Shedding light on understanding the Bible
Dave Newton, Principal of Elim’s Bible College and Director of Training, shares some basic ways to start getting to grips with studying the Bible.
‘Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path...’ Psalm 119 v 105
I remember a number of years ago as a schools worker teaching religious education in schools and being invited into one particular school to take an assembly. It was approaching Easter and as a team we felt it would be appropriate to explore the crucifixion and the implications of this Historical God-Man, Jesus Christ, dying such a cruel death on a cross.
The session took place in a large sports hall, with poor lighting and the sun beaming through a window onto the screen we were using. I wasn’t too surprised when we were approached by a pupil asking for clarification on what he saw after the bell had rung. I was surprised however by the question he posed; "What was the hat Jesus was wearing?" he asked. I was taken back for a moment not sure what he was referring to.
After a moment it dawned on me that he was referring to the crown of the thorns. I responded explaining the significance on this and what it was on Jesus head, only to be greeted by his amazement; he had never heard of this before.
Although there has been a marked increase in fascination for spirituality, social justice and ethics the Bible Society report that over 70% of young people have never picked up a Bible to read it. They suggest that the British population is ill-informed about scripture, with almost one third not being able to associate the nativity and almost half not recognising Noah as a biblical account.
As I have talked to and worked with many young Christians there are doubts about the bibles authenticity or relevance. Many struggle with the language it is written in or are confused by the stories, often troubled by the apparent violence and strange laws. A key question we need to address is; how is this book relevant, readable and to be applied in a free-thinking, technologically advanced nation like our own?
At Regents Theological College, the ministry training centre for Elim Pentecostal Church, we have students of all ages seeking to make sense of scripture and understand God in a way that will not only transform their world but also the world of others around them. It is our mission to help all who study with us to fully engage with scripture, understanding how to read it in a way that will help them better know and understand the author. Paul when writing to Timothy he talks about ‘Correctly handling the word of Truth.’ 2 Timothy 2:15
This correct handling of scripture is often referred to as hermeneutics, which simply means the science of biblical interpretation. Whilst this may sound complicated there are a number of basic principles of biblical interpretation that are important to understand when fully engaging with Scripture.
With a clever play on Psalm 119:105 Your Word is a Lamp for my feet, Hanegraaff developed a simple acronym LIGHTS as a way of getting to grips with basic biblical interpretation.
Many parts of scripture need to be interpreted in their most literal form as the author intended them to be read. Different writers use literal statements to express their ideas. As Paul writes to the Thessalonian church in his first letter he urges them to ‘live a life that pleases God’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1) It is clear that this has no alternative meaning than an encouragement to live a holy, honest upright life. Other phrases, however, are obviously figures of speech, where the writer uses words or images to communicate a concept. John’s Gospel is a great example of this when he records Jesus describing himself as the “the true vine” here John is obviously not suggesting Jesus is a plant but rather the source of life.
Illumination of the Holy Spirit
As Pentecostals reading scripture we need no reminding that the Spirit of God illuminates or brings to life the scripture for us. As the ultimate author of scripture (2 Peter 1:21) He brings into light that which we read. Often when we read scripture it speaks directly into a situation, challenges certain behaviours or offers hope in difficult times. It is as a result of the Spirit of God also who dwells within us that we can receive revelation, understanding, challenge, correction directly from the Bible into our lives.
I have to be honest and admit that I am not the best student of the English language but when it comes to interpreting scripture grammatical rules are important. You may not decide to learn the original languages of Greek and Hebrew but there are a variety of tools that can help you get to grips with a passage. ‘Strongs’ concordance is a great resource which helps you look up the original word with a full definition. There are also a number of old and new testament dictionaries that can work with ‘Strongs’ to support your understanding.
The bible is best understood when the reader takes into account the context it was written in. This is something that will obviously differ from book to book but understanding the time the author was writing and what context they were writing in can really unlock scripture in a fresh and exciting way. Was the book intended as a letter, poetry a description of events that took place or prophetic writings. An important question to consider when reading a book of the Bible is; what was the occasion or situation that caused the writer to record this document. Understanding this can take a passage of scripture into fresh dimensions of understanding. This is something that can often be worked out from the scriptures themselves then you can refer to a commentary to compare your findings.
The Bible is available for us to study as well as read. In fact, the study of Scripture needs to be an active and regular spiritual discipline in the life of any Christ follower. Reading scripture is often listed alongside prayer, fasting, fellowship with other believers but developing a regular discipline of studying the bible will transform your Christian life. There are a vast array of teachers, preachers and books that will help you read about and study God’s word but there is nothing like studying it for yourself and then seeing what others have to say.
Finally always remember when reading and interpreting a passage that your interpretation must be in harmony with the whole of scripture. Although there are many human authors, the Spirit of God is the ultimate single author and therefore would not contradict Himself. Ask yourself, how does what I am reading fit with the rest of the passage and other books.
As Principal at Regents Theological College and Director of Training for Elim, it is my joy to see women and men of all ages becoming students of the Bible. Learning how to engage fully with scripture and apply what they learn to their everyday lives.
It is vital as a generation of believers not only that we read the bible, but that we engage with it in a way that builds our faith and confidence. Rather than relying on the interpretation of others, develop and hone your own skills to read, understand and teach others yourself.
As you start to unlock the bible for yourself it will be something that you can’t put down, can’t do without. As a torch lights up the walker’s way so the Word of God is a lamp for our feet.