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Remember the words of Jesus that He deliberately spoke many things so that everyone would not understand what He was saying (Mt.13:10-17)! Many times He invited those who had ears to hear to hear what He was saying, recognising that not everyone would understand. It is only those who have been born again and belong to the kingdom of God who can really ‘see’ the things of the kingdom (Jn.3:3). Many unbelievers whose minds are set against God find the Bible a closed book with nothing in it that interests them (2Cor.4:4).
But it does not mean that ordinary people cannot get anything from the Bible. Many times it is when people read portions of the Bible that God speaks to them and they get converted and receive the new birth. Or it may be that it is when people hear the gospel preached to them orally or in a written form that their heart begins to open up and respond to the truth. But then, even after becoming children of God, they can understand only the easier aspects of the truth at first, like being able to drink only milk. The apostle Paul could not talk to the Christians in the church in Corinth as to spiritual men but as to babies in Christ (1Cor.3:1,2). But he talked to mature people things that contained spiritual wisdom (1Cor.2:6).
This teaches us that there are different levels of truth available in the Bible, and the more mature we become, the deeper the Holy Spirit helps us to go into the word. However many times we may have read a portion of the Bible before, the next time we read it, it is possible to find something new and fresh over there, and the closer we can get to God. That is why many mature people of God who have read many books and learned many things that many others have no clue about, choose the Bible as the one book they would like to be with as their close companion.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal God and His truths from the Bible to us because He is the one who inspired the writing in the first place. Even when unbelievers read God’s word the Holy Spirit is working on their minds to help them to open up and understand what God wants to tell them. To put it in a different way, this means that the Holy Spirit has been given in order to help us to be able to get to what the Lord is trying to tell us through His word. If we try to interpret the Bible using our intelligence and knowledge of Hebrew and Greek but without depending on the Holy Spirit, we can miss what God is trying to tell us, even while developing impressive sermon material! When we submit to God, the Holy Spirit can help us to understand what God is trying to speak to us through His word, even though it appears to be obscure to us at the natural level.
If we have to understand the meaning of any verse, we would need to understand the relevance of the verse in the passage where it occurs. To understand the meaning of that passage itself, we need to have an overall understanding of the whole book. And then, when we have understood that, we can get a better view of its relevance if we know what the other books of the Bible have to say about it.
When you plan to start studying the Bible for the first time, choose a book to start with, such as Genesis, Matthew, Luke or John. The next thing is to read that whole book in one sitting, if possible, using an easy to read version of the Bible or a paraphrase. You may wish to repeat this once or twice more, as this will help you to understand the tone of the book itself, and its overall theme. Then you can go on to do the same thing with the other books of the Bible. Once you have covered the whole Bible in this fashion you can start a detailed study of the Bible on a verse by verse basis using a word for word or thought for thought translation.
The following steps may be useful for a serious study of God’s word by ‘ordinary’ Christians (meaning those who are not Bible scholars).
1. Ask God to open our eyes as we read His word, and to reveal to us what He wants to tell us.
2. As we read a passage of the Bible, look for the plain meaning of the text first. If we do not understand the meaning of any critical words in the passage, we may need to find their meanings before we can understand the passage. Obviously what we would do first is to look up the meaning in a dictionary. We can then look for answers for the 5 W and 1 H questions, viz., Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? In addition, we could also try to understand key words of the Bible, such as faith, grace, law, etc., by looking up how the Bible commonly uses the word in other parts of the Bible, using a concordance (which lists words in an alphabetical order and gives the references of places where the same word is used). For more in depth studies, or when the meaning is still obscure, we can use Bible dictionaries, commentaries and also check with other translations. (I would recommend that the use of commentaries should be taken up only after we have done our own study, in order to avoid taking up truths second hand and missing out direct contact with God.)
3. See the immediate context of the verses we are reading. We should see a few verses before and after the verse we are reading in order to understand the position of this verse with respect to the passage in which it comes. Sometimes it may be necessary to expand this coverage to the whole chapter or the whole book if we would like to get a better understanding of the truth.
4. Understand what literary style is being used so that we may interpret the sentences in a proper way.
5. If the passage is from the Old Testament, see how it is relevant to us under the New Testament.
6. If the passage is a historical narrative, recognise what lessons we can learn from it, while noting that it may not necessarily be for us to imitate.
7. Ask what we can ‘take away’ from the passage—what He has spoken to us personally, and what we have learned from this passage in terms of some understanding about God, His ways and about ourselves, something for us to obey, something for us to keep as a goal to reach, and something we need to change in our thinking or behaviour. We may wish to write this down in order to look at it again some other time.
8. Determine to do (or apply) what God has told us to do, realising that if we are not interested in doing, but only in satisfying our curiosity, there is no guarantee that we would receive the proper understanding of His teaching (Jn.7:17). This application may mean a change in our thinking, attitude or behaviour. If we see something clearly but do not do accordingly, we may be deceiving ourselves with mere head knowledge (Jas.1:22-25). Jesus warned us clearly the big difference between doing what we hear and merely hearing (Matt.7:24-27).
9. Thank God for speaking to us, and ask Him to help us to remember what we have learned, apply it in our life, and to transform our lives with this new knowledge.
Logos and rhema
There are two words used in the Greek New Testament to refer to the words of God, viz., logos and rhema. Sometimes logos is used to refer to the Word of God which is the Son of God who became flesh, and most other times to the written words of God. Rhema, on the other hand, is used to specifically refer to words spoken directly by God to someone. In fact, this is the word used in Romans 10:17 where we see that it is when we hear the word spoken to us in our heart that we receive faith.
When we read the Bible what we subjectively meet at first is logos, which is the word we find written there. But then, as we read it God may impress some truth from that word on our heart, which then becomes the rhema word for us. Even at other times, when we are not actually reading the Bible, God may bring to our heart something that we have read earlier in such a way that gives us an assurance that God is speaking directly to us. God may also speak to us directly in our hearts other things (which are not written in the Bible but which are not contrary to the Bible), such as He did with other people in history (Acts.8:26; 9:6,11).
One thing that is perplexing to our intellect is how God sometimes speaks to us in special situations using words from the Bible to convey to us a meaning that cannot be understood ordinarily from those words. For example, God may sometimes speak to someone saying, “by His stripes you are healed,” seeking to give him faith for physical healing in that specific situation. Sometimes God assures a new believer that his family is also going to be saved, using Acts 16:30,31, “And he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’” This is not a general statement promising salvation of one’s family members when one believes in the Lord. But sometimes God does give such a promise to someone even though it is not applicable universally.
Of course, it is to be understood that this kind of special application is not meant for making a doctrine for everyone else or even for this same person at all times. One common mistake is to assume that if God did something for someone else, He will do the same thing for us too. It looks as if God uses this kind of means sometimes to talk to a person and to give him an assurance which may be otherwise difficult for that person to receive without such means. But many times it happens that this person misunderstands the special nature of this communication and makes a doctrine of it for all people.
Since there is a lot of subjectivity in this type of rhema words, where we can make mistakes by assuming that God was telling us something when it was our own thoughts or sometimes even suggestions from demons, we need to take extra steps to confirm whether we have heard rightly from God. We can do this by checking with the written word of God to see if there is any contradiction between what we seem to have heard from God and what He has revealed in His written word. Since God will not contradict Himself, this is a safe check for us. Another thing is to consult with more mature Christians to find out if there is anything we may have missed or overlooked. Finally, if we have heard God correctly, our circumstances will also begin to fall in place in line with this word. As we become more mature and experienced in dealing with God we will be able to recognise God’s voice better and become able to trust Him as He leads us even when there is no external corroboration.
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