How Do We Really Understand God’s Word?

December 5, 2008

By Derick Parfan

Some years ago, I wrote Jodi a letter and in that letter I wrote, “Magnify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.” What do you think I meant by those words? What am I trying to say? When you don’t know what I mean by that, where do you go for help? You might ask your friend or someone who knows me and Jodi. They might help you. But are you sure that they understood it correctly? How can you really be sure? Why not try asking me what I meant by that? Don’t you think I have a pretty good idea what I meant by that?

We hold in our hands an ancient letter – the Bible. We read it because we believe that it is written not only for the ancient readers but for our sakes as well. It is written by human authors but we believe that the Holy Spirit is the true author as he guides them to write exactly what he wants to say to us. “All Scripture is inspired by God (literally, God-breathed)” (2 Tim 3:16). The authors of this Book “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). But the problem is, how do we understand this? How can we be sure that we know what it means so that it will be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17)?

Don’t you think it is a good idea (surely it is !) to go to the Author and ask for his help. Has he written the Word and left it to us to figure out on our own what he wants us to know, believe, and do? Of course not! When we can’t understand something that we have read, where do we go for help? Do we go straight to God and ask him for illumination? Or we believe that it is enough to rely on our own intellect and with some help of others?

It is natural to us to ask for the help of somebody in authority to teach God’s Word. It is true that in interpreting God’s Word, the church and its teachers can help you. But we must realize that the church is not enough to help us. The Roman Catholic Church holds to their authority in interpreting the Word to Christians because it is the Holy Spirit, they believe, who gives her the spiritual interpretation of Scriptures. Even if a believer studied the Bible for himself, and he found out something that goes against the clear teaching of the Church, he must be wrong. That is what happened to Martin Luther and the Reformers in the 16th century.

It is true that the church has authority and God has given pastors and teachers

“to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:12-14).

But they can still err and teach what is wrong because of their finiteness as human beings. Our church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20). If a teacher teaches something that go against the teachings of Scriptures, we must not believe them. Do not place someone’s authority, just because they are pastors or known teachers, on equal footing with the Scripture. Rick Warren or John Piper is still fallible. They may have understood some portions of the Bible wrongly. Some commentaries may disagree on many matters of interpretation. Many denominations are still in disagreement with some minor teachings of the Scriptures. Do not hold that an interpretation of a certain passage is correct just because your pastor teaches it, or John Piper wrote about it, or your denomination holds on to it.

Though outside help is indespensable in studying the Bible, we still have a God-given mandate to search the Scriptures for ourselves. We must be like the Christians in Berea. They were hearing the message of Paul about the testimony of the Scriptures about Jesus. Although “they received the word with all eagerness” they just did not accept it because Paul said it but they are “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

We must also be aware, that though we are to study the Bible with diligence, using the right tools and method, our own intellect is not enough to help us. There are some people who hold that even those who are not Christians, that is without the Spirit, can know and understand what the Bible says. All they need to do is be objective, know the background, know how to do Greek or Hebrew exegesis, and by thinking over the content of the passage, they will understand it. In fact, they can do it better that a regenerate believer.

Really? “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). The problem for the unregenerate is not only that he does not accept (or welcome) the teachings of Scriptures. The problem is also “he is not able to understand them.”

And why is that? Not only is our reasoning capacity finite, it is also severely limited by the effect of sin. The natural mind is hostile to God and his Law (Rom 8:7). Because of sin, unbelievers became futile in their thinking (Rom 1:21) and they have a debased mind (1:28). Even if Paul preaches “by the open statement of truth” his message is still veiled (or covered or hidden) to the unbelievers. The reason is because Satan “has blinded their minds” that they may not see the light of the gospel (2 Cor 4:3-4). It does not say that the problem of unbelievers is that they just rejected its message, although they understood it, because it is not in line with one’s own interest. This passage states that there is also inability to see or understand the truth. In approaching God’s Word, the unbeliever is like a blind man judging a beautiful painting or a deaf giving a critique of a singer’s performance.

We are now left to conclude that only the Spirit can help us interpret His Word. Being its Author, he will not just leave it to our finite reasoning capacity to comprehend. Many have not understood the message of Christ (1 Cor 2:8). “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (2:10-11). H. C. G. Moule agrees, “The Holy Spirit is not only the true Author of the written Word but also its supreme and true Expositor.”

The Holy Spirit is at work in overcoming the effects of sin in the case of “all unbelievers who will read it sincerely seeking salvation and by all believers who will read it while seeking God’s help in understanding it” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology). In the case of the unbeliever, God has lifted the veil first through the work of the Holy Spirit so that he may understand and accept God’s message in Christ (2 Cor 4:6). The same thing happened with Lydia when the “Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

If the work of the Holy Spirit is first needed in overcoming the effects of sin in the unbeliever, the same is true for the believer. Even if that believer is already skilled and well-practiced in the process of exegesis, he still needs the illuminating work of the Spirit. One of the purposes the Holy Spirit is given to the believer is that “we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). He is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). He is the Helper who will teach us all things (14:26). He will bear witness about Christ (15:26). He will guide us into all truth and he is a revealer of what is to come (16:13). We do not discover biblical truths by our own intellectual capacity. It is revealed to us by the same Spirit who first worked in us in regeneration.

The Holy Spirit’s guiding, illumining, and teaching role is vital in properly understanding the Bible. Too much emphasis on this, however, can lead one to depend solely on what the Holy Spirit will reveal or the flashes of intuition that he might bring even without careful study of the text. It is true that the Holy Spirit guides but he uses his Word as his means. The Holy Spirit bears witness “in and by the Word,” as the Westminster Confession states. The Holy Spirit’s work does not eliminate the need for careful study and searching of the Bible’s meaning. Still, the believer must approach it the Berean way, “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

What then is our final authority in the interpretation of biblical texts? It is not the Church. It cannot even be pure reason alone. It cannot even be the Holy Spirit apart from the revealed Word of God and his final revelation in Christ (Heb 1:1-2). Both the objective element of the written Word with the diligent study on the part of the interpreter and the subjective element of the illumining work of the Holy Spirit in the interpreter are needed for correct interpretation.

What shall we do then? Although correct interpretation is not always certain even for a Spirit-filled believer, it is an invitation to rely fully on His work through the diligent use of means. Knowing the major role the Spirit plays in determining the meaning of a passage in the Scriptures, we need to pray, recognizing our great need of his help. We can plead with God like the psalmist, “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psa 119:18). As you open the Bible, ask God for his help in understanding his Word. Believe that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2:12).

God is also inviting us to rely on the work of the Spirit in evangelism and teaching. Do not wonder why people do not get what we are saying even when we speak clear enough to be understood. There is a barrier only the Spirit can overcome. Like Paul, may our message be “in the demonstration of the Spirit and power” (2:4), teaching the Word “in words…taught by the Spirit” (2:13). Ask him to open people’s blind eyes as he opened ours.

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