In Exploring the Holy Scriptures, beginning students will find concise answers to their questions, and those trying to hone their knowledge will take their understanding to the next level. Reverend O.L. Johnson considers some of the most essential questions for Christians, including:
- How to know and understand God
- The nature of faith
- How to develop Christian maturity
- Ways to build God's kingdom
- And much more!
With this book, you will be devoting yourself to a practical study of Christian doctrines. If you prefer books that skip long-flowing theological concepts and get to what really matters, then it's time to begin Exploring the Holy Scriptures.
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Exploring the Holy ScripturesThe Back to Basics Series
By O.L. Johnson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Reverend O.L. Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDiscovering Bible Meaning
The Bible is the most unique book ever written. Consider these facts about the Bible: it was written by forty men over a period of about sixteen hundred years; the writers of the Old Testament never knew the writers of the New Testament, yet they were in complete agreement on the subject matter within the book; it is the only book written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and, it is the only book "authored" by God the Father. Although a perennial best seller, the Bible is probably the least read and the least understood book ever written.
Trying to understand the meaning of some parts of the Bible can be an intimidating experience. The purpose of this chapter is to suggest a simple, understandable method of interpreting scripture which will help in efforts to discover Bible meaning. Our goal is to "discover" meaning, which implies that the meaning is already there waiting to be found. Too many of us "create" meaning by twisting scripture to make it say what we want it to say. Some of us have preconceived notions of truth based on our personal opinions and philosophies. As a result, we find ourselves creating meaning as opposed to letting scripture speak for itself, thus discovering meaning. Thereare two basic ways the Bible communicates meaning to its readers:
1. What the writers meant by what they wrote.
2. What the original readers understood as they read the printed page.
Since neither the writers nor the readers are available to guide us, we only have the biblical text to rely on to discover meaning. To take advantage of the help the text has to offer, we must first determine the meaning of selected key words within a given text. In making these determinations, it is essential to consider each word from the following points of view:
1. What the word refers to in the text.
2. What is the dictionary meaning of the word.
3. Does emotion contribute to the meaning of the word.
4. How surrounding verses contribute to the meaning of the word.
If we accept the position that the Bible writers intended that they be understood, then it is our responsibility to interpret scripture correctly, which involves the task of correct word definition. Our minds automatically process what we hear, and we unconsciously understand the meanings of words almost immediately. Unfortunately, this is not the case when we read the Bible, for the following reasons:
1. The Bible was written in languages foreign to us.
2. It was written to people who lived centuries ago.
3. Those people lived in a different part of the world and had different cultures and lifestyles from ours.
4. What they understood automatically takes more effort for us. As a result, we must analyze what we read in the Bible to get the understanding they got automatically. There are four basic elements of interpretation to employ to help us in our efforts to understand:
1. Literary context
2. Historical-cultural background
3. Word meanings
4. Grammatical relationships
By literary context, we mean the train of thought in the verses prior to the verse in question and how that thought impacts the verse as it flows through and beyond it. We can test the validity of our interpretation of a given verse by determining whether our thought process follows the writer's train of thought, or whether our meaning is consistent with the literary context of the verse. In considering context, it is important to understand that it is an ever expanding concept. It can be only a few verses, or the chapter in which the verse is located, or the entire book in which the chapter is located. Context is the cardinal rule of interpretation. To ignore it is to determine meaning on only a part of what the writer wrote and, as a result, arrive at a meaning he did not intend. Every passage of scripture must be interpreted consistent with its context.
Since words are primary to communication, correct interpretation of scripture depends upon determining the normal meaning of the words used by the writer in concert with proper literary context. Due to the complexity of words, this may not be as simple as one might think.
Most words have a range of meaning and several nuances of meaning. For example, in Philippians 3:2, Paul uses the word "dog."
The dictionary meaning is "a highly variable domestic animal closely related to the common wolf." When we consider the context of the verse, it is clear that Paul is not talking about an animal; he is referring to people and registering his disapproval of some of their practices. This suggests a careful study of words to discover specific meanings, and the part emotions may have had as the writer chose which words to use. We cannot ever understand any passage if we do not know the meaning of the words in the passage. Not all words in a passage will require detailed study. In some cases, meanings can be discovered by comparing the words in a passage using various modern English translations. Other words, however, do require extensive study. For example: English words we do not understand; words which have an impact on the meaning of the passage; words that relate to history, culture, or theology; seldom used words in contemporary society; and words that are used repeatedly.
