When you sit down to read God's Word, do you know why you read it? Do you consider what you are reading? Does the One who wrote the Book influence what you read? These are all important questions to ask yourself as you read the Bible, but are they the most important?
There is one question which consumes the rest, which acts as an umbrella covering these questions: how do you read your Bible? How you read your Bible directly influences why you read it, how you interpret what has been written, and your relationship with the One whose Word it is. In essence, the how question deals with the why, what, and who (maybe even where and when) questions that we answer every time we open the pages of Scripture.
In this day and age, many techniques on how to read Scripture are offered. Different pastors and teachers read Scripture differently, and so they have their own answer to this question. God's Word seems to be tossed around from one opinion to the next with a lack of discernment. These opinions usually are fully accepted as possible ways to read the Bible, and the possible way to read the Bible has overtaken the only way to read the Bible. This means that Scripture is no longer the authority, but rather our opinions and intellect have become the authority. There is a certain philosophy very much at play in this; it is the philosophy of subjective truth. This philosophy lauds anyone who seeks for truth and condemns those who say they have found the truth. Accordingly, it is not noble to say you have found the truth, but nobility is placed on those who say they have found a truth or their truth. You can have your truth, and I can have mine, this philosophy claims, but never can anyone say that another's truth is a lie. Otherwise we could not live in 'harmony' with one another. Those who seek for truth do not, in fact, seek for truth, because if they were to find the truth, they would have to stop seeking and immediately conform to the truth they have found. Truth does not accommodate those who live in lies. This means that in order to obtain righteousness (living according to the morals of truth) without going through the unwanted change, they must call their lie the truth in order to appease their conscience. Therefore, they are their own decider of truth, which means they have the authority to determine whether or not Scripture is true. It is plain to see why we must learn how to properly read our Bibles, for if we approach Scripture with any ulterior motives, we will not glean from it what we ought.
In the case of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), we can observe how we are to properly approach the Scriptures. Philip is summoned away by an angel into the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza. There is no message of a plan, all Philip is told to do is to go. As he is going, he comes across a bizarre sight. The treasurer for Candace, the Ethiopian queen, is reading Scripture in his chariot. He is also returning from Jerusalem where he had been worshipping.
Everything would have seemed out of place for Philip. First, what interest would a court official from a foreign land have in the Hebrew Scriptures? This was not for academic purposes seeing that he had just come from worshipping in Jerusalem. That causes another question, why would a court official from another country think he could come and worship in Jerusalem? If he had been reading the Hebrew Scriptures, surely he would have understood that eunuchs we not allowed to worship in the temple (Duet. 23:1). As a court official, he was emasculated in order to obstruct temptation, and as a Gentile, he was not permitted to worship with the Israelites. So on two counts, he would not have been allowed to worship in Jerusalem.
However, there lies a clue as to why Philip found a foreign eunuch returning from worship in Jerusalem; this eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 56, we find God's promise to one day allow for foreigners and eunuchs to worship alongside His people:
"Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
'The Lord will surely separate me from his people';
and let not the eunuch say,
'Behold, I am a dry tree.'"
We assume this passage should have been the one he was reading, however, it was a few chapters prior to this promise that Philip heard coming from the lips of the eunuch. The eunuch was reading of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Why? The promise of chapter 56 this eunuch held dear to his heart was predicated upon a servant who would come to suffer. It was by this servant that the promise would be fulfilled, and the foreign eunuch would be acceptable among the worshippers of God. The passage concerning the promise for the foreigner and the eunuch would have been clear to him, but this passage about a man who was to suffer perplexed him. "Whom is this describing?" the eunuch asked. Philip, understanding whom this was about, opened the Scriptures and taught the eunuch about Christ. Christ was the suffering servant who would redeem His people, and not only those of Israel but those who had been formerly denied entry into the temples to worship. The eunuch's eyes were opened to this truth, and the promise of Isaiah 56 was fulfilled in this Ethiopian's life.
