How to Study the Bible, Part 2
My wife and I experienced the ultimate long-distance dating relationship. We literally lived 7,000 miles apart. To communicate, we wrote letters. It was great; nothing brightened my day more than finding a letter in my mailbox. I devoured every word of those letters. I’d like to think she did the same with my letters, but she isn’t as sentimental as I am. 🙂
Imagine that I took a passage from one of her letters and asked what’s the meaning of this passage to me? For example, she might have said, “This week, it is very warm here. Everything is melting and I think it is the first sign of spring. Oh, how I love spring!”
I could say, Hmm, to me that means that winter is cold and uncaring and without hope. It is symbolic of death and evil. Spring is symbolic of life – of all that is good. To me, this means that good people love spring and hate winter.
That obviously would entirely miss the point of what she actually said. She was expressing her opinions and anticipation of the coming spring, not using the seasons as an allegory for good and evil or a judgment on people who favor a particular season. The words in her letter don’t take on a new or different or special meaning to me – one that is disconnected from her original intent. She said something and meant something and that is how I should understand her words.
Our job isn’t to decide what a passage means to us. Our job is to discover and grasp what the writer actually meant.
The Bible is no different. The writers meant something when they penned it. Our job isn’t to decide what a passage means to us. Our job is to discover and grasp what the writer actually meant. Ultimately, since the Bible is inspired, we are trying to determine what God means by any given passage.
So how do we do that? Last week, Kristen Huls walked us through the first step: observation (click here to read that post). The question answered by observation is what does the text say? She made 10 observations about Hebrews 3:12-14. Among those, she observed that: 1) this passage was written to Christians. 2) The writer sees unbelief as a real and urgent danger for Christians. And 3) that verse 14 serves as a supporting reason for the concern in the passage.
Interpretation: What the text means.
Our next task is to grasp what the text means. We call this interpretation, and the main task in interpretation is to carefully consider our observations so that we can understand 1) how all the parts fit together, see 2) the logic of the argument, and identify 3) the main idea. So let’s do that, still using Hebrews 3:12-14 as an example.
From the observations, I can tell that this passage is a warning to Christians that evil unbelief poses a significant threat. So the occasion of this passage, which we can discern directly from this passage (but also from the wider context) is the danger that unbelief poses to Christians. A Christian can become hardened [to God] through the “deceitfulness of sin”. And the writer urges action in response to this danger (v.12a and 13), and then he gives a supporting reason for urgently taking action (v.14).
Action: The action the author urges is to “take care”. And then, in verse 13, he gets specific as to what that care looks like: exhort one another every day. Thus (and this is when we get interpretive), we can see that carefully and urgently exhorting one another every day is a way to guard against the danger of unbelief.
Supporting Reason: Then he gives a supporting reason (and we know it is a supporting reason because of Kristen’s 9th observation – the word for) in verse 14: for we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As Kristen also observed, this functions like an if/then statement. The if part is: if we hold our original confidence firm to the end. And the then part is: we have come to share in Christ.
That clearly implies that if we stop holding our original confidence before the end then we have not (at the present time) come to share in Christ. So the way we demonstrate a genuine share in Christ now is perseverance in our original confidence (the gospel) to the end. That really makes the danger of unbelief apparent!
So let’s put those pieces together and state the main idea of Hebrews 3:12-14. Because of the real and present danger that unbelief poses to Christians, the writer of Hebrews urges Christians to exhort one another every day in order to help each other continue holding on to our original confidence, and thereby show that we have truly shared in Christ.
So clearly, we can see here that a means of Christian perseverance is Christian exhortation. Wow!
In the next post, we will answer the final question: how do I respond? Stay tuned!