Range of meaning refers to all the possible meanings of a given word used by the writer in the original text. Discovering range of meaning requires research in Hebrew or Greek lexicons and dictionaries, which are available in Bible bookstores. These sources contain all possible meanings of a given word in a passage. Coupled with context, history, culture, and grammatical relationships, one can then determine the best meaning of that word in that passage. Resist the temptation to select a meaning that seems to verify any preconceived personal opinions or philosophies. This may reduce study time, but it usually results in an incorrect interpretation far removed from the intent of the writer. Put in the effort to discover all possible meanings of a word, and then determine the best meaning given the grammatical relationships, historical-cultural background, and literary context. It cannot be overemphasized that the single most important criterion for determining meaning in a given passage is context.
Grammar is a basic tool writers use to organize words in ways that convey the thoughts they want to get across to their readers. Readers also use grammar to determine meaning from the written word. In any given passage of scripture, meaning is impacted by the relationships between words which are seen in the order in which words appear, the forms of the words, the use of connecting words, and what words describe. An analysis of the words in scripture is an essential aspect of correct interpretation because the biblical languages often convey subtle shades of meaning that are hard to capture in English translations. For example, in Luke 14:26, Jesus says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." At first glance it appears that Jesus is teaching pure hate to those who would be his disciples. Such teaching is in direct conflict with his teaching on love we find in Matthew 22:36-39, where he teaches that loving God is the first and greatest commandment, and loving one's neighbor is the second greatest commandment. We know that Jesus never contradicted himself, so there must be a logical explanation for this apparent contradiction. The key to understanding the meaning of Jesus's words in Luke 14:26 is the subtle meaning of the Greek word which was translated into the English word "hate." The Greek word literally means to detest, which is the same meaning for "hate" found in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. The Greek word, however, carries with it the subtle meaning "to love less," which does not appear in Webster's dictionary among the various meanings, and which better conveys what Jesus was teaching: that he expects to be the number one person in the lives of his disciples. Situations such as this need not be a barrier for believers in understanding the Bible.
We can compensate for our ignorance of the biblical languages by having a good grasp of English grammar and by using the best English translations, reliable commentaries, and other resources written by scholars who are familiar with the grammar of the original languages.
The final step in interpretation is the application of the text to one's daily life. Interpretation is incomplete if it stops at the level of meaning, and application cannot be achieved until meaning has been established. So the two, interpretation and application, are inseparable if one desires to receive full benefit from the Word of God. Meaning refers to the thoughts and ideas the writers intended to communicate. No matter who reads the text, these thoughts and ideas remain constant. Application, on the other hand, has little to do with the intent of the writer, but has everything to do with what implications meaning has for readers of the text throughout the ages. These implications, unlike meaning, are seldom constant and in most cases will vary from reader to reader. In searching for application in a given text, it is helpful to ask several questions:
1. Does the meaning in the text affect life in today's society?
2. Does the meaning in the text affect life in general?
3. Does the meaning in the text affect my life in particular?
4. Should I respond to the meaning contained in the text, and if so, how should I respond?
There are those who believe that the Bible should be read and understood, but that it was not intended to be applied to life or societies outside of its original setting. The Bible itself, in both testaments, gives us evidence that it was in fact intended to apply to all subsequent generations.
Old Testament Evidence
1. Deuteronomy 6:6, 7: Moses related God's commandment regarding his words, "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children." Parents were to teach the law to their children on a regular basis.
2. Deuteronomy 30:15-20: In these verses, God promises blessings and prosperity only if people apply his laws to their lives. In verse 16, he gets right to the point, "... I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it."
3. Deuteronomy 31:9-13: In these verses, Moses commanded that every seven years the law was to be read to all the people-men, women, children, and strangers.
