I never liked learning Spanish.
Probably because 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. All I’m good for at this point of my life is getting through the Drive Thru at Taco Bell. I know how to say quesadilla, 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.
Unfortunately, for many people the Bible might have as well been written in another language. They don’t understand it. As a result their eyes glaze over the pages day after day and their Bible reading is nothing more than another ritual. Sure, 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.
It reminds me of a desperate telephone call I once received at the church I pastored. 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. There’s no special benefit that comes from merely looking at words in your Bible for fifteen minutes a day. You won’t profit from Scripture unless you understand what it means.
One Meaning, and Only One Meaning
One reason seeking to understand what the Scripture means is so important is because, there aren’t a million different valid meanings for every passage of Scripture. There’s only one. This means 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.
If you fail to understand what the Scripture actually means, 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 anyone we have to listen to what they are saying and try to understand what they mean by what they are saying. That’s true for everyday conversations, isn’t it? If I’m listening to my wife, I can’t just make up what she means by what she is saying. If I’m going to benefit from talking with her, I have to understand what she actually means. That’s 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. But 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 don’t figure out what the author intended by his directions then his directions aren’t going to help me at all. And that’s 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 have to come to the Scriptures asking, “What does this passage say?” not “What do I want this passage to say?”
It’s never 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 it is they want 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.
A few years back I 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 reality 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 not getting the Word of God if we’re just reading the Bible. We’re only getting the Word of God if we properly understand what the Bible means. And the only way we properly understand what the Bible means is if we discover what the author meant when he originally wrote it.