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Unlock the Riches of Scripture

How I Discover Meaning in the Bible

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Whenever we read, we want to know what an author intended us to see and experience. This conviction has huge implications for why and how we read.

First, it implies courtesy. If you wrote me a letter with instructions for how to get to your house, and I got lost because I put my own creative meanings on your words rather than getting inside your head, I would be disrespectful.

Courtesy says, “Do unto authors the way you would have authors do unto you.” If you put your intentions in a letter, a contract, or a sermon, you would expect others to try to draw out what you put in. We should do the same for authors when we read.

“We are reading to learn about reality outside ourselves that we don’t already know.”

Second, It implies humility. When we read this way, we confess that we don’t know things and that others probably do. So, we want to learn through reading. We are not reading merely to see a reflection of what we already know. We are reading to learn about reality outside ourselves that we don’t already know.

Of course, there are other goals in reading besides learning, such as the pleasure of a good story or a well-crafted poem or essay. But we’ll have to leave that be for now.

Third, reading in search of an author’s intentions implies the objective existence of reality outside my own mind. We are not reading simply for subjective experiences. We are reading to discover more about objective reality.

The author is one of those objective realities outside of me. He exists and has insights about reality that I don’t have. I want to see what he has seen and test it, and, if it’s true, embrace it so that I grow in my knowledge of reality and my enjoyment of all that is good.

The author’s intention when he wrote is another objective reality. He had an intention when he wrote. Nothing will ever change that. It is there as a past, objective event in history. An author can change his mind, but not his past.

I may or may not be able get at his intention (because I am weak reader, or he was a weak writer, or some other reason). But believing the author’s intention is there, and is worth finding, profoundly affects the way we read.

What Kind of Questions Do I Ask?

When I read a word, what I want to know is What did the author intend by it? not simply the ideas just come into my head when I say the word? When I read a sentence, what I want to know is What did the author intend by it? not What new ideas do I have when I read it? This is, in fact, the meaning of the word “meaning” as I use it. The meaning of a sentence, a word, or a document is what the author intended for us to understand by it.

“We will remain pigmies in our understanding if we don’t humble ourselves by seeking to think an author’s thoughts after him.”

It’s fine to learn more from an author’s writing than he intended. And it’s fine to get pleasure from taking the words of a poem differently from what the author intended. But we will remain pigmies in our understanding if we don’t humble ourselves by seeking to think an author’s thoughts after him, and experience the emotions he hoped we would.

So in what follows, whenever I talk about the meaning of a word or a phrase or a proposition or a document, I mean what the author intended us to understand, not the ideas we have while reading.

1. I ask questions to unlock the riches of Scripture’s meaning.

I start here because our minds are generally passive until something needs to be figured out. Or to put it another way, we do not generally think until we are faced with a problem to be solved, a mystery to be unraveled, or a puzzle to be deciphered.

Until we are thinking about what we are reading, we will miss some of the meaning of Scripture. Until our minds shift from passive reading to active reading we will drift right over wonderful insights.

Paul said to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).

Think about Paul’s command! Does it mean God gives understanding apart from thinking? No. It says, “Think! And God will give understanding.” He will give it through our thinking.

But most of the time our minds are passive. They are not thinking. They are drifting and coasting. But once there’s a problem we want to solve or a mystery to figure out, then we start to think. Our mind becomes active.

That’s why the habit of asking questions is crucial. And I mean mainly asking ourselves questions, not asking others. Asking others shorts circuits your thinking process. There are times you will need to ask others. But if you form the habit of asking yourself, you will become one of those people others come to with their questions.

Asking ourselves questions is a way of creating a problem or a mystery to be solved. That means the habit of asking ourselves questions awakens and sustains our thinking process. This in an incredibly fruitful habit. Amazing things happen when you form the habit of asking yourself questions as you read.

  • You become a Sherlock tracking down clues with ever greater excitement as the plot of passages thickens.

  • You become a lover wanting to see and savor more and more of the message your God has sent you.

  • You become your own cross-examining attorney forcing you to answer the questions others may ask you before they ask them.

  • You become a tree planted by living streams, and you find yourself growing and becoming strong.

  • You become a teacher ready with questions and answers for others who want to discover with you.

