Have you ever been so busy that instead of taking the time to call and speak directly to a coworker or friend, you sent off a short reply in an email or text message—but then your brief message was misunderstood and even caused the other person to be offended? The message may have been accurate, but your brevity came at a high price because the other person mistook it for anger or condescension and may have even misinterpreted your words.
Most of us can relate to relationship breakdowns resulting from miscommunications, especially ones that involve written messages. Even if the words are carefully crafted, accurately chosen, and properly ordered, written communication can still have some serious limitations. Like a pathway with potholes and snags, the minute we rely on letter-writing instead of face-to-face communication, we begin a journey that has the potential of tripping us up.
Communication involves much more than the mere transfer of words between people. Words are only one part of communication. Speaking directly to another person is the clearest and safest form of communication because we are able to hear the other person’s tone of voice and pay attention to the way words are enunciated as we watch their body language and facial gestures. This helps us to determine the emotional content of the message, which is a very large part of communication. A written exchange strips out all the physical aspects of communication, and because of that it has a much higher potential to be misunderstood.
In spite of the limitations of written communication, reading is still a very powerful medium of exchange. When a writer takes the time to craft the words properly, they can stimulate the senses and evoke emotions. The written word affords the reader the opportunity to slow down the exchange of information and ponder more deeply what’s being said.
But because of the greater opportunity to misconstrue the meaning of written words, it’s paramount that the reader strive to clearly understand the intent of the writer. This is especially true of the Bible, because missing the meaning of what God is communicating can lead to a whole host of problems, some of which can have a serious impact on our lives.
Uncovering the author’s intent
When we read, we bring along our own personal experiences and biases, and these can have a great influence on the meaning we ascribe to the author’s words. Although the Bible is a holy book that contains the words of God, thankfully we don’t need a secret “decoder ring” to determine what He is saying (For those who are too young to remember, a decoder ring was a children’s toy that came as a promotional device in cereal boxes and was very popular from the early 1940’s up through roughly the 1970’s. The decoder ring held the key to codes for writing or unlocking secret messages).
Although God’s Word isn’t written using special codes, we still must learn to handle the words properly in order to understand the message it’s intended to convey.
Correctly handling the Word of God
Sometimes people criticize the Bible by saying, “You can get the Bible to say anything you want it to,” or, “The Bible is full of contradictions, so you can’t trust it.” In some ways this is true, but that’s only the case when people mishandle the Bible by twisting it to say things that the Author never intended it to say.
A number of years ago someone attempted to discredit me by misquoting something I had said. Although the words they quoted were accurate, they misrepresented the meaning of my words by removing them from the context in which I said them, and by only quoting a portion of them, leaving off many key parts. In essence, they improperly “cut my words” from the conversation in such a way that they could mean something entirely different than what I had intended.
Cutting God’s words out of the context in such a way that we alter His meaning is something God explicitly says we must not do. We must take care to correctly handle His Word, always seeking to discern His intended meaning.
2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
The words “correctly handling” are translated from the Greek word “orthotomeō,” which literally means to “cut straight.” Just like someone quoting our words, they are only correct when the words are “cut straight” from the conversation. Anything other than a “right cutting” results in mishandling. Obviously, if we are misquoting or misapplying what the Bible says, then in actuality we no longer have God’s true words. Given that the Bible contains the words of God—words that He says are more valuable than silver and gold—it is critical that we work diligently to handle, discern, and apply them properly.
Understanding who God is talking to
Have you ever accidentally opened a letter that wasn’t addressed to you? When my mail arrives, oftentimes it consists of ten or more envelopes, and I assume that since it’s in my mailbox, it’s my mail. However, occasionally the mail carrier makes a mistake and one of my neighbor’s envelopes ends up in my box. Over the years there have been a few times when I’ve opened someone else’s mail because I failed to notice that it wasn’t addressed to me—thankfully, it’s usually just a piece of junk mail.
No matter how great the news or information is in someone else’s letter, it really has no direct bearing on me. If it’s an announcement that the recipient won the lottery, or a notice to appear in court, it has no effect on me because I am not the person the letter is intended for. Similarly, one very common mistake people make when reading the Bible is in failing to understand that the entire Bible isn’t written specifically to them. We can certainly learn things from the entire Bible, but just like the letter intended for my neighbor, not everything in it is for me.
