What God’s Word Says Depends On What God’s Word Says

I once heard someone ask a pastor what to do when Bible reading seems dry. The pastor answered (quite seriously, I’m sorry to say), “Just keep reading until something jumps out at you.” He went on to explain that a verse that catches our attention is what the Holy Spirit has for us that particular day.

Never mind the context. Never mind the intent of the human author, or the way his original readers would have understood the verse. Above all, never mind that God spoke that verse very specifically, with a meaning that doesn’t change in order to accommodate our individual circumstances. All too often, professing Christians read the Bible with the expectation that they can arrive at a personal, subjective interpretation.

Unlike horoscopes or Magic 8-Balls, the Word of God guides us as we apply proper means of interpretation. Instead of approaching it subjectivity, we must come to it with respect for the human authors and especially for the Divine Author.

As an English Literature major in college, I learned to read poetry, novels and plays with an eye seeking authorial intent. A poem or novel is less about  “what it says to me,” and more about what the author or artist intends. We may not be comfortable with the message  (indeed, I don’t care for most of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly his comedies), but we owe them the respect of interpreting their works on their terms rather than our own.

How much more do we owe the Lord respect in interpreting His Word? Could we set aside our eagerness for personal applications long enough to ascertain the original purpose of a passage? Such questions sound foreign to many evangelicals, I realize. Few churches teach solid principles of understanding Scripture properly.

Reading until something “jumps out at you” generally means skimming over sections that seem boring and/or difficult. Leviticus and the the two Chronicles come to mind. So often, we feel distant and overwhelmed by details that seem odd to us. We want God to say something that we can latch on to!

But when we read Scripture in a manner that disregards its original purpose, we can easily wrench verses out of context to make applications that the Lord never intended us to make.

Famously, for example, we seize Jeremiah 29:11 as a personal promise of prosperity. We conveniently ignore the surrounding verses that instruct the exiles from Judah to endure 70 years of captivity in Babylon and inform their leaders that the captivity is a judgment on Judah’s idolatry. The verse can apply to us as the Lord sends us through extended times of discipline, perhaps. But we have no business wrenching it out of context the way we typically do.

Interpreting God’s Word requires reading it as He originally meant it. After that, we can apply it accurately, in ways that honor Him. And isn’t that why He gave us Scripture in the first place?

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