As America has become more and more secularized, many people have virtually no knowledge of the contents of the Holy Bible. I have spoken with numerous folks who don’t have the slightest clue about the message of the Bible—and rightly so, because they have never read it. This is lamentable, but it is pretty straightforward: If you grow up without reading the Bible or being taught from it, you will have no idea what it says. However, there is another problem in America (and in many other nations): The problem of not knowing what the Bible says because you don’t know how to read it. I am not referring to people who don’t know how to read, but to those who approach the Bible as a mystical book.
When I talk about approaching the Bible as a mystical book, I am talking about viewing the Bible and Christianity as a form of mysticism. This view teaches that knowledge of God is inaccessible to the intellect and can only be obtained through emotional experiences or other mysterious agencies. A person influenced by some form of mysticism may approach the Bible as a magical book that will have something unique to say to them whenever they open it. This view even leads people to close their eyes, open the Bible to a random section and read where their finger lands, hoping to hear a word from God for their specific situation. Of course, the Bible will always have something to say to someone who reads it, but it will only be what the text in view actually means, not some esoteric meaning for the individual reader. R.C. Sproul elaborates on this practice of “Bible roulette.”
In the first year of my academic career, I was teaching at a college in western Pennsylvania. In the spring semester, a coed made an appointment with me to discuss a personal problem. She was quite distressed because she was experiencing what is sometimes called “senioritis.” She was in her last semester of her senior year, but she was not married, she was not dating, and she had no prospects for a relationship with a man at the time. She was a devout and earnest Christian, so she wanted to know whether it would be wrong for her to pray to find a mate. I told her that there was nothing at all wrong with praying that God would provide her with a husband, and I urged her to do so. About two weeks later, she came to see me again, and this time she was filled with joy and elation. She said, “I’ve been praying for two weeks that God would give me a husband, and He’s answered my prayers.” I said, “You have met someone?” She said: “No, I haven’t met him yet. But I know I will very shortly. You see, last night I lucky dipped.” Now, I had never heard of such a thing as “lucky dipping,” so I asked her what she meant. She said: “Well, I was praying, and I had my Bible in front of me, and I asked God whether He was going to provide me with a husband. Then I closed my eyes, opened my Bible at random, and dropped my finger on the page. When I opened my eyes, my finger was pointing to Zechariah 9:9, which says: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ That was God’s answer to my prayer. The Spirit revealed to me that I am going to be married.” This was an example of “pneumatic exegesis,” which is just a fancy term for lucky dipping. It has to do with interpreting the Bible through some kind of spiritual machination. It does not simply border on magic and superstition, it crosses that border. This dear college student of mine had engaged in a way of interpreting Scripture that really is an offense against God the Holy Spirit. Turning the Bible into a magic talisman is certainly not according to the intent of the Spirit in His work of inspiring the Bible. (R.C. Sproul, Who Is the Holy Spirit?, emphasis added)
The Bible is a supernatural book in the sense that it was not merely written by men, but by God the Holy Spirit. It is not magical or mystical, however. What makes it so powerful in the Christian life is that it is truth: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). As the believer’s mind is renewed by the truth of Scripture, his life is transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ Jesus. R.C. Sproul, in his article Knowing Scripture, writes: “Though the Bible is not like any other book in that it carries with it the authority of divine inspiration, nevertheless, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit over a written text does not turn verbs into nouns or nouns into verbs. No special, secret, arcane, esoteric meaning is poured into a text simply because it’s divinely inspired. Nor is there any such mystical ability we call ‘Holy Ghost Greek.’ No, the Bible is to be interpreted according to the ordinary rules of language.”
This is important. The Bible is not to be approached as some sort of Magic Eight Ball that will give you a specific answer for your problem. The Bible is to be studied and read in order to understand what it means. God the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible to write in a specific time, usually to a very specific group of people. We cannot expect to understand the author’s intent without grappling with the historical and grammatical context of any given portion of Scripture. This is not to say that one must be a Greek scholar to be a Christian, but it is vital that Christians understand how to grow in the knowledge of God as they study His Word. Countless people are stunted in growth because they approach the Bible in all the wrong ways.
What are some ways this works out practically? Well, someone who has been heavily influenced by a mystical approach to Christianity may think that daily Bible reading is a necessity because reading the Bible automatically causes spiritual growth. Such a person may read the Bible and then spend time in prayer asking God to help them understand what they read. Or they may think that by spending that time “in the Word,” they have spent time with the Lord. There are several problems with this view, one being the assumption that reading the Bible is automatically a good thing. The Lord Jesus Christ said those are blessed “who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28, emphasis mine). Many people can read the Scripture and totally misunderstand and misapply it (the Pharisees for example). As a Christian, my goal (in relation to reading the Bible) is to have my mind renewed by the truth of God’s Word. By reading the Bible correctly, I am able to be reminded of truth. And it is truth that the Holy Spirit uses to change our thinking and, in turn, our lives. We are to take every thought captive to obey Jesus Christ. How can we do this unless we know what thoughts are honoring to God and what thoughts are dishonoring to Him?