Jews, Gentiles, and the followers of Christ
God loves all mankind, and part of the process of Him bringing about His plans to be reunited with man involved Him separating people into three groups: Jews, Gentiles, and the followers of Jesus. The division first began in the Old Testament when He decided to separate a particular group of Abraham’s offspring (Hebrews) from the rest of the people of the world (Gentiles). Abraham’s son was Isaac, and Isaac’s son was Jacob. Then Jacob (also known as Israel) had twelve sons, and they became the “twelve tribes of Israel.”
When we read the Old Testament, we have to realize that the majority of it was written to the Nation of Israel, the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. These portions of the Old Testament tell of how the people left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and formed a nation, the Law they lived by, and many pivotal events in their history. This is all great information with many things we can learn, but the things that God directed the Nation of Israel to do aren’t necessarily things that we, the followers of Jesus, need to do today.
The rest of the Bible contains things that are written either for Gentiles or the followers of Christ. For instance, in the Old Testament there are prophetic pronouncements that are intended for the Gentiles, such as the nations of Edom, Moab, Egypt, etc., and in the New Testament we find many letters written as specific instructions to the followers of Jesus. These sections will oftentimes begin with phrases such as:
1 Corinthians 1:2 (NIV)
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people,…
Ephesians 1:1 (NIV)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus…
Philippians 1:1 (NIV)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons…
As you can see, these sections are written to the followers of Jesus. When reading your Bible, always ask yourself, “Is God speaking here to the Jews, Gentiles, or the followers of Christ?” because a big key to enjoying the Bible involves knowing who God is speaking to.
Understanding the language of the Bible—literal, figurative and symbolic
It is also helpful to recognize that the Bible uses literal, figurative, and symbolic language. Literal language means that the words mean exactly what they say, and in general the Bible can be understood literally except where the words imply an impossibility, contradiction, or absurdity.
We use figurative phrases every day, giving it little thought because it’s used to make a point or to add emphasis. If I were to say, “I was so mad that I almost exploded,” you would never think that I was actually going to blow myself up with anger. Likewise, the Bible contains many figurative statements, and taking them literally can result in great misunderstandings. For instance, consider what Jesus said to a crowd: “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” If we take his words literally, we would think he was advocating cannibalism. But this was a figurative way of saying that Jesus’ followers would need to be completely devoted to him.
Be aware that there are many different forms of figurative language. Working to develop an understanding of various figures of speech, irony, and so forth will increase your potential for enjoying and understanding the Bible.
The Bible is also filled with lots of symbolism, and the more we read the more we become familiar with its usage. For instance, in the Old Testament there are a number of instances where it says that someone “walked with God.” This is symbolic language, and doesn’t mean that someone actually walked along a path with God, but instead that they had a close relationship and fellowship with Him. Another example is how God told the Nation of Israel that He was bringing them to a land that was “flowing with milk and honey,” meaning that it would be lush and very fertile. There are also numerous sections of prophecy that use symbolic language, and places where people are referred to as sheep, dogs, and cattle; Jesus is called the branch, the lion, and the morning star, and Satan is referred to as a serpent or dragon. This is all symbolic language.
Culture and Customs
As westerners, we can’t help but see the Bible from the perspective of our western lives, culture, and experiences. But when we read the Bible we have to keep in mind that it’s the story of an Eastern people who lived in an entirely different world with widely differing customs and cultures. There are times when the people spoken of were living a nomadic lifestyle, or were in foreign countries with other ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Persians, or Babylonians. In addition to the Jewish culture, there are also sections of the Bible that were heavily influenced by Roman and other Gentile customs. The people of the Bible lived in a pre-modern time when people were more connected to nature and its cycles, such as the weather, the land, crops, and animals. It was also a time when people were very vulnerable and dependent upon one another for safety and survival, life was uncertain, and death was an ever-present reality.
These were times very unlike ours. Western society places great value on independence and self-industry, whereas the ancient cultures highly stressed social conformity, hospitality, honor, gratitude, family, and kinship. This was a world with great contrast between the rich and poor, the ruler and servant, the priest and lay-person. The reader needs be very cautious not to impose western values on an eastern book. Learning the culture of the Bible and its different customs opens up an entirely new world to the reader.
