Four Simple Truths About the Bible Everyone Seems to Forget, Part 2
2. The Bible was written for us, but it wasn’t written directly to us.
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God never changes, but the world that God speaks into changes constantly. The world that we live in today is very different from the world that Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus or Paul lived in. And here’s the thing: God knows that, and He has always spoken to his people in ways that make sense to them.
Think about Jesus. When we’re talking about Jesus we often say something like “God became man” but that’s not quite right. Jesus wasn’t God becoming man…Jesus was God becoming a man – a particular man, born into a particular family at a particular time and place, into a particular culture. He wasn’t generic humanity, he was a specific human being, and his ministry reflected that particularity. He didn’t speak English, he spoke Aramaic. He didn’t make Red Bull out of water, he made wine. Jesus was God speaking into that particular culture in ways that they understood.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean that Jesus came only for those 1st century Jewish people. Jesus came for all people. Who Jesus is and what Jesus did affects all of humanity. So even though he wasn’t born to 21st century Americans, he was born for 21st century Americans, and Russians and Canadians and so on. He came for us all, though he came to a particular group of people and ministered in a way that was comprehensible to them.
The Bible is a lot like that: it was written for all people, but it was specifically written to particular groups of people in particular sets of circumstances. Its truths are wrapped up in the language and lives of the people it was originally written to and its principles are often expressed in particular ways that were specific to the circumstances those people were facing. When we forget that simple truth, we can easily end up failing to understand, or even perverting, what the Bible is actually saying.
Here’s a silly example: Jesus said that he is the “bread of life”. In the first century, bread was the basic staple of the human diet. Bread was what everyone ate to live. When Jesus called himself the bread of life, he was saying that we need him to live. He’s not an optional add-on or an extra treat…he’s the essential staple of our spiritual lives. And in the first century, they knew that’s what he was saying.
But think about the role of bread in the modern world. For a lot of people in the world today, bread isn’t foundational, it’s an optional add-on. You go to a nice restaurant and the waiter asks if you’d like some bread to tide you over until the real meal comes. Or how about this: have you ever gone on a low-carb diet? If so, then bread wasn’t just an optional extra…it was a thing to be actively avoided!
I’m sure you see the point: if we read Jesus’ claim to be the “bread of life” through a modern lens, we will fundamentally misunderstand what he was saying about himself. He isn’t an extra option to be added on to our real lives…he’s the one thing we have to have in order to really live at all!
Now, that’s an obvious – and pretty silly – example, but it serves to make the point: when we forget to read the Bible through the lens of the people to whom it was originally given, we run the very real risk of either being unable to hear what God is saying to us today or, worse, of misunderstanding and misrepresenting God’s Word.
Think of it this way: the Bible is full of true principles, but principles – like God is merciful or wealth can be an obstacle to our spiritual growth – are best communicated in concrete ways. Elements of concrete communication like words, analogies, metaphors and examples are like the Incarnation. They wrap up the otherwise incomprehensible truth and deliver it to us in a way that connects and lets us take hold of it. But to make something concrete, you also have to make it specific to the people you’re giving it to. That’s why the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek…those were the concrete, particular means by which God communicated timeless truths.
The Bible wasn’t originally written in English, because that would have made God’s inspired Word incomprehensible to the people who first received it. God didn’t give the Bible to us, he gave it to them.
But again, that doesn’t mean that the Bible wasn’t written for us. The Bible may not have been originally written to you, but it was written for you. God had you in mind even when He gave David those Psalms or Isaiah those prophecies or Luke that Gospel. He knew what you would be going through when you read those words given to those men so long ago and He intended what He gave to them to be a blessing, an encouragement and a challenge to you right now. The Bible was written for you.
All I’m saying is that to get everything out of the Bible that God put there for you, you have to remember that it wasn’t first written directly to you. We’ll address some easy-to-use tools for avoiding this mistake in upcoming installments but for now just remember to try to read the Bible with an awareness of how it would have been understood to the original audience. If you do that, you’ll avoid making an awful lot of the most common interpretive mistakes.
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