How to Understand Scripture – Part 5

We’re almost through our study of how to understand Scripture so if you’ve been following along, don’t quit now!  We have already come to know how a proper understanding of the law, gospel and focus of Scripture helps us truly understand it.  We will now look at the importance of what surrounds a passage we are reading…

Compass

Rule #4

G.U.A.R.D.   Respect the context

Healthy respect for the context of every passage

When lost and trying to find your way, one of the first things you need to do is to look around and find out where you are currently located. It’s only when you know where you are that you can begin to figure out what a map or compass is telling you about where to go. In fact, the first thing a GPS unit does when it’s activated is to scan satellites in order to learn exactly where it’s currently located so it can give accurate information. It’s the same way with reading Scripture. You always, always, always need to look around to observe what is going on before and after a passage so you don’t completely misunderstand the meaning of it. You must know “where you are” before you can learn where to go. This is one of most basic and crucial rules to follow when reading Scripture. To illustrate, let’s consider this passage:

 “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”   Romans 7:6

 Someone could easily take this verse and use it to teach that Christians do not need to concern themselves with obedience to the good and moral laws of God. It could be used to justify a life spent indulging in fleshly passions under the banner of “Spirit-led” Christian freedom.  But of course something as absurd as an endorsement of sin & immorality would immediately make most of us suspicious, so we would turn to this passage and quickly realize that it’s simply one part of larger lesson. What we would find is that this is a lesson where Paul quite clearly teaches that salvation doesn’t come by obedience to the moral law (and so in relation to salvation we are indeed free from it), but that those who are truly saved continue in earnest effort to follow & obey it as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

In the example above, I’m sure you agree that if you heard somebody preach freedom to sin it would probably sound false and unreasonable. But what about sermons that sound reasonable to our ears? What about persuasive teachings that impress us as sound and true? Lessons we feel good about? We should just as quickly verify the Scripture used in those teachings as well. Just because a teaching sounds accurate does not in any way mean it actually is! If you’ve been referred to a biblical passage by a book, sermon or song, always-always-always look it up and read it in context. One challenge to this practice is if a preacher is using multiple passages to make his point. I recently heard of one of America’s most famous pastors delivering a single sermon using 27 different verses, every one of them pulled out of its surrounding context. In fact, he even used over a dozen different translations while doing it! It’s impossible to examine the biblical context of preaching like this. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but if your pastor is preaching like thisrun! Seriously!! This is a clear sign the speaker is taking an idea he wants to preach and bending Scripture to support it rather than digging into one area of Scripture to absorb its’ full and true meaning. Preaching like this should be a BIG red flag that something is seriously wrong!

When examining context, there are several things to consider. Find out who the author of the passage is and who they are writing to before you read. Consider also the genre of literature. Is it a historical account like Genesis, or poetry like a Psalm? The teaching style of Paul is read very differently than the symbolic language of Revelation. The type of book makes a huge difference in how you read it! If you read how a man describes his wife as lovely because she has “teeth like a flock of sheep” you need to understand that you’re reading a book of Jewish poetry, not because her mouth reminds him of livestock.[1]

Remember also that the meaning of the verse isn’t subjective. What this means is that asking yourself, “What does this verse mean to me?” is a self-centered way of reading rather than a God-centered way of reading. When you read, the correct question to ask is, “What is going on here…what did the author mean by this?” Each passage in Scripture only has one original meaning. The author was trying to convey one specific idea which is why they (inspired by the Holy Spirit) chose specific words. They chose those words for a reason and those words have meaning. It’s only after the context has been examined and the author’s original message is understood that we can then think about applying it to ourselves. A passage may have more than one application, but only one meaning.

Another great way to understand the context of a passage is to know the theme of that book. What is the big idea that the book is trying to teach? One way to figure this out is to read the first and last chapter of the book paying close attention to ideas mentioned in both chapters.  If an author presents an idea in the beginning and then again in the summary at the end, it’s a pretty safe bet that the idea is a part of the theme or maybe even the theme itself. For example, when we do this in Matthew we learn that the idea that Jesus is “God with us” is repeated.[2] In Romans, we see Paul is trying to bring about the “obedience of faith” in the gentile world.[3] Knowing the big idea of a book puts us on the right track in better understanding a passage and its’ immediate context.

