Meaning matters

I never liked learning Spanish. I was terrible at it. Still one year while I was in high school my parents sent me on a two week intensive Spanish study tour in the Dominican Republic. Sadly, it didn’t do me much good. At this point of my life, all I’m good for is getting through the Drive Thru at Taco Bell. I know how to say quesidilla, but that’s about it. If a person speaks to me in Spanish, I won’t understand him. I can hear what he is saying, but what he is saying won’t benefit me at all, because I don’t understand what he means.

The same is true when it comes to reading the Bible. If you read the Bible but don’t understand it you haven’t profited from it. Unfortunately, for many people the Bible might have as well been written in another language. They don’t understand it. Sure, their eyes glaze over the pages day after day but their Bible reading is nothing more than another ritual. They feel better for doing it. They mark a check next to Bible reading on their little list of things to do each day but they aren’t changed and blessed by their reading of Scripture, because they don’t understand it.

We all need to read our Bibles, but please don’t be mistaken, there’s no special benefit that comes from merely looking at words in your Bible for fifteen minutes a day. The Bible is not magic. To benefit from studying the Bible you have to understand what it means.

A while back I received a desperate telephone call at the church I pastor. I’d never met the woman before, but she wanted counsel. She struggled with fear, intense fear. After talking for a while I suggested she begin to work on memorizing Scripture. To which she replied, “I have memorized Scripture and I think that’s my problem.”

I was a little stunned by that response so I asked, “What do you mean?”

She answered, “I think reading Scripture is my biggest problem.” Obviously I was confused so I asked her to give an example. She said, “Take 1 Corinthians 13, that chapter about love. I started to memorize 1 Corinthians 13 and I came to that part that says love endures all things and it just threw me into a fit.”

I couldn’t figure out how love enduring could cause her so much anxiety so I asked her why that verse scared her so much. She responded, “Because it talks about enduring. And that makes me think about having to endure. And my life is so hard I don’t want to have to endure. I just want to give up. I don’t want to go on any longer. “

She had no idea what 1 Corinthians 13 meant when it talked about love enduring, thus she received no benefit from it. It did her no good to memorize 1 Corinthians 13 because she had no idea what it actually meant.

And the same is true for you.

The Scripture doesn’t mean whatever you want it to mean. There aren’t a million different valid meanings for every passage of Scripture. There’s only one. And if you are going to profit from your study of Scripture you must discover what that one meaning is. I can’t stress that enough. If your reading of Scripture is going to benefit you at all you have to understand what the passage you are reading actually means. It’s those last two words that are really important to catch – what it actually means.

If you fail to understand that, you fail. You can read and memorize Scripture until you are blue in the face but it will do you no good if you don’t understand what you are reading and memorizing because the power of the Word of God is in its meaning.

Honestly, that’s not all that profound.

We all know if we are going to effectively communicate with someone else we have to listen to what they are saying and try to understand what they mean by what they are saying. That’s true when we are talking with someone. If I’m listening to my wife, I can’t just make up what she means by what she is saying. Instead, if I’m going to benefit from talking with her, I have to understand what she actually does mean.

That’s also true when we are reading something someone has written. I was reminded of that recently when attempting to put together a Sparkly Princess bike we bought for my daughter for her birthday. Unlike many men, I’ve never minded using directions. I know I don’t know how to put a bike together by myself so I’d rather begin by going through the directions step by step. If those directions are going to help me, however, I have to understand what they mean. Specifically, I have to understand what the person who wrote those directions meant when he wrote them. I don’t get to make up what those directions mean. If I do make up what those directions mean, I can’t blame the author when the bike doesn’t turn out. If I don’t figure out what the author intended by his directions then his directions aren’t going to help me at all.

And the same is true when we study Scripture. We don’t get to make up what the text means. We don’t have that right. When we open up our Bibles to study we have to recognize we are servants of the text. We must not try to force the text to be a servant to us. We have to come to the Scriptures asking, “What does this passage say?” not “What do I want this passage to say?” It’s not about what I want the text to mean or what you want the text to mean, it’s about what the text means. And the text means what God originally intended it to mean when He wrote it. If we don’t understand that, the passage we are reading won’t benefit us at all.

Unfortunately many are not interested in what God originally intended the Scripture to mean. Their minds are made up before they even open up their Bibles and begin to read. As a result, they end up imposing their ideas on the text. The passage of Scripture they are studying becomes a puppet that they use to say whatever they want it to say. They put words in God’s mouth. They say this is what the Bible says when this is not what the Bible says. And then they can’t understand why they aren’t profiting from their study.

I recently received a brochure in the mail from a prominent ministry. The title of the brochure was, “Is the church dead?” The point of the brochure was to say that God is finished with the church and we all need to leave our churches and go start fellowship groups. Throughout the brochure the authors quoted Scripture after Scripture. But the problem was they tore those verses out of context. The Scriptures they were quoting had nothing at all to do with the point they were making, which means what they were saying had no authority at all, because as many others have said throughout the years, ‘the meaning of the Scripture is the Scripture.’

If someone quotes a passage of Scripture and says this is what the passage means when in fact that is not what the passage of Scripture means then what that person is saying is not Scripture. If he distorted what the text he was quoting meant, even though he was quoting a text of Scripture, in the end all he was giving was his own opinion.

And the thing is, we don’t need more opinions. We’ve got enough opinions out there. What we need is the Word of God and we’re only getting the Word of God if we properly understand what the Bible means. The only way we properly understand what the Bible means is if we discover what the author meant when he originally wrote it.

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