Bible verses have been used for all kinds of purposes—some less honourable than others. This is because our tendency is often to see what we can learn from the verse instead of committing to see what the verse actually teaches. For example, if I were to write “I went to the shop to buy milk”, you cannot necessarily conclude that I drink milk and that everyone else should drink milk. It might be true that I went to buy milk because I drink milk and think everyone else should too, but the sentence itself doesn’t require such an interpretation. I might just as well simply mean that I didn’t go to buy bread, but milk, or, that I didn’t go to the farm to buy milk, but to the shop. We sometimes read a verse in the Word of God, and treat it to some personal meaning in a way that we would never do to a friend’s statement about buying milk.
Here are some basic questions to ask when reading your Bible so that you learn what God is teaching, and not merely walking away with something that you wanted from the text.
- Use of grammar, then context: What do the words actually say? Before you jump to some application or theology, what do the words actually say?
For example, Philippians 4:13 says “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”, but it does not necessarily mean that you can pass the exam that you didn’t study for, or, more theologically, that you can be a Creator like He Himself is. What do the words actually say? The “through” indicates that the emphasis is probably more on the one “strengthens, than the one who “can”. Since the words of the verse are not enough to define the word “all”, you will need the words and relationships between the phrases of the surrounding verses to help you realise that these words are not about earthly success, but about personal contentment in spite of earthly success or calamity.
- Intent of author: What is the intended meaning of this passage I just read? What did the human, and Divine, author intend to teach.
For example, in the story of David and Goliath, the intended meaning is clearly that God is the mighty warrior of His people even when the people’s king won’t fight for them. It is not about your little faith conquering demonic strongholds.
- Order of clarity: What is the more clear passage on this topic? Often in our reading of the Bible, we come across things that are hard to understand. The difficulty might not be easily resolved with the words in the passage, and the intent of the author might be something more primary in the text, but it still leaves you wondering about some strange little detail and what it means. That is when you need to ask “What is the more clear passage on this topic?”.
For example, if you are reading through Hebrews 6 and get to the passage about people who appeared Christian and then walked away from the faith, you might wonder if a true Christian can perhaps go lost. Hebrews 6 has it’s difficulties, but after answering question 1 and 2 above, you will realise that Hebrews 6 doesn’t necessarily answer your question. Hebrews 6 is not necessarily speaking of true converts. But 1 John 2:19 is a much more clear verse on the initial spiritual state of those who later walk away from the faith.
By asking these three questions, in this order, you will soon transition from relying on your insights to learn from God, and instead gain His insights from what He has said.