1. Assume the God who spectacularly created and lovingly communicated “in the beginning” still is speaking to us today. God spoke personally to the man and woman in the Garden, and through Jesus Christ to the men, women and children of that time in Israel. God continued to speak with trustworthy clarity in the inspired Bible. And God speaks to us in our interactions with these same words today.
2. Carefully allow the text to speak for itself in context, taking the time and effort to seek the message originally intended as is true with all effective communication.
3. Whenever possible opt for prescriptive interpretation over situation-limited descriptive interpretation.
Here are four principles that direct our research of the Bible followed by seven helpful steps on how to think again about the Bible. (Taken from “How to” Think Again about the Bible, by Bruce C. E. Fleming, © 2004.)
– 1. God is the source of all Truth
– 2. Everything in the Bible has its own place
– 3. Everything in the Bible has its own meaning
– 4. The Bible is meant to change me
Camp week began with the story about the “lazy looker.” It went like this:
There once was a contest for a group of campers. Each one was given a sheet with a numbered list. Hurrying down the path as best they could, they were to spot the numbered items and write down precisely what they saw. A lazy boy determined to win the race. With a burst of speed he soon outdistanced all the rest. When he saw Item #1 he wrote on his list – “tree” – and ran on. When he saw Item #2 he wrote – “rock” – and hurried on. At Item #3 he wrote – “flower” – and dashed ahead. He finished the course in practically no time at all! He handed in his sheet and waited. Fifteen minutes later the next camper arrived!
When everyone was back and the lists had been examined, the leader asked the second one to read his list. The lazy boy was surprised because the winner was supposed to read out what was on his list.
This is what the second one read: “Item #1: sassafras sapling.
Item #2: sandstone outcropping with trilobite fossil. Item #3: white trillium, our state flower.” And on went the list.
After this story was told, the listening campers understood the lazy boy’s mistake. He was a “lazy looker.” Then the campers were told not to race through their week at camp but to pay attention. In that way, they would “see” all the richness around them and not be “lazy lookers.”
I thought this was a good story for campers. I never suspected it would apply to me. But when I took my first preaching course in seminary, I found out that it did.
Prior to enrolling in seminary, I had been a youth worker. I had learned to stress “the basics” with all my teenage club members. I knew Bible verses for each basic idea: “How to become a Christian,” “How to discern God’s will,” and so on. Whenever I was a guest speaker at various clubs, I picked one of the “basics” and dressed it up with illustrations of my own. In time, I had a half dozen stock messages ready to go and used them often. Sometimes a Bible passage was given for me to speak on. I checked to see which of my six messages best fit the passage and preached away.
In seminary I asked my roommate to check over the sermons I prepared for class. After reading several he was stunned. “All you can see in the whole Bible are your pet topics! There are hundreds or thousands of lessons in there. Let the Bible speak for itself, don’t always paste one of your ‘basics’ over the mouth of the passage!”
I had been a “lazy looker” when I read my Bible! In time, I learned to look more carefully at each passage I read. I began to think again about what each passage really was saying.
The following Four Principles sum up “How to” let each passage of the Bible speak for itself: (1) God is the Source of all Truth, (2) Everything in the Bible has its own place, (3) Everything in the Bible has its own meaning,
(4) The Bible is meant to change me.
Then, seven Bible study steps provide an easy roadmap to use in putting the Four Principles into practice.
1. God is the Source of all Truth
To think again about any passage in the Bible, it must be decided, “Who is doing the talking?”
– Is it you, the reader? Consciously, or unconsciously, do you use the pages of the Bible as a springboard for thinking about your own ideas?
– Is it some theologian, or group of theologians, who organize their thoughts and tell you what the Bible is saying?
– Is it some other person – a relative, friend, or person in church – who does a lot of thinking and whose ideas you adopt as your own?
– Or do you let the Bible speak for itself?
There may be some passages in the Bible where you have not let the Bible speak for itself. In some places you may have followed the ideas of others where their ideas strayed from what the Bible is saying. In such cases it is important to stop and think again about the Bible.
“Touch and go.” I grew up in a church where the Bible text for the day was read just before the pastor got up to preach. This pastor had a lot of ideas of his own that he liked to deliver in his sermons. Usually, he would make a glancing reference to the text of the day and then he would leave the Bible’s ideas far behind for the rest of his message. Some of us used to joke grimly about his “touch and go sermons.”
