When we visited Europe recently, we were exposed to other languages and cultures. In order to communicate it helps to know some words in the local language. The Bible was written thousands of years ago when there were different languages and different customs and circumstances to today. Fortunately it has been translated into modern English, but how can we understand it? It’s more remote than Europe, coming from not only another place, but another time in history.
When Timothy was dealing with false teachers, Paul urged him to “correctly handle” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). So there is a correct way to understand and explain and apply the Bible. God wants us to understand His message in the Bible and to use it for godly living. Let’s look at how we can do that.
A divine message
The Bible is often called “God’s word” (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pt. 1:25) because it is a divine message from God written by chosen people in their language and time. Firstly, it was a message to their generation.
Secondly it was a message to later generations. Ezra lived about 1,000 years after Moses. When he read to the people what Moses had written, the Levites made it clear “giving the meaning so that the people understood” (Neh. 8:8). The reason for this was that after their exile in Babylon, the Jews spoke Aramaic whereas the Scriptures were written in Hebrew. So the Levites explained the text by translating the language from Hebrew into Aramaic.
It is also a message to us who live thousands of years afterwards – John wrote his gospel so that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31NIV). That includes us today. Also, after Thomas saw Jesus, he believed that He had risen from the dead. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). Here He is referring to people like us who didn’t see Jesus after His resurrection, but who would believe in His resurrection based on the Scriptural account.
We want to understand the meaning that God intended. There is a promise for doing this – we read “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). In this instance it is a blessing for those who understand from reading the Bible that Jesus rose from the dead.
The Bible was written in ancient times. To read it is like visiting those ancient times. We are like tourists travelling to a different place where there is a different language, culture, situation, time in history and maybe a different covenant in God’s dealing with humanity.
We also need to know that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. So we should also read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.
The steps involved in understanding a passage in the Bible are as follows:
- What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
- What were the original principles behind this meaning?
- What has changed since then?
- What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
- What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.
Understanding and obeying (or applying) the Bible helps us to live in a godly way – “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Let’s look at an example to see how this method works. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, the Israelites were told, “If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; … they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin” (Lev. 5:2, 5-6).
The original meaning
When each passage was written it had only one meaning. That’s what we are looking for. What did the people need to know and do? What is the core meaning of the passage? To do this we need to study the text (including any figures of speech), the historical-cultural context, and the literary context. Also, if the passage is obscure, we can use a clearer one to explain it.
The text. When they realized they had touched something that was ceremonially unclean, they were to confess their sin and bring a female lamb or goat to be killed at the tabernacle by the priest and they will be forgiven (Lev. 5:13).
The Bible has lots of figures of speech like metaphors and similes, but there are none in this passage.
The historical-cultural context. This was when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan. They lived in tents, amongst tribes and kept animals. It was after the times of Abraham, but before the times of the Israelite judges and kings.
The literary context.
What genre or type is it? In the Old Testament there is narrative (story), law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. The book of Leviticus gives laws that were given to Moses when they were camped at Mt Sinai. So it is law that is set in the narrative of the journey to Canaan.
Is it a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?
- It is a command. It says “they must” confess and they “must bring” an offering (Lev. 4:5-6). It is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive) because the Israelites were to keep the laws given to Moses.
- It’s not just a model to follow like the practice of Christians meeting together on the first day of the week or of deacons serving in the church (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
- It’s not a report of events and descriptive like David’s adultery (2 Sam. 11:1-17), Solomon’s wives and concubines (1 Ki. 11:1-3) and the fact that Judas hanged himself (Mt. 27:5).
The surrounding context. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
With regard to our passage in Leviticus – In Exodus God makes a covenant with Israel as His special people and lives with them in a royal tent, the tabernacle. In Leviticus He describes how they are to be holy by being separate from sin and living for God instead. “Holy” is a key word, occurring about 80 times in Leviticus. The verses are in a passage describing how they could become pure after unintentional sin (Lev. 4:1 – 5:13). First it deals with the leaders and then with individuals. Lev. 5:2 says they are defiled if they touch any unclean thing such as dead animals or unclean animals. This means they are unable to approach God and worship Him. In chapters 11-15 they are told what is ritually unclean – what stopped them participating in the rituals God gave them. Here we see that spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection. In order to be purified and forgiven after they are defiled they must confess their sin and bring the priest a lamb or goat for a sacrifice (Lev. 5:5-6). The priest would sacrifice the animal on their behalf and they will be clean again and able to approach and worship God once again. The verses afterwards say the poor could offer pigeons or flour instead of a lamb or goat.