New Testament Evidence
1. Second Timothy 3:16, 17: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." In this passage, we see that the entire Bible is both inspired and relevant within all societies throughout all of time, and its application "may" result in a "perfect" man of God. The word "perfect" means completely qualified to do the "good works" referred to at the end of the passage. This passage does not, however, promise that all of mankind will find personal application in every verse of scripture. The degree to which one finds application depends upon the personal implications a given passage may hold for him or her.
2. John 17:20, 21: These verses are part of Jesus's intercessory prayer to the Father for his disciples. In verse 20, he says, "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word." In verse 21, he continues, "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us." It is clear that Jesus intended that his disciples carry the Gospel throughout all generations, and that the Gospel was to be applied to the lives of men for the purpose of effecting unity among mankind.
3. Matthew 7:24-27: In these verses, Jesus says that it is not only necessary for mankind to hear his words, but also to put them into practice. Consider his words in verse 24, "Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock." James concurs with this sentiment in the first chapter of his epistle, verse 22, "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." In the rest of this verse, James goes a step further by enlightening us on the fallacy of only hearing the word. He says if we hear the word only, we are "deceiving" ourselves. In verses 23-25, he describes the nature of that deception. If we hear only, we will soon forget what we have heard. On the other hand, if, after hearing, we "do" the word, that is, apply it to our lives, then we are more likely to remember what we initially heard and consequently will be blessed for our actions.
One other aspect of application must be addressed, the tendency to misapply scripture. In many cases, misapplication flows from misinterpretation resulting from violation of the cardinal rule of proper interpretation, context. Philippians 4:13 is a case in point and is regularly abused. In this verse, Paul wrote, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." This verse is often used to assure people that through a relationship with Christ they have the ability to do a variety of things they are not trained to do. The result is usually failure and blaming God for what they believe is a broken promise. This is a prime example of misapplication resulting from misinterpretation due to violation of literary context. The proper context is seen in verses 11 and 12, where Paul is referring to the fact that he has learned to be content regardless of his economic circumstances. That thought continues through verse 13 and is the foundation for the proper interpretation of that verse. The word "do" in verse 13 does not refer to a physical act, but rather to the ability to prevail under different economic conditions. So, in this verse Paul is saying that he has that ability by virtue of the strength that he enjoys through his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Another example of misapplication is found in the view some have of Psalm 127:3-5, a popular passage for wedding ceremonies. The passage is taken to mean that God is commanding Christian parents to produce large families. To properly interpret this passage, historical background must be considered. The phrase "shall speak with the enemies in the gate" refers to either military or legal action, both of which historically took place at the city gates. The word "children" in verses 3 and 4 refers exclusively to sons, and excludes daughters. Only males participated in legal or military action at the city gates. Jewish females could neither be soldiers nor legal witnesses at that time in Jewish history. Parents were encouraged to have many sons to ensure that they would be taken care of when they reached senior citizen status. In today's society this passage should not be used to encourage producing large families. To do so is to ignore the historical background of the passage.
Since misapplication primarily flows from misinterpretation, the obvious solution to the problem is to be sure that our interpretation is correct. The best way to achieve the goal is to apply the essential elements of interpretation we have discussed thus far in conjunction with a fifth element, which, in my view, is the most important of all. In John 16:13, Jesus, speaking to his disciples of the Holy Spirit, said, "howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth." The word "guide" in this verse literally means to show the way or to teach. In our efforts to properly interpret scripture, the Holy Spirit will, if we will allow, show us and teach us the truth. This reliance on the Holy Spirit is intended to be used in conjunction with the tools of interpretation we have discussed. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:15 that if we hope to "rightly" divide the word, then we must "study to show ourselves approved unto God." Proper interpretation includes both study and the teaching of the Holy Spirit.
Excerpted from Exploring the Holy Scriptures by O.L. Johnson Copyright © 2009 by Reverend O.L. Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Discovering Bible Meaning....................1
Chapter 2: Knowing and Understanding God....................13
Chapter 3: Faith....................25
Chapter 4: Christian Maturity....................35
Chapter 5: Kingdom Building....................51
Chapter 6: Stewardship....................63
Chapter 7: Eternal Destiny....................77