All who strive for a life of faith must recognize a fundamental principle of Divine religion: a life of faith is grounded and developed through the incorporation of the word of God into their lives. It is only until we harmonize our lifestyle with the influence of the inspired word, that we can find ourselves progressing towards spiritual maturity (2 Tim 3:16-17). If we do the former, the latter will follow.
It is the proclamation of the events leading up to the redemptive work of Jesus and the continued ministry of his apostles set forth in the written gospel message of the New Testament that is “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom 1:5, cf. Rom 16:26). Paul puts the matter into focus in Romans 10:17 when he sets for the principle of faith: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The question considered in this piece is focused on our attitude to Scripture’s application to our lives. We are asking, shall we dictate to Scripture regarding how we ought to live, or will we humbly submit to its teaching?
God and His Word
In Scripture, faithfulness to the instruction of God is paramount from both Divine and human vantage points (Hos 4:6; Psa 119). From the Divine side, God has often warned his people from adding to or removing from what He has entrusted humanity with (Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18-19). Little wonder, then, that Peter once said that if any one should speak, they should “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:11).
When Joshua, the son of Nun, succeeded Moses as the prophetic leadership over Israel and representation of the Lord’s will, God gave him this encouragement:
Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Josh 1:7-8)
As the representative of the Lord’s leadership among the Israelites, Joshua’s success depended upon his courage to live his life upon the line of faithfulness. Commentary on Joshua’s influence due to his faithfulness is found in the words of Joshua 24:31. This could only be accomplished after extensive meditation and determined application of the Mosaic law.
The opening Psalm of the Psalter echoes these sentiments quite vividly. Psalm 1 is described as “a blessing or beatitude that lays down the two ways of living, exemplified by the character of the just and the wicked.”
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Psa 1:1-4)
The restatement of “meditation” of the “law” and the subsequent “prosperity” in the life of Joshua 1:8 is not coincidental. It is the foundation of a faithful life of obedience. To “fear God and keep his commandments” is the very fulfillment of the purpose of life (Eccl 12:13).
A millennium later, Jesus speaks to his disciples regarding the importance of abiding in his word. In the Gospel of John, Jesus affirms this principle quite clearly in John 8:31-32, where it is through abiding in his word (“the truth”) that individuals become free from sin. Later, at the close of his earthly ministry, Jesus appeals to the image of a vine and its branches with the emphasis upon the branches abiding in the life-giving vine in order to produce fruit (John 15:1-11).
The illustration stripped away from all metaphor, comes to a focal point in verses 9-11 where Jesus says:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
As Barnabas Lindars summarizes, “the loving relationship of mutual indwelling is pre-eminently a moral union. Hence, love is shown by the voluntary keeping of the Master’s commandments.” We see, then, that love of God is expressed in faithful obedience to the divine commands reflected in a moral and spiritual lifestyle.
God’s Word in Human Hands
From the human vantage point, the application of God’s word derives from “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The significance of the word translated “rightly handling” (Grk. orthotomeo) is expressed by William E. Vine:
The stress is on orthos; the Word of God is to be “handled” strictly along the lines of its teaching. If the metaphor is taken from plowing, cutting a straight furrow, the word would express a careful cultivation, the Word of God viewed as ground designed to give the best results from its ministry and in the life. (Link)
In order to properly apply Scripture to life, we must seek the true meaning of the biblical text. This is the human side of living by faith. In essence, God has given his word and expects humans to obey it in love; meanwhile, we must employ our mind to understand and apply his word (cf. 1 Cor 2:11-14; Eph 3:4).
There are several approaches many take to find out the nature of God’s will – that is, His desire or plan for a person’s life. Some randomly open the Bible and apply the first verse under the tip of their finger, and find some mystical application to their situation. Though insight is no doubt obtainable, this is not the most effective approach to incorporating God’s word into everyday life. Scripture was never designed to be approached in this fashion.
Others may have read through the whole Bible several times but still have not figured out what to do with the Bible. The pieces of the biblical puzzle are still scattered throughout their mind because they have never really studied the Bible – they have merely read the Bible as one would read a fictional title. Biblical literature was designed to be meditated upon, memorized, and rigorously studied. It is not literature to enjoy as a pastime or hobby.
