Understanding the Bible

2 Timothy 3:14-17

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Since we had our mission trip Sunday last week, I just want to remind you of the sermon series that I am currently preaching and that we’re getting back to today.  I’m calling it “Salem Lutheran Church:  A Faith Odyssey.”  Remember back in the beginning, we defined an odyssey as an extended journey.  And that’s exactly what this sermon series is.  It’s a journey that will find us ultimately going in 3 different directions:  deeper in our understanding of the Bible; wider in our understanding of fellowship and how we are to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ; and finally, higher in our understanding of worship.  Currently we are on the 1st leg of this journey.  Two weeks ago we finished our look at what I called the 7 wonders of the Word, which helped us to see and understand why we can believe the Bible and accept it as absolute truth in a day and age when many people don’t believe such a thing even exists.

And just to give you kind of a roadmap of where we’re going on this odyssey the next few weeks, this morning I want to talk to you about how we can better understand, interpret, and apply the Bible to our everyday lives as we read it.  Then next week and the following week I’m going to give you a very practical demonstration of how this can be done by looking at a story out of an Old Testament book that most of you probably don’t spend a great deal of time in, and that is the book of Nehemiah.  The theme for those 2 sermons will be one that I think most of you will find very interesting and relevant, and that will be “The Causes and Cures of Discouragement.”

This morning, however, we’re going to consider the theme, “Understanding the Bible” because once a person starts reading the Bible, it isn’t long before that individual stubs his or her toe on some rather difficult passages.  For example, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet the night before he was put to death.  So does that mean that we are to do the same and have foot-washing ceremonies in some of our services?  Some denominations actually believe that and do that.  So why don’t we?  Or what about the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the women in Corinth to wear coverings on their heads when they pray?  Should we have our greeters distribute hats to our ladies when they come into church?  Many of you can probably remember the days when most women wouldn’t dream of going to church without a hat.  Why don’t we follow that practice anymore?  Or what about Paul’s instructions to the Romans and Corinthians and Thessalonians to greet one another with a holy kiss?  Does that mean that we’re supposed to pucker up when we greet our fellow brothers and sister in Christ on Sunday morning?

Let’s face it.  The Bible is not always easy to understand.  So this morning I want to spend some time sharing with you a few key principles that will hopefully help you get more out of your reading of Scripture, lest you become like the fellow who was in need of some good guidance.  So he turned to the Bible for direction.  Not really knowing where to look, he figured he’d just open it and point to a particular passage.  And whatever that passage said, that would be his guidance.  You ever tried that?  Well, this fellow opened his Bible and the 1st verse he pointed to was Matt. 27:5 where it says of Judas:  “Then he went away and hanged himself.”  Thinking that wasn’t a very good verse for direction, he tried again and read John 13:37: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”  Not finding much comfort in that verse, he decided to try one more time and this time pointed to Luke 10:37:  “Go and do likewise.”

It’s important then that we learn how to manage the Scriptures, how to navigate our way through them.  So what are some good principles to follow?  Well, I believe the best place to begin is to understand the primary purpose or intent of the Bible.  Imagine if I were to come to you with a telephone book, set it before you, and say, “Look at this.  I just found a list of all the welfare recipients in Marion County.”  Or what if I showed you that telephone book and said, “I just found the names of all the people in Salem who suffer from cancer”?  What would you say?  You’d say, “That’s not right.  That’s not the reason that book was compiled.  That book is a listing of everyone in a certain region who want their name and number published in the telephone directory.”  So to understand how to use that book, you need to understand the reason it was written, right?

And I would suggest to you this morning that the same holds true for the Bible.  In order to understand the Bible, we need to understand the reason it was written, the reason God gave it to us.  OK, so where do we find that?  Well, the Bible itself reveals its purpose in a number of passages, like our text for today where Paul tells Timothy:  “…how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”  What Paul is saying there is that the overarching purpose of Scripture is to show us the way of salvation which comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  The Apostle John reaffirms this when he writes in chapter 20:31 of his Gospel:  “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” So John wrote his Gospel to convince people that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God so that they could have life, namely, eternal life through him.  Put simply then, the primary purpose of the Bible is to proclaim God’s plan to save mankind from its sins through Jesus.  So when you approach the Bible, do so with this understanding of its original purpose.  And look for that purpose as you read because everything that is recorded in Scripture ultimately points to that or goes back to it, which is exactly what we’re discovering in my Bible class these days as we study “The Story.”

