So in part 1, we talked about how it’s kind of impossible to read the Bible alone, completely objectively. As I reflected on the conversation with that couple, I thought of just one little section of Scripture where a little common sense and thought needs to go into interpreting Jesus’ words.
Here is one example of something Jesus said that will get you into trouble if it’s just “you and your Bible.”
How Sin Connects to Our Eyes
In Matthew 5 and Mark 9, Jesus offers some harsh advice if taken literally.
In Matthew 5, the context is lust:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
In Mark 9, the body parts are still disappearing:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.”
Oooookay. That escalated quickly. So is Jesus advocating for self-mutilation here? Is he saying there should be a whole bunch of one-eyed, one-handed, one-footed Christians walking around? If you “just read the Bible,” that is a simple and literal way to understand these verses. We’re called to a life of purity and sacrifice, right? But what happens when our other eye makes us sin? Is Jesus calling us to a radical ethic of self-mutilation? Should we render ourselves blind to avoid sin?
Is it our eyes that make us sin, or is it really our hearts? When you see something you want (covet, envy, lust), your eyes are simply the vessel through which your heart communicates its desires. Greed begins and ends in our heart, not our eyes.
Common Sense Application
Based on common sense and study, we can easily deduce Jesus was not speaking literally here. No one-eyed Christianity required. However, we’re not off the hook. What He IS saying is:
Do whatever it takes to avoid sinning. Go to extreme lengths to eliminate the opportunity for sin to take root when necessary.
Of course, you could have come to this same conclusion sitting in your living room with your Bible. Understanding this short section in Matthew and Mark does not require a theology degree. But I am guessing that along the way you heard something somewhere about how there are different styles of literature in the Bible — poetry, narrative, history, and even metaphor — and so you knew instinctively that Jesus was not calling for you to run to the kitchen for a knife.
You read something, thought about it, and made an active interpretive decision based on your knowledge of the person of Jesus, the context of His words, and the biblical text as a whole, with a little common sense thrown in there. That is the way it goes. Congratulations, you did just did some theology.
In truth, reading the Bible is one of the best things we can do as Christians. So keep reading! Just you and your Bible in your room is a valuable way to spend your time. But you will not understand everything you read. Even Jesus’ own words can be confusing sometimes. The Bible is a complex book and there is a reason why people spend their entire lives studying it. Theology simply means “the study of God.” Which is what we do every time we open the Scripture.
The Point Is…
You don’t need to go to college for a theology degree (or any other degree) to understand the Bible on certain levels. And everyone can do as much study as they want outside of an official classroom environment. But, no one can claim that they can read the Bible totally objectively, without any outside or inner influence. The very translation you choose has been translated into English by someone who made theological decisions with every word. Unless you can read Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic, you’re reading someone else’s (or a committee in the case of the best translations) interpretation of the original languages. We can never be fully dependent on ourselves and our own knowledge or assumptions as we read the Bible. We have a great history of interpretation that stretches back into time as a resource as well as the guidance of the Spirit.
The Role of the Holy Spirit
The most important reason why it can never just be you and your Bible is because the Holy Spirit guides us as we read. We don’t have to be completely limited by the lens we subconsciously bring to the text. God works within our hearts and minds to reveal His truth to us as we read His word. This is why not everyone has to enter into higher education to understand the Bible. But there is no need to be anti-academic either. Refusing to study the Bible on a deeper level has gotten plenty of people in trouble (heresy anyone?) in the past.
The Bible is the written word of God, and because it is written, confined, and limited by the necessities of ink and paper and leather. The Voice of God, however, is alive and free as the sovereign God is free. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.’ The life is in the speaking words. God’s word in the Bible can have power only because it corresponds to God’s Word in the universe. It is the present Voice which makes the written word powerful. Otherwise it would lie locked in slumber within the covers of a book. –A. W. Tozer
Check out part 3 for a simple tool you can use to interpret Scripture as you read.