This week we are responding to a question from a reader on interpreting Scripture. He asks:
“I always hear people say every time they read the Bible they get something different. Is it possible to read the same passage multiple times and get something different from it every time? Or do most verses have a specific meaning and we take out whatever meaning we want at the moment we read it?”
Why We “Get Something Different”?
This is a great question!
I have heard this sort of thing said in the church many times. The idea is that we should get something different from the text every time we read it. That because the Bible contains so much truth that we cannot possibly know it all only reading it once or twice, that the Holy Spirit continually reveals deeper and deeper meaning.
This sort of sentiment is usually stated to demonstrate how spiritual a person is. We think that receiving these “deep” and “hidden” meanings in Scripture makes us more spiritual. We see this as God talking to us more directly. This gives us a profound sense of satisfaction in our Christian walks and makes us feel like we are closer to God than we were before.
This is a great feeling. We want to feel close to God and grow in our knowledge of his word. But we must make sure we are doing so according to his standards and not our own. Otherwise, we are fooling ourselves into a false sense of growth.
This can have a big impact on our personal understanding of how to read and interpret Scripture. It will then have an even bigger impact on the lives of those we teach and have conversations with.
To answer this question, though, we must first look at what the Bible is, as the Word of God. For you “Theology Nerds,” you may find this extensive (though not exhaustive) paper interesting. For this post we can approach this question a little more directly.
First, let’s address the 2 major thoughts behind the idea that you should “get something different” every time you read the Bible.
1. The Bible is the dynamic, living, and active word of God. It cannot be comprehended in its entirety because God is perfect and we cannot fully grasp everything God’s perfect word has to offer.
2. Because the Bible transcends time, and since all Christians are priests with direct access to God, the Holy Spirit can speak to us and reveal what the Bible means for us today.
There are probably other presuppositions that aid this view, but I think it is safe to assume that these two are part of this mindset.
The Bible is the Living and Active Word of God
On the surface, this sounds good. And to a degree, this is true.
The problem comes when this verse (Hebrews 4:12) is taken out of context. The common implication is that the Bible can and does continually change.
Instead, a better way to understand “living and active” would be to say that “God’s word” is active in changing our lives. In other words, God’s word is not merely ink on a page.
The story of Scripture, the gospel message, is somehow alive and active in our lives, revealing the deepest intentions in our hearts. This process is active and ongoing.
This does not mean the Bible continually changes to suit our individual needs or culture.
The Bible Transcends Time
This position sounds super spiritual. Like if you get something different every time you read the Bible that you must be closer to God since you receive so many special revelations that others have not.
The quote I hear that best demonstrates this thinking (a line that I have even said), is that “because Jesus is God and outside of time, when he was speaking to the disciples, he knew I would be reading it and was saying it for me too.”
This is a really cool thought, and may even be true to a certain extent. Jesus very well could have seen all the millions of people that would read his words as he spoke them to the disciples. However, it is impossible for us to know if that was the case.
Basing how we interpret Scripture on speculation is very dangerous. We cannot know for sure who or what Jesus was thinking about when he taught. However, we do know what Jesus said and to whom he said it.
I think this is enough. If the Bible is all that God gave us, he must have known it was sufficient for us to understand his word and his purposes for our lives.
Although we are priests in a royal priesthood and have direct access to God, mediated through Christ himself, we do not need constant revelations about the hidden things the Bible means for us today.
My biggest problem with this perspective, however, is that it ignores the unified message of Scripture.
With God’s big picture in mind, the little things of our lives come into line with his will and purpose.
What is the Bible?
The Bible was written by many different men. It is made up of 66 books in total. And it took thousands of years to complete the writings for everything included in its pages. Despite this process, the Bible tells one unified story: the story of how God overcame sin to save humanity.
Each biblical author wrote not knowing, and definitely not understanding, the full significance of the part they each played in the process. Some of them may have seen the future glory to come, but they could not have imagined the fulfillment of what they prophesied and hoped for.
From the human author’s perspective, they would have been writing with a very specific purpose in mind. Just as when we write a letter or an email (or blog post) we do so usually with a single message in mind. We want the recipient of our communication to understand exactly what we mean.
There is an opening scene from the TV show “The Office” that demonstrates how important language is to communicate clearly with others.
In this scene, the character Kevin begins cutting keywords out of his sentences that distorts his intended meaning (In fact, they think he’s had a stroke of some kind). The words in his short phrases do not possess enough context to understand their intended meaning. They could mean too many different things.
If we were to speak and write to each other in vague incongruous phrases, then communication could not be accurately sent or received. Our relationships with others would fracture and society could not function.
Hearing Kevin omit words while talking sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Nobody actually speaks like that. In fact, it’s hard to imitate him because our brains have been conditioned to communicate so we can understand one another.
It is equally ridiculous to think the biblical authors might have written similarly. I don’t think anybody actually believes they intentionally wrote to be vague. They wrote with a very clear purpose in mind; at least in their minds. God may have had more use for it than they knew, but they originally wrote to be understood by a certain people in a specific context and culture.
Now I know what you are thinking. “But Chris! Jesus spoke using vague stories and phrases so that ‘those who have eyes will see….’” Yes, there are some biblical authors that did use vague imagery and stories to veil their message from certain onlookers.
The book of Revelation is probably the best example of this sort of communication style. There are crazy images throughout the entire book, and I will be the first to admit that I do not understand them all. I do know, however, that the Apostle John had an understanding of what they meant. And I can be fairly certain he was writing to churches that also understood quite a bit more of John’s intended message than we do.
Why? Because they were closer to the context and culture of the day. They had a worldview and cultural perspective that allowed them to understand the fantastic and bizarre imagery.
We do this all the time today. When someone says to you, “What’s up?” you don’t think they are asking, “What’s above you.” Or, if you turned on the news and heard, “The Giants crushed the Broncos this evening.” You don’t assume that a group of giant humanoid creatures actually crushed a bunch of horses.
Instead, you understand the imagery behind the literal meaning of the words. You recognize that the news caster is talking about two football teams. Two-thousand years from now, future people looking back on history might not be so quick to get that reference.
The Difference Between Meaning and Application
I think when people say, “You should get something different from Scripture every time you read it,” they are actually talking about application, not meaning.
This is key to the process of interpreting Scripture.
We should grasp the meaning of the text and apply it to our lives every time we read it. If not, we are simply reading a really old history book. In this case, it has no power––it is not alive and active in our lives, discerning our thoughts and intentions.
This means we can constantly grasp new ways to apply Scripture to our lives. As our world continues to change and we keep growing in our understanding of Scripture and God’s overarching story of salvation, we will see aspects of the story we did not realize were there.
Similar to when you watch a beloved movie from your childhood and it feels like you’re watching a completely different movie. The movie used to be so simple and fun. But now you recognize that some of the Disney movies you loved are a little messed up….
It’s not that you are reading more meaning into the movie. The movie just had levels to it you weren’t able to process as a kid.
Grasping God’s word at deeper levels does not mean you have discovered “new meaning” in the text; as if it wasn’t there before.
It may be new for you.
But the meaning was there.
It could be that you finally see the significance of how God’s Covenant with Moses fits into your Christian life. You are finally able to see the intricate story being woven through the history of Israel that led to Christ’s saving work on the Cross.
You should be elated at this discovery. In these times of insights, you will feel God’s grace in such a tangible that your life will change. You will stop doing some things and may have to start doing others. This is God’s word actively shaping your life.
This however, is application, not meaning.
Join the Conversation: How do you see “meaning” and “application” playing out in your life?
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