“Certainly the emotional feeling within an epistle is an important aspect of its total meaning. In fact, it could be argued that the true meaning is lost without the portrayal of the emotions to guide the interpreter. There is no depth without the personal element, no grasp or feel for a passage without the underlying tone. This is especially essential for the preacher, who wants to lead first himself and then the congregation into the intensity of the text, to awaken those slumbering passions for God and his will that were so essential to early Christian experience but often have been set aside by the pressures of modern life.”
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
I’m sure that, like me, you’ve heard a sermon or two through this text. The fact that Satan tests Jesus three times lends itself to a nice, tidy 3-point sermon. The fact that Jesus is in the desert and passes tests of faith hearkens back to Israel’s testing and subsequent failure during their time in the desert. The fact that Jesus succeeds where the Israelites failed demonstrates that Jesus has come to fulfill a mission that was originally Israel’s. Then there’s the nature of the three tests: one physical, one spiritual, and one that’s a little bit of both. There’s lot to be learned from this passage, but there’s one thing I’ve never heard anyone say about it.
I’m really careful in my interpretations of the Bible, and this passage recently spoke to me in a new, startling, and sobering way. I’ve heard some people point out that, in his second test, Satan quotes Scripture against Jesus. Satan tries to fight fire with fire, in a sense. In fact, this is exactly what He did in the Garden of Eden with Eve. He asked, “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1). Satan is quick to take God’s Word and twist it…not a lot, mind you. Satan will intentionally twist God’s Word just enough to cause others to stumble. But Jesus is quick to counter Satan’s verses with some other verses. It’s a case of verses versus verses, really. I’ve heard this almost casually mentioned as part of sermons covering this section as thought it’s just one more thing that Satan has in his arsenal. But has Satan ever appeared to you and misused Bible verses to your face? Me neither! So, what else can we learn from Satan’s tactic?
It’s this: whether we mean to or not, if we twist God’s Word, we are satanic. Any misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the Bible, whether intentional or unintentional, is satanic. Even if we’re unintentionally misinterpreting the Bible, that only means we’re unintentionally being satanic.
Ask yourself, “Is my biblical interpretation satanic?”
I’m becoming more and more convinced that just “knowing your Bible” is utterly insufficient. Satan knows the Bible! If there’s nothing separating us from Satan in our Biblical knowledge then we’re in big, big trouble. Telling people they just need to know their Bible is like saying you should just “buy a gun” for home defense. I wouldn’t tell anyone to buy a gun if they didn’t know how to handle it! I think that’s why Paul tells Timothy to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). We can logically assume that this means there is a way to wrongly handle the word of truth. That’s what Satan did while testing Jesus and that’s how he still operates today.
It’s not enough to just know your Bible, you have to also know how to rightly handle your Bible. Peter says there are two types of people who twist Scripture: the ignorant and the unstable (2 Peter 3:16). Ignorant here describes one who has not acquired a formal education (which is funny to see, coming from a fisherman); and the word unstable refers to someone who has the tendency to change and waver in one’s views and attitudes (which is also funny to see from someone as rash and unpredictable as Peter was in his youth). So the sobering point is, if you’re going to tell people they need to buy a gun for home defense, it’s just as important that you teach them how to rightly handle their firearm, otherwise they’re a danger to themselves and everyone around them.
This should be very sobering to all of us. We must handle the Word of God with the greatest of care and humility. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to reveal its meaning and we must test that interpretation against the whole of Scripture. This is another reason it is so important for us to be involved in a local church; we must seek the wisdom of other believers to make sure that we’re not missing the meaning of the Bible–whether intentionally or unintentionally. If something is 99% truth, and 1% lie, it’s still a lie and this is precisely how we see Satan twisting the words of God.
At this point, the last thing you should do is instantly think of how this applies to other people. Notice I still said that is a thing you should do? I’m just saying it’s the last thing you should do. The first thing you should do is make sure this doesn’t apply to you. This requires humility, but we have to make sure we’re rightly handling the Word before we approach others. The point of all this is to push us towards greater humility as we approach the Scripture and greater dependance upon the Holy Spirit. Consider the plank in your eye and then, after you have made sure your eyes are clear, confront your brother about the plank in his! (Matthew 7:5)
So where to go from here? Well in the past I’ve written a few blogs that I called Bible Study 101. I’ve outlined several great possibilities in there. Another option is to read a book; I would recommend How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, but there are many other options available, some of which are free. For a list of free resources that will help you understand God’s word more clearly, take a look here. Take heart and realize that, although the Bible requires a lifetime of study, it provides an eternity of benefit. I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13), that we will rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), and that we will never twist the word of God.
My wife lovesPost Secret. Big time! For a while we had a tradition of logging on there together every Sunday morning to check out the latest secrets but I think she got tired of waiting on me so now she does it by herself.
