This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
It is dangerous to understand the Bible better. It is all too easy for us to feel just a bit of pride about pulling out the meaning of biblical texts, as if we were beginning to master the Scriptures when, of course, exactly the opposite is the whole point. The temptation may come from the power we may feel from having “spiritual knowledge,” which can move us from insecurity to superiority. Or we may want to put ourselves over Scripture so we don’t need to obey it. As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
Here are a few of the reasons why many biblical authors charge us with not just knowing the word of God, but practicing it.
God (through Moses):
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 11:18-20)
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matt. 7:24-27)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
And using a mirror for a wonderful analogy, James charges us:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
These and many other passages suggest that applying Scripture begins with assimilating its content. Reading, meditating, discussing, practicing, praying, and memorizing are all ways for the biblical text to form the spiritual muscle tissue of our lives. This is not about having a list of verses rattling around in our heads, but having the shape and motion of our lives formed by biblical truth.
Much of this series has been about personal reading and comprehension of Scripture, but this is a good place to mention the power of group or community Bible discussion. It is enormously formative to discuss the meaning and application of Scripture in some kind of group. We see new things through the eyes of other people, especially those brave enough to share how their life’s difficulties connect or clash with biblical truths.
It is possible for a Bible group to wallow in ignorance if the mode of operation is to read a biblical text and throw it open to the group with the question: “What does this mean to you?” No! A biblical text means something specific, intended by the original author. Someone in a group Bible study needs to take responsibility to study these things ahead of time and dig out the meaning.
In the group setting, the question can and should be: “How do you see this applying to your life?” A biblical text means something specific, but it may be applied in many different directions, as long as the application is really connected with the meaning.
That raises another question: Can a biblical text motivate someone, even if the meaning and application don’t seem to be connected? The story can be told many times over, for instance, of someone reading one of the great missionary texts in Acts and believing God told him, through the text, to pack his bags and go overseas. It certainly is possible that the Holy Spirit guides someone through the words or sentiment of a biblical text—even if the text isn’t properly applied to everyone in that specific way. Such experiences are not about the meaning of a biblical text, nor its typical application, but a unique guidance of the Spirit for a particular person.
So the norm is this: biblical text first, original meaning next, and finally, present-day application. In this process we learn and relearn “Your word, Lord, is eternal” (Ps. 119:89).
Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.
Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.