At the close of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus said: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
It makes a difference whether a person is paying attention to God speaking. It’s the difference between success and failure. While the Bible is not all that God says to us (Jesus himself is the ultimate Word and the Holy Spirit communicates to our spirits), it is the core, the essence, the primary message to us. I think most Christians adhere to the belief that reading and studying the Bible is really important.
It is dangerously easy to presume what God has in mind when reading the Bible. We naturally tend to pick up on a Scripture verse or two and go with it, believing it sums up pretty much everything God is doing. That leads us to a distorted understanding of his message every time. With this method of hearing the Word we can become very fearful and condemning or we can become overly confident and indulgent. We can believe God is out to get us or that he likes everything we do. We can miss what God is actually saying.
The number 1 procedure that causes you to miss the meaning is focusing on those one or two verses without seeing them in context. I think the way our Bibles are constructed with chapters and verses contributes to this. They weren’t in the original writings. Chapter and verse divisions are helpful, of course, but you need to ignore them when you are reading/studying. They can make it look like there is a series of unrelated statements and/or events. It’s very easy, then, to pick out sayings and think they mean something that they don’t. I’ll give a couple of examples.
First, the passage I quoted to begin – Jesus telling how important it is to hear and do his words. What is Jesus referring to with the picture of rain and floods and winds hitting the two houses? I have usually heard it taught and I’ve taught it myself that he is giving us advice for when we have various troubles – disease, accidents, death, financial ruin, persecution, etc. – the storms of life. But Jesus was not teaching about any of those things in the Sermon he was concluding (except his point that those who are persecuted will be blessed). The primary point of his sermon is what it takes to enter the Kingdom of God. He said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). He goes on to give several examples. Then he said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). So the story of the two houses means you need to hear, believe, and act on his words in the sermon to enter the kingdom.
Example 2 comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verse 13 (actually only the last phrase in the verse): “ forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” This statement gets used a lot at the beginning of a new year, so it’s been on my radar recently. Some use it to inspire us to leave the old year behind and move forward in the new with confidence and freedom. It’s also used by some to encourage us to let go of past struggles, burdens, and failures so we can make the most of life, including God’s best for us, of course. But Paul wasn’t writing about any of that. The context of this little phrase is the entire chapter 3. You can read it and see he never mentions a new-year kind of mentality or a decision to lay aside personal baggage. In fact, what he’s talking about forgetting were his great accomplishments as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (verses 4-6). Just the opposite of failures or disappointments. He was a wildly successful Pharisee. That meant personal prestige, self-satisfaction, power and even profit on top of a confidence that he was right with God. That’s what he was forgetting. In fact he said he was looking at all his greatness as just “dung.” His reason was not so he would feel confident and get the most out of life but so he could “gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (verses 8-11).
See how easy it is to miss the actual meaning of God’s Word?
The Bible is not just a series of inspirational sayings.
We need to read the Bible for all it’s worth. We need to hear all of the message. Something that has helped me with this issue is reading longer chunks of Scripture, especially in the four Gospels, and basically ignoring the chapter and verse divisions and looking for themes and connections through the texts. It is surprising how much more there is to hear when you stop thinking the Gospels are made up of a series of biographical events. The Spirit has given us more than an interesting (or not) “life of Christ.” It is much deeper and more profound than that. I encourage you to try this. Read/study with your mind open and searching for connections and meanings that run through large sections.
Here’s an experiment I’d like you to try. I’ll give you a passage of Scripture to read. The last verse has been taken to have a certain meaning. Read the entire passage as a whole, including that last verse. When you read it, see what that last verse really means in contrast to what you may have heard it means. You can leave comments by clicking above. The passage is Matthew 18:15-20.