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The Importance of Careful Bible Study

Monday, September 17, 2012 | Comments (8)

by John MacArthur

While we understand that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people through His Word, it’s not an entirely passive process for believers. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come through osmosis—it takes careful discipline and hard work, even in the basics like how we study Scripture.

Last week we established the vital role of God’s Word in our spiritual growth, and the pattern by which it transforms our lives. But that process hinges on how we approach the Bible and seek to understand it. Your spiritual growth can be stalled or even derailed by uninformed faith and bad hermeneutics.

You’ve probably seen firsthand the willy-nilly way some people approach Scripture. Looking for “a word from the Lord,” some play a game of Bible roulette, flipping at random through their Bibles, looking for something that seems applicable to whatever trial or need they’re facing. When they find something that vaguely applies to their situation, they treat it as a special revelation from the Lord just for them.

But hunting and pecking through Scripture won’t produce mature believers. In fact, it’s far more likely to hinder your spiritual growth than to build up your faith and understanding.

You might have heard the story of a man who was wrestling with a major decision and decided to close his eyes, open his Bible, put his finger down, and get guidance from whatever verse his finger happened to light on. His first try brought him to Matthew 27:5: “[Judas] went and hanged himself” (KJV). Since that verse wasn’t really much help, he made a second attempt. This time his finger landed on Luke 10:37 and Jesus’ words there: “Go, and do thou likewise” (KJV). Not ready to give up yet, he tried one more time. His finger came to rest on Jesus’ words in John 13:27: “That thou doest, do quickly” (KJV).

That story, while exaggerated, makes an important point: looking for meaning in Scripture beyond its historical, grammatical, and logical context is unwise and even potentially dangerous. It’s possible to substantiate almost any unbiblical idea or false teaching with Scripture if you’re willing to twist and distort its original meaning. That is precisely how most of the cults use Scripture to buttress their false doctrines.

The task of hermeneutics is to discover the meaning of the text in its proper setting, to draw meaning from Scripture rather than reading one’s presuppositions into it.

The importance of careful biblical interpretation can hardly be overstated. Misinterpreting the Bible is ultimately no better than disbelieving it. What good does it do to agree that the Bible is God’s final and complete revelation and then misinterpret it? The result is still the same: one misses God’s truth. Interpreting Scripture to make it say what it never intended to say is a sure road to division, error, heresy, and apostasy.

Yet look around at how casually contemporary evangelicalism approaches Bible interpretation! Scripture is routinely stretched, contorted, and twisted to the point of unrecognizability. And rather than do the hard work of careful exegesis and study, people are encouraged to eschew wise counsel and mature guidance, and instead seek some mystical, intuitive interpretation.

Perhaps you have been in one of those “Bible studies” where everyone goes around the room and shares an opinion about the verse in question. “Well to me, this verse means such and such.” In the end what you have is usually not a proper, biblical understanding but a pooling of everyone's ignorance, along with several potential interpretations of the verse, all of which may be wrong.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what a verse means to me, to you, or to anyone else. All that matters is what the verse means! Every verse of Scripture has intrinsic meaning apart from any of us. And it has that true meaning whether or not we have ever considered it.

The task of Bible study is to discern that true meaning of Scripture, to understand what God is saying in the text. Sometimes the meaning is quickly evident; other times it requires a closer look at the context. I admit I have encountered some passages I simply cannot fully understand. But the fact remains: every jot and tittle of Scripture carries only the intended meaning of the author, and the task of the interpreter is to discern what that is.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some key mistakes to avoid when it comes to proper biblical interpretation.

(Adapted from Charismatic Chaos.)


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#1  Posted by Ben Enders  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 5:05 AM

I think this is very narrow-minded and shallow, and not at all worthy of John MacArthur. I would like to think this was penned by some staffer and not John. All I hear is what someone thinks is wrong and no suggestion of what method is better and why. And it does matter what it means to me!!!

#2  Posted by Jordan Bushey  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 8:44 AM

Agreed. Scripture is not a means by which one uses casuistry by haphazard interpretation for some personal exploit. It is the word of God and should be studied objectively as such, not by the whimsical fancies of the reader.

#3  Posted by Jordan Bushey  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 11:22 AM

It only matters what it means to you insofar as your meaning is consistent with what the writer meant. This is the purpose of hermeneutics,is it not?

#4  Posted by Miles Bradfield  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 12:18 PM

What a verse or passage means to me personally or to anyone is completely irrelevant. It may be important to you on some level but that does not change the fact, that importance to you is not relevant to the meaning of scripture. Only what God meant is the point. As usual Dr. MacArthur is helping us all to stay on a right path with the Lord.

#5  Posted by Michael Hanks  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 2:47 PM

Good comments. One has to be careful when saying what verses mean or they think it means.

#7  Posted by Rick White  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 3:26 PM

Ben,

What John MacArthur is saying is that we should seek to understand what the Bible means, not what it means to me. Too many times we try to read our traditions or our misunderstandings into the scripture instead of trying to understand what scripture is telling us. The point of practicing proper hermeneutics is to properly understand what the Bible is saying to all of us. It is a skill that takes time and effort to accomplish. We are also commanded to do just that 2 Timothy 2:15.

#8  Posted by Maxwell Otalor  |  Monday, September 17, 2012at 6:07 PM

Great posts Jordan. Your musings toward the word of God is the accurate perspective that all children of God should sustain when approaching scripture. I believe the fallen nature of man has brought about a degenerative state that gives some readers of the Bible a sort of self aggrandizement.... invoking their own concepts and philosophies into God's word where it need not to be.

God bless!

#9  Posted by Elaine Bittencourt  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 3:37 PM

#1, Ben.

It does not matter what it means personally to you, or to me, for that matter. God had an intent when He wrote what He wrote, and that's what matters. The Word of God has a transcendent meaning in the sense that it means the same throughout all times to all people in those times. That is why, incidentally, that we need to understand what it meant when He wrote it, because what it meant then, means now.

As for what MacArthur wrote, you need to read the entire book, maybe you will see the excerpt above in context then. ;)

E.