Can We Understand the Bible?
Why this article?
Have you ever opened your Bible, studied it, meditated upon it, and walked away more puzzled than you started? Have you ever entered a discussion with a fellow believer, at first convicted within yourself, and yet walked away after hours of joint study, wondering if the Bible can be understood by anyone, much less alike? Such experiences can be discouraging, can they not? How should we react to these trying cases that test our faith? Sadly, a sense of doubt and despair may creep into our thoughts, which manifests itself as a subtle reluctance to seriously study the Bible for ourselves. More frequently it appears as an extreme reluctance to engage anyone else with substantially differing beliefs. Even if such studies are stiffly accepted, they often begin with an unspoken, foregone conclusion that the effort will be futile. Instead of hopeful determination, impatient prejudice tragically races through such studies, longing only for the predetermined end, while fulfilling its own prophecy. Did God intend us to have this negative reluctance to engage God’s Word and study our differences? Or, did He expect us to study the Bible with the bright expectation of understanding it and even growing in unity? In this article, we will consult God’s Word to learn His expectations rather than reacting to our own experiences and trusting in our own wisdom.
“Who Has Made Man?”
Central to this discussion is a question of faith: Are we abandoned children trying to decipher a forgotten text that has long outlived its original design? Or, did God foresee our current predicament and leave us with the tools necessary to complete our task? We often do not realize all the logical consequences of our initial efforts, but in our push to regard the Bible as an unduly complicated text, possibly incapable of being understood, we are ultimately kicking at God and doubting His ability to communicate. The harder we work to shift the blame from us, the more we shift the blame onto God! Dear reader, you may not have previously considered this perspective, but please understand that we are not the first people to make this mistake. Consider the occasion when Moses sought to escape his responsibility by diminishing his ability to complete God’s work for him:
Then Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” So the LORD said to him, “Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD? Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” (Exodus 4:10-12)
Did you notice God’s response? He took Moses’s doubt personally, as a direct reflection on His ability to equip Moses! Although Moses was reluctant because of his limitations, God saw his reservation as mistrust of God’s empowering command. Likewise, when God tells us to study, read, understand, and engage, but we reject His command with “I cannot,” do we not reflect the same disbelief in God, whether consciously or unconsciously?
“But, Moses was inspired!”, some might say. Yes, Moses was ultimately blessed with direct inspiration that God described as “being with his mouth” and “teaching him what to say”, but is that the only method of communication available to God? Is there no other way He could teach us? If he wanted to communicate with us in some other way, would He not be capable? Who made our brains? Who made our ears? Who made our hearts? Who made the Bible? The same underlying logic still stands. Dare we doubt His design?
Moreover, please notice this encouragement that the Lord offered to Joshua before the Israelite conquest of Canaan:
“No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and of good courage, for to this people you shall divide as an inheritance the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5-9)
This rich, encouraging passage contains a small jewel. Among the many reasons that God offered to bolster Joshua’s courage, He observed that His command is sufficient for full trust! Please stop and let that sink into our hearts. If God has commanded us, we can depend on having whatever is necessary to complete the task! If God commands us, then we can do it! Now, He may provide some or almost all of the ability, but however the contribution is divided, we can be confident that we already possess or can obtain what we need to proceed, to “be strong and of good courage”!
Like Peter who believed he could walk on water if only the Lord would command him, we can confidently trust in God’s foresight, love, and design to enable whatever He wills and commands:
And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31)
How many words of encouragement would you need to trust in the Lord and fulfill His command? Peter only needed one - one word! How admirable! How exemplary! My friends, this is ultimately a question of faith, whether we realize it at first or not. Like Peter, we may begin well, stepping onto the water, walking on it by faith. And, like Peter, the “boisterous winds” of scorn, scoffing, and despair may cause us to be afraid and likewise “begin to sink”. If that occurs, then we need to awaken and recognize our inexcusably weak faith and strengthen it by focusing on Jesus, feeding on God’s Word, and trusting in His promises, because there is no sustaining reason for our doubt (“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”).
