As a pastor, I interact with a lot of people around this topic of Personal Bible Study, (or “devotions”, or “quiet time”). Phrases I hear repeatedly is “I can’t understand what I’m reading”, or “I just don’t comprehend it any more”, or “I’m just not a reader”. The last phrase very well may be something tied to either a learning disability or lack of proper education, or more commonly, a lack of desire to read and focus. In the areas of disabilities or education, there are adequate solutions and alternatives for those desiring to study God’s Word. For example, the bible is now on mp3, CD or even cassette tape, providing those who are physically unable to read to be able to consume God’s Word in another format. Where education has not been sufficient, the Church should be willing to offer tutors to assist those desiring to be able to read the Bible on their own.
The statements that typically come up in these conversations about struggling in understanding and comprehension are different from the above. When one boils it down, one must be willing to ask, “Are Bible scholars the only ones who really know what the Bible says?“ That is the question this post is designed to answer.
One would be silly to state that all of Scripture is understood easily. There are portions of the Bible that are more difficult to read than others. For instance, James is fairly straightforward and easy to understand, while Ezekiel might not be so straightforward or easy to understand. Having said that, we would be wrong to think that the vast majority of Scripture is difficult to understand. The Scriptures are written so that “ordinary” believers would gain understanding and knowledge from them. How do we know this?
Firstly, Scripture expects that this is the case. The Bible assumes that people will not only understand the words that are in itself, but that they will also communicate those to others in a way that would be helpful. So you have understanding on a personal level but also on a level that allows the instruction of others. Deuteronomy 6:6,7 would be a great example of this. Parents are to have the commandments on their own hearts, teach them to their children and then discuss them as they go about their day – (talk of them in the house, by the way, lying down, and when you rise). An understanding of Scripture is expected here that is on a level that can be communicated back to other people, primarily, in this context, their children.
God expected that all of his people would know and be able to talk about his Word, with proper application to ordinary situations of life. ~Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.106
What a comfort Psalm 19:7 is, “the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (esv)! We as believers should read such words and rejoice!! There is none among us that is so foolish, or simple, or “lacking” in scholarship that we couldn’t read Scripture and understand it sufficiently to be made wise from it.
Often what is sadly communicated from the pulpit on Sunday is that the “ordinary” believer will never understand Scripture on the same level as those that might be fluent in the original languages. This leads us to believe, erroneously, that 1st century Christians were so much better off being able to have a firm understanding of God’s Word. A simple reading of Scripture will lead us to think differently! Many of the churches that received the epistles had a large percentage of Gentile Christians in them. These Gentiles were new believers, or relatively new believers, who had no previous background in any kind of Christian culture. Perhaps the majority of them had little understanding of the history or culture of the nation of Israel. Regardless, the Apostles and authors of the New Testament still expected them to be able to digest, not only their epistles, but the Old Testament written in their own language. (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17, etc)
So, in summary of this first post on expectations of understanding God’s Word, let me say that God expects you to read and understand what he has given you. It might not be an easy chore at all times, but it is possible – even without being a scholar. I do not believe God to be a God who would give his Word to his children, expecting them to know it, follow the instructions within it, and then make it so hard to understand that only a select few could properly do so.
In following posts we’ll see what qualifications one must have to understand the Bible properly, answer the question, “Why do people misunderstand the Bible?” and then, Lord willing, provide some practical encouragement for all believers.
Chance to Interact: What portions of Scripture do you find the hardest to understand? When you struggle with understanding what the Bible is saying, what tools do you use to provide further insight?