When a student pilot needs to practice how to land an airplane, and how to take off, the best exercise is the “touch and go.” After first taking off, the student pilot circles the airport and comes in for a brief landing – this is the “touch” part of the exercise. As soon as the wheels of the plane touch the ground the student pilot hits the throttle and takes off immediately – this is the “go” part of the exercise. In this way practice is gained on both landing and taking off, but very little time is spent on the runway.
In the church of my childhood, the pastor would “touch and go” with a brief reference made to the Bible verse of the day, followed by a soaring exposition on his own ideas of the moment. We never spent time on what the Bible said.
The Bible teaches us Truth. It has been said, “All truth is God’s truth.” This recognition frees the believer to pursue truth in every academic discipline. There is nothing “unspiritual” about learning any truth that comes from God.
There is a special branch of knowledge that is all about God. It is called “theology.” The word “theology” literally means “a word about God.”
Who would know best about God – than God? It can be said that “true Truth” exists in the mind of God. What God knows is called Absolute Theology. These are God’s ideas, as only God knows them. There are no errors in Absolute Theology.
We humans can see God’s creative work revealed in the world around us. In it we see evidence of God’s power, precision and joy. We gain an understanding of the depth and complexity of God’s ideas. What can be discerned about God from looking at creation is called General Revelation (Rom 1:18-21).
We also learn about God through what is called Special Revelation. It is God’s knowledge put into words by God. An example of Special Revelation is everything taught by Jesus, who was God in the flesh. Jesus taught God’s Truth. He is called “the Word” (John 1:1-3). The Bible is also called God’s Word. The Bible says: “All Scripture is inspired by God …” (1 Tim. 2:12). Both the words of Jesus and the Bible, are God’s Special Revelation.
Anything we put into words ourselves about God, Jesus and the Bible is called Partial Theology. The closer a person’s teachings parallel Revealed Theology, the more True they are. But error can, and does, creep in to Partial Theology.
1. Absolute Theology is True and exists in the mind of God.
2. Revealed Theology also is True and is inspired by God. General Revelation is revealed in creation. Special Revelation is God’s Word, which includes both Jesus and the Bible.
3. Partial Theology is made up of human words about God’s Truth. The more a partial theology corresponds to God’s Revelation, the more True it is.
What God knows and reveals is universally True for all times and places. The difficulty is that Partial Theology is “culture bound.” It is skewed by the limited knowledge of a person’s time and place.
An example of limited and culture-bound Partial Theology is the theology of Christians who defended the slave trade in England and early America. Their understanding of the Bible was flawed. Their theological statements on slavery were not True for all times nor for all places. Many of their sermons, books, songs, hymns and even prayers, contained flawed Partial Theology.
Issues of Partial Theology should be rooted in Revealed Theology. Partial Theology is developed by humans. All of this should be based on God’s part, the inerrant revelation of absolute, and true, Truth. The more Partial Theology is drawn from Absolute and Revealed Theology, the more True it is.
To the extent that theologians grasp God’s Truth in such a way that it applies for all times and places, their Partial Theology is True and is “transcultural.”
In this way, a number of “great doctrines” have been formulated over the centuries and across cultures. An example of a “great doctrine” is the following balanced statement about the dual nature of Christ:
“Christ is both fully God and fully human.”
Partial Theology develops in three stages whenever people in a new culture are introduced to the Bible:
3. Ethnic theology
Inculturation. Every culture is marked by certain beliefs and certain practices (some of which are sinful) that are prevalent in their time and place. When the Gospel is first presented to people in new culture group, a preliminary Partial Theology is first put into words and action for that culture.
Those who are responsible for putting theology into the new culture are pioneer evangelists and missionaries. They make decisions about what to say and how to say it to the new people group. Often the initial decisions made by missionaries and pioneer evangelists are correct from the start. But sometimes, what they communicate is not fully in keeping with the Truth of Revealed Theology. These errors will need to be recognized and corrected.
