Wednesday, 6 December 2017

How not to read the Bible

Then the devil took him [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you...’ ” Matthew 4:6

I wrote last time about the way the Bible can be misused - using the example of the woman who disagreed with her minister’s sermon by quoting Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”. She took this one Bible verse as trumping, so to speak, anything else the Bible might say on the matter of judging.

Our theme was judging; but the story raises also the much wider issue of exactly how we should read the Bible. Or, more to the point, how we shouldn’t read it.

You may know the corny old story of the man who was desperate to get guidance from God on a decision he had to make. Believing the Bible to be the word of God, he decided to let it lead him. So he said a prayer, closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and put his finger on the page. When he opened his eyes he read “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He felt this wasn’t quite right for him, so he decided to try again. This time: “Go and do likewise”. Oh dear! So he tried a third time. And - ? “What you do, do quickly”. (He didn’t make a fourth attempt.)

I don’t vouch for the truth of that story. But it makes the point. God has not given us the Bible to be a kind of lucky (or, in this case, unlucky) dip. That just isn’t the kind of book it is. Even the devil can, as Shakespeare put it, “cite scripture for his purpose” - a reference, I imagine, to our passage today, where the devil tempts Jesus with the perfectly true words “It is written...” (quoting Psalm 91).

As Christians we believe that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired word. No problem. But it is also human words, for God has chosen to speak through human authors. And it is important that those words, seen in their human character, should be understood and interpreted accordingly.
So where does this lead us? I suggest three things to keep in mind...
  1. Don’t wrench Bible verses out of context!
Whenever we read a Bible passage we should aim to understand it, initially, on its own terms. At what point in Bible history was it written? Who is the human writer and who is he addressing? What is the background against which the words are spoken? Seeing Bible passages in their overall context is vital if we are to understand them correctly.

Certainly, there may be times when God, by his Spirit, gives us, out of the blue, a Bible verse which is just perfect for us. And that’s great. But that is for God, in his wisdom, to do; it is not for us to presume upon.
  1. Ask the question: What sort of writing is this?
Is it poetry? history? letters? proverbs? doctrine? prophecy? Remember, different kinds of literature must be read in different ways. Would you read a car maintenance manual the same way you would read a book of poetry? Or a novel the same way you read a cook book? No? But they’re all books, aren’t they!

In the same way you would be very foolish to read 1 Samuel in the same way you read the Book of Revelation, or Job in the same way you read Mark’s Gospel.
  1. Always read out of the Bible, not into it.
By which I mean: Don’t come to a Bible text or passage with your own preconceived idea of what it says, and then try and shoe-horn that idea into the passage. No; let the passage say what it wants to say, not what you want it to say. We can sometimes be guilty of finding our favourite doctrines in passages that in fact have nothing to do with them.

In short, read the Bible passage in question in its most natural sense; run a mile from anything that comes across as contrived or artificial.

Learning to read like this isn’t necessarily easy. If we mean business with God’s word it’s a good idea to get hold of reliable Bible commentaries and other books which fill in the background for us.

It’s a sad fact that many individual lives have been ruined because of a sincere but misguided understanding of a single Bible verse. (An extreme example is the early church leader who was tormented by lustful thoughts. He decided to deal with this by taking Matthew 5:27-30 strictly literally. I’ll leave you to guess what part of his anatomy he removed...)

So... Value the Bible! Cherish it! Look to it to receive the word of God! But be wary too. Satan too can use it - and he loves to deceive...

Lord God, thank you for giving us your word in scripture. Please help me to value and appreciate it - and, by your Spirit, to understand it and apply it correctly. Amen.

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