Learning good Bible skills

We will consider how to read the Bible through considering a much loved and much misunderstood verse. Do consider all that follows by referring to the verse and its context in your Bible.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Bad bible skills:

There are five particular attitudes that commonly keep people from rightly understanding the Bible:

(1) The assumer doesn’t actually reflect on the text, but after a moment’s thought assumes they know what it is about. Considering the above, they might immediately declare: “This teaches that God never wants us to suffer.”

(2) The hobby-horser doesn’t reflect enough either. Instead, they use the text as an excuse to bang their usual drum: “Of course God has planned absolutely everything; and this leads us onto predestination!”

(3) The astrologer is a third type who doesn’t give the text sufficient thought. They assume that every verse in the Bible is a personal word about them as an individual. Just as the astrologer fits their stars reading to their current circumstances, so this person does in reading the Bible. In pondering a job change, they might conclude from our verse: “God is promising that he will prosper me in this new job. It is therefore his will that I leave.”

(4) The tunnel-visioner does think more about the text. Their problem is that they don’t think about the context that surrounds it. They might similarly conclude: “God here promises to always keep us from harm.”

(5) The plain stubborn person may in fact think about both the text and the context. Their problem is that they are hard-hearted and so just unwilling to accept what it says. Their response is likely to be quarrelsome: “I just don’t believe God knows and controls the future. If he did, why would he allow evil to come into the world?”

The need for good Bible skills:

God directed the Magi to the baby Jesus through astrology; yet we accept that this does not justify astrology itself. Rather, we say that in mercy God was prepared on that occasion to use a means that he forbids his people from engaging in. Likewise, though God may have worked in our lives even when we have committed the errors outlined above, we must accept that this does not justify them. Indeed, by them we can either distort God’s word – giving the impression that he says something he doesn’t, or we can deny God’s word – picking and choosing just what we want. We would do well to remember that both distortion and denial of God’s word lay at the heart of Adam and Eve’s first sin (Genesis 3:1ff). Moreover, Satan used Bible verses taken out of context to tempt and mislead Jesus (Matthew 4:5-6). Good Bible skills are therefore one of the greatest needs of Christians today. And once we are aware of them, we are responsible for exercising them.

Good Bible skills:

Having recognised our need for good Bible skills, however, we should not so fear making mistakes that we leave Bible study to the experts. Instead we should demonstrate a reverence for God’s word that recognises the importance of understanding it rightly, and so read with great thoughtfulness and care. In short, Bible reading does not require a theological degree; it just requires some common sense “rules.”

What follows is not intended to provide a dry formula to be methodically worked through with every passage, but to impart rules that – when they become second nature – give great freedom to Bible study without the fear of misunderstanding what is actually being said.

Interpretation: What did it mean back then?

(1) What does it say? The most helpful thing here is to try and summarise in one sentence what you think the passage is about. For Jeremiah 29:11 we might conclude: “God is giving hope by promising a wonderful future.”

(2) Why does it say it as it does? Next dig deeper by questioning the text. Here we should ask why the writer puts things as he does, why he uses the particular words, what he means by them, how the concepts he speaks of relate, why he emphasises things as he does, why he uses the particular adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, contrast, questions etc, and why the particular mood. We might also ponder how what he says relates to other Christian truth.

Immediately we see that the passage is about reassurance: God is wanting to stress that he will guarantee a future free from harm in which his people will be at peace. The mention of hope suggests he is doing this in order to help them keep going through a tough situation.

(3) Where does it say it? Now consider the clues the surrounding passage, book, and the rest of the Bible itself can give to the meaning of our verse or passage. They may well correct our previous understanding.

(i) The passage: Jeremiah 29:10-14 tells us that the tough situation Israel are in is their 70 year exile in Babylon, and that the hope is of restoration to God and to the promised land. This would be enough to prompt us to do some reading in a Bible dictionary about Babylon.

