Any serious approach to Bible study must be founded on this value: a respect for the Bible and the intent of its authors. This is not something we can assume, because any of us may pick up the Bible, turn to the section we are reading, let the words bounce on the kindling of our minds like sparks, hoping that a nice little fire will start. This is the easy way, treating the words of Scripture almost like magic or like a secret code. But what Scripture offers is far more profound and life-changing. It is based on the intended meaning of the human authors and of God.
The truth of the word of God has been passed on to us through the story and the teachings of God’s chosen spokespeople. Whether we are looking at historical narratives, or wisdom teaching, or prophecy, or gospels, or epistles, the words were written down by people inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. These people were not merely keyboards. The prophets and apostles did not sin around until words popped into their heads and then they wrote them down. They had a true intent which was to deliver the urgent messages of the truth of God to their audiences. Directly. Clearly. Deeply.
So our study of the Bible all these centuries later includes a reverence for the Bible as the word of the living God which has been transmitted through the words (and the lives, experiences, and commitments) of the biblical authors.
So it works like this. You’re studying 1 Corinthians. You see in the opening words who wrote it, to whom he wrote it, and the occasion for him writing it. As you study along and come upon so many issues: marriage, divorce, morality, church leadership, spiritual gifts, social relationships, you continually ask yourself, “What did the Apostle Paul mean by this?” “Why did he raise that issue?” “What are the believers in Corinth asking him?” “What did he want to happen among them?” “What did Paul intend for them to understand his words to mean for them?”
Some of the answers come easily, right out of the text. Others require deeper study. But our attitude as Bible students throughout must first be “what did this author mean in writing these particular words to that particular audience at that particular time?” We do not ask “what does this mean to me?” because, as has often been pointed out, the Bible can never mean what it never meant. In other words, we have to focus on the original meaning first. And that has to do with the intent of the author.
In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul intended to correct serious problems in a Christian community situated in a very immoral culture. In Jeremiah the prophet was warning God’s people to return to faith and commitment to God. Acts is the intentional work of a man named Luke to lay down an orderly account of what had happened after the ministry of Jesus, following on his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus in the Gospel we call Luke. The Psalms are patterns for worship and prayer. Proverbs is an intentional set of guidelines for living a wise life and avoiding foolishness in all its forms.
And so it goes, biblical book by biblical book. Dozens of authors. Locations spread around the whole Mediterranean world and the empires of Mesopotamia. Audiences that included true believers, lapsed followers, and people disconnected from God.
It is a privilege of study this word. It does take work and awareness. It takes a careful, listening ear. But that is where respect happens.
When we find out “what it meant” at the time it was written, then we can move on to “what it means” in terms of timeless principles. And then, and only then, can we ask, “how does it apply to our lives today”? If we respect the text by respecting both God and the authors of Scripture we will find substance and power, which a superficial reading of Scripture will never yield.