How Do We Read Scripture?
One of the most astonishing events that I read about in the Bible is that the disciples were completely discouraged by Jesus’s death on the cross. If you think about it, it is very startling. During His ministry, Jesus taught the disciples at least three times in plain and explicit language that “‘it was necessary’” that the Son of Man should “‘suffer many things . . . and be killed’” (Luke 9:22, NASB). He always added, however, that He would rise from the dead. In addition, the Gospel of John registers seven references made by Jesus in the last week of His ministry to the “hour” of His death (12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:4, 21, 32; 17:1).
The Cross, however, caught the disciples by surprise, and after Jesus’ resurrection they failed to believe! How could this have happened? What better teacher could they have had? How much clearer could Jesus had been? When I think about it, the disciples’ failure disturbs me because I sense that, if it happened to them, it could also happen to me. The good news, however, is that it doesn’t have to be this way for us. The Bible says that Jesus explained on the road to Emmaus what went wrong with His disciples. A few principles from Jesus’ teaching in Luke 24:25 to 34 can help us get it right when our turn comes, and the Bible may become for us the source of strength and power God intended it to be.
Place Your Faith in the Bible
Jesus explained on the road to Emmaus that the reason His disciples failed to understand was that they failed to “‘believe’” (Luke 24:25, KJV). Faith is the first step toward understanding and the necessary condition to approach God and His word (Heb. 11:3, 6).
Some readers place their trust in the church or church leaders. They are happy to let others do the thinking for them and decide what the Bible means. Some do this for convenience, but others think that the Bible has a kind of “spiritual” or “secret” meaning that only a select few can understand. This is the basis for allegory, which suggests that the Bible means something different from what it says.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, a French abbot of the 12th century, wrote a sermon on the “teeth” of the bride in Song of Solomon 4:2. He argued that the teeth represented the monks of the higher and lower orders in a monastery. His sermon is fascinating but does not have anything to do with the original meaning or intention of that text. A similar phenomenon occurs today when preachers interpret Scripture in ways different from the original intention of the passage. Allegory tells us more about the ability of the interpreter and the meaning he or she wants to convey than of the meaning of the passage. It places trust in other human beings and exalts them. The Bible says, however, that God gave Scripture to everyone and that all can understand it, even children (Matt. 11:25, 26; John 7:17; 2 Tim. 3:14–17).
Other readers place their trust in reason. God gave us the ability to reason, and He wants us to use it in our relationship with Him (Isa. 1:18). Some readers, however, use reason in a different way. They believe that throughout time, traditions and legends crept into the Bible and that readers need to use their reason to weed them out. It has been argued, for example, that the present should determine our understanding of the past and that historical events are so closely related to one another that the historical sequence of cause and effect cannot be interrupted. This means that if miracles do not occur today, they did not happen in the past. Similarly, since miracles break the historical sequence of cause and effect, they may not have actually happened. Jesus trusted Scripture, however, despite the fact that some parts had been written more than 10 centuries before His time. He also argued that those who did not believe in the resurrection did not understand Scripture, “nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29, KJV).
Some readers trust in themselves. They apply God’s Word to their own lives without first considering what the original context and purpose of God’s message was. Their motto is: “What do the words of this passage say?” They take the words but forget the context and the original intention of that passage, setting themselves up unwittingly as the determinant factor of interpretation. For example, what does 1 Peter 2:21 mean when it says that Jesus left us an “example” so that we might “follow in His steps” (NIV)? If we read only the words, but not the context, this passage could mean that we should wear the same kind of clothes Jesus wore, be unmarried as He was, and many other similar things that the reader, or interpreter, wants it to say. The context of the passage is clear, however, that God meant that we should commit “‘no sin, . . . not retaliate, . . . [or] “make [no] threats’” (vss. 22, 23, NIV) when we are mistreated. When we disregard the context of Scripture, we set up ourselves as the determinant factor of interpretation.
Others have given up trust altogether. They consider that all interpretations contain, consciously or unconsciously, ideas or messages that in one way or another benefit the interpreter or group. In this sense, no one can be trusted. No one has the truth. Their situation is difficult because in one way or another, everyone is like a boat in a sea without anchor or destination. It is true that the Bible says that the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9, KJV), but it also says that God has given us His Holy Spirit who will guide us “into all truth’” (John 16:13, KJV).
God wants us to place our faith in Him. We do not place our trust in the church, or its leaders, or human reason, not even ourselves, because all humans are fallible. We trust the Bible because it is the Word of God.
Read All the Scriptures
Jesus’s death on the cross caught the disciples by surprise because they had not read the Scriptures fully. Jesus had adopted the title “Son of Man,” identifying Himself with the heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13 and 14 that would receive dominion and a kingdom that would never be destroyed. The disciples loved this title because it meant that Jesus would liberate Israel from the hated Romans, and they would have a position of honor in His kingdom.
Scripture also said, however, that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people (Isaiah 53) and be cut off (Dan. 9:26). The disciples, however, did not fully understand these passages, and Jesus’s own warnings, because they went against what the disciples had always believed and, most importantly, against all their desires. They did not have “‘ears to hear’” (Matt. 11:15, NKJV). After His resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, Luke says that Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (24:27, NIV, italics supplied). We need to do the same. To read “all the Scripture” means, however, more than reading the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It means asking God to give me “ears to hear” “all the Scripture,” even those passages that I would prefer not to be true or those things that I am not inclined to accept.
Practice What You Learned
Finally, obedience is the last but very important step in understanding Scripture. This seems counterintuitive, but it is true anyway. Jesus said that it is those who are willing “‘to do God’s will’” (John 7:17, NIV) who will know the truth. It was when the disciples on the road to Emmaus urged Jesus to stay in their home, suggesting that they had accepted His message and wanted more, that “their eyes were opened” (Luke 24:31, NIV), and they could recognize Him.
The opposite is also true. The Bible explains that the crucial deficiency of those who will be deceived at the end of time will not be lack of knowledge, but lack of love for the truth (2 Thess. 2:9–12). The first step toward deception is not ignorance but lack of willingness to obey. Paul says that “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3, 4, NRSV).
Understanding is not a place you arrive at, but a journey you embark upon. It is not enough to understand what God said; you need to understand as well why He said it. It is a virtuous circle. The more you practice what you learned, the more you will understand God’s reasons and motives. When you understand God’s motives, you have a glimpse of who He is. Intimacy with God is the result of a life of risks taken to follow His advice and the certainty it produces that His word is true and His promises are sure. Once you have experienced this, you will not want—in fact, you will not be able—to remain silent. Just like the disciples at Emmaus.