Scripture: God's Written Word -- Chapter
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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Let us conclude with a consideration of how we are better to understand
Scripture. All that has been said thus far is of little avail if comprehension
of Scripture is lacking or limited. Accordingly, we shall now set forth
a number of factors that contribute to better understanding.
A. Knowledge of God
Since Scripture is Gods written word, we must know the
Author if we are to know His word. One may gain some knowledge of the
Bible by reading it as an historical and literary document, but for
genuine comprehension there is the necessity of being attuned to His
voice and message. The Bible is historyHis storythe
story of God in His relation to the world and man and can only be understood
from that perspective. The Bible is a literary document. It may be read
as great literature, but the literary form in every instance is subordinate
to the message God speaks through it. It is only as we know the God
of the Bible that we can truly hear His word.
This further meansand let us put it bluntlythat we need
to be "born anew" (John 3:3) for this to happen. Jesus in
talking with Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, about this matter said to
him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand this?"
(John 3:10). As a teacher of Israel Nicodemus presumed to know the Old
Testament Scriptures thoroughly, but he did not understand about spiritual
rebirth; and not having experienced that rebirth he was lacking in true
understanding. One must be "born anew" or "born of God"
(John 1:13) to understand the things of God. Those "born of God"
through Jesus Christ, accordingly, are children of God and can hear
the Fathers voice.
But this also calls for living close to God. One who spends much time
communicating with God in prayer, one who daily seeks Gods cleansing
and forgiveness, and one who endeavors to walk in humble and loving
obediencesuch a person by becoming more like God is increasingly
able to understand God in His written word.
There can be no substitute for the knowledge of God in apprehending
the truth of the Bible.
B. The Whole of Scripture
We need, next, to gain an increasing comprehension of the totality
of Scripture to understand its meaning. Since "all Scripture"
is "God-breathed," it is important to gain as comprehensive
an understanding as possible to apprehend the full truth of God. It
is significant that Paul, just before writing to Timothy about this
total inspiration of Scripture, speaks of how "from childhood you
have known the sacred writings" (II Timothy 3:15, NASB), hence
not just a part of them but all of them. Knowledge of the totality of
Scripture is essential to understanding both the whole and the part.
Since the Bible is a panorama of Gods work from the initial creation
to the final consummation, the reader must be aware of the total picture
as he reads any one portion of it. The question often will be: How does
this passage fit in with Gods overall purpose and plan? For example,
the New Testament itself is the New Covenant (Covenant = Testament),
and Jesus speaks about "the new covenant in my blood" (Luke
22:20). How does this relate to the Old Testament, i.e., the Old Covenant?
Only by an understanding of both is Gods truth adequately discerned.
An increasing knowledge of the whole of Scripture makes for balanced
understanding. If one spends most of his time reading only a certain
portion, for example, the Gospels, he will be getting only a limited
understanding. The Gospels without the Epistles to interpret them are
incomplete, the Epistles without the Gospels lack substance: both without
the Old Testament are incomprehensible. Frequently people get off on
tangents because they regularly read only those parts of Scripture that
interest or please them. Paul speaks of how he had declared to the elders
at Ephesus "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:28) so that
they might better lead the congregation. It is the "whole counsel"
in the totality of Scripture that brings about mature and balanced understanding.
One of the surest principles of biblical understanding is that Scripture
interprets Scripture.76 If some passage read is not clear in itself,
often the most helpful procedure is to turn to other similar passages
that may cast light on the one being considered. Such procedure obviously
calls for a wide knowledge of Scripture, for the more comprehensive
is ones knowledge the more able he will be to apply it to a given
We cannot urge too strongly the importance of studying the whole of
Gods written word. This calls for consistent day by day reading
of selected portions of the Bible and pondering each Scripture verse
carefully. For many persons it is valuable to read through the Bible
each year, so that as time goes on there is a growing sense of being
immersed in the totality of Gods word. In so doing it is important
to read from the New Testament regularly, since Christians are primarily
people of the New Covenant. A good reading guide will often suggest
daily readings from both Testaments and possibly a plan for completing
the whole Bible in a year.
It is helpful to read the Bible in various translations. Any knowledge
of Hebrew and Greek is of course valuable, since they are the original
languages. Most readers will need to make use of biblical translations.
The King James Version of A.D. 161177 continues
to be useful; however, there is need for supplementation by more recent
translations, for example, the Revised Standard Version (RSV),78 New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the
New International Version (NIV). The Living Bible79 is a good
paraphrase that often provides additional insights. It is important
to make use of more than one translation so as to gain as much perception
as possible of the original text of Scripture.
