During my time leading Bible studies for college students, a phrase I heard more often than any other was, “What this verse means to me is…”
I’ve said it, you probably have, too, but when it comes to reading, studying, and understanding the Word of God, exploring what a verse “means to me” is a flimsy foundation on which to build our faith. We so want to read a verse or chapter, get a sense for the vibe of the passage, and allow it to mean exactly what we would like it to mean, but when we study God’s Word, our goal must always be to discover what the verse means in the context it is written.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart argue in How To Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.” We might want a verse to mean something to us, but if it does not align with the context in which it was written, it cannot and does not mean what we want it to mean. And because the Bible is not primarily a tool for self-discovery, we must be willing to spend time in it as such.
When we come to the Bible, we must begin with comprehension—understanding what is actually being said. We often jump to what a verse “means to me” because we have skipped this essential step. When we leave it out, what the Bible says becomes completely subjective and self-centered, meaning whatever we might want it to mean at that time. It’s easy to read a passage and get an impression or jump on one phrase, but it takes time to read a passage, follow the logic and argument, ask questions about a phrase, and study what the author is actually saying. But do this we must. One of the first things I learned in seminary was that “context is king;” you cannot escape, get around or avoid it—to read the Bible, you must go through the context in which it is written.
Context vs. expectation
Any time we read Scripture, we bring our whole selves—how our day is going, our experiences, our emotions, our hopes for this particular moment in God’s Word—and that’s good. It is good to be self-aware, knowing how we are doing, the expectations we have, and what we might be needing to hear on any given day. But without comprehension, we will likely read into the text what we want to see rather than studying God’s Word for what He wants us to see.
Here’s an example. Philippians 3:14 says, “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” I absolutely made this my verse for high school sports, whispering it to myself, and maybe a teammate, when we were losing by 10 in the fourth quarter, because, you know, Jesus will totally make me win this game. But if we read the chapter to understand what Paul is saying, he says he can do anything in Christ who strengthens him in the context of suffering, not always having what he needed, and depending on others to support him in his lack. I might want this verse to mean that I can do and accomplish anything in Christ, but Paul is saying that because of Jesus, he can face any circumstance, especially adverse ones, with joy, because Jesus is his life.
The good news is that God, through His Holy Spirit, illuminates His Word to us—the Spirit literally opens our minds and hearts to receive what He wants to teach us. Our God is so personal and loving that when we open His word, He promises to meet us, reveal Himself to us, and speak to us. God knows exactly what we need, and if we are willing to listen to what His Word actually says, we might discover that what he has for us is even better than what we were hoping to find.
Skipping comprehension diminishes who God is
Beyond reading ourselves into the text, when we skip comprehension, we never learn the heart of God for us, we opt out of hard words that might challenge us, and ultimately, we never grow in our confidence of what the Bible really says. When we elevate our situation, feelings, or an interpretation apart from the context, the Word of God becomes a story that is bent around what we want to hear, but it will never be able to stand up to the difficulties we will face.
God wants us to know him. So when we skip comprehension we don’t allow God to actually speak to us. He wants to reveal himself to us, to teach us, to meet us in our circumstances and struggles. But if we ignore how he has revealed himself to his people before us, we will never know who he is for us today. We need a Bible that that says “You are not your own but have been bought with a price” because I want to be my own master every day. We need a Bible that speaks words that don’t always align with our culture. We need a Bible that tells us what our sin is. We need a Bible that tells us about the holiness of God. We need a Bible that confronts our own agenda for our lives.
As we approach God’s word today, remember that our experience, emotions, and desires are not the center of the universe, God is. And as we read His Word with expectation, we will find ourselves hearing what we need to hear, being challenged in the ways we need to be challenged, and receiving comfort from a God who loves us so much that He makes Himself known to us.