Among the many lessons we glean from this encounter, we find yet another example of how we must read the Bible. There are five points we must consider if we are to read the Bible properly.
The Bible is to be read as a whole book. There is one meta-narrative (grand story) which courses through every page of Scripture. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, the redemption of sinners by God is the overarching narrative. Not only must each portion of Scripture be read in the light of the meta-narrative, but it must also be read in the light of the immediate context. What comes before it? What comes after it? Are there connecting words? We also cannot rely so heavily on the chapter and verse breaks which are part of our English translations. In all of the original texts, there are no chapters or verses, only sentences, and paragraphs.
Not only that, but we must understand the historical context. Whom was this written for? What required this passage to be written? What were the events which led up to this? What was their culture like? These are important as well since we learn much about the meaning of certain verses. For instance, Jeremiah 29:11 is speaking to the Israelites while they were in exile, reassuring them that God had not forgotten His promise to them. It is not a message to promise peace and prosperity to young people who are thinking about the future, but rather to be used to display the sovereign will of God in bringing to pass salvation for His people.
Philip, explaining the meaning of the passage to the eunuch, did not give his opinion on the part which the eunuch read, he "told him the good news about Jesus." It was Christ that this passage spoke about, and so it was Christ whom Philip told the eunuch about. The eunuch, too, read the Scriptures in context. If he were to obtain the promise for the foreigner and the eunuch, he was to understand whom this "sheep led to the slaughter" was. For it was this event that the promise rested on.
Pay Attention to the Genre
Philip paid attention to the literary genre and taught accordingly. He understood that Isaiah was a book of prophecy, and so he did not explain it as if he were reading poetry or law. The eunuch question to Philip regarding whom the prophecy spoke of is another example of understanding the genre. He did not ask what this passage required him to do.
The Bible is made up of various types of written expressions. Contained within the pages of Scripture are law, prophecy, history, song, prayer, proverb, parable, epistle, and others. Each passage must be interpreted according to its genre. Law (Thou shalt not covet. Ex. 20:17) is not understood to be the same as a proverb (Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Prov. 22:6). One is binding while the other is generally valid. Proverbs are not prophecy either. Prophecy contains the things which are certain to happen, while proverb is wisdom concerning the natural outcome of certain actions. Some books of the Bible contain more than one genre. Epistles may have prophecy, proverbs, law, and gospel all wound together in the form of a letter. The genre of the passage will determine how the passage should be interpreted.
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
There is a damaging approach to interpreting Scripture which has become prominent in our day. It is the reader-response hermeneutic. In essence, this method of interpretation allows for the reader to determine the meaning of the text. Those who approach Scripture with this perspective approach Scripture with suspicion towards the true meaning of the text. It fits perfectly into our post-modern age where it is believed that you can have many meanings coming from one truth. Whatever you believe to be true is true, they claim. When this perspective is brought to Scripture, anyone can claim just about anything to be true according to Scripture. The Slave Trade, Marxism, Nazism, homosexuality, and modern feminism (only to name a few) all have used the Bible to validate their movement. They have all claimed that the Word of God condones their behavior and their movement.
What about Church tradition that supersedes the authority of Scripture? Such was the case for nearly 1000 years. The Catholic Church had come to trust in tradition over against the Bible. They interpreted Scripture according to the tradition that had been held by the Church over the ages, namely that the Pope was the Vicar of Christ. The Pope was seen as Christ's representative. Therefore his words were just as authoritative as Scripture. This caused confusion when the Pope would claim something Scripture did not. Whom were the Christians supposed to believe?
Philip let Scripture interpret Scripture. He took the passage that was unclear to the eunuch and explained it by telling him about Christ. Christ was not mentioned in that passage. However, many other OT passages spoke even more clearly of Christ. Not only that, but Philip now understood that the Christ who had died and resurrected only a few years prior was whom this passage was speaking of. The eunuch did not try to interpret the text himself by use of the philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, nor did he take the religion of his own people. Rather, he sought one who understood the unclear passage in light of the clear ones.