2. I ask questions about the meaning of words.

“Amazing things happen when you form the habit of asking yourself questions as you read.”

In other words, I ask about definitions. I ask more specifically about what the word means here in the specific sentence. (Remember, we are asking about what the author intended by it, not what we think it means.)

This assumes words have different meanings in different sentences. That’s true. They do. For example, the word “life” might mean earthly life or eternal life. Which did the author intend when he wrote a particular sentence?

3. I ask about the way phrases work.

By a phrase I mean a group of words without a verb that describe some action or person or thing. For example, “The man with leprosy.” “With leprosy” is a phrase that describes the man. Or “Mortify your sins by the Spirit.” “By the Spirit” is a phrase that describes the action, “mortify.” It tells us how we mortify our sins.

We ask about how phrases work because they are not always clear. For example, “Pursue the obedience of faith.” “Of faith” is a phrase that describes obedience. But how does it work? Does “of faith” mean “obedience that consists of faith”? Faith is commanded, so when we have faith, we obey the command. And so is faith obedience? Or does “of faith” mean “obedience that grows out of faith”? In this case, faith and obedience are not the same, and faith is the cause of obedience.

4. I ask about the relationships between two or more propositions.

A proposition is a group of words that has a verb and subject and so makes some kind of statement or asks some kind of question. How propositions relate to each other is one of the most important questions you can ask. For example, suppose you read these two propositions:

  1. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
  2. God is the one who is at work in you.

How are they related? We don’t know without a connector word or phase. Connectors (conjunctions) are words or phrases like: and, but, because, for, so that, in order that, although, if-then, and so on. What if the connector of these two propositions were “so that”?

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling so that God is the one who is at work in you.

What’s the relationship between the propositions? It could be purpose: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling with the purpose of getting God to work in you.” Or it could be result: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling with the result that God is the one who is working in you.”

But what if the connector were “for,” which is the one Paul actually uses in Philippians 2:13?

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who is at work in you.

This would mean that God’s work came first and was the cause of our work. Totally different theologies can be taught with the change of one connecting word.

We could spend so much time on the various ways propositions can relate to each other, but these are summed up in my booklet Biblical Exegesis.

5. I ask how propositions help determine the meaning of words.

“How propositions relate to each other is one of the most important questions you can ask.”

There is a hermeneutical circle, but it is not a vicious circle. You can’t know accurately what a proposition means until you know the meaning of the words, and you can’t know accurately the meaning of the words until you know the meaning of the proposition.

Words have a limited range of shared meanings. As we begin to read the words, any wrong guesses we make about their meanings usually is set right by the end of the sentence or by the connection with other sentences. Here are a simple and a complex illustration about how propositions clarify what its words mean:

God did not leave himself without witness, doing good, giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons. (Acts 14:17)

We know in general what a “witness” is. But only when the final proposition is connected with the first one do we know that the “witness” refers not to a person but to rain and fruitful seasons. Here’s a more complex example:

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23–24)

Who are the “called”? The word all by itself could refer to those who hear the word of the cross preached by Paul. Paul “calls” everybody in one sense. When he preaches Christ, he does not limit his call to salvation. He calls everyone to repent and believe.

But the way the propositions fit together, “called” in verse 24 can’t mean that. The “called,” verse 24 says, receive the word of the cross as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” But we know from verse 23 that many of those who heard the message did not receive it that way. They received it as stumbling block and foolishness.

Therefore, the called are not all who hear the word. So, in verse 24 “call” can’t mean the general call that everyone gets through the sermon. It must refer to a call of God that he gives only to some. And it must have a special effectiveness because all who get it see the cross as power and wisdom. Therefore, theologians refer to it as effectual call.

So even though words carry several meanings in and of themselves, the content and relationships of the propositions around them usually clarify the specific meaning the author intended them to have.

6. I ask how the point of a passage fits with the points of other passages, especially if it seems that the points don’t fit with each other.

“I never assume the Bible is inconsistent, but that I am not seeing all I need to see.”

One of the most fruitful habits of asking questions I have is to ask how the apparent meaning or point of a passage fits together with other passages that seem contradictory or inconsistent.

