The lessons in this series may be a bit painful at first because they may force you to challenge some of the ideas and “truths” that you presently hold dear. Let me encourage you to enter this study with an open mind – and, more importantly – an open heart so that God can help you to “unlearn” things that can keep you from the real value that God wants to add to your life through your encounter with His Word. It is my desire that you will discover simple – yet, powerful – approaches to your Bible study that will help you to remove the preconceived ideas, biases, cultural mindsets, and secular worldviews that can hinder you from hearing what the Holy Spirit wants to speak to you through the Scripture.
One of the first things that we must overcome is the tendency to believe that anything and everything that we read in the Bible is a “word from God.” Yes, everything in the Bible is the Word of God; however, it may not be a specific message for you. An old story about the man who wanted to find God’s direction for his life can illustrate this point. He picked up his Bible and opened it at random. He read the first passage that his eyes fell upon, Judas went out and hanged himself. Taken aback by that directive, he quickly flipped to another arbitrary passage that turned out to say, Go ye and do likewise. Hoping that he could find a bit more encouraging passage on his next try, he quickly made one more attempt and haphazardly discovered the verse, What you do, do quickly. When his one last desperate effort brought him unsystematically to, At the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established, he knew that there was nothing left for him in life but to commit suicide. Of course, there is also the story of the man whose proposal to his girlfriend was based solely on Matthew 1:20, Fear not to take unto thee Mary as thy wife. And we can’t forget the story of the businessman who was trying to deal with a failing business and opened his Bible in hopes of finding a solution. The first words that popped out to him were the bold words at the introduction to a new section in one of the books, “Chapter Eleven”; so, he filed for bankruptcy.
Although these humorous stories of “Bible roulette” are likely fictional, the approach that many Christians take toward the Bible is almost as mindless and ludicrous. Unfortunately, all too few of us actually know how to effectively and dynamically apply the Word of God to the situations of our lives. I remember a fad that swept through the Body of Christ a number of years ago of claiming Ezekiel 16:6 over accident victims, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. Taking the passage totally out of context, people were praying it to stop bleeding and to keep people from dying because of loss of blood. In order to be able to use the Word of God like the hammer (Jeremiah 23:29) or the sharp scalpel (Hebrews 4:12) that it is intended to be, we must understand the passages in their context and with their intended meaning. Additionally, we must not have a “cafeteria” approach to the Bible. In a cafeteria, we can skip the vegetables and go straight to the dessert bar; however, we will wind up in pretty bad physical shape as a result. The same happens in the spiritual realm if we select only the “sweet” passages and skip some that are not so enticing.
Paul directed Timothy to study so that he could show himself approved unto God – a workman who would not be ashamed because he always rightly divided the Word of Truth. (II Timothy 2:15) However, it seems that a major segment of the Body of Christ thinks that this injunction somehow doesn’t apply to them. For example, one Bible college student came up with the concept of being comfortable with the death of Christ – based on Philippians 3:10, where the actual word is “conformable”! I once heard a pastor preach a message on honoring people in positions of authority based on I Samuel 30:12. His point was that even though the Egyptian was a slave, he gave a gift of raisin cakes to David. Actually, it seems that one would have to really go out of his way to misread the passage; it is abundantly clear that the raisins were given to the slave in order to revive him enough so that he could give David information on the location of the marauders who had taken his wives. In an expose’ on II Kings 5:17, one pastor stressed the fact that Elisha’s servant had been given two saddle bags full of soil and that this had somehow prompted the request for the garments and silver from Naaman. Even a cursory reading of the passage should have made it clear that Naaman was asking for the dirt for himself, not for Gehazi. He wanted to take it so he could place it inside the pagan temple where he had to bow during the mandatory court ceremonies that he attended in his homeland; this way, he could kneel on sacred ground even in the heathen shrine. The eight-day feast of II Chronicles 7:9 became a twenty-three-day celebration in one sermon because the preacher read verse ten out of context. I even heard one preacher base a sermon on the italicized words in the King James Version of the Bible, not knowing that these words are not in the original texts but were added in by the translators. In a sermon about the importance of knowing the Word of God, the preacher made two radically obvious errors proving that he didn’t even know the Word of God very well himself. He said that the angels at Lot’s house blinded the Sodomites so that they could walk out of the city undetected and that Abraham lived before the Flood. In a message based on Jesus’ sermon in Luke chapter four, Jesus was portrayed as a well-known rabbi when, in truth, this was the very first sermon He had ever preached. The mention of one born in Abraham’s house (Genesis 15:3) was used to refer to Ishmael without regard for the context which clearly shows that it is a reference to a servant who had been raised under Abraham’s care. Another preacher used Nathan’s words to King David in II Samuel 12:7, Thou art the man! to proclaim that those who heard his message were called to be the answer to the problems the world faces – totally ignoring the fact that this was an accusation that David was the guilty party in the parabolic story that the prophet had just presented to him.