We are therefore submitting for consideration the need to study the word of God in such a way that produces spiritual formation; as Paul has said elsewhere, “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19b). To do this, we must “attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible.” This is the process of exegesis.
The word exegesis is actually derived from two Greek words, ek (“out”) and egeisthas (“to guide or lead”). This is the process of drawing out “the meaning of the biblical text and explaining it.” Biblical faith, and the obedience which is inherent in it, occurs when the meaning of Scripture is drawn out, that meaning is then articulated in meaningful ways, and then applied to contemporary circumstances. This is the noble handling of God’s word.
It is always easier to spout off some superficial interpretation of Scripture which is grounded in inadequate research than it is to produce a well-reasoned, well-understood explanation of a biblical passage or message. Bible study is for all, but it must be candidly acknowledged that there is a difference between the academic exegesis of the Bible and the exegesis usually explored by those untrained in biblical academics. This is an important distinction to address.
Briefly, the non-academic must constantly rely heavily upon the “expert” scholar with the added difficulty of not being able to personally cross-examine “expert” research. However, more resources available today are written at the popular-level for the non-expert so that, provided sufficient study, they may become more knowledgeable than ever before (biblical languages, cultural context, tools to study the forms of biblical literature, etc.). This is a matter of mental industry and dedication (Ezra 7:6).
The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis, a word that likewise is derived from two Greek words, eis (“into”) and egeisthas (“to guide or lead”). Eisegesis is “the mistake of reading meaning into a text rather than deriving meaning from it.” It may also be stated as reading into the text “meaning that one wants to get out of it.” The point is: eisegesis is the exact opposite of exegesis. It is a hostile take over of the biblical teaching – intentionally or unintentionally.
In his work, From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics, Charles J. Scalise uses the analogy of backpacking and camping to show the need for appropriate hermeneutics. Biblical “campers” must prepare for their trip, employing important guidance tool for directing their theological travels – a map. The map is the biblical teaching, and it is, therefore, important to stay on the map for the right guidance.
Read carefully the following point Scalise makes contrasting exegesis from eisegesis. It should put the two Bible approaches into perspective:
Instead of Scripture functioning as the rule of doctrine, exaggeration of particular doctrines have sought to become the rule of Scripture. Proponents of a specific view have sought to read their particular opinions into Scripture (eisegesis) rather than letting the Scripture rule their view. Prooftexts have been claimed for an amazing variety of additions to and aberrations of the Christian tradition […] Christians who seek to claim authority for beliefs and actions supported by such scriptural pretexts are making maps where there is no biblical territory.
If exegesis is what we do to “stay on the map we are given,” then the opposite is to make, as Scalise observes, a map “where there is no biblical territory.” Shame on us should we fall into this hermeneutical snare. We should always be ready to be taught more accurately and adjust our understandings (our bearings) based upon the Map of Life (Acts 18:24-28).
God’s Word in Human Hearts
After considering the importance God places upon the observance of His word and observing the responsibility laid upon us to properly interpret the Bible, it would be a misfortune not to discuss the need to apply God’s word in the practical everyday life setting. Some seem to simply mentally enjoy the study and proclamation of God’s word, but fail to have the same zeal in the application of its spiritual instruction.
The biblical books were always composed in such a way that they are complete within themselves to teach and to be understood. For example, when Paul composed his letter to the Ephesians regarding “the mystery of Christ” concerning the inclusion of all nations – Jew and Gentile – into the redemption offered by God, he was confident that they would read the letter and perceive its instruction (Eph 3:1-7).
In order to apply God’s teaching to their lives in the most effective way, Christians must be personal students of the Bible. They must be people who hear the word, perceive it, give it space to grow and flourish. Their teacher must be God, and they must never settle for any scholar’s “explanation.” It is Jesus’ words that give life, not the words of the scholar, preacher, or teacher (John 6:68).
As Merrill C. Tenney once said: “there is a danger of substituting the explanation for the text itself. Men read what Dr. X and Professor Y have to say about the text rather than let the text talk to them.” The Bible is fully capable of inducing belief and providing instruction for faithful living. Knowledge of “the book” prevents destruction, and it is for this reason that Hosea lamented for Israel. They failed to allow Scripture to instruct them and guide them (Hos 4:6).