Indigenization. This occurs next. The new believers take the inculturated Partial Theology they received and make it their own. At first they simply imitate and repeat what the evangelists and missionaries bring to them. Over time, however, as they pass on their theology, it gets reshaped into their local cultural patterns.
For example, instead of building square buildings topped by steeples, local Christians may begin to hold meetings in buildings that look more like those typically used for religious meetings in their own culture. They also begin to use analogies that exist in their own culture to explain truths about God.
Ethnic theology. This finally develops when local believers find answers in the Bible to questions that the original missionaries and the first local preachers and teachers didn’t know to ask. Often this occurs among the second and third generation Christians in a culture.
As these Christians study what the Bible says and apply it to pressing issues in their society, they bring to light aspects of God’s Truth that others may have overlooked.
If they succeed in remaining true to Revealed Theology, then the aspect of theology they articulate can be added to the developing transcultural “great doctrines” of the church. An example of this is the development of theology that deals with the missionary movement.
Organizing Partial Theology. Once theological ideas have been developed, they can be organized. Stages in this process include the systematization of theological ideas into doctrines. They also include the development of ways to implement these ideas in everyday life. These are worked out in the fields of Systematic Theology and Practical Theology.
Systematic Theology is passed along in textbooks and in Sunday School lessons. It is also found in the cross-reference notations and footnotes that are added to editions of the Bible. Practical Theology is lived out in various spheres of life. These include getting along with others in the local church, with family members and with others in society.
Ideally, all Systematic and Practical Theology is drawn from (the technical word is “exegesis”), God’s Revealed Theology. However, in practice, neither corresponds one hundred per cent to Revealed Theology. Sometimes the percentage is much lower. Where doctrines and practices are not drawn from Revealed Theology, as expressed in the context of a particular book or chapter of the Bible, these doctrines need revision.
In Switzerland, I got off the local train that stopped at every station along the north shore of Lake Geneva and walked to a nearby chateau. It belonged to the World Council of Churches and was the summer home of John Samuel Mbiti, an African theologian whose works I had studied for several years.
He was expecting me and invited me to come into the sunroom for a cup of tea. In the course of my research, I had come to the conclusion that one of the doctrines he taught was not from the Bible. In fact, it ran counter to the Bible!
His teaching seemed to be a form of universalism, in that he believed that some day God would draw all souls to Himself, even the ones that had been condemned to hell (for a time).
I attempted to be discreet as I raised the topic with him. I asked him if he had derived this particular doctrine from a passage in the Bible, from one of his own professors, or from a book by some scholar. He paused, tilted his head and thought for a moment. Then he smiled and said, “I guess I made it up.” Frankly, his admission startled me.
Many who claim to be “spiritual” in one way or another, may hold beliefs that are not necessarily True. Since experience and intuition can lead a person to hold views that are sincere, but sincerely wrong, it is always important to search the Scriptures to see if a belief is validated by God’s Revelation in the Bible.
To sum up:
– Systematic theology assembles ideas into systematized themes. This Partial Theology is only dependable to the extent it is drawn from the Bible.
– Practical theology is only as dependable as the systematized theology upon which it is built. To the extent that either one is drawn from sources outside Scripture, such as cultural norms and myth, or political or ecumenical theology, they may be seriously flawed.
What do we know? When I was a brand new missionary taking language training in Africa, I was urgently asked to preach at a funeral. In America, the Twenty Third Psalm was a favorite passage to use at funerals. I repeated those precious words in my mind, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. … Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil.” I accepted the invitation and said I would preach on the Twenty Third Psalm. My choice seemed an obvious one at the time.
Soon I learned that I would be one of a series of speakers who would preach through the entire night at two-hour intervals until the burial the next day. Church choirs would sing in between the sermons. I was to speak at midnight!
I asked if a translator would be available. None was. I would have to use my limited ability in Lingala. I asked for a language helper and got a copy of the Twenty Third Psalm in Lingala to work from. We went over key terms in the passage to make sure I knew how to use and pronounce them.
As we worked through the Psalm, I was surprised to find out this was not a favorite passage of my helper. I then learned that this “Shepherd’s Psalm” meant very little to him because, although people owned sheep, they had no shepherds! Everyone let their sheep forage for themselves. I remembered seeing some very scraggly looking sheep in the area. Now I knew why.