Many in these days recoil at this list of rules. “These rules are so restricting,” they say, “I feel like I am trying to swim with all my clothes on. They drag me down! I like to read the Word and let the Spirit speak. Don’t quench the Spirit is my motto.” But this is a ridiculous argument! Forcing yourself to choose between reading with the guidance of the Spirit and following sound interpretive rules isn’t a choice you have to make! It’s the Spirit that wrote these books of the Bible. If you truly want to hear from the Spirit then read it, and do it correctly. This will also keep your emotions properly aligned. Why is this important? Imagine reading a love letter from your spouse and having a huge emotional response because of what was written inside, only to discover later that the letter was written from someone other than your beloved and was actually written to somebody else! Your emotions would have been tricked and your heart deceived because of poor reading skills. But if before reading it you verified that it was indeed a letter addressed to you and that it was truly sent from your beloved, when your emotions spring forth they would do so according to truth.

We all actually follow a lot of interpretive rules in everyday life. We always inspect the name of both sender and addressee on any envelope we find in our mailbox.  We also consider the business they’re discussing before we even start to read, and if it’s business of a serious nature we read every word and consider the meaning of the entire letter before deciding how to react or what the letter’s overall impact might be. It’s foolishness to discard these rules when reading the most important text we’ll ever read, that being the Holy Scriptures.  In fact, when we read many biblical books we actually are reading mail…other people’s mail! Keep in this in mind when reading the letters of Paul, John or Peter. These were originally letters sent out to someone other than you, and that someone lived in a culture very different than yours, one with very different (and sometimes odd) customs.

I would challenge you to examine the context of every biblical passage you take in whether you find it in a teaching, sermon or favorite song. Then pray that the Holy Spirit gives you guidance, discernment and enlightenment as you meditate on the meaning. I would also challenge you to look up your favorite verse or passage to examine its’ context as well. Do you have a “life verse”? Look it up and examine it in its’ surroundings! Study it! What about that verse hanging on your wall? Have you ever taken a good long look to see what is really going on in that passage? If you’ve never thoroughly examined the context of your favorite passages, you may be holding on to some false beliefs. For example, in Revelation 3:20 Jesus states:

 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”[4]

 Is Jesus talking to lost people about salvation? That’s the way most people have heard it used. Is our Lord actually talking about standing at the door of someone’s heart, asking to come in? When these things are preached, are you listening to a sound, biblical sermon? Don’t answer these questions unless you have examined the context while considering who the letter was written to and what was actually being discussed.  This particular passage would be a great place to work on your context skills. Go check it out! The answers may surprise you.

 Remember:

Taken out of context, the true meaning of a verse or passage is uncertain. Always, always, always read the context of every passage being read or taught. Always!

 

NOTES:

[1] Song of Solomon 6:6

[2] See Matthew 1:23 and 28:20 (note: the name “Immanuel” means “God with us”).

[3] See Romans 1:5 and 16:26

[4] Hint: Look to see if the letter is written to believers or unbelievers. Is salvation being discussed? Is the heart being discussed? What does eating with each other usually signify? A more thorough look at this verse can be found HERE.

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2 Comments on “How to Understand Scripture – Part 5”

  1. Eliza Says:

    I love this! Great job! Additionally, if we still are uncertain about the meaning of the text, Scripture interprets Scripture, go to God’s Word trusting Him to help you understand the biblical passage. How many times have we asked the Lord to help us understand the passage and He has graciously answered that prayer. I gave up reading Christian books awhile ago and just read the Bible because of the error that is rampant throughout Christianity. By being serious students of God’s Word we are honoring our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and have the greatest resource for building us up on our most holy faith that is used by the Holy Spirit for our edification and exhortation of our beloved brethren. God bless you:)

    Reply

    • ChurchSalt Says:

      Scripture is so incredibly interesting and alive when it can be understood! It’s so sad that modern teachers preach and teach in such a way that folks go home thinking they could never understand it on their own. Obfuscation is truly a wicked weapon of the enemy. Thanks for stopping by and the encouraging remarks!

      Reply

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