American Christians are surrounded by the Bible. We have copies of it on our phones, tablets, and computers, in more translations than we can count. A 2012 Lifeway poll revealed that most American Christians have at least 3 paper copies of the Bible. We put verses on our walls, our car bumpers, our Facebook pages, and our jewelry. Clearly, Christians love our Bibles – or do we? With all the resources that we have available, the numerous versions, and the study and reading apps, every indication seems to be that while Christians are swimming in Bibles, we read, understand, and apply God’s Word less in our lives than we ever have in the past.
Earlier this year, the American Culture and Faith Institute performed a nationwide study of worldviews, and found that less than one third of Born Again Christians have a Christian worldview, less than one half read the Bible at least once a week, and less than half believe the Bible “contains and conveys absolute moral truths.” What is happening? If we are buying Bibles, why aren’t we reading them? Why aren’t we being molded by the truth of Scripture? The problem is that most Christians only engage God’s Word at the surface, dipping into a handful of select verses which, isolated from proper context and meaning, create a version of Christianity fashioned in our own image. We are languishing in Scriptural malnutrition.
And, lest we saddle our high horses, let’s be honest, this isn’t just a problem for “liberal” Christianity. All of us define essential Christianity, (i.e., what we think a “real” Christians looks like and cares about most) within the influence of the group of Christians that we spent the most time among. However, that perception may at best be incomplete, and in many examples, is entangled in secular humanist thinking, extrabiblical political ideologies, or simply the wish to condemn others’ sin and leave ours comfortably unaddressed. Such entrenched thinking brings us to stretch and massage a few proof texts that support our ideas while we ignore the big picture that Scripture paints. Whether it’s to support utilitarian political goals, to attack those who challenge our preconceptions, or to simply remain comfortably unchanged in ignorance and sin, Christians will rattle off proof-texts with neither the desire or ability to explain how they actually apply. It’s the Google approach to Bible study. You question my views, so I Google “Bible verses that prove…” and regurgitate the references, ignorant of correct context, and sometimes laughably outside the author’s original intent.
There is good news, though. We have hope. But that requires two things: First, that we surrender our wills to God’s Word. His Word is the hammer and anvil, and we are the metal to be forged. No doctrine, creed, attitude, behavior, idea, political cause or affiliation escapes the strike of that Hammer. It is the measure of Truth, and nothing else meets muster. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been taught. It doesn’t matter what your parents, pastor, or psychologist believes, it doesn’t matter what your intuition tells you, or your feelings say. The scales always crash down on the side of God’s Word. Nothing competes for His authority. That is the only posture in which a Christian should approach Scripture – anything less is a mockery. It’s not God’s Word and… It’s God’s Word only.
The next step is that we learn to be Bible scholars. No, I don’t mean that we all must go off to college, and study Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. However, in our eagerness to make Scripture accessible, I believe we’ve actually encouraged Scriptural illiteracy. “You don’t have to be a scholar to understand the Bible” has become “you don’t need to put in any effort at all.” Like a child who memorizes lines from a poem but has no idea what it means, Scripture can only affect us to the degree that we understand it. The Bible isn’t a magical book. We can’t speak the words and ignore the meaning while expecting it to change us. While the Holy Spirit is our teacher, I find no reason to believe that His role is to make up for our intellectual laziness, or our intentional ignorance.
You and I have an almost embarrassing (considering our generation’s widespread ignorance) number of Biblical resources at our fingertips of which previous generations could only dream. We get to benefit from others’ hard work, and we ought to take full advantage. An average person can do word studies, and investigate the perspectives and findings of generations of Christian scholars and thinkers with just a few clicks of a mouse. So, what I would like to do is leave you with a few suggestions:
- Start with a good study Bible. They give you valuable notes, cross-references, and clarifying information, right on the page with the text. I have used the ESV Study Bible for several years, and like it for its wide variety of resources. The MacArthur Study Bible is a solid choice as well.
- Get access to a good commentary. Commentaries give you reliable, clarifying information about each passage, and are extremely useful when reading difficult to understand verses. There are several websites such as Blue Letter Bible, Bible Gateway, and org that offer free access to older commentaries. However, I have come to appreciate the Abridged Expositor’s Commentary because it’s reasonably priced, compact, but packed with good information.
- A good Bible dictionary will help you understand the cultures, people, and places that relate to Scripture.
- Make use of a website like Blue Letter Bible. This site allows you to look up a passage of Scripture, and investigate the original languages, word for word. You can select a Greek or Hebrew word and see it’s literal meaning, where it is used elsewhere in Scripture, and how it is translated in each of those passages.
- Read a good introduction to Biblical interpretation such as How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
Not every passage of Scripture requires an in-depth study of each word (in everyday Bible reading), but these resources will get you on the right path to understanding difficult passages. They help to answer some important questions such as: What is the big picture of this topic in Scripture? Does my understanding of the passage differ from the informed commentaries that I read? (While it may be possible that you are right and everyone else has gotten it wrong through the centuries, it’s unlikely) What does the key word in the passage mean in Greek or Hebrew? Often, we read meaning into words that isn’t communicated by the original language. What is the immediate context of the passage? Does my understanding fit with the author’s flow of ideas, or is it out of place? Do the historical circumstances of the passage inform its meaning? Though space doesn’t allow me to list them, I can think of numerous situations where answering these questions would correct a misinterpretation of Scripture.
Finally, I would like to urge Christians to read the entire Bible through, and not just favorite books and passages. Every book is inspired by God, and every book provides Spiritual nutrients and completes the picture of God’s purpose and will for mankind.
So, these are the tools. Our purpose is to know God better, and to be changed by Scripture. He is speaking to us, and we have His Word in our hands. Will we pay attention?