In my message that night, I had to start from scratch and explain how a shepherd in Israel cares for his sheep. Only afterwards could I begin to explain how God wants to care for us in the same way. The response was overwhelming. They were deeply moved. The teachers in the local Bible school even added a lesson to their curriculum on how sheep were cared for in Israel.
Other great passages in the Bible include:
– the Creation (Genesis 1)
– the Ten Commandments (Exodus 10)
– the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53)
– the Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13)
– the Hall of Fame of Faith (Hebrews 11)
Great doctrines may be distilled from a great passage, or from more than one passage. For example:
– The doctrine of salvation by faith (Rom. 5-8).
– The doctrine of the Trinity (Luke 3:22, 1 John 5:8)
Church denominations and ministry organizations usually have Statements of Faith. Those that are the most True are drawn from the Bible. Usually they stress one or two doctrines more than other denominations. Here is a balanced one, for example:
The Bible is God’s unique revelation to people. It is the inspired, infallible Word of God, and the supreme and final authority on all matters upon which it teaches. No other writings are vested with such divine authority.
There is only one God, creator of heaven and earth, who exists eternally as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully God yet each personally distinct from the other.
All people are created in God’s image and matter deeply to Him. Central to the message of the Bible is that God loves people, and invites them to live in communion with Himself and in community with each other.
Apart from Jesus Christ, all people are spiritually lost and, because of sin, deserve the judgment of God. However, God gives salvation and eternal life to anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ and in His sacrifice on his or her behalf. Salvation cannot be earned through personal goodness or human effort. It is a gift that must be received by humble repentance and faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross.
Jesus Christ, second Person of the Trinity, was born of the Virgin Mary, lived a sinless human life, willingly took upon Himself all of our sins, died and rose again bodily, and is at the right hand of the Father as our advocate and mediator. Some day, He will return to consummate history and to fulfill the eternal plan of God.
The Holy Spirit, third Person of the Trinity, convicts the world of sin and draws people to Christ. He also indwells all believers. He is available to empower them to lead Christ-like lives, and gives them spiritual gifts with which to serve the church and reach out to a lost and needy world.
Death seals the eternal destiny of each person. At the final judgment, unbelievers will be separated from God into condemnation. Believers will be received into God’s loving presence and rewarded for their faithfulness to Him in this life.
All believers are members of the body of Christ, the one true church universal. Spiritual unity is to be expressed among Christians by acceptance and love of one another across ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, national, generational, gender, and denominational lines.
The local church is a congregation of believers who gather for worship, prayer, instruction, encouragement, mutual accountability, and community with each other. Through it, believers invest time, energy, and resources to fulfill the Great Commission — reaching lost people and growing them into fully devoted followers of Christ.
This statement reflects a contemporary summary of the central doctrines in the Bible, which are also presented in the historic creeds of the Christian church (from www.WillowCreek.com).
2. Everything in the Bible has its own place
It is important to keep in mind that each word in the Bible has a context of its own. This context has three dimensions:
1. Literary context
2. Biblical context
3. Context in the world outside the Bible
1. Literary context.
Word. The words in the Bible are linked together by grammatical rules. When they are linked together they form sentences and paragraphs, lists and poems, and more.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and some Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. It is important to understand the meanings of the words in the Bible in their original languages.
Sentence. Each word in the Bible fits into its own home sentence. Sometimes a single word in the Bible can have multiple meanings. When studied in the context of its home sentence, its meaning usually becomes clear.
Passage. A group of sentences that belong together, because they form a statement on a single topic, is called a passage. The technical word for a Bible passage is a “pericope” (peh rih´ cuh pee). In the Book of Proverbs, a pericope may be two lines long. In a New Testament book by Paul, a pericope may run for an entire page.
Context. Each passage has its own place within its book of the Bible. It is helpful to notice in which part of the book it appears because each part may have a specific meaning or emphasis.
For example, in the Book of Romans, the passages in the first 11 chapters are more theological in their orientation. The passages in the last five chapters of Romans are more practical (see Rom 12:1-2). This is also true of Ephesians. The first three chapters are more theological and the last three are more practical in content.
2. Biblical context
Book. Each book of the Bible was written by a single author (Revelation: the Apostle John), or by a group of authors (Proverbs: David, Solomon and others). Each author’s personality shows through in that book.
