What does it mean? Thoughts on understanding the Bible.

Acts 8: 26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

When I was practicing law, I represented doctors who were sued for medical malpractice.

Often my clients were sued for not obtaining “informed consent” from a patient before performing a medical procedure on that patient.

What is informed consent?

It goes like this.

A doctor is not allowed to perform an invasive procedure on a patient until the doctor has told the patient what the procedure is, its risks and potential complications, as well as any alternative treatments and their risks and potential complications, and also the risks and potential complications of doing nothing at all.

Then the patient decides if the patient will have the procedure.

But here is the problem.

When the doctor tells the patient all this, does the patient have any idea what the doctor is actually saying?

Here is what Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D. and Timothy D. Gilligan, M.D. said in a New York Times OP/ED piece about a typical informed consent conversation.

Us: Blah blah blah.

You, as the patient, nod, and look like you’re paying close attention.

Us: Did you understand everything we said?

You: Yes.

Us: Any questions?

You: No.

A fundamental challenge with this process is that it is often unrealistic to think that you actually could be fully informed of what you’re about to undergo.


… If your doctor says that you’ll end up with a “simple iliac ileal conduit” or a “urostomy,” [you should] feel free to say “I don’t understand those words. Can you explain what that means?”

You see, the problem is we can’t understand the doctors because we are not doctors.

We don’t understand the jargon.

And our doctors are not often trained to put what they are telling us in laymen’s terms.

So we don’t understand what they are saying (which we are afraid to admit), but they think we do.

Which is why Sekeres and Gilligan recommend you ask for the doctors to tell you what the words they are using mean.

Make sure you understand before you commit.

This problem is not limited to doctors.

It happens whenever someone uses jargon to explain something to someone unfamiliar with the language.

The Ethiopian had this problem in our scripture reading.

Isaiah wrote something, but the Ethiopian had no idea what it meant.

That is why Philip had to explain it to the Ethiopian.

As disciples of Jesus, if we are called to talk about what the Bible says, we had better know what we are talking about.

But if we are going to do what Philip did, we better know not just what the Bible says, but what it means, right?

But that is not always the case.

When I was in Vietnam this past Monday, I was part of a group who were to talk to a group of church leaders about how to understand the Bible.

Most of the church leaders in this community were not trained in Biblical interpretation and for the most part only knew a few Bible memes.

Proof texts we call them.

Individual verses used as scriptural rules without explanation or context.

So I asked them what they told people about what being a Christian meant.

They all looked in their Bibles and found a verse from Mark.

We are to love God and love our neighbor.

Good enough.

Then I asked them what that meant.

What does it mean to love God?

To them it meant going to worship on Sunday.

What does it mean to love neighbor?

To them it meant to tell them about Jesus.

When I asked if there was anything else, one man said that we are to give to the poor.

Good enough.

What else?


Most did not understand what their words, taken from the Bible, meant.

So how could they teach?

So I took them to Matthew 25: 31- 46 and told them about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the strangers, visiting the prisoners, caring for the sick.

I told them that each of those acts demonstrates a love for Jesus and a love for neighbor.

That is what it means to love God and neighbor.

It put Jesus’ words in context.

And so the concepts of loving God and loving neighbor were easier to understand and explain.

The problem is that a two-hour lesson on just that is not enough.

They need education.

And there is not a lot of hope they will get it.

So their house churches are not growing.

Certainly not thriving.

All this made me start to wonder if this might be a problem in the church in the USA.

Do we have the same lack of Biblical understanding as these Vietnamese church leaders?

If you were to tell someone what is required to be a disciple of Jesus, what would you say?

What Bible verse would you use and how would you explain what it meant?

Should be easy, right?

Peter Gomes, the late Chaplain at Harvard University said this in his book, The Good Book.

“The Bible says what it means and means what it says.” This is a popular defense of the authority of scripture, and it is as dangerous and wrong as it is simple and memorable. … We can certainly say that the Bible says what it means, but that presupposes that we know what it says, and, as well, that we understand what it means when it says it.

This is a very good point.

Which takes me back to the first week in Vietnam.

