Reading the Bible:
The Key to Interpretation
By Bob Wilkin
A friend, Bob Swift, has been reading a powerful book on the prologue of John’s Gospel. He and I have discussed that book. Indeed Bob has shared it with me and I’ve skimmed it.
One of the things that the author promotes is what he calls sequential reading. He points out that too often commentators read a verse and then hop all over the Bible to find similar verses that may shed light on it. His point is that it is a mistake to jump to other texts immediately. If we simply read the text, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, the meaning becomes much more accessible to us.
My home church, Victor Street Bible Chapel, has a reading program that has all of us on it reading through the entire Bible every year and a half or so. Everyone on the program benefits greatly from simply reading the Word. (Here is a simple one).
The late Dr. John Mitchell was famous for telling students at Multnomah Bible College, “Read your Bibles.”
The Danger of Reading Our Theology
Into the Word of God
Of course, reading the Bible only benefits us if we are open. If we force the Bible to fit our theology then we are not teachable.
Say, for example, that a Mormon reads the Bible through every year. If he reads it through the Mormon grid, he likely won’t change his theology much, if at all.
I was in a cult group through high school. I read the Bible cover to cover several times in high school, yet I didn’t learn much because the confusing grid of the group I was in locked me in.
One of the greatest things I learned from Zane Hodges was to be open to the Word of God. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we are to be open to what God is saying.
The Danger of Making the Bible
Into a Magic Book
Another danger is making the Bible into a magic book.
When I was at staff training in Colorado Springs with Campus Crusade in the mid seventies, there was a terrible flood of the Big Thompson River. A number of the key women leaders of the ministry had been having a retreat in the area where the flood hit and several of them were killed. For a time we didn’t know which of the women had survived. After the tragedy I remember hearing one of the husbands share what God told him as he was reading the Psalms. He shared a verse like this one: “He sent from above, He took me; He drew me out of many waters” (Ps 18:16). While reading that, he said, God impressed upon him that his wife did not die in the flood. God had drawn her out of many waters. Thus he gained certainty she was fine.
Of course, that verse has nothing to do with who survives a flood today and who does not. Remember that several Campus Crusade women did die in that flood. But for some the Bible is a magic book where God can give special meaning to a text for you alone.
To gain what God wants us to from His word we must understand who a given text was written to and what God wanted them to understand or do. Then we can apply the text to our situation by carefully moving up the ladder of abstraction.1
Searching the Scriptures
Is Built on Reading the Scriptures
It is true that Acts 17:11 upholds the value in searching the Scriptures, which is not the same as sequential reading. But that is in a context where one is facing teaching that contradicts what we’ve heard in the past.
But even the searching of Scripture is based on the foundation of our prior Bible reading and knowledge. The more we read the Word with an open mind, the more we learn. Thus we become better able to assimilate new teaching and weed out false teaching.
Some of the people at our church read the Word out loud each day. There is much to be said for this. Others listen to it on a CD. The Scriptures were written in order to be read publicly (1 Tim 4:13). Churches used to incorporate a Bible reading schedule into their Sunday morning services. But that has gone the way of the cassette tape or VHS.
If you aren’t in a regular reading program, I suggest you get one going at your church. I find I do much better with a reading program involving friends. I know they are reading the same chapters I’m reading every day.
Of course, we ought not to do this legalistically, as though God will not bless us if we miss our reading one day. But we should read the Word expectantly. The particular blessing of becoming more like Christ comes as our minds are renewed via the Word of God (Rom 12:2). Reading God’s Word is good for you.
Beware of Lectio Divina
and Other “Devotional Readings”
Some people strangely think that “devotional” reading of the Bible is aimed at hearing what God says to us and study of the Bible is aimed at learning facts from the Bible so we can teach others those facts. Not true. All Bible reading is Bible study. And all Bible study has as its aim becoming more like our Savior.
For nearly 1,000 years Catholics have practiced what they call Lectio Divina, or divine reading. The name sounds good, but it is really an occult practice. It starts with getting yourself in a contemplative, or altered, state of mind. This is done by clearing one’s mind, altering your breathing, and saying a centering prayer (a practice of Eastern mysticism). Then a text is read slowly and carefully, looking especially for a word or phrase, not in terms of what it means in the passage read, but simply as an isolated word or phrase. The mystic is taught to listen for God’s still small voice. One seeks to have a dialogue with God which is not intellectual, but which is an intuitive soul to soul interaction. The session ends with a loving focus on God. Typically at the end of the session the reader feels closer to God.
As you can see, the divine reading really is not reading in any sense of the word. It is transforming God’s Word into something it was never designed to be.
All reading and all study of the Bible should be “devotional” in the sense that we are seeking to have our minds renewed so that our lives will be transformed to the glory of God (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18). We never read the Bible just to gain information. Nor do we read it to gain an altered state of consciousness or to feel closer to God.
Read Your Bible
Dr. Mitchell is right. If you want to be a man or woman of God, read your Bible. If that sounds too simple, read the Bible and you’ll see it is not. The Word of God is powerful and living. It is our spiritual food. Growth comes by the Word changing our thinking, which in turn changes our actions. Read your Bible so that one day you may hear the Lord Jesus say to you, “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17).
1 For more information on the ladder of abstraction please visit this website. GES does not endorse any content or links contained in this video, it is merely a tool for a clear understanding of the ladder of abstraction.