It is helpful to take into account who is the author of a book of the Bible because each author tended to emphasize certain facts or themes. For example, Luke was a medical doctor. He wrote two books of the Bible: the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. He was a very careful historian (Luke 1:1-4). If a person wants to check for locations where events occurred in the life of Jesus, Luke’s gospel is the place to look. Not surprisingly, Luke even included medical details (Luke 8:43, Acts 12:23).
The five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, contain many direct quotes made by God. These include a range of quotes running from each word in the Ten Commandments, to detailed rules about cleanliness for those who were authorized to present burnt offerings for sacrifice. Moses was able to write in such detail because he talked with God extensively during forty years in the desert and was a key participant in the events of the Exodus from Egypt.
Isaiah wrote words of prophecy, which he received from God. Some of his prophecies applied to Israel and some applied to other nations. He wrote prophecies that came to pass not long thereafter and some prophecies that have not yet come to pass. He also wrote chapters that recorded historical details.
The Apostle John wrote a gospel, three letters and an eyewitness account in Revelation. These books had very different purposes behind them and represent three very distinct styles of writing: the very theological Gospel of John, the very practical and personal letters of John, and the very detailed symbolism of Revelation. Behind all five letters was the personal touch of the disciple who was part of Jesus’ closest inner circle.
Place in the Bible. The Bible is divided into Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. It laid a foundation of laws, symbolism and examples that helped the world to understand the meaning of the sacrificial death of the Messiah. The New Testament tells about the life of Jesus the Messiah and his sacrificial death on the cross for our sins. It also chronicles the beginning and growth of the church, and gives principles for righteous living.
There are distinct groupings of books in both Testaments. In the Old Testament there is historical, prophetic and wisdom literature. In the New Testament there are books on the life of Jesus, the acts of the early Christians, letters to churches and individuals, and the revelation of the end times.
3. Context outside of the Bible
History. Understanding details from past events can help the modern reader better understand the Bible. For example, it is important to have an understanding of the family of Isaac and especially the prophecies made regarding his two sons. What they did afterward, and where they and their descendants settled, can be traced on maps and in the history of the Jews and Arabs. What God said about them helps us to understand the continuing conflict between these two groups.
When reading a prophetic reference to a “bee,” it is helpful to know that Egypt was known by that emblem. It also helps to note that Israel was located in the middle of the Fertile Crescent. This placed Israel on the “highway of armies” which was traversed time and time again as nation went to battle nation.
The northern kingdom of Israel was attacked by an empire to its northeast that was later conquered by an empire to the south of it. Later a different empire ruled over the entire area, including Jerusalem, when Nehemiah was sent back to rebuild the city.
Some of these details come to us from indications noted in the Bible itself. Other details come through historical records and from archaeological findings. Modern reference books have maps that show the political divisions of each historical period. These can be used to better understand the interaction of peoples and nations mentioned in the Bible.
Geography. When the Bible says that people went “up” to Jerusalem, it helps to know that Jerusalem was built on top of a mountain. All roads to Jerusalem literally went up!
On my first visit I was surprised to discover a great topographical variety in the small area located between the northern and southern borders of Israel at the time of Solomon. Simultaneously one can find snows on Mount Hermon in the north, an arid desert south of the brackish Dead Sea, a fresh water Sea in Galilee and salt spray along the coast of Mediterranean Sea.
Culture. The Bible takes us from the peaceful Garden of Eden to the brutal Coliseum of Rome, from the pyramids of Egypt to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Each individual culture had a completely different set of rulers, laws, religions and more.
Practice putting a word in its context.
Example 1. In an adult Bible class in our church, after talking about studying a word in its context, we decided to try to practice with a specific word.
Word. Someone in the class suggested the word “healed.” We chose to look at the word “healed” in Isaiah 53:5 as our starting point.
Sentence. We noted that the sentence, in which the word is found, covers more than just one verse. That meant that both verses 4 and 5 would need to be studied together.
Passage. Someone suggested that the passage was comprised of the entire fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. Others disagreed. After further discussion the group identified the start of the pericope as 52:13. The passage runs from 52:13 through 53:12.