It just so happens that this weekend I was with her when she checked it and I saw this postcard:
At first—if I’m completely honest—I was a little offended. I mean, how could the Harry Potter books even be compared to the Bible? Isn’t it like comparing a lighter to a flame thrower?! But I decided to hold my peace about it and later that morning I asked Connie what her impression of that card was.
Her reaction was very thought provoking:
“Daniel, if I just read the Bible without any instruction I would be inclined to feel the same. The Bible is not an easy book to understand…”
Well, besides the obvious fact that she must not be reading my Biblical Interpretation 101 blogs (*wink wink*), I think she hit the nail on the head! In fact, I’m almost embarrassed that I didn’t start with this topic when I started writing about Biblical interpretation.
Because the Bible is God-breathed and therefore in an entirely different dimension from other literature, it is necessary that man receives God-given help in understanding the Bible (1 Cor. 2:11). Additionally, the unregenerate man’s sin-darkened mind cannot apprehend spiritual truths (1 Cor. 2:14). The work of illumination then is necessary to enable man to comprehend the Word of God (cf. Luke 24:44–45). Illumination can thus be defined as “the ministry of the Holy Spirit whereby He enlightens those who are in a right relationship with Him to comprehend the written Word of God.”
When Jesus described the Holy Spirit, He said that the Holy Spirit would teach us all things (John 14:26) and that the Holy Spirit would guide Christians into all truth (John 16:13.) The simple truth is, you cannot understand the Bible without the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere, Jesus said that non-Christians were incapable of receiving the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit would dwell with and in Christians (John 14:17).
I say all this because I want to be very clear: it is impossible to understand the Bible without the Holy Spirit. Sure, there are things about the Bible that even a child can understand, but there are also things that only the Holy Spirit will reveal to us (1 Corinthians 2:10, 13).
So how can we hope to understand the Bible? Simple: Pray! James 1:5 is a promise that if God’s children ask Him for wisdom, He will give it to them. Before reading the Bible, it’s very important to pray to God—and I actually like to pray specifically to the Holy Spirit. Thank the Holy Spirit for inspiring the Scriptures, and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to your heart and mind the meaning of the Scriptures. You’ll be amazed at what He shows to you as you read the Bible!
In this post, I’d like to look at one simple distinction that must be made when we are interpreting the Bible. It’s essential to understand the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive texts. I found a very helpful description from a site called Is My Bible Reliable? Here it is:
“Descriptive literature is that which describes what happened.
Narrative literature is basically descriptive. It is telling what happened, but not necessarily telling readers that they should do everything in the same manner.
Prescriptive literature commands the reader to a course of action.
Prescriptive literature instructs the reader to do something, to act in such and such a way. Prescriptive writing is characterized by lots of imperatives, i.e., commands.”
In other words…
Descriptive = “what happened.”
Prescriptive = “what to do.”
For example, let’s look at Judges 3:12-30. In this portion of Israel’s history—after they had wandered from God—Eglon the king of Moab had been ruling over Israel for 14 years (Jdg 3:13-14). Israel cries out to God so the Lord sends a Judge named Ehud to save them (Jdg 3:15). So, let’s look at a passage and see if it’s descriptive or prescriptive:
And Ehud came to [Eglon] as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And [Eglon] arose from his seat. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into [Eglon’s] belly. (Jdg 3:20-21)
Ehud brings a pointed message to Eglon.
So we have two options here; either
This text is prescriptive and God commands all Christians to stab unrighteous people in the stomach. Or…
This text is descriptive and this chapter of the Bible is telling us about a cycle of sin, repentance, and God’s faithful deliverance in the history of Israel.
This should be a no-brainer.
Here’s another one:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Ro 12:1-2, NIV84)
Once again, this should be an easy one. This one is prescriptive and it tells us that, in light of the love of God, we should live our lives for God. We should stop imitating the world around us and transform our minds so that we want the things that God wants.
This descriptive vs. prescriptive distinction may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard pastors (even mega-church pastors) who have forgotten this difference. For example, once a friend of mine was asking a pastor how to balance his Air Force career obligations (specifically studying for promotion testing) with his desire to be involved in church. The pastor explained to him that his job was to fill the jars with water, and it was God’s job to turn the water into wine (John 2:7-10). Now, that might sound nice, but is the Gospel account of Jesus’ first miracle really about how we’re supposed to balance the different aspects of our lives? Is it a prescriptive account that serves as an allegory for how we bring the water to God and He turns it to wine? No. In fact, all of John 2 is descriptive.
So, be careful not to read into a verse of passage what isn’t there.
The other challenge is to dismissively make everything descriptive. There are many passages in the Bible that are prescriptive that I wish were descriptive. We can’t read Matthew 6:24 and just say it’s a descriptive text. It’s not descriptive; Jesus is really saying that we can’t serve both God and money. If you write everything off as descriptive and claim the Bible doesn’t challenge you to repent or grow, then you’re very clearly deceiving yourself.