The more we know the whole of Gods written word, the better equipped
we will be for all of life. To refer to Pauls words once again
about "all Scripture" being "God-breathed," it is
to be recalled that he adds: "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." The
whole of Scripture, as read and understood, makes for the complete equipment
that the Christian needs.
C. Diversity in Scripture
In order to understand Scripture properly it is important to recognize
its rich variety. Gods written word is by no means a monolithic
statement of some kind but through human instruments comes in many and
diverse ways. Scripture contains history and prophecy, poetry and wise
sayings, parable and allegoryto mention some of the varietyand
through all such means God declares His word and truth. Since this is
the case, if the reader is to understand what the Scripture is saying
he must read with appreciation of this wide diversity.
Further, there is the related matter of literal and figurative expressions
in the Bible. For example, in Isaiah 55 there is the declaration by
God through the prophet that "as the heavens are higher than the
earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your
thoughts" (verse 9). There is also the statement that "the
mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and
all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (verse 12).
The first declaration is obviously to be understood quite literally:
Gods ways and thoughts are higher than ours. The latter has to
be understood figuratively: mountains and hills do not literally sing
nor do trees clap their hands. Both are true statements (the
figurative is not less factual than the literal), but must be understood
in terms of the kind of language used, or there will be confusion and
misunderstanding. It is by no means always easy to know what is literal
and what is figurative in a given passage or book. But there must be
the recognition of such differences in many places if one is to arrive
at right understanding.
There is also much diversity in the historical and cultural background
of the human writers of Scripture. The more that can be learned about
such matters as historical setting, customs of the time, and the writers
own situation, the better prepared one is to appreciate what the Scripture
contains. To be sure, Gods word is by no means simply a product
of history and cultureit infinitely transcends all things human;
however, since Gods word is spoken in and through the total human
context, it may be better heard when something of that background and
context is known. A good study Bible with dictionary, commentary, maps,
and other relevant information can often prove quite helpful.
Recognition of the rich diversity in Scripture can be another step
ahead in understanding God's written word.
D. Illumination of the Holy Spirit
For the true and proper understanding of Scripture the illumination
of the Holy Spirit is essential. Since the Scripturesall of themare
"God-breathed," "God-Spirited,"80 they were written under the inspiration of the
Holy Spirit. Each passage and word is an emanation of the divine breath,
the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the same Holy Spirit must illuminate
the reader if he is to have genuine understanding.
This means, first of all, that a person needs to be spiritually perceptive.
Paul writes (as we earlier noted): "Now we have received, not
the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might
know the things freely given to us by God" (I Corinthians 2:12
NASB). The "things freely given" of which Paul speaks refers
to his teaching by the Spirit (2:13). Then Paul adds: "But a natural
man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness
to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually
appraised [or discerned]" (2:14 NASB). The natural
man, "the man without the Spirit81" (NIV), cannot possiblyno matter
how excellent a student of Scripture he may bediscern "the
things of the Spirit." Unless one is "born of the Spirit,"82 there can be no illumination
by the Spirit, hence utterly no apprehension of the truths of God.
We cannot emphasize this point too strongly. The most accurate factual
knowledge attained through language study, detailed analysis, repeated
reading, and so on, can give information, to be sure, but unless the
person himself is changed, he cannot begin to understand. There can
be no illumination of the Spirit to a mind and heart still darkened
by sin. Paul writes elsewhere: "Put off your old nature...and be
renewed in the spirit of your minds" (Ephesians 4:22-23). Unless
such renewal has occurred, the study of Scripture cannot lead to spiritual
Second, it is important to add that the more a person has matured spirituallythe
Holy Spirit doing an increasing work of sanctificationthe more
he will be able to apprehend Scriptural truth. As Paul begins to discuss
some deeply spiritual matters, he says to the Corinthians that "among
the mature we do impart wisdom" (I Corinthians 2:6).83 However, says Paul later to
the Corinthians, "I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual
men, but a men of the flesh [carnal KJV], as babes
in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food" (I Corinthians
3:1-2). If persons are still "babes in Christ," there is no
way to appropriate the deeper things of God as set forth in His written
word. But to the mature, the Holy Spirit will increasingly illuminate
the truths of God.
Our primary concern, therefore, in seeking to understand Scripture
is to be the kind of person who can receive this spiritual illumination.