Context. This passage was known as one of the Servant Songs. There are four of them in Isaiah: in chapter 42, 49, 52-53 and 61. All four talk about the promised Messiah as a Suffering Servant.
Book. We studied the Biblical context and the place of Isaiah in the rest of the Bible, and other uses of the Servant Songs. We noted that verses from the last Servant Song were read by Jesus as the assigned passage in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-21). After reading it, he announced that he fulfilled that prophecy!
Historical, geographical, cultural setting. We studied the extra-biblical context of Isaiah and how people had different expectations of the Messiah.
Prior to the successful revolt of the Jews and the independence of Israel as a nation (from 166-37 B.C.), it was understood that the prophecies about the Messiah pointed to his embodiment of two different aspects:
1. as the Suffering Servant, and
2. as the conquering King of Kings.
But by the time Jesus came to Israel, the Jews’ Messianic hopes were pinned exclusively on an earthly victor who would save their nation from the Romans who had enslaved them some three decades earlier.
When Jesus pointed to the passages that stressed his role as Suffering Servant, the people missed the point. Some even accused him of blasphemy.
Once we had situated the word “healed” in its three contexts – literary, biblical and historical – we recognized that the “healing” referred to in Isaiah 53 was related to the context of the Suffering Servant who would die for our sins. We agreed that spiritual healing is certainly intended in the field of meaning of the verse in Isaiah 53:5. We decided we would have to look elsewhere in the Bible if we wanted to find teaching related to physical healing.
Example 2. I asked the class if anyone had another word they wanted to try. The parents of one of the young adults in the class were visiting that day. When no one else suggested a word, our class member’s mother said, “I’d like to suggest a word. It has troubled me for years. What does it mean to “be perfect”?
Word. First we had to identify where the words “be perfect” were found. We discovered them in the very last verse of Matthew chapter 5. Jesus told the crowd during his Sermon on the Mount to “be perfect.”
Sentence. We noted that these words were in a sentence that began with the word “therefore.” We needed to see what the “therefore” was there for.
Passage. The “therefore” tied verse 48 with the section of verses that started with verse 43. This passage had to do with loving one’s enemies.
Context. The passage started with a phrase that had been repeated over and over again by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard it said … but I say to you ….”
Jesus was responding to and correcting things that the Jewish Teachers of the Law (Scribes) had been teaching the people. Their teachings were made up of the Jewish oral law and it was flawed.
Book. Matthew wrote the Gospel we were studying. In his Gospel he stressed themes that were especially important to the Jews.
In Matthew 5:48, when Jesus said, “Be perfect,” he also referred to “his Father.” His hearers would have recognized this as an unmistakable claim that he was the Messiah! This would have astonished and delighted the crowds.
But it angered the Jewish leaders. They believed Jesus was falsely claiming to be God. That was labeled blasphemy, and was punishable by death. The Jewish leaders thought that Jesus had just made himself liable to execution!
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus was instructing his hearers to “be perfect.” Only persons made holy by God could ever aspire to being perfect. These words of Jesus placed his hearers under the obligation to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and to trust in Him for forgiveness. They also placed Jesus under the obligation to forgive the sins of those who believed in him. (He soon made that possible by dying on the cross for sins.)
Taking into account the setting.
Here are two examples of how taking into account the historical situation of a passage enriches one’s understanding of the Bible.
Example 1. Historically, the Jews executed criminals by stoning. When the Jewish leaders decided to execute Jesus as a blasphemer, they were faced with a roadblock. Their Roman rulers reserved the right to inflict capital punishment.
The Romans did not use stoning. Among other methods, they practiced death by crucifixion. Crucifixion had not yet been invented when the prophets foretold that the Messiah would be pierced (Psalm 22:16, Zech. 12:10 KJV).
These cultural and historical details enrich not only our understanding of what occurred at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, they also enrich our understanding of how miraculous were the details of the prophecies of old!
Example 2. Much of the teaching in the Old Testament involved “typologies,” or concrete examples that stood for spiritual truths. For example, while the Israelites were in the desert, God told Moses to strike a rock. He did as he was told and water poured forth from that rock for everyone to drink. In addition to meeting the immediate need of the thirsty Israelites, Moses’ striking the rock represented Jesus (the rock) being struck (crucified) so that all people might drink (of the Holy Spirit) and have (eternal) life.