One well-known speaker who often graces the front covers of popular Christian magazines told the congregation that he was going to show them a more powerful miracle than the multiplying of the bread on the day of the feeding of the five thousand. He made the point that the setting of the event was in a desert place but then stressed that Jesus commanded that the people be seated on the green grass and proclaimed, “You see, He turned the desert into a green field!” I shook my head and thanked God that this man had no association with the Bible school where I taught, knowing that, had he spent just five minutes in research, he would have known that the Greek word for “desert” in this passage doesn’t mean the Sahara but is referring to an uninhabited place. A tropical rain forest could be a desert as long as no one lived there. Hence, there was no miraculous appearance of grass; it was already there! In fact, it is likely that the fact that the location was a relaxing, grassy meadow was the whole reason Jesus and His disciples chose this spot for their picnic in the first place.
I know that I’ve belabored the point with more than enough illustrations to get the idea across, but I must add just one more story based on the passage about the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. When Mark introduces her in his gospel, he refers to her as “a certain woman.” Based on this passage, one Bible teacher explained that this was the secret to why she got her healing and others that day did not experience the supernatural virtue of the Lord. She was certain – meaning that she was convinced, unquestioning, and sure – that she was to be healed that day. Well, all those things are probably true, and such an interpretation would make sense if the passage had been written in English. Unfortunately, this teacher did not take advantage of even the most basic research tools to check out the idea before presenting it to the church. The Greek word used here is simply a way of designating that it was a specific, individual person as opposed to any woman in general; it has nothing to do with her mental or emotional resolve.
When hearing such blatantly wrong interpretations of the scripture and misrepresentations of the facts, I wonder if these speakers had done any study at all and if they are even remotely qualified to minister to me. I remember one preacher who quoted the “verse,” “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and then stated that it was from Isaiah and added that he thought it was chapter nine verse seven. Of course, we have all heard the other very familiar “verse” about God’s helping those who help themselves, but I was in a meeting once when this “verse” was mentioned and a student who knew that it wasn’t in the Bible sarcastically quipped, “That’s from the book of Hezekiah, right?” The speaker agreed and went on with his discourse, not even noticing that he had now not only quoted a non-existent verse but had also referenced it in a non-existent book.
I’m sure that you have had a good chuckle – if not a full-blown belly laugh – by now. And a good laugh would be appropriate if these gaffes had occurred with, for example, the works of Shakespeare. However, when it comes to such misinterpretations and misrepresentations of the divinely inspired Word of God that is intended to be our very life source, it is no laughing matter. It is not comedy; it is tragedy!
The point I’m hoping to “drive home” here is the necessity of studying the context of every passage so that you don’t make the common mistake of assuming that they mean one thing when they actually have another meaning. For example, the passage that says that a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6) actually has nothing to say about children becoming leaders in the church; rather, it is talking about how the wild beasts will be so docile during the millennium that a child will be able to master them. The passage concerning having the weak to say that they are strong (Joel 3:10) is not talking about professing strength and gaining it by faith; instead, it is suggesting that the enemies of the Lord are going to rise up thinking they are strong when in actuality they are mere weaklings. The reference to blowing the trumpet in Zion (Joel 2:1) is calling out a warning – not a proclamation of victory. The great army of God that runs on the wall (Joel 2:7) is the invading enemy – not the victorious church.