I was teaching Bible School students and recent graduates what it means to be “Presbyterian”.

Part of those lessons were about the reformation and the impact it had on how scripture is interpreted.

It is not a simple task.

Until the Reformation, scripture was interpreted exclusively by the church hierarchy – popes and bishops sitting in councils.

Why was interpretation of the Bible so carefully guarded?

Because it was the Word of God.

Its interpretation had immense consequences.

The interpreter could manipulate those consequences, claiming it was God’s will.

Entire populations of Christians could be controlled.

That was even one of the themes in the movie Book of Eli.

Set in a post apocalyptic United States, all books have been lost and very few people can read.

The evil “Carnegie” wants to get his hands on a Bible.


Carnegie explains it to one of his henchmen in this way:

IT’S NOT A … BOOK! IT’S A WEAPON. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small … town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.

Because of such attitudes the reformers thought it important to put the Bible into the hands of the common people.

They could read the text for themselves and challenge the people who were trying to use it merely to exercise power over them.

But with individual interpretation comes the danger of anarchy.

If anyone could interpret scripture, there might be as many interpretations as there are people.

Each person thinking their particular interpretation is correct.

Not recognizing the possibility that they are all wrong.

Gomes, and many others, says such a situation is dangerous business.

He puts it this way:

… [M]eaning is determined by what the reader takes out of the text, and this meaning the reader attributes to the author. Thus, what the reader thinks is there becomes not merely the reader’s opinion, but the will of God, with all the moral consequences that that implies.

What the reader brings to the text in the form of cultural and personal ideology is always an issue.

I think we need to recognize that we need to be just as inspired in our reading just as the writers needed inspiration in their writing.

And we need to take it seriously.

As Gomes says, “[D]iscerning what God, in the Bible, means for us to hear and to do is a matter of life and death, [so] we must approach interpretation of scripture as we do our own salvation, working it out in fear and trembling.”

So how do we know when we are on the right track?

That brings us back to what it means to be Presbyterian.

Presbyterians vote.

It works like this.

We gather in councils, Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies, and answer questions.

Questions like this:

“What does the church think of this?”

Then we pray and as for the Holy Spirit to give us discernment and incite.

Then we consult the Bible.

What does it say?

What does it mean?

What are its characters?

What are the issues?

Then read the words.

They should make some sense.

They should be consistent with the context of the story.

They we debate.

Then we vote.

Do we get it right?

Who knows?

If we do it might be just by accident.

But we make a decision and know that even if we are wrong, God forgives us because we are trying to do God’s will.

So how do we know if we got it right?

What is the ultimate test?

Look at the fruit.

Let me give you an example.

Before 1955, a woman was not permitted to become a Minster of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church.

In those days, the General Assembly met every year.

In 1930, as I understand it, the General Assembly was asked this question:

Should women be ordained as Minsters of Word and Sacrament?

The GA answered, no.

The same question was brought up 24 more times in consecutive GAs.

23 times the answer was again, no.

Then in 1955, the answer was, yes!

We kept voting on it because we wanted to be sure we were right.

Were we?

Look at the fruit.

Have women in ministry benefited the church?

Have women in ministry moved the church forward?

Have women in ministry helped the church to thrive?

You bet.

So we must have been right.

But to get to that point, we had to understand the Bible.

We had to know what it means.

And we still need to.

Which is why we all need to study the Bible.

And we need to do it in the way we do at GA.

In community.

Reading the Bible from cover to cover in 1994 with a community of folks at church changed my thinking on many things.

It changed my life.

It ultimately brought me here.

That is why we have Bible studies is important here at JMPC.

We have three such opportunities here currently.

ABCs of the Bible meets Sunday mornings.

Brown Bag Bible study meets every first and third Wednesday.

The John Covenant Group meets on Wednesday mornings.

But we need to have more.

Sermons are a good way to hear about the Bible, but 20 minutes every Sunday is not enough.

We need to read this book and apply it to our lives.

And we need to understand what it means.

And how to put it into practice in our lives.

We need to be Bible students.

Are you in a Bible study?

Be careful.

It will change your life.

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