So I guess the best way I can summarize this post is as follows: If you’re never being challenged to grow, you’re making everything descriptive; if you’re being challenged to stab someone in the stomach until the dung falls out, you’re making everything prescriptive. Somewhere, in the middle, is where sweetness and light dwell.
Once you get a good translation, you’re ready to begin reading the Bible. Reading the Bible is different from any other book in existence today because there are essentially two distinct steps that are necessary for Christians as they read their Bible:
Interpretation (aka exegesis): according to biblestudy.org, exegesis is defined as “an approach to interpreting a passage in the Bible by critical analysis.” Simply put, exegesis is the process of studying the context of a passage (literary genre, author, historical situation, recipients, etc.) so as to fully understand what the passage meant to its original audience.
Application (aka hermeneutics): according to the New Bible Dictionary, this is “the interpretation of the text in such a way that its message comes home to the reader or hearer.” In other words, this is where we take the meaning of Scripture and apply it to our daily lives.
(Note: the terms exegesis and hermeneutics are often used interchangeably or even the opposite of how I’ve defined them above. For the sake of this post though, those are the definitions we’ll be using.)
The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary explains, “The interpreter of the Bible is concerned first to discover the meaning of the text in its original context (which process is called “exegesis”), then to show the meaning of the text for his or her own era (the process of “hermeneutics,” from Hermes the divine messenger).” A good pastor will make sure to balance both of these disciplines in his preaching and teaching. Application is impossible without first understanding the Bible; interpretation is useless if it has no bearing on how we live. We must take great care to ensure we understand the message, then we can carefully consider how to live it out in our lives.
So how do we do this? Well, there are dozens of great tools available—many of them free—for students of the Bible; whether they are advanced students or just getting started. As I mentioned in the first post discussing this topic, I think it’s best for any student of the Bible to have a good Study Bible. I recommend the ESV Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible, but the key is to make sure you can understand what you’re reading.
Once you feel as though it’s time to branch out a little bit, there are many online resources available for free:
Perhaps you’ve been checking out free resources but feel like you want something more advanced. If you’re willing to pay for Bible study tools, you can try going to a local used book store and seeing if they have any used commentaries available. I would recommend checking out bestcommentaries.com to get a feel for what type of commentary would be best for you. Another option to consider is Bible study software. I use Logos and I love it! Logos gives you the advantage of having an electronic library of resources—commentaries, dictionaries, etc.—and combines it with a librarian who knows every book by heart. You can literally do dozens of hours of research in seconds.
But remember that the goal of getting a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Bible is to cause us fall deeper in love with our Savior and to be better servants of God in this world. Lloyd-Jones had this warning for pastors, but I think it’s relevant to anyone who gets into deeply studying the Bible:
We continually need to be humbled. That is why balanced reading is essential. If your heart is not as much engaged as your head in these matters, your theology is defective – apart from anything else. There is a real danger of becoming over-theoretical, over-academic, over-objective, over-intellectual. That will mean not only are you in a dangerous spiritual state yourself, but also that to that extent you will be a poor preacher and a poor pastor.
If we read with our head and not with our heart, we will forget our first love, and simply grow to love the knowledge we’ve accumulated. So I encourage you to grow in grace and knowledge of our Savior (2 Pet 3:18)! We must know God, then go serve God. Know, go.
Let’s face it, sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. It was written by 21 different authors, it contains at least a half-dozen different genres, many of the books were written to different people-groups at different times in history, and there is, of course, the time/language barrier (for example, many of the ancient idioms, word plays, and metaphors from the Bible are lost on the modern reader). That’s why I’ve decided to start writing a post here and there with a basic lesson about how to read the Bible. My goal is for these to be altogether practical and help empower anyone in their reading of the Bible. (For more information, I recommend checking out the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worthor this article entitled How to Study Your Bible.)
The first step is finding a good translation. But to prepare for that step, it’s beneficial to understand that there are two general theories that are used when the Bible is being translated. First, there is the formal equivalence theory: each word is translated as exactly as possible. This is a word-for-word translation; kind of like translating casa blanca as “house white.” The second main theory is called functional equivalence and it’s where the meaning of the original text is sought as closely as possible; in this case casa blanca could be “White House” or even “the president’s house.” One great example of how these theories play out is found in Amos 8:1-2 below:
Formal Equivalence (ESV)
Functional Equivalence (NLT)
This is what the Lord GOD showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them.
Then the Sovereign LORD showed me another vision. In it I saw a basket filled with ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. I replied, “A basket full of ripe fruit.” Then the LORD said, “Like this fruit, Israel is ripe for punishment! I will not delay their punishment again.