(ii) The book: Almost to the verse, the first 29 chapters of Jeremiah are broadly about God’s judgement on Israel for her sin. The next 23 are then about her restoration. This affirms our findings so far and enable us to know God’s promise is to those under judgement.

(iii) The Bible: We must first consider the Old Testament. It teaches us that Israel’s punishment and this promise were consistent with God’s covenant as outlined in Deuteronomy: If they disobeyed they would be exiled. Yet if they then returned to God, he would restore them. Second, the New Testament teaches Jesus and the church in him is now to be seen as Israel, and that its presence in this world is likened to the exile of Israel in Babylon (1 Peter 1:1, Revelation 18). We start to wonder then, whether a parallel might be God’s promise to restore all who turn to him through Jesus.

Application: How does it relate now?

(1) Purpose: Again, writing a sentence summary of what response was originally intended is incredibly helpful. Above all else, this will give us the best guidance on application.

We have already seen that the purpose was “to encourage Israel in her hardships that God would deliver her from Babylon and restore her to himself, free from all harm.”

(2) Parallels: Next ponder what equivalent circumstances there are today to those of the original hearers.

This is a crucial question, for if we choose inappropriate parallels, we may apply our passage wrongly. For example, if, as with the astrologer (above) we conclude the parallel is with me and my career, we wrongly assume God is promising us success. If our job change then fails, we are left doubting God. Alternatively, if we conclude the parallel is with humanity in general, then God seems to promise to restore and so save everyone without exception. Fortunately the rest of the Bible, and particularly the New Testament gives us the help we need in deciding correct parallels.

(i) The rest of the Bible tells us what must be wrong parallels: For example, it tells us that God doesn’t promise us success in our careers, and that he might even bring hardship on us to train us in holiness (Hebrews 12:4-13). It also tells us that not everyone will be saved (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

(ii) The New Testament offers us clues as to valid parallels: As already seen, the NT parallels Israel in Babylon with the church’s experience in this world. Indeed, those who are more knowledgeable might note that the NT actually tells us that this is less a parallel, and more a direct fulfilment: The ultimate means by which God was to bring Israel back to him and restore her to her land, was to send her Jesus to call her to repent and bring all who do so into his future kingdom.

Things to be aware of in considering parallels are: (a) That the history of Israel is often a pattern for the NT church. (b) That the NT equivalent of the promised land is usually the new creation. (c) In reading of Jesus and the apostles, we must distinguish between what was unique about God’s dealings with them, and what was intended to be an example.

(3) Principles: Our final step is to apply the principles of the passage. Two sorts of principles need to be considered:

(i) Transferable truths: These are those that only stand when “transferred” to a parallel situation as explained above. We might therefore establish the principle: “God rescues his people from exile,” and on the basis of what we’ve learnt apply this to his people today. And so we see, that although this passage is not about God alleviating sufferings now, nor about my job, nor about universal salvation, it is incredible relevant. It teaches me that as one of God’s church, I can have hope in my hardships. I can know that God will deliver me from them when Christ returns, because he has given me a share in his promise to Israel. I can therefore look forward to sharing in the wholeness and freedom from evil God’s people will eventually enjoy. It is this sort of application that will help the Christian keep going when they return to a non-Christian spouse, a dull job, or find themselves diagnosed with cancer, just as the promise given to Israel would have encouraged the people to keep trusting God despite their hardships.

(ii) Timeless truths: Having established the primary point of application as above, we can also consider any principles that are unchanging and so stand no matter what the situation. We might ask what the passage teaches about God, his purposes, human beings, the world etc. For example, in our verse we learn that God knows the future, and that he is able to bring good to people.

The greatest problem in applying principles, is in assuming the passage is only applied if it tells us to go away and do something. With Jeremiah 29:11 this might cause us to focus on the need to tell others of the salvation that can be had, or ensure that we’ve trusted in Christ etc. These responses aren’t invalid, but application is often simply to deepen our understanding of God and his purposes, or reassure us about them. Indeed, the only immediate response a passage might require is that of praise and thanksgiving.