Now we know the original meaning of the passage, what are the principles behind it?
The original principles
A principle is a general truth applicable in a variety of situations. For example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a biblical principle (Lev. 19:18). Here we look at what did it teach them about God and humanity? What does it teach about God’s program of salvation?
The principle is that God is holy and when He lives with His people they must keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they fail and become unclean, they must be purified by the sacrifice of an animal offered by a priest.
Now we know the ancient principle behind the passage. But what about us today living a few thousand years later? We need to update the principle.
What has changed since then?
Here we compare between then and now by considering the culture, situation, and time in history. Were God’s people living under a different covenant? Was their situation unique? We also take into account all the scriptures written after the passage because God’s revelation is progressive. Fortunately we see that God and people don’t change throughout history: He is always divine and people are always sinful.
Our time in history, situation, and culture are different to then. We live in a city, not in the wilderness. We are under a different covenant and no longer under the OT law. We haven’t been given these commands to follow. We are not Israelites travelling to Canaan with God living in a tent; we are Christians with God living in us as the Holy Spirit. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Also through Christ we have direct access to God and no longer need priests as mediators. The book of Hebrews describes how the old Jewish system was superseded by the unique priesthood of Christ.
We are not defiled by touching dead animals but by impure thoughts and sinful actions – Jesus said “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them … For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mk. 7:15, 21-23).
Now we know what’s changed since then, what are the principles behind the passage for us today?
The modern principles
What does it teach us about God and humanity? The principle for Christians today is to be holy because the holy God lives within us. This means staying away from sinful actions and impure thoughts. If we fail, then confess the sin and receive forgiveness through the death of Christ.
As God’s people we have accepted that Christ’s sacrificial death was for our sins, and so the penalty for these has already been paid. But sin breaks our fellowship with God. This can only be restored by confessing the sin to God – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
If you haven’t accepted that Christ died for your sins, then you are spiritually dead and lack the power of God, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to engage with God. You miss out on our reason for existence. You are not part of God’s people and this passage doesn’t apply to you.
Now we know the modern principle, how can we put it into practice today?
The modern applications
How should we apply these universal principles? Each principle has many applications according to the different situations people can be in. What do we need to know and do? Let’s think of some real life situations for four areas mentioned previously in Mark 7:21-22: sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander.
Sexual immorality. What about internet pornography? Viewing this is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from pornography because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent of the sin and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.
Greed. The writer of Hebrews commanded, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). Are we content with what we have or do we always want more? Always wanting more is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from greed because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.
Envy. What about when we jealously compare ourselves against others and wish that our life could be more like theirs? Envy is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.
Slander. What about when we put someone else down or spoil their reputation? Slander and gossip is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.
We have applied this passage to sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander. What are the sins in your life that defile you and hinder your prayer and worship and fellowship with God? Let’s apply this principle to them as well.
What are the Lessons for us?
The Bible was written for common people like us. It is not difficult to understand. It doesn’t have hidden or secret meanings.
The Bible is not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress where the more significant meaning is not the literal one but is hidden and you need to understand the symbols to decode the allegorical meaning. In the few passages where there is allegory, this is explained in the text. For example, Paul said that Hagar represented the old Jewish covenant made at Mount Sinai and Sarah the new covenant (Gal. 4:24-26). So don’t spiritualize everything in the Bible. Instead, let’s use the principles behind the biblical text to understand the Bible. See in the diagram how they help us move from the ancient meaning to the modern applications.
So let’s understand God’s message in the Bible by finding the original meaning, and then the principles behind this, and updating them according to what has changed since then, and applying these modern principles in our daily lives. This is important because God wants us to understand His message and to use it for godly living.
Reference: J S Duvall & J D Hays (2012) “Grasping God’s word”, Zondervan.
Written, June 2014
Also see: The best way to live