A wrinkled old man in the mountains of Ethiopia sips coffee and peers through weathered, ancient bifocals at his worn Amharic Bible to read once again the story of David and Goliath. A middle–aged woman is bouncing along on a bus in Buenos Aires, reading and reflecting on Psalm 1. A young Korean executive, on his way home to Seoul from a business trip in Singapore, flies above the clouds at 35,000 feet, reading and pondering the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 5. And in a dorm room in San Diego, California, a young college student polishes off another Mountain Dew and then looks back down at her laptop computer to finish reading Mark’s account of how Jesus miraculously calmed a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee.
People all over the world love reading the Bible—and they have loved it for thousands of years. Why? People read the Bible because it is a fascinating book, filled with gripping stories and challenging exhortations. People read it because it is an important book, dealing with the big issues of life—God, eternal life, death, love, sin, and morals. People read it because they believe that in the Bible God speaks to them through written words. The Bible encourages us, lifts our spirits, comforts us, guides us, chides us, builds us up, gives us hope, and brings us close to the living God.
Some parts of the Bible are easy to understand, but much of it is not. Most Christians, however, desire to understand all of God’s Word, not just the easy portions. Many of us want to be able to dig deeper into that Word. We want to see more and to understand more of the biblical text. We also want to know that we understand the Bible correctly. That is, we want to be confident that we can pull the actual truth out of a text and not just develop an arbitrary, fanciful, or incorrect interpretation. Our book is designed for such people.
The process of interpreting and grasping the Bible is similar to embarking on a journey. Reading the text thoroughly and carefully lies at the beginning of the journey. From this careful reading we become able to determine what the passage meant in the biblical context—that is, what it meant to the biblical audience.
Often, however, when we try to apply this meaning directly to ourselves, we run into problems. We are separated from the biblical audience by culture and customs, language, situation, and a vast expanse of time. These differences form a barrier—a river that separates us from the text and that often prohibits us from grasping the meaning of the text for ourselves.
If that were not enough, the Old Testament widens the river by adding another major interpretive barrier that separates us from the audience. Between the Old Testament biblical audience and Christian readers today lies a change in covenant. We as New Testament believers are under the new covenant, and we approach God through the sacrifice of Christ. The Old Testament people,however, were under the old covenant, and for them the law was central. In other words, the theological situation for the two groups is different. There is a covenant barrier between the Old Testament audience and us because we are under different covenants.
Thus, the river between the Old Testament text and us consists not only of culture, language, situation, and time, but also of covenant. We have much more in common with the New Testament audience; yet even in the New Testament, the different culture, language, and specific situations can present a formidable barrier to our desire to grasp the meaning of the text. The river is often too deep and too wide simply to wade across.
As a result, today’s Christian is often uncertain about how to interpret much of the Bible. How should we understand Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits wearing a garment made of two types of material? Does this mean that obedient Christians should wear only 100 percent cotton clothes? In Judges 6:37 Gideon puts out a fleece in order to confirm what God has told him. Does this mean that weshould put out fleeces when we seek God’s leading?
Passages in the New Testament are not always much clearer. For example, Peter walks on the water in Matthew 14:29. Does this mean that we should attempt to walk on water in our obedience to Christ? If not, what does it mean and how can we apply it to our lives today? Even if we cannot walk on water, how do we cross the river that separates us from the text?
Any attempt to interpret and to apply the Bible involves trying to cross the river. While often unconscious of their interpretive method, many Christians today nonetheless frequently employ an intuitive or feels–right approach to interpretation. If the text looks as if it could be applied directly, then they attempt to apply it directly. If not, then they take a spiritualizing approach to the meaning—an approach that borders on allegorizing the biblical text (which shows little or no sensitivity to the biblical context). Or else they simply shrug their shoulders and move on to another passage, ignoring the meaning of the text altogether.
Such approaches will never land us safely on the other side of the river. Those using the intuitive approach blindly wade out into the river, hoping that the water is not more than knee deep. Sometimes they are fortunate and stumble onto a sandbar, but often they step out into deep water, and they end up washed ashore somewhere downstream. Those who spiritualize, by contrast, try to jump the river in one grand leap, but they also end up washed ashore downstream with their intuitive buddies. Shrugging or ignoring a passage is to remain on the far side of the river and simply to gaze across without even attempting to cross.
Many Christians are admittedly uncomfortable with such approaches, recognizing the somewhat willy–nilly methodology and the extreme subjectivity involved, but they continue to use it because it is the only method they know. How do we move from the world of the biblical audience to the world of today?
This book addresses how to cross over that river into the world of today. We need a valid, legitimate approach to the Bible, one that is not based strictly on intuition and feeling. We need an approach that derives meaningfrom within the text, but one that also crosses over to the situation for today’s Christian.
We also need a consistent approach, one that can be used on any passage.Such an approach should eliminate the habit of skipping over texts and surfing along through the Bible looking for passages that might apply. A consistent approach should allow us to dig into any passage with a method to determine the meaning of that text for us today. We need an approach that does not leave us stranded on the banks of the interpretive river and one that does not dump us into the river to be washed ashore downstream. We need a way to study the Bible to cross over the river with validity and accuracy. Our goal in this book is to take you on the journey across the river, to transport you from the text and the world of the biblical audience to a valid understanding and application of the text for Christians today.