We must allow Scripture to dictate our behavior in public and in private, at work or at play, “at church” or out “in the world” – wherever we are, we must stay conscious of our responsibilities to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 cf. Rom 12:1). To this point, the Lord spoke very clearly to his auditors (Matt 12:33-37). The genuineness of our faithfulness will become evident to those around us.
Jesus once spoke a parable regarding various souls in a field. It is recorded in three Gospel accounts (Mark 4:1-25; Matt 13:3-23; Luke 8:4-18). It was based on an agricultural backdrop, where a person scatters seeds in a field so that he could grow a crop. In this process the seed is tossed out liberally all around the field: “some here,” “some there,” “some over there,” and “some right here.”
Actually, Jesus set forth four places in the field – the pathway, the rocky soil, the thorny patches, and then the good soil. Each seed produced different results depending upon the soil it was embedded within. The seed that fell on the pathway was quickly devoured by the birds, the rocky soil produced superficial growth of the seed, the thorn patches choked out the developing seedlings. Finally, the good soil developed seed exponentially, according to the ability of the seed to produce.
But when Jesus spoke this parable, the seed was to represent the word of God, and the different soils represent the different receptive hearts. One group (i.e. pathway) is so dense that the word of God will not penetrate their heart, others (i.e. rocky soil) have no real spiritual depth to them and the spiritual effects of the word only last temporarily, another group (i.e. thorn patches) were so occupied with the cares of life that there was no dedication to the word.
These three groups all have failed relationships with the word. But there are some (i.e. good soil) who have receptive hearts, they are tender and pliable before the God who created them and loved them. These are submissive to the word and develop spiritually, according to the person’s ability to develop spiritual vitality. These individuals allow the word to dictate the terms and conditions of their faith.
Finally, in connection with these thoughts, reflect upon the words of Paul as he speaks of the power of the Word of God:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and 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)
God’s word should have full reign in molding the human heart. Heaven help those who desire to live in eternity with their God to be so minded.
Returning to the question which led into this study, shall we dictate to Scripture regarding how we ought to live, or will we humbly submit to its teaching? God has clearly shown that we must submit to his word in order to have a lifestyle representative of biblical faith. We must view the Scriptures are authored by God and, therefore, are capable to accomplish the task of spiritual formation.
God has always expected his word to be faithfully kept and never altered. We must exert great care in deriving our understanding from God’s word. And finally, application is the only way to truly be the people that seek after God. Mere knowledge will lead to destruction, both knowledge and action are the keys to unlocking spiritual vitality God’s way.
- Unless otherwise stated all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
- Roland E. Murphy, The Gift of the Psalms (2000; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 18.
- Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John (1981; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 490.
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23 (emphasis original).
- D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book (repr., Delight, AR: Gospel Light, n.d.), 1.
- Matthew S. DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 54.
- Jack P. Lewis, “The Importance of Biblical Languages,” Man of God: Essays on the Life and Work of the Preacher, ed. Shawn D. Mathis (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1996). Lewis specifically addresses the difference of ability between the minister who is a student of the word in its original language, versus the minister who simply preaches and studies from an English text. The former allows ministers to be more certain of their conclusions while the latter finds ministers encumbered with exegetical limitations. Basically, Lewis affirms, “If one is to be an expositor of Scripture, then he matures in that through a life-long study of the languages of Scripture” (162). The difference spoken of here equally resonates with the members of the congregations: it’s a matter of depth of personal certainty upon which a conclusion is drawn. Otherwise, heavy reliance upon “expert” opinion can be and often is costly.
- I have seen flaws on both sides of the debate. On the one hand, I have seen students that know more of their English Bible demonstrated in their deep faith and devoted life than some academics caught up in their theoretical debates on hermeneutics. On the other hand, I have seen students make many egregious errors because they press a biblical passage from an English Bible beyond its intended meaning – an error which could have been relieved by appealing to a more in-depth study of the passage.
- DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary, 50.
- Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3d ed. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001), 52.
- Charles J. Scalise, From Scripture to Theology: A Canonical Journey into Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 70 (emphasis added).
- Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief – An Analytical Study of the Text (1948; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 21.