I never assume the Bible is inconsistent, but that I am not seeing all I need to see. That’s why this habit is so fruitful. If I have not seen enough to explain the apparent inconsistency, then it is likely that asking how the texts fit together will help me see more.

And seeing more is what we are after. We want to see as much as is really there. Here’s an example of this kind of questioning. In Romans 5:8 Paul says,

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

But in Psalm 11:5 it says,

The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.

So God loves us while we are sinners. And God hates the wicked. When we see this tension between God’s love for sinners and hatred for sinners, we should start thinking about possible ways these two truths fit together. This means we start asking more questions.

  1. Are two different groups being talked about in “sinners” and “wicked”?
  2. Are the sinners that God loves not included in the sinners that God hates?
  3. Is there a difference between “sin” and “wickedness” so that he really doesn’t love the wicked or hate the sinners?
  4. Did something change between the Old Testament and the New Testament so that God does not hate the wicked today?
  5. What, more specifically, does God’s hate involve?
  6. Does the hate he has for the wicked exclude the possibility that he might love them too?
  7. What would be the different kinds of hate he might have?
  8. Is one kind of hate the intense loathing of a person’s wicked heart?
  9. Is another kind of hate the intense purpose to destroy?
  10. Could the loathing be present without the purpose to destroy?
  11. If so could he love those whom he loathes by aiming to rescue them from their loathsomeness and from his hate?
  12. What other texts should I look at to help answer these questions?

These kinds of questions pour into the mind when two passages in tension with each other are brought together with a view to figuring out how they fit. It’s amazing how much we learn in this habit of asking questions about apparent difficulties. Few things make a person deeper and richer in their knowledge of God and his ways than this habit of asking how texts cohere in reality when, at first, they don’t look like they do.

7. I ask how the meaning applies to the way you live and the way the church and the world lives.

The aim of biblical writers is not only that we know things, but that we do things. So part of our response to Scripture is to form the habit of asking questions concerning application — to us and to our church, other Christians and our relationships, and to the world, unbelievers and institutions.

This means that the task of application is never done. There are millions of ways a text can be applied to millions of situations and relationships. Our job is not to know all these applications, but to grow in applying the meaning of Scripture to lives and the people and institutions around us.

Questions about application are not mainly a quest for meaning (the author’s intention), but for the difference the meaning will make in our lives. But the fact is that asking application questions often sheds light on things in the text you had not seen.

“There are millions of ways a text can be applied to millions of situations and relationships.”

For example, it is very likely that until a church tries to actually apply the passages on church discipline that they will not read them carefully enough to see what they are specifically saying. Every new effort to follow through the processes will send you back to the Bible to see what else is there.

For example, until I tried to apply the teaching of Matthew 18:15–18 I had not noticed that some time may pass between taking two or three witnesses to confront an unrepentant brother and the next step of taking his case to the whole church. But when application forced this question on us, we saw indeed that there is nothing in the meaning of the text to suggest that the next step was immediate. This raised the question about how we are to relate to a person in that period of time, and we had more work to do in searching the scriptures.

This is not uncommon. Efforts to apply the meaning of a text often help us ask questions about the text that reveal things we had not seen. So even though our goal is to find the meaning of a passage and then apply it, it is also true that the actual application of the meaning often raises questions that shed more light on the meaning.

8. I ask what affections are fitting in response to the truth of this text.

The aim of reading the Bible is not merely knowing, but also believing and hoping and loving. The whole range of human emotions are possible reactions to the meaning of the Bible. God gave us the Bible not just to inform our minds, but also to transform our hearts — our affections. There is always a more or less fitting way for our affections to be moved by the truth we see.

For example, horrible truth should not have the same emotional effect as beautiful truth. God’s unapproachable holiness should not produce the same emotion as God’s tender nearness. The rebuke of Jesus should not produce the same emotion as the commendation of Jesus.

“The aim of reading the Bible is not merely knowing, but also believing and hoping and loving.”

So part of responding to Scripture is asking the question “What is a fitting emotional response to the meaning of this text? Am I experiencing that?”

God’s word is honored not just by being understood rightly, but also by being felt rightly. A blank response of the heart to glorious truth is a defective response to the Bible. So we are not done asking questions until we have asked about what emotions are fitting in response to the Bible’s meaning, and whether we are experiencing those emotions.