This past Sunday, while preaching from 2 Peter 1:19-2:4, I said about the Bible, “It can only mean what it meant.” Based on the encouraging response to the message, I want to expand on this thought.
The Bible is God’s Word, completely without error. I’ve heard countless sermons being with, “Turn in God’s inerrant, inspired, infallible Word to . . .” This phrase acknowledges that the Bible is different than any other book. But, it is still a book—a perfect book, but a book.
Authors write with an audience and purpose in mind. The biblical writers are no different. Paul wrote his epistles to particular churches for specific reasons. Moses wrote for the generation wandering in the wilderness. John wrote his Gospel evangelistically. These books didn’t float down from Heaven. They were written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. Certainly God is the ultimate author of Scripture, but He used men to produce His Word.
Since God’s Word was written by people to people, then we must interpret and apply the Scripture based on the rules of human communication. The key to understanding the Bible is authorial intent. What was Paul’s intended meaning in Romans 8:28-30? Why did Mark provide a detail in a story that Matthew and Luke did not? These types of questions are crucial to understanding the Bible. Without understanding, we can’t obey and apply God’s Word. If we can’t do those things, then our sanctification short circuits.
We inherently understand the importance of authorial intent in other forms of written communication, but easily neglect it in our Bible study. How chaotic would the world be if we decided the meaning of laws for ourselves, instead of following the legal intention? We can use our feelings to interpret tax laws, but the IRS will use the law’s intended meaning to come after our bank accounts. No amount of “peace about it from God” will get us off the hook.
Since Scripture is written with a purpose, we cannot make the Bible mean what we want. It can only mean what it meant. That meaning has many applications, but the author’s intent doesn’t change. We have to understand what the author meant to understand how the text applies.
We have to know certain facts to be able to interpret a text. First, we need to identify the author and audience. Second, we need to understand the circumstances that prompted the writing of the book. Third, we must pay attention to our passage’s context.
Don’t be intimated thinking that you will never be able to understand the Bible. Seminary or Bible College aren’t required to know the Word. A good study Bible will provide the needed background material.
Most importantly, we must approach Scripture knowing that each author wrote for a specific purpose. When we do this, the Bible comes alive because it is rooted in real people and events. This assumption will allow you to put yourself into their shoes, hear what God said to them, and see how that word applies to you.