Here are a few examples of some Biblical customs:
Greeting another with a kiss
Nowadays when we greet another person we usually do so with a handshake, and if it’s a close friend, possibly an embrace. In the biblical culture they would greet a friend or relative by placing their left hand on the other’s right shoulder and kissing the right and then the left cheek. Knowing this helps us to understand the record of David “kissing” his best friend Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:41), and the elders in Miletus who kissed the Apostle Paul when he departed (Acts 20:37). Other records of this custom are in Genesis 27:27; 33:4; 45:15; Exodus 4:27; 18:7; and Luke 7:45.
Taking off your footwear
In the East, people often removed their sandals when they entered a home because they were very dirty from the dusty roads and the filth in the streets. They also often sat on the ground with crossed legs, which would be very uncomfortable to do while wearing sandals. Taking off your footwear became a sign of respect, which is why God told Moses to remove his sandals since the ground he was standing on was considered holy (Exodus 3:5).
Washing your guests’ feet
Because wearing open sandals on dirty roads meant that peoples’ feet would become very filthy, it was also a common practice for a servant to wash their master’s feet. This courtesy was a sign of hospitality shown to a guest as a way of honoring them. Since this was most often done by a servant, Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples was a demonstration of great humility, an example for all of his followers to do for others (John 13:4,5). Other records of this custom are in Genesis 18:4; 19:2, 24:32; 43:24, and 1 Timothy 5:10.
These are just a few of the many customs spoken of in the Bible. Taking time to learn eastern mannerisms and customs will greatly increase our ability to understand and enjoy the Bible.
Misunderstanding and misapplying the Bible
People frequently make the mistake of taking a section from the Bible and misapplying it to themselves. Oftentimes this happens because they either fail to recognize who God is speaking to, or they misunderstand the context in which the passage was spoken. When this happens, it is called “dislocating” the words, which can easily lead to “misapplying” them—which, in essence, is a “misuse” of God’s words.
Here are a few common verses people misuse.
“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13 NIV)
This passage is often used like a rally cry for Christians who are trying to accomplish all sorts of things. People quote this passage at sporting events, in the middle of sickness, after a flat tire, or when they run out of gas in their car. When the Apostle Paul said this, however, his message wasn’t that he could really do “all things”, or that God would change every negative situation for him, but that in every situation, whether famine, cold, sickness, or even in prison, he had learned to be content and to have faith in God.
“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
Life is full of ups and downs, and in times of trouble people often like to quote this section as if to say, “Well, it’s all part of God’s plan for you.” However, in the context in which this verse sits, that isn’t what it’s speaking about. This promise was given to the Nation of Israel, and it was about their 70-year captivity in Babylon and God’s plans for their future hope and return to the Promised Land. Jeremiah told the people not to think that God had forsaken them, because He had plans to prosper them. He encouraged them to have hope because they could do well in Babylon, and then, after 70 years, their hope to have a homeland would be fulfilled and God would bring them back to their own land. This is a specific promise given to Israel, and we are misapplying it when we use it to teach that God has specific “plans to prosper” us personally today. Of course God cares for us as His children, but this is not a blanket promise for our personal prosperity the way some use it. The point is that it was His word to Israel, not directly to us today.
“The LORD watch between you and me when we are absent from each other.” (Genesis 31:49 NIV)
This verse is often shared between people who move apart or live far away from each other, and they make reference to it as if it’s a blessing. Unfortunately, they fail to realize that it’s actually a curse. The man who was speaking it, Laban, was angry at Jacob for moving away with his daughters. He spoke this curse over the situation in the event Jacob should hurt Laban’s daughters while they were separated. It may sound good to quote it, but it is another example of misapplying God’s Word.
God’s words are holy and powerful. He is very invested in them because what He says is what He does. They accomplish His purposes and He doesn’t utter empty words or speak in vain.
Isaiah 55:10-11 (NIV)
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Handling God’s word properly and seeking out His intended meaning as the Author goes a long way in helping us learn to enjoy the Bible
(This article was taken from Dan Gallagher’s book “Learning to Enjoy the Bible“)