When God instituted the system of burnt offerings, this served a typological purpose. It taught people about the necessity of a payment for sin. To perform these ritual sacrifices a subgroup of Israelites, the Levites, was set aside. They were trained to do the work of sacrificing the animals and offering them to God on the altar. Everything about this process stood for a spiritual truth related to the future sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The fire that was used to burn the sacrifices had been lit by God. The blood that was used to cover the altar (and therefore the sins of the people) came from an animal without spot or imperfection. This was symbolic of the sinless Messiah.
No other fire was to be used. No other blood was allowed. There was a penalty for breaking ritual purity.
To ensure that no blood other than that of the sacrificial animal was present in the place of sacrifice, a number of rules were established. No one with a wound or open sore could participate in making a sacrifice.
This led to the unique situation when God was angry with both Miriam and Aaron for their sin (Numbers 12). To maintain ritual purity of Aaron, the very first High Priest, only Miriam was struck with leprosy when both she and her brother Aaron sinned against God. Her brother would need to be ceremonially clean when it was time to certify her cleansing. But both siblings learned the same lesson.
Jesus demonstrated that the period of symbolic purity was coming to an end when he did a number of things that would have made him ritually “unclean.” He touched lepers and made them well. He did not rebuke a woman who had a flow of blood yet touched him, nor did he hesitate to touch a dead body in order to bring a young girl back to life (Luke 8:43-56).
Since the historical events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, no more is a distinction made between Jew and non-Jew, slave or free, male or female (Gal. 3:26-29).
3. Everything in the Bible has its own meaning
Because an English word in the Bible can have one, or several, possible meanings, it is important to determine the specific context in which it appears. Then, after determining a word’s context in the Bible, it is time to determine its specific definition.
Here are the basic ingredients that go into building the definition of a given word in the Bible:
– What is its part of speech: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, other? There are only two Hebrew verb tenses, past and non-past. In Greek, there are six. These verbs may be passive or active, continuous or punctiliar, and so on.
– Every word has its own constellation of meanings. No two words in different languages have the same range of meanings. Some of the ideas that “naturally” go with a word in English might not be present in the field of meaning of a Greek word, and vice versa.
– Conjunctions may be emphatic or may serve as mere connectors. Verb prefixes may modify meaning (intensify or attenuate) or may only be exhausted (no longer have the meaning it once had prior to the time it was written in the Bible).
– Frequency of use: common, rare, hapax (unique). Study tools may or may not list all occurrences.
– Variations in meaning: unique phrases may modify meaning. Look for the root word behind the English word. Beware of “false friends.” Later use of a word does not necessarily define original use.
– Meanings used by a given author: limited or broad. One author may use a nuanced meaning, another may not do so at all (cf. Colossians 1:18).
– Other meanings in the Bible: from the same period, or from another time period. For example Moses used words in one way. These words may have been used in a different way later on. Classical, or Attic, Greek was different from the later koiné Greek of the New Testament.
– Meanings in secular literature of the period: relevant, other. For example, Luke wrote the first modern history. This was unique in his day, which was filled with “vanity literature.”
Bible dictionaries, commentaries and other references may be helpful in checking one’s own work after defining a word.
Grammar and usage affect the meaning of a word. There are at least five elements in grammar and usage to consider.
1. Historical details. It is important to distinguish between a statement of fact (something that is reported just the way it happened) and the relating of a detail that serves a purpose (the embodiment of a principle to put into practice).
For example, during a Bible study group in an African village, I was asked if polygamy was “biblical.” I knew that some individuals in the group came from families where their polygamist father had a number of wives. Historically speaking, polygamy had been reported in the Bible. The Bible reports some men took multiple spouses.
To answer their question using the Four Principles, we looked up the situation of the first person in the Bible who took multiple wives, the bigamist Lamech (Genesis 4:19). I asked the group about the principle behind the historical practice related in the historical account. It was clear that this example was not something to be imitated, especially after we read the sinful boast of Lamech in Genesis 4:23-24,
Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-seven fold.” (NASB)
2. Unique complexities may occur in an original language of the Bible that are not used in English. In other words, one cannot assume that the rules of English grammar apply in another language. For example, another language may indicate a detail with more or less precision than is possible in English.
