Welcome to part three of the Reading the Bible Series. In part one, we discussed what the Bible is. In part two, we examined how to read it. Now we’ll explore how to understand what we read in the Bible.
Perhaps the most common error made in understanding the Bible is proof-texting, the technical term for pulling a verse or set of verses out of its immediate context, often to establish one’s own presupposition. This happens to other pieces of literature beyond the Bible from thinkpiece articles to classic novels. It’s also been repeatedly demonstrated in courtroom dramas. The witness’s own words are made to convey more or less than the truth in their original context.
In the British TV drama, Downtown Abbey, the valet, Mr. Bates, is on trial for the murder of his estranged wife. After the prosecutors establish that he had a scratch on his cheek upon returning from his meeting with her, they call a witness to testify to how he characterized the meeting. The witness relays, in horrified realization, that he said it was, “worse than you could possibly imagine.” The prosecution relies on more than this to convict Bates, but because the audience generally believes Bates is actually innocent (and in the end he is), his words, while conveying the truth about the meeting, do not convey the truth the prosecution is trying to prove.
As people cherry pick data to prove a particular point, people cherry pick Bible verses to uphold a particular belief. Even if the truth is correct, this practice is as dangerous as it is easy to do. As mentioned in part one, verse numbers are not original to the text and so don’t hold authority in any real sense. So we must be careful in how we use Bible verses to establish Scriptural truth both to others and to ourselves.
The best practice to ensure that we don’t fall into proof-texting is to understand what we read within its wider context, both its immediate context within the text and its historical context—the author’s original audience and purpose in writing.
We can tackle all of these using Jesus’s parable of “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
This immediate context (why Jesus told it in the first place) does not place the actions of the Pharisee and tax collector at the heart of the story. Rather, Jesus’ purpose is to show where righteousness and unrighteousness come from to his original audience and, by extension, to us. The historical context of the parable also relays the impact of Jesus’ words. The people of Jesus’ day considered the Pharisees to be righteous for all the reasons the Pharisee rattled off in his prayer. In contrast, they consider the tax collector to be extremely unrighteous. Jesus’s parable reverses that thinking in stunning fashion.
Descriptive or Prescriptive
Another issue that plays a major role in understanding the Bible is the distinction between what’s descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive writing tells us what’s going on. Sarah laughed; Moses threw down the tablets; Samuel anointed David the next king of Israel. Descriptive writing does not intend to offer instruction or opinion on a particular matter. The author is relaying what happened or what was said. Think of it as a description of the painting.
Prescriptive writing on the other hand intends to tell us to do or not do something. The Ten Commandments are prescriptive. The worship practices of Leviticus are prescriptive. When Jesus says “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) he’s speaking prescriptively. Think of it as a prescription for medicine from a doctor.
The problem comes when we mix these up—when we think that the Bible’s description of circumstances directs us to do the same, or at the very least, grants us permission. We find examples in Abraham’s life. Twice he lies to kings saying Sarah is his sister and not wife. Both times the kings uncover his lie. Yet, despite their anger, they shower him in riches as they send him away. These stories are not prescribing a get-rich-quick scheme. These passages describe what happened and how God worked Abraham’s sin and folly for the good of him and his family.
Law and Gospel
Another vital thing to remember in understanding the Bible is what is often termed, God’s two words: law and gospel. All of Scripture can be summed up in these two words; it either gives or it takes; it either commands or forgives; it either kills or makes alive (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6).
And it is crucial that we distinguish them from one another. Otherwise, the gospel becomes obscured, and the law reigns supreme. We turn Jesus into a new lawgiver instead of the law-fulfiller that he is. We trust in our own work over and against his saving work for us in his death and resurrection. Then, hope is hidden and despair dominates.
The law is any passage of Scripture that tells us what God wants us to do or not do. It is God’s commands and demands of us. It requires that we act, that we do or not do something. Distinguished from the law, the gospel tells us what God does for us. And unlike the law, it requires nothing of us. God does the work and takes the action. God’s word of law shows us our sin and our need for a savior; his word of gospel shows us who our savior is: Jesus.
When law and gospel remain distinct and clear, the forgiveness of our sins and Jesus’ righteousness freely given to us stand clear as day before our eyes.
A common misconception is that the Old Testament is where the law is found in the Bible and the New Testament is where the gospel is found. But law and gospel are found in both testaments. For example in Genesis 2:16-17, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” A command if ever there was one.
But in Genesis 3:15, after Adam and Eve have broken that very command they hear God speak the first gospel promise, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Take notice of who the actor is. In Genesis 2, God commands Adam and Eve to act; in Genesis 3, he promises he will act.
Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Then a little later he says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). In one he speaks a gospel promise; in the other, he gives a commanding law.
Law and gospel can even exist within the same sentence. Here’s Psalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” A command to call up God and a promise that he will deliver us.
When we rightly distinguish between God’s two words, law and gospel, our sin is put in its rightful place; it is put on Christ on the cross. When law and gospel remain distinct and clear, the forgiveness of our sins and Jesus’ righteousness freely given to us stand clear as day before our eyes.
How God Works
As we read God’s Word and try to do so with understanding, we should remember that God works through his Word, both spoken and written, to create faith in us. As Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And as John records, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
His Word works on us in all of its context and meaning, in its descriptions and prescriptions. And even more, as Mark Mattes writes, “The Scriptures unlock the meaning of the entire history of the cosmos and humanity as the story of God’s self-giving, sacrificial love, given most clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” His word of law kills us in order that his word of gospel can bring us back to life.