozens of examples that illustrate proper application of the Bible. But I would like essay to be just a primer on biblical interpretation. If I have succeeded in whetting your appetite for Bible study, feel free to explore further. A list of useful books is given below.

Conclusion

If Christians should be like the “good soil” in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, producing a rich harvest of obedience, they must understand and retain God’s Word in their heart. Proper understanding of the scriptures is vital because God will, one day, judge us by His Word. Let us study God’s Word, in all humility, examining the text with diligence. The more accurate our observations are, the more accurate our interpretations will be. The better we understand what a passage or book meant to the author or the original audience, the better we will know how God’s Word applies to our life’s situations. Finally, none of us is higher than God to be able to pick and choose favourite verses that should be believed or obeyed. It’s either all or none. We need to submit to God’s authority by submitting to His Word.

Further Reading


End Notes

 


About the author

Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realized that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. He is supported by donations from readers; he also runs a small ‘tent-making’ business. Philip is married to Dr. Jessimol and they are blessed with three sons and a daughter.

Date: September 19, 2022

 

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