To understand the potentially significant impact of these differences it may be helpful to compare English with the language complexity of a tribe living on the Equator. This people group does not need watches to tell time. A widespread plant growing in their area turns different shades of green depending on the time of day. By noting these shade changes, they can dependably tell what time it is. In their language, they have a series of words to explain throughout the day what “color” (time) it is. If the Bible had been written in the language of this culture, it would be helpful to understand what shade of meaning (literally!) had originally been intended.
3. Patterns common to Hebrew or Greek literature. There are a number special patterns, or constructions, that are hard to translate into English, even though they are important in conveying the meaning of the passage. One example is parallelism. Hebrew poetry frequently uses repetition. Usually the second occurrence deepens and enriches the thought that is repeated.
In various passages, the Hebrew and Greek writers used a more complex parallel structure. It was made up of mirrored words or phrases in what is called a “chiasm.” A famously complex chiasm occurs in the description of the Flood, in Genesis 7-8. Another occurs in Genesis 2:4-3:19.
In Greek, Paul used a grammatical device called an anacoluthon. In this way, a writer interrupted a train of thought and moved to another idea. Sometimes the original thought was picked up later in the passage, but sometimes it was just left hanging.
In some passages the use of an anacoluthon are not reflected in their English translations. These include:
– In Ephesians 5:33, Paul repeats the word “fear” from verse 21 and ties the meaning of verse 33 to the meaning of verse 21.
– In 1 Timothy 1:18, Paul refers to the charge he gave Timothy in the opening verses of the letter.
– In 1 Timothy 2:15b, Paul repeats a key word from 2:9 as he leaves behind his discussion on Adam and Eve (2:13-15a). When he refers to “they” in the second half of verse 15, Paul refers to women (plural) who are righteous, and not to Eve, nor to wives and husbands, nor to mothers and their children, as various theologians (who have missed the anacoluthon) have suggested.
4. Biblical insights. A parable is a story that usually has one point, such as answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29-37). A prophecy on the other hand may have multiple fulfillments.
Multiple prophetic fulfillments have been described as what one might see in the distance when looking across a mountain range. One point on the horizon may look like a single mountaintop, while there may actually be several mountaintops lined up in a row, separated by a series of valleys in between.
Another interesting way of communicating used in the Bible is the allegory. In an allegory, the given meaning is not self-evident, and may or may not be explained (Gal. 4:21-31).
5. Theological study needs to be conducted author by author. It should take into account the historical period of the Bible book. Finally, even doctrinal statements need to be considered in the light of the history of the development of doctrine from the early church to the present.
4. The Bible is meant to change me
The Bible is “self–aware” in that it contains statements about how it is to be used and about how its use will change its reader. Perhaps the most complete “user’s statement” is to be found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking,
correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that all God’s people
may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (TNIV)
More “user’s statements” are found in John’s Gospel:
20:30And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His
disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
21:24[I am] the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them
down. … 25Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
In the Old Testament, Joshua 1:8 gave an example of how God’s Word was to be used:
8This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall
meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
Joshua was supposed to meditate on the five books of Moses, out loud. The Hebrew verb “to meditate” in 1:8, literally means “to mumble.” Believers were to softly recite the words of God’s Law all day long. God attached a strong promise for Joshua if he followed this instruction. This serves as a lesson for Christians today to memorize and review verses of during each day.
David made up poems and sang them to God. These were written down in the Book of Psalms. The original melodies have not been passed down to us, but believers today may add tunes to David’s words and sing them to God again!
The Bible speaks from inside history. This means that books in the Old Testament had meaning in the time in which they were written. This was true even though the New Testament was centuries away from being written.
Each Old Testament book contained sufficient revelation that it could be read in its day without referring to the New Testament. In fact, it is best to discern what an Old Testament passage means on its own before doing any cross-referencing to the New Testament.
Cross-referencing from the New Testament will never contradict a truth stated in the Old Testament. It may add to its richness of meaning, but it will never result in what one young Sunday School student called “cross-eyed referencing.”
The Bible is meant to change lives. In it is found almost everything a person will ever need to find the answers to the important questions of life.