Sometimes I’m asked, “Why do I have to study the Bible? Why can’t I just open it, read it and do it what it says?” This is a good question. To help us see the need for studying the Bible, I’d like you to read the following and see if you can explain what it means:
It is now my dear Friend a long time since I had a line from you. The Fate of Gibraltar leads me to fear that a peace is far distant, and that I shall not see you — God only knows when; I shall say little about my former request, not that my desire is less, but before this can reach you ’tis probable I may receive your opinion. If in favour of my comeing to you; I shall have no occasion to urge it further, if against it, I would not embarrass you; by again requesting it. I will endeavour to set down and consider it as the portion alloted me. My dear sons are well their application and improvements go hand in hand. Our friends all desire to be rememberd. The Fleet of our allies expect to sail daily but where destined we know not; a great harmony has subsisted between them and the Americans ever since their residence here. I wish to write to Mr. Thaxter but fear I shall not have time. Mrs. Dana and the children are well. The judge has been very sick of a fever but I believe is better. This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety. If it should fall into the hands of an Enemy, I hope they will be kind enough to distroy it; as I would not wish to see such a family picture in print; adieu my dear Friend. Why is it that I hear so seldom from my dear John; but one Letter have I ever received from him since he arrived in Petersburgh? I wrote him by the last oppertunity. Ever remember me as I do you; with all the tenderness which it is possible for one object to feel for an other; which no time can obliterate no distance alter, but which is always the same in the bosom of
In classes, I’ve had people attempt to make observations regarding this text. What is the author’s “former request”? What is the nature of the relationship between the author and the letter’s recipient? It’s surprising the range of guesses that come from such a discussion—many of them conflicting with one another!
So what would we need to know about this letter to make sense of it? Well, it would help to know who’s writing it, wouldn’t it? (I’ll give you a clue: the author’s name is not Portia.) We also need to know to whom it’s written, and what exactly this person means to the author. We have a few clues as to the timing (the mention of America, the odd spelling and grammar, etc.), but it would really help us to have a little bit more information about the historical context. (“Ah,” I hope you’re thinking, “context.”) Who is the enemy to whom the author refers? What is the “fate of Gibraltar”? Who are the allies? Is there any significance to Mr. Thaxter and to Mrs. Dana and the children? And just where is this letter being sent from and written to?
As you can see, interpreting what we read is not always a simple, cut-and-dried process. The technical term for figuring out what a text means is hermeneutics, and it’s something we do all the time. Every time we read a news article or a spy novel, we’re doing ‘hermeneutics’—we’re interpreting what we read. The more distant the text is from us historically and culturally, the more challenging the task of interpreting what it means. The Bible was written in different languages, over a wide period of time, from different human authors (all writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and in very different cultural settings.
Is this background information really all that important? Only if we want to genuinely understand what we’re reading in Scripture! Here’s a principle worth remembering:
The Bible can never mean what it never meant.
Scripture can’t have some unique, esoteric meaning to me personally that is completely divorced from its historical and cultural setting. It can’t mean something to us now that it never meant to them then. To understand what the Bible means to us today, we first need a sense of what these letters and books meant to the people to whom they were originally written. If we don’t know any of this background information for the Scriptures we’re reading, then we’re as in the dark reading the Bible as we are deciphering the mysterious letter above. And I know that’s just how many of you often feel.
Does this mean we all have to become seminary students just to understand our Bibles? Not at all! Thankfully, we can benefit from the work of dedicated biblical scholars every day. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I recommended using a good study Bible? This is a handy, convenient way of carrying around a handbook on the historical context of Scripture—right in your personal Bible. A study Bible gives you an introduction to each book of the Bible, telling you who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, and a little about why it was written. By simply reading a brief intro, you’re now miles ahead of where you were before in your ability to truly understand the text.
A study Bible will tell us that Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (and that he was a Gentile). This gives us much better insight into both books. A study Bible can explain what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah have to do with each other, helping us to better understand both. A study Bible will help us sort out just who the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) were writing to and what they were writing about.
Who were the Galatians, and why did Paul so quickly get on their case in his letter to them? A study Bible will help you understand what’s going on in their letter. Why was Paul wanting so badly to get back to the Thessalonians? (Who were they anyway? Where did they come from?) Who was Timothy and why did Paul feel such a close, fatherly bond with him? Why in his first letter to Timothy does Paul speak of coming soon to where Timothy was (Ephesus), but in his second letter to him Paul speaks of his own impending death? What happened between these letters?
One of the most important things we can do while studying the Bible is to ask these kinds of questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? A study Bible is like a gifted scholar sitting down beside us explaining how everything fits together. If you’re reading the book of 1 Corinthians, it will help you understand the situation in Corinth, why Paul wrote to the Corinthians rather than go immediately to them, why he wrote to them the way he did, and how 2 Corinthians relates to 1 Corinthians. In a few brief paragraphs, it gives you the lay of the land and helps you see everything in perspective. As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about study Bibles!
I once heard of a competition between two woodcutters. A young woodcutter had been boasting he could out-cut the older pro. So they had a competition. The morning of the contest, they were given identical axes. It didn’t take them long to discover they both had the same problem—the axes were dull. The young kid just worked harder, thinking he could muscle his way to victory. But the veteran woodcutter stopped and took the time to sharpen his axe. When he finally got to actually using the axe, he was far behind his young opponent. But as the day went on, he caught up with and surpassed the challenger. When the competition was finished, the young upstart was so exhausted he could barely lift his arms, but what he had produced paled in comparison to the older, more experienced woodcutter.
I think the lesson is clear. We can’t simply muscle our way through the biblical text and expect to get much out of it. We need to take the time to sharpen our axe. A crucial part of any job is making sure we’re using the right tool, isn’t it? And we need to know the tool is in proper working order, and that we know how to operate the tool correctly, don’t we? One of the best tools we have in understanding God’s Word is a study Bible. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the study Bible I recommend to most believers who are just beginning to dig into the Bible is the Life Application Study Bible. If you’re a little more experienced at studying Scripture or if you’re going to be teaching others, I love the NLT Study Bible. I don’t have any connection to the publishers; I just love all the helpful features these study Bibles have, and I’m excited about getting them into the hands of Christians who can then use them to better understand the Bible.
If you choose a different study Bible—great! Just use it! Take the time to sharpen your axe. To mix our metaphors, don’t be satisfied with me or anyone else giving you fish—learn to fish for yourself. Sharpen your skill in studying the Bible for yourself and being able to understand it. My responsibility as a pastor isn’t just to feed you; it’s to teach you to feed yourself. That’s the whole point of our current series. Once you get a taste of digging into God’s Word for yourself, it will just make you hungry for more!
(PS: For those who are still wondering, the letter I quoted at the top is from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams [who would later become the second president of the U.S.], and it was dated December 23, 1782.)
How to study the Bible series:
Which Bible version should I use?
The first three rules of Bible study
Why do we have to “study” the Bible? [see above]
Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story
You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches
Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches
Following the story: God and his people, part 1
Following the story: God and his people, part 2
Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?
Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law
The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us
Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom
The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back