A Christian who is still largely a "man of the flesh" (a "carnal"
Christian) can only go so far. Though such a one is no longer a "natural
man," and therefore has some spiritual perception, he cannot really
get into "solid food," the meatier stuff of Scripture. Progress
in the word can only occur through spiritual maturation.
Consequently, if we are seeking day by day to grow in holiness, and
thereby maturing, we can approach Gods written word with a mind
and heart that is far more ready. We will still need to pray for Gods
cleansing of our minds and hearts, since there are invariably some blocks
in the way. But when such a prayer has been very specifically and concretely
offered, we are then ready to pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate
the words to be read. A brief prayer might simply be: "Come, Holy
Spirit, Inspirer of these words, and illuminate my mind and spirit so
that I may truly understand."
It is amazing what God will reveal in His word to those who are prepared
to receive. Jesus promised that when the Holy Spirit comes, "He
will teach you all things" (John 14:26). Even so the Holy Spirit
through Gods word will lead into all truth.84
E. The Help of Other Christians
Finally, in order to understand Scripture adequately we need the help
that can come from other Christians. From the earliest days of the church,
believers were strengthened in their faith by the teaching of fellow
Christians. The first thing said about the believers on the day of Pentecost
was that "they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching"
(Acts 2:42). To be sure, these believers had received the Holy Spirit,
the Spirit of truth, but they needed the teaching of the apostles to
give them fuller understanding.
One of the ministries that Christ has given to certain persons in the
church is the ministry of teaching: "his gifts were that some should
be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers"
(Ephesians 4:11). The teachers, along with other gifted ministries,
function "for the equipment of the saints...until we all attain
to the unity of the faith...so that we may no longer be children, tossed
to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (verses
12-14). We do have the essential teaching of the apostles in the Scriptures,
but we need others who, building on that teaching, give further help
in understanding. Without such teaching, people often get carried away
into grievous error.
Faithful attendance at church to receive anointed preaching and teaching,
study of Gods word together in Sunday School and home fellowships,
the reading of good Bible commentaries: these are just some of the ways
whereby we may be helped in the study of Gods written word. Though
the Holy Spirit often does illuminate the word for a believer in his
own reading and prayer, the Spirit mayand often doesuse
the teaching of others to provide insight and understanding.
A brief word of admonition: we must guard against false teachers. It
is quite significant that shortly after Paul says to Timothy that "all
Scripture is God-breathed and is useful [or profitable]
for teaching" (II Timothy 3:16), he adds: "The time is coming
when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears
they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings,
and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths"
(4:3-4). Unfortunately, it is the case today that many Christians are
turning aside from sound teaching and listening to whatever suits their
or gives them a sense of being the only true believers.86 We must
guard against any and every tendency to listen to such seductive
But now having spoken this warning, it remains a fact that all of us
need the help of others in understanding Gods holy word. The Holy
Spirit is not simply given to the individual so that he may understand,
but the Spirit is also given to the community of Christians and to certain
persons in it who are especially anointed as teachers. Hence we need
one another. God may illuminate a passage of Scripture through another
brother or sister as we meet together, or He may speak through one who
is gifted to be a teacher. In whatever way truth comes through others
we may indeed be grateful.
We close on a note of thanksgiving that God has seen fit to give us
His word in writing. Surely Jesus Christ will always have primacy, for
He is the Word who became flesh; but the beauty of the words of Scripture
is that they are a continuing witness to Him.87
Moreover, until Christ shall return, the Scriptures are Gods tangible
utterances that through the Holy Spirit will lead us in the way everlasting.
Thanks be unto God for His holy word!
76The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it thus: "The infallible
rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore,
when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture
(which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other
places that speak more clearly" (Chap. I. Sect. IX).
77The King James translation of 1611 is also known as "the Authorized
Version," since it was authorized by England's ruling monarch at
that time, and replaced other preceding translations. "Authorized"
should not be understood to mean the approved version for our day.
78Or the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
79The Living Bible is available in a special edition as The Book.
80 Recall fn. 23.
81The word is psuchikos: i.e., natural man, not yet touched by
the Spirit of God.
82Recall our prior discussion of this rebirth.
83Referring to the "secret and hidden wisdom of God
the ages for our glorification" (I Cor. 2:7).
84For a much fuller discussion the Holy Spirit as "Guide into Truth,"
see Renewal Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 237-43.
85 Or their ego, e.g., the Gospel as the way to success and prosperity.
86Many religious sects make an exclusive claim on truth.
87We quote again, finally, the words of Jesus Himself about the Scriptures:
"It is they that bear witness to me" (John 5:39).
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Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams,
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