I was recently listening to two Christians talking about verse from the book of Hebrews. I don’t know these individuals well, having only talked with them a few times. That being said, they seem like sincere people who desire to be faithful to God. Unfortunately, it seems like they’ve never been taught how to read the Bible.
As they were talking about this verse in Hebrews, the one person was saying how they understood the verse and it spoke to them. The other person went on to explain that they had always understood it differently. What did not happen was a conversation that involved techniques of exegesis or sentence diagramming or arguing from the context of the letter. Instead, the other person replied, “Isn’t it great that the Bible has so many meanings?”
Now, it is certainly true that any given passage may have a different weight in a person’s life at any given time. For example, I read exhortations to parents much differently now that I have three kids then when I was a kid. But in the end, the text only has one meaning. What was wrong in the conversation between these two Christians was that they began with their life experience and then read back into the text what they thought they needed to hear from it. They used their experience to explain a helpful meaning of the text. But this is backwards. God has spoken in his Word. When he spoke, he didn’t mumble or speak in riddles or have vague notions in mind that could be taken a multiple ways depending on what the meaning of “is” is. Again, some texts might be applied differently on some occasions or have a different significance, but there is only one, God-intended meaning behind the text of the Bible.
So when we approach the Bible, we must approach it like any other book and not like any other book. We approach it like any other book asking, ‘What is the author trying to say?’ Yes, I know there are whole literary theories driven by reader-response, the reader determining the meaning. But let’s be honest–that just doesn’t work! Work will not get done, laws cannot be enforced, society grinds to a halt, and life can’t be lived if WE get to decide what someone else means. So, in that way, we are reading the Bible like anything else–we ask, ‘What does the author mean? What is he trying to convey?’
But we also read the Bible unlike any other book. The Scriptures are not the product of the human mind (2 Peter 1:21). God is a speaking God who reveals himself to his people, and he has done this through his Word as well as his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). We are privileged to have God’s revelation of himself. We may want answers to questions we think are important, but in his Word, God has told us everything we need to know about himself, his ways, and his creation so that we can be saved in Christ and live a life of godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). Because it is God’s book, we have to treat it seriously–reading it and obeying it. It also means that we do not come with our own ideas about what it should mean, or what we would like it to mean. Instead, we acknowledge our preconceived ideas, and try to come fresh to the text, asking God to help us see what he is saying in his Word (Psalm 119:18).
I pray that God’s people would come to read the Bible this way, remembering that it’s not their word, but God’s Word. Then we will be built up in our faith in a way that is beneficial to us and honoring to God.