As you can see, there are definite advantages to a functional equivalence when it comes to ideas that might not make sense in our culture. However, the advantage of a formal equivalence is that you get the most faithful translation possible of the original text. All translations use a combination of these two approaches, but they do not use them in the same percentages.
A lot of people have asked me which translation is “best.” Truthfully, the best answer I’ve heard to that question is “the one you read.” The best translation of the Bible is the one you read! That being said, I do have a translation that Ilike best. Let me give you the entire story about what lead me to my favorite translation and why I use it.
For most of my life as a Christian, I have read the NIV. They subscribe to a “thought-for-thought” translational theory, which is very helpful at eliminating awkward wording, unfamiliar idioms, uncommon measurements, etc. I think the NIV is a great translation and almost all of my memory verses come from it. I would recommend this translation to someone who wants something that can be easily understood but that still remains relatively faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek.
During early 2009, I decided I wanted to get another translation. I was in a funk and thought that it would help if I had a “fresh take” on Scripture. After looking around a bit, I (prematurely) chose the NLT. As far as I can tell, the NLT has a desire to make the “message” of Scripture readily apparent and very easy to understand. In other words, the NLT tries to simplify the message as much as possible. It’s written in a way that sounds very good and, to be honest, very encouraging. When the original language has more impact than the literal translation into English, the NLT will add phrases and adjectives to ensure the more nuanced meaning is clearly understood. This results in some words and phrases being translated literally, yet in other places I’ve felt as though the NLT hijacked the original meaning of Scripture. I’ve actually scribbled through certain words and verses because they aren’t there in the original Hebrew or Greek! They’ve also tried to make their translation gender neutral; which, to me, makes a lot of verses feel very clumsy and wordy (they replace “brothers” with “brothers and sisters). Personally, it bothers me but I realize that’s a very subjective point when choosing a translation. When I purchased the NLT I planned on making it my “go-to” Bible. After cracking it open and reading a bit, I couldn’t seriously read the NLT as my primary Bible. So it has been relegated to my Bible I go to when I need a “fresh take” but not what I go to primarily.
Which brings us to my latest addition: the ESV. The ESV seeks to be an “essentially literal” translation especially suited for Bible study. As often as they can, they render a literal translation of the original languages (although it must be noted that a 100% literal translation would be essentially incoherent). There are 11,047 reasons why I chose the ESV as my primary Bible, but I’ll just go with the top five:
Translational accuracy. The ESV is as close as you can get to a literal translation of the original, inspired Word of God. Since I am growing more serious every day about studying God’s Word, and because I approach this task with great sobriety, I have decided that I don’t want someone else to decide the meaning for me. I just want all the words and I will do more study when the meaning is unclear to me. Bottom line: I don’t want some committee picking and choosing what needs to be added and subtracted from my Bible translation.
What originally turned me on to this translation were its endorsements. Wayne Grudem worked on the Study version; almost all mainstream reformed pastors preach from it (Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, John Piper, etc.); and it’s the Bible that Western Seminary students are required to use. These factors lead me to look into the Bible, and may have influenced my decision to “hop on the band wagon.” I do want to specify that those people caused me to look into this translation, but not to choose it. I chose it because…
After reading the NIV and the NLT, I realized that largest gap in my arsenal was a more formal translation. I think everyone should have three translations: a thought-for-though translation; a looser translation that makes the meaning very apparent, understandable, and teachable; and a formal translation that remains as faithful as possible to the original languages. When I realized that I had such a large gap in my reading, I looked into formal translations and chose the ESV.
The ESV Study Bible has wonderful study notes, great maps, very helpful articles, and can all be accessed online. I love study Bibles with lots of great notes in the bottom of the page and since I already owned Zondervan’s version of a “Study Bible” (the NIV), Tyndale’s version of a “Life Application Bible” (the NLT), I decided I wanted my next one to be another “Study Bible.” And this one is—in my opinion—the new gold standard of study Bibles.
One day as a pastor, I plan on adopting an alternating teaching style: Expository, topical, expository, topical, expository, topical… We will preach through a book of the Bible (chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse), then we’ll cover a topic that the Body needs instruction in (like marriage, worship, suffering, generosity, etc.) and then we’ll repeat that process until Jesus takes me home. Since, Lord willing, we’ll be going through entire books of the Bible and sometimes diving deeply into God’s Word, I felt as though it would be best to choose a formal, accurate translation. That way, even if there are foreign idioms or anything weird, I can either supplement with a less formal translation or I can simply explain it in my sermons. The last thing I want is to ever have to explain to my congregation why I disagree with the translation we’re preaching from (like I would with the NLT) because that means I have not chosen a good translation for my flock to be reading, ya know?
Those are the biggest reasons that I chose the ESV. Remember that ultimately the question that you have to answer is this: “Which translation is best for me and my walk?”