Having mentioned the fact that the Bible is God’s uniquely inspired Word, it would probably be appropriate to add a bit of a disclaimer to ensure that we don’t assume that there is something magical about the book itself. I was talking with a Muslim lady about the difference between her faith and mine when I felt that I could better explain a point by actually reading it from the Bible. Totally shocked when I reached for my Bible, she exclaimed, “We never touch the Quran unless we wash our hands first.” On another occasion, the security agent in the Tel Aviv airport opened my handbag and discovered that I was carrying a Hebrew Bible and that I had other books stacked on top of it; he was as shocked as the Muslim lady had been. I explained that I was studying Hebrew and needed a dictionary and grammar books to be able to look up things that I didn’t understand. His response was that I should never place anything on top of the Bible. At that point, he carefully repacked my bag so that the Bible was on top. But such pointless acts of reverence for the book itself are not reserved for other faiths; I have seen far too many examples of the same kind of misdirected reverence for the physical book among Christians. Like the security officer in Ben Gurion Airport, many Christians reverence the Bible by making sure that it is always placed in a position of honor in their homes or on their desks. We use the terminology – like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles” – that seems to imply that the book itself contains some sort of mysterious power. We claim that our whole society began to unravel simply because the Supreme Court demanded that it was unconstitutional to display the Ten Commandments in public schools as if that one poster on the classroom wall had some sort of enchanting influence over the atmosphere. I have even met drug dealers who kept copies of the Bible on the dashboards of their cars to protect them from police raids and retaliations from gangs. Of course, there was the believer who practiced putting his Bible on the floor and standing on it for several minutes each morning, proclaiming that he was to be healthy, blessed, and protected that day because he was “standing on the Word.” But the most dramatic example of what we call “bibliology” – inordinate reverence of the Bible itself – I have ever witnessed occurred when I was invited to attend a church service to hear one of my students minister. As a special guest, I was also called to the front to help minister to the people during the altar service. As I was ministering, I could hear a commotion across the church, and it soon became obvious that a demonic manifestation was out of control. As soon as possible, I went over to assist in the deliverance and found a man sprawled out on the floor covered with open Bibles and even the big brass cross from the front of the church. The church leaders were trying every gimmick possible to make that spirit go out of the man, but at least they were not beating him on the head with Bibles as I have seen done in Nepal. However, the biblical way to cast out a demon is that the name of Jesus be used in faith. When I did that, the poor man was instantly set free. You see, it is the Bible in your heart – not the one on your coffee table – that contains the power!
Even though I started out with a warning against playing “Bible roulette,” I must close this chapter with a disclaimer. Jesus assured us that His words were spirit and life (John 6:63), and it is these two elements – spirit and life – that must be part of the formula if a Bible passage is to have power in a specific situation. Even when we may be unskilled in interpreting scriptural texts and analyzing their exact meaning, God can make them powerful and effective in our lives if we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit. When a new believer who had no schooling whatsoever in the biblical texts on the operations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit was challenged over her experience of speaking in tongues, she had no idea how to answer her antagonist; however, when she opened her Bible with an internal sense of security that God was going to give her an appropriate response, her eyes fell on I Corinthians 14:39, Forbid not to speak with tongues – a simple answer that silenced her opponent. I personally experienced a similar divine intervention when I encountered a cult leader who was promoting some weird doctrine about a golden bowl and a silver cord. Although I had no idea what he was talking about, I sensed that it was not right; so, I challenged him – without the slightest idea what I should say to correct his error. “Grabbing for straws,” I opened my Bible, hoping to find a verse – any verse – to help me answer him. To my surprise, the first verse that I saw was Ecclesiastes 12:6, Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. To this day, I have no idea what I said when I began to explain the verse; however, the fact that I was able to turn immediately to the only text in the Bible that refers to the topic made me look like an authority, and that in itself validated whatever I said.