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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Understanding the Bible

by  Kyle Butt, M.A.

Take a short drive through any city in the United States and you probably will see more church buildings than you can count on your fingers and toes combined. Let your fingers take a walk through the nearest phone book and the numbers may reach into the hundreds or even thousands. Yet most of these different churches claim to be using the same Bible as the book that guides their teachings and practices. With all these different beliefs supposedly coming from the Bible, one wonders if it is possible for anyone to understand the Bible. Many atheists claim that the Bible is a confusing book filled with lies and/or contradictions that cannot be understood. In fact, one atheist said that the Bible is “a book that is so unintelligible that not only do ‘non-believers’ reject it, but those who believe it to be the true word of God cannot agree upon its interpretation.”

One thing is for sure: many of those who believe the Bible to be the true Word of God do not agree upon its interpretation. But the reason they do not agree is not because the Bible is an “unintelligible” book. There are many reasons why people misunderstand the Bible and disagree about its meaning. Looking at a few of those reasons can help each of us understand the Bible better.

IT CANNOT BE UNDERSTOOD?

Some people think that since the Bible is the Word of God, then it is too lofty or too high to understand. They think that no human can understand God’s Word, and therefore it is pointless to attempt such an achievement. The problem with this type of thinking is that it flies in the face of what the Word of God actually says. In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the prophet wrote:

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…and when he opened it, all the people stood up, and Ezra blessed Jehovah, the great God. And all the people…bowed their heads and worshipped Jehovah with their faces to the ground. and the Levites caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:5-8, emp. added).

In 2 Corinthians 1:13, the apostle Paul wrote: “For we are not writing any other things to you than what you read or understand. Now I trust you will understand, even to the end.” His point could not have been clearer—the words of the apostle’s letter (and of the entire Bible, for that matter) were and still are understandable. The book of Ephesians makes a similar statement, “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17). Make no mistake about it; God inspired the Bible in a way that humans can understand it.

THE BIBLE IS RESPECTED, BUT NOT READ

One reason people do not understand the Bible is because so many actually spend very little time reading it. George Gallup (the man behind the famous Gallup Polls) surveyed many U.S. inhabitants and asked them some basic Bible questions. The results of the survey showed the degree of biblical ignorance that is so prevalent amidst the citizenry at large. Six out of ten Americans could not say for sure who gave the Sermon on the Mount (some even suggested Billy Graham!). At least 50% of those polled could not name the four books that compose the gospels in the New Testament. Fewer than half could name Genesis as the first book in the Bible. Eight out of ten Americans believed the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves.” And 12% of those polled thought that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife!

Is it any wonder that disagreement about the Bible exists in our society today? Very few people are reading The Book, but they still are claiming to know and believe what it says. It is like a huge board game where people sit around and argue about the rules but never bother to look at the actual rulebook. Should we expect anything but confusion and misunderstanding from such a situation?

As simple as the following statement may appear, it nevertheless is true: reading the Bible is the only way to understand it. The apostle Paul told the Ephesians: “When you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (3:4). He also encouraged the young preacher Timothy to “give attention to reading” (1 Timothy 4:13). Nothing clears up misunderstanding about the Bible better than actually reading the Bible.

LET’S BE HONEST

Many people “misunderstand” the Bible because it teaches things that they do not want to hear and obey. Instead of changing their sinful lives, they decide to twist the Bible to say what they want it to say. The apostle Peter described this situation by saying that some untaught and unstable people take the Scriptures and twist them “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Being honest with the Bible, instead of trying to force it to agree with our lives, will help us to understand it better.

CONCLUSION

In this brief article we have examined just a few of the reason why people misunderstand God’s Word. Sometimes they think it cannot be understood, other times they do not read it; and on occasion they try to twist it to fit their lives. How can we understand the Bible and avoid these pitfalls? By obeying the words of Paul to the young preacher Timothy when he said: “Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).





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