As a pastor, it’s just sort of expected that I know the Bible really well. When I started taking seminary classes, an acquaintance of mine said, “That can’t be too hard, you only have to study one book.”
While I took his comment as a good-natured attempt at humour, I think it also illustrates a common sentiment in Western society. The idea is that the meaning of the Bible is fairly obvious and so long as you read it, and perhaps even memorize the best parts, you will grasp its meaning.
This sets people up for two different, yet related hazards. The first is that when they read the Bible, they only look for the surface-level meaning. For sure, the Bible contains lots of straightforward moral exhortations, in the vein of “It’s bad to lie, cheat and steal.”
And the Bible makes great fodder for children’s stories, because there’s usually a simple and unassailable lesson to be learned, such as “Patience is rewarded.”
But a person can easily end up thinking that that’s all the Bible contains. They don’t see the complexities and the nuances of the written text because they’re not looking for them.
The second hazard is that people just don’t read the Bible because they assume they already know what it means. This is common among people who went to church as children, and perhaps sat through countless Sunday School classes, but who no longer attend church regularly.
They can recall the pleasant (or not-so-pleasant) lessons they internalized as children, or the abbreviated notes they’ve picked up from TV shows, movies, and other pop culture renderings of Christianity, and project those simplified pieces of wisdom onto their current circumstances. While that might or might not prove helpful, it misses an important step, which is to actually seek God’s will for their lives.
Avoiding these hazards takes humility. We must admit what we don’t know. This is often easier for people who have no background in the church. If they decide to explore Christianity, they’ll have fewer assumptions that need to be revisited. But for people who are just familiar enough with the Bible to think they know what it means, it takes a degree of humility to recognize that their “knowledge” of the Bible only scratches the surface.
When a person approaches the Bible with appropriate humility, they’ll find that the meaning of the Bible goes much deeper than they had ever expected.
For sure, it takes effort to read a passage from the Bible and contemplate what it says, how it relates to the rest of the Bible, how it would have been seen in its original historical and social context, and what it means for us today.
But this contemplation leads to a deeper understanding of God’s character and of His purposes in the world. It’s actually quite a challenge to grasp the meaning of the Bible, but a commitment to study it in all its depth and complexity unlocks a richer and more meaningful life.