Cutting a straight line through the Word
So, how do you read the Bible? What is your goal? Ezra is a beautiful example of how one should approach Scripture. “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances to Israel” (Ezra 7:10, NKJV). His life’s goal was a mastery of the Scripture, obedience to it, and communication of its truths to others. Did he not “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33), as our Lord later commanded?
Before his death, Paul counseled Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The Greek orthotmneo is “to cut straight,” a term often used in tent making. The NIV translates “who correctly handles the Word of truth.” One’s goal should be to understand the true meaning and importance of the passage. To teach the Word of God is a heavy responsibility. Do it well, Timothy.
One should handle the Word of God with reverence and care. It is God-breathed and is filled with spiritual truth (2 Tim. 3:14-17). Like the miner digging for gold in the mountains, one must work hard and dig for the truth.
First of all, one must read and study the text grammatically. This means beginning with the words which need to be defined, as we have done above. Start with an English dictionary. Then check a concordance with a list of Hebrew and Greek words at the back. This can be most helpful. A Bible dictionary will also prove useful. Compare other passages that use the same word. Go no further until you understand the meaning of each word in the passage.
An intense, grammatical study of a passage requires a more literal translation, such as the New King James or the New American Standard. Paraphrases may read easily, but the translators tend strongly towards dynamic equivalence, leaving the translator much room for his personal bias and prejudice.
Then one needs to understand how the words are coupled together and are related in each sentence, paragraph, and passage as a whole. How are these words connected? How do they modify and interact with one another? Read and study, considering the context carefully.
One must always keep in mind the book as a whole: the author, time, occasion, and purpose for writing. For example, the book of Genesis was not written as a science text book. The creation account does not give us dates and details of geology. This was not the purpose of the book, and such details would have been meaningless to much of mankind in ages past. God is affirmed as the Creator and the creation is described in its progression, culminating in the creation of man. Its simple language and profound spiritual lessons can be understood by all.
Secondly, one should study historically. Much of the message may not be understood unless there is some knowledge of the historic setting and the culture. It is difficult to understand Daniel without some knowledge of the history of the time. Here a Bible dictionary or commentary will be helpful. Who was Nebuchadnezzar? When did he reign and where was his kingdom? The Bible is not a book of philosophy dealing with abstract ideas or morals. Both the Old and New Testaments are anchored in history. It is most helpful to know something of the history of the times being studied. To know something of Jewish history from 450 B.?C. to the time of Christ will help one understand the setting of the gospels. It is also vital in understanding Daniel’s prophecies.
One should understand the importance of typology in the Scriptures. The word “type” comes from the Greek tupos, from the verb tupto, “to strike, or to smite.” It is the mark of a blow, an impression, hence, a figure or image. From this comes the thought of a pattern or example or type. The Old Testament contains objects and events designed by God which point forward to the reality that was to come later. The tabernacle with its service is a prime example of this. The book of Hebrews expounds this great object lesson, rich with truths concerning the Christ and His redemptive work. “For the Law having a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image, can never with these same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect” (Heb. 10:1). These things were shadows cast by the reality that was to come.
Certainly if a person, event, or object is referred to in the New Testament, one is safe in calling it a type. And there may be other historic events which the Spirit has included in Scripture because of the spiritual truth they convey. One thinks of the experience of Joseph and how his life pictures Christ in a number of ways. But one must be careful in the use of types. Doctrines may be illustrated by a type, but there should be the clear teaching of the New Testament to define doctrine. Be cautious then in the use of types. Some teachers have been guilty of allegorizing Scripture to the point that its clear teaching is ignored. Be careful with numerology. Some have become obsessed with numbers, seeking to find some hidden numerical structure in every passage. They may feel their ministry in life is to lead others into this esoteric knowledge revealed to the few who are enlightened. It is true that certain numbers have significance, such as seven, which seems to stress completeness and perfection. But read the text for its obvious, plain meaning.
Figures of speech
Read figures of speech with discernment. The Lord used exaggeration to make a point, such as cutting off one’s hand if it causes one to sin. Obviously he did not intend people to mutilate the body, but to remove that which leads one to sin. Origen, a third-century theologian, reportedly took it literally and castrated himself, a tragic misinterpretation.
Parables are comparisons of earthly events with spiritual truth. Usually they are intended to illustrate one point. The question was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Our Lord told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) to emphasize that our responsibility to show love extends to all. It may be used to illustrate the gospel but that was not the original intent. And the idea that the two coins teach that the church age will last 2,000 years is sheer nonsense.
Finally, read and study the Word with a view to obeying it. This was Ezra’s goal. He wanted to study the Scriptures and then obey them. The goal of teaching is not teaching but a transformed life. Paul stressed this. “Now the purpose (goal) of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Paul gives profound teaching about the incarnation of Christ (Php. 2), but the goal is not simply to build a theology; the goal is to cause believers to cultivate the mindset of our Lord and to live humble, sacrificial lives.
It is imperative then that one study God’s Word carefully, beginning with an accurate exegesis of the passage. Then apply it to life. Jesus said, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). God’s desire is to have a godly, holy people, bearing with dignity “that noble name by which you are called” (Jas. 2:7).