Obviously, I am not against Bible reading—but I want to point out some implications of a mystical approach to the Scriptures. A person may spend his entire life reading the Bible, but never understand how to read it. If he does not understand the historical-grammatical context of the chapter he has read, it would be better for him to study at a much slower pace and do proper Bible interpretation. In fact, if he reads and interprets the Bible erroneously, it would be better if he had never read it at all! Instead of approaching the reading of the Bible as an end in itself, the Christian should approach the Scriptures as ameans to know God and correct erroneous ways of thinking about Him. In order to know the truth about God, we must approach the Bible as a divine revelation of propositional truth, not a mystical book that imparts different meanings to different people.
God does illumine the mind of the believer to understand what the Scripture means, but this meaning is never divorced from the historical-grammatical context. I can’t come to you and say, “The Holy Spirit told me that this is what the Bible means,” when a historical-grammatical interpretation of the text presents a different meaning. God, being the source of logic and reason and words, has defined how we are to approach Him. He has revealed Himself to us by His Word and we do not have the right to approach Him in another way. As R.C. Sproul points outs, “[It is] an offense to God the Holy Spirit to read into sacred Scripture what is not there.”
Instead of seeking to simply spend “more time” reading the Bible, perhaps you should consider studying the context, reading solid commentaries (click here for some examples), and seeking to understand what the original author meant when writing to his audience. Once you understand what the Word of God means, seek to obey it (this will take much more discipline than doing daily devotionals, by the way). Instead of focusing on quantity time when reading the Bible, focus on quality time. I don’t mean you should seek to have a really good emotional experience when reading the Bible. I mean that you should seek to grasp the historical-grammatical context and then apply that truth to your life. The Christian is called to obey the Word of God, not simply read it. In order to obey God’s Word, we must understand what it says.
The following simple example is probably more common than you think. Joe was reading Jeremiah 29:11 in his Bible. The verse says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Joe, without understanding the context of this portion of God’s Word, interpreted this verse to mean that God does not want him to suffer harm. In reality, the verse was a specific message to the people of Israel at the time of their exile, not to Joe in the 21stCentury. Now, we can learn truths about the character of God from this passage (when studied in context), but we must not misapply the passage. There are other portions of Scripture which deal explicitly with God’s plan for Christians in every age, and that plan includes suffering, pain, and death.
While that example was overly simplistic, the point is a person may read a portion of the Bible and think he understands what it means because he associates these words with something other than what the original author intended. When reading the Bible as a Christian, your first question should not be, What does this mean to me? but What did this mean to the original hearers?
If you are a Christian, perhaps even more important than your own personal study of the Bible is what kind of preaching you hear every Sunday at your local church. What is worse than a Christian having an erroneous understanding of how to read the Bible? A preacherteaching his congregation an erroneous understanding of how to read the Bible. Instead of seeking to explain what the text means in light of the context, many preachers simply seek to apply a passage to their congregation’s experience. Instead of studying what the original author was saying to his audience, these preachers interpret the Bible based ontheir own experiences. Christian ministers are to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15b). Expository preaching—preaching that makes the point of the sermon line up with the point of the text in view—ought to be the regular diet for Christians every Sunday.
Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture…The preacher opens the Word and unfolds it for the people of God. (Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church)
This “unfolding” of the Word takes work. The preacher must submit himself to studying the historical-grammatical context of every passage. This sort of discipline, this rightly dividing the word of truth, stands in contrast to simply praying for God to give you a “word” from a certain passage. Sadly, the following is a true example that happens too often: I once heard a preacher stand up and preach about the “Spirit’s anointing,” interpreting the Bible based on his own experiences instead of the historical-grammatical context. After speaking for some time, the preacher said something to the effect of, “Well, I feel I can speak only up to this point because the Spirit has only given me words up to this point.” This preacher, well-intentioned perhaps, had completely perverted the Word of God. Had he spent time in prayerful study, seeking to understand the context, he would have been able to preach a message that explained the meaning of the text. Instead of waiting until he didn’t “feel” like he could speak anymore, he should have never stood up to preach in the first place—he had not properly studied the Bible.
Paul told Timothy the Scripture was “able to make you wise for salvation.” He also wrote, “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 complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Word of God is able to make onewise for salvation. It is profitable for teaching and correction. This implies that it is a source of propositional truth that must be understood accurately if it is to be applied correctly.
Of course, simply having the right meaning of the text is not the end. Obeying God’s Word by the power of His Spirit for the glory of God is your purpose. But if you don’t know what His Word means then you cannot obey it. I wish more people would read the Bible, but not if they are going to approach it in a mystical way. (If you want help in how to read the Bible, here is a good place to start: How Should We Interpret the Bible?)