But then it’s also helpful to know the original intent that each human author of Scripture had when he sat down and wrote his book or books under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  We call this context.  For example, when Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, also known as his epistle of joy, it helps to know that he was writing it from a Roman prison cell where he was shackled to a Roman guard 24 hours a day.  That gives a whole new perspective to our understanding of that book, just to know the context in which it was written for if Paul could experience the joy of the Lord in that kind of setting, then maybe I can do the same when life gets tough for me.

To help you understand the importance of context, I’m going to put a phrase on the screen for you.  That phrase is “I will love you forever.”  Now that’s a nice phrase, but unless you know who said it, when they said it, and why they said it, it doesn’t carry a lot of weight or meaning, does it?  That phrase could have been said by a groom to his bride on their wedding day or by a father to his daughter on her birthday or by a golfer to his putter after he’d just sunk a long putt.  The fact of the matter is, that phrase “I will love you forever” was scratched by a teenage boy on his oxygen tank when he was trapped underwater, knowing that he would soon die.  It was the final message he wanted to leave for his parents.

So you see how knowing the context, knowing the circumstances under which something was written, adds so much to our understanding of it?  Well, I would submit to you this morning that if you were to take the time to do that with a book of the Bible that you’re reading, that book will take on a whole new life and meaning, and your understanding of it will grow by leaps and bounds.

Now I know what some of you are thinking:  How can I find out that kind of information?  Well, one of the best places is with a good study Bible.  The 2 that I use most are the Lutheran Study Bible, which is published by our Synod’s Concordia Publishing House.  But I also like this one called The Life Application Bible.  At the beginning of each book, you’ll find a wealth of information concerning the purpose of the book, its author, the context in which it was written, key verses, key people to look for, and any other special features you might need to be apprised of.  In addition to that, study Bibles also provide notes at the bottom of the page that help to explain the text or apply it to our lives today.  If you don’t have a study Bible and would be interested in learning more about getting one, give me a call and I’ll point you in the right direction.

So, read the Bible in the light of its primary purpose, namely, to show us the way of salvation through Jesus Christ, and in the light of the original intent or context of each book.  Then one more thing – to get more out of your reading of the Bible, personalize it.  Apply it to yourself by asking one very simple question, “So what?”

Just one word of caution here though.  This is where Bible reading can get pretty tough, not because a particular passage is hard to understand, but because the Bible has a way of speaking so directly and forthrightly to us and revealing faults and weaknesses that we might have or areas of our Christian life that might need some attention.  Hebrews 4:12 puts it this way, and I’m going to read this to you out of the New Living Translation of the Bible:  “For the word of God is full of living power.  It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires.  It exposes us for what we really are.”

Let me give you an example of how the Bible does this.  Let’s say you’re reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he says:  “You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Now that passage sounds wonderful when you don’t have an enemy.  But if you do have an enemy, if you know someone who has hurt you or wronged you, and all of a sudden you come across that passage, it can feel like a knife cutting into you, doing spiritual surgery on you, exposing bitterness in your heart toward that person rather than the love and forgiveness that that passage calls for you to have.

So I caution you, my friends, Bible reading can be painful at times because it has a way of alerting us to the things we have been doing that are hurtful and offensive to God and to others.  But let me also be quick to add that that pain is not all bad.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it is necessary to drive us to the cross where we can lay our faults and weaknesses at the nail-pierced feet of our suffering Savior and receive from him not only the forgiveness that we need, but the power and the desire to change and do those very things that he commands us to do.

Let me close then by asking you a very personal question.  In Isaiah 66:2 God says, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”  What about you?  Do you tremble at God’s Word?  When God’s Word says, “Go this way” and your friends say, “Go that way,” who wins?  When God’s Word says, “You are forgiven” and Satan says, “You are guilty,” who wins?  When God’s Word says, “Do this” and convenience says, “Do that,” who wins?  Do you tremble at God’s Word?  Do you hold it in high esteem?  Is it thevoice in your life, or just one of many that you listen to?  Let’s bow our heads for a word of prayer:

Father, we first of all want to thank you for your Word.  It truly is a lamp unto our feet and a light for our path, as the psalmist said.  With shame we confess to you our lack of enthusiasm for reading and studying your Word.  For many of us, that is a great weakness that we ask you to deal with right now.  Help us, Father, through your Holy Spirit to give your Word a high place of priority in our lives.  Enlighten our understanding of it as we read its hallowed pages.  And use the power of the Word to bring to light those areas of our lives that need improvement or correction, those areas that need spiritual surgery.  And then would you be so kind as to perform that surgery on us so that day by day we might be changed ever more into the kind of sons and daughters that you deserve and that you desire us to be.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.