Not everything in Scripture is plain and easily understood; there are many perplexing passages. However, there are many clear passages which are easily understood. When we speak of Scripture interpreting itself, we speak of taking the clear verses to understand the unclear. We gather meaning from the unclear verses by gathering the meaning of the clear verses. There still often remains a problem. Which verses are clear, and which are unclear?
We need humility when approaching the Scripture to help us deal with understanding which verses are unclear and which verses are clear. There must be a submission to the whole of the Scriptures, to the context, and to the genre as well. Moreover, there must be a submission to God, the author of Scripture. If we are to "rightly divide the word of truth," we must never impose our own opinions on Scripture, nor make passages out to be unclear when they are clear in the context of the meta-narrative.
For the eunuch, he had no idea of the overarching narrative of Scripture, nor did he have the understanding of the New Testament. What he had was this passage in front of him with no way to know of whom it spoke. Philip, on the other hand, did understand what was necessary for proper interpretation.
There is one other sense in which we need humility, and that is obedience. Those who seek truth, but never find it on account of their unwillingness to submit to it are not humble but are proud. Today, the seekers of truth are viewed as the ones displaying humility, and those who say they have found the truth are seen as the arrogant ones. You can't claim your way to be the only way, they protest. They are proud because they will not humble themselves and submit to the truth.
This is where humility and faith walk hand in hand. It takes humility to have faith. Since faith is the belief in God and the full acceptance of what He has said, submission to God and humility in reading His Word are required. When the world does not submit to Scripture, they prove they have no faith. No amount of protest and no claim to faith will cause faith or display it. As James so clearly states, faith produces works. Faith produces obedience to God and His Word. Therefore, faith is displayed in the humble and submissive approach to the Word of God.
What did the eunuch do as soon as Philip had finished explaining the passage to him? He immediately displayed his belief in the Christ which the Scriptures taught by being baptized. He did not argue against Philip, nor did he protest that what Philip was saying was not inclusive enough. No, he promptly submitted to the authority of Scripture, forsaking all the teachings he had grown up with in order to cling to this teaching.
Scripture Defines Us
From what we have already covered, the fact that Scripture defines us and the culture around us goes without saying. However, because of the perversities our culture promotes, this must be stressed. Far too many Christians (and churches) have succumbed to the pressures of this modern age and now believe and teach doctrine which directly contradicts the Gospel and the whole of Scripture. We do not define the message of Scripture, and the culture does not define the message of Scripture. God defines the message of Scripture, and the message of Scripture defines us. We will never have a proper understanding of what Scripture is truly saying until we have a proper attitude towards it.
Scripture must define us if we are to be Christians. We will not be like Christ in this world if we change the meaning of Scripture or impose our message on it in order to suit our agenda. Rather, we will be like Christ when we are conformed to His Word. The Scriptures cannot change us if we change its message. We must stick to what is there – even if it means our demise. If we take Scripture out of context or fail to promote the whole of Scripture, namely the gospel, even if the message we are trying to advance is noble (such as feeding the poor), we will not endure in our endeavors. It is the whole message of Scripture which will sustain us, and it is gospel to which salvation belongs. All else is secondary and will not sustain one single person in their faith.
How we read the Bible will display why we read it (to know God, or for our own advance), and it will tell us what we read (the inspired and authoritative Word of God, or just another book). If we are to read the Bible correctly, we must read the Bible in context, considering the genre we are reading, and let Scripture interpret itself. All this must be done with a spirit of humility and willingness to conform to the truth written on its pages. To do anything else would be to disregard the Scriptures completely. Scripture is sufficient in itself. Philip and the eunuch were both recipients of life transforming salvation because they submitted to the authority of Scripture. Let this also be true of us today.