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
All people are commanded to “Come ... learn from Me”. Does that not necessarily imply that we can indeed learn about Jesus, which necessarily implies that the Bible is understandable? Since there is no other way given to “learn” of Jesus, we must conclude that the one given way is effective; otherwise, God has commanded us to do what is impossible to do. Furthermore, if we could not read and understand, if we could not come and learn, how could His “yoke be easy” or His “burden be light”?
“When You Read, You Can Understand”
If God has promised that we can understand His written Word, then to deny that possibility is to question the ability of God! This naturally raises the question, “Has God promised us that we can understand His Word?” Or, did He encode His message so dimly that we can never come to a confident understanding of it?
... how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. (Ephesians 3:3-7)
Paul flatly says that when we read what he wrote as an apostle, we can understand! Is this true? Do we believe it? Or, has doubt consumed us? Paul also stated that the gospel represents the “effective working of His power” (see also, Romans 1:16). If we cannot read and understand, then how is it effective in any meaningful way? Dear friend, when we challenge the ability to read and understand God’s Word, we necessarily challenge God’s Word and Him, because He said that we can!
For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Clearly, whatever God designed His Word to accomplish it not only can, but it will accomplish. Therefore, if we insist that it cannot be understood, please take warning. It may be that it already has succeeded in us but not in the way we would anticipate or overtly want (Matthew 13:9-16; James 4:6-8)!
Thus far, we have shown that God expects us to read and understand His Word, but to what extent? Yes, God revealed His will that we may thereby “read and understand”, but did He limit what was revealed? Is our understanding limited by His design? Did He omit something that we need to know? We have already seen that it is “effective ... that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ”, so we know it is sufficient unto salvation for all, but can we use it to identify His will for us beyond conversion? Can we use it to resolve spiritual questions between each other?
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3:16-17)
Again, the inspired apostle directly informs us that the Scripture is sufficient for “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness”. This means it is not only sufficient for our own understanding, growth, and salvation, but it is also effective and good for teaching others, thereby “indoctrinating” them! What if one of us is in error? Then, “all Scripture” is good for “reproof”, meaning to prove, rebuke, and convict! (This is the same intense Greek word required of elders, “be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict, Titus 1:9.) What if one of us has grown discouraged or drifted away? Then, “all Scripture” is good for “correction”, meaning to restore to a state of uprightness. And, what if one of us is failing in some other category? Then, “all Scripture” is good for “instruction in righteousness”, providing development and training of our whole character! What more could we ask of God’s Word to provide? What question, concern, or disagreement could we not settle without “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness”? Therefore, if Scripture “is profitable” for these needs, and we have no spiritual need beyond these, then it is sufficient for every need in fully understanding God’s Word alike!
Insistent, we might doubt that it contains everything we need to know, but again the inspired apostle states that by this revelation, we may “be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”. Whatever we need to grow to maturity, whatever good deed may need to be performed, God’s Word can equip us to do it! Do we believe it?
Obviously, the Bible does not contain everything that man might like to know about every topic in the world, but it does contain all we need to know:
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (II Peter 1:2-4)
Does our question, concern, or disagreement “pertain to life and godliness”? If so, then we are again assured that it has been been given to us! Even to the extent that we “may be partakers of the divine nature, it has been given to us. What more do we need? If you become “partaker of the divine nature, and if I become “partaker of the divine nature ... “through the knowledge of Him”, will we have not only understood God’s Word but also alike? If the Bible “is profitable” for this level of maturity among many brethren, then it must be understandable and by all alike.
“Hard to Understand”
Thus far, we have seen that all we need to know for salvation, godly life, correction, and even rebuke is contained in God’s revealed and inspired Word. We have also been assured that when we read, we can understand. But, how quickly may we understand? Are all passages equal in ready comprehension? No, Peter clearly tells us by inspiration that some passages are harder to understand:
... consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation — as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen. (II Peter 3:15-18)
Yes, some passages are “hard to understand”. Both our own experience and Scripture tells us this! However, does this release us from striving to understanding? Does this release us from ultimately understanding? Should these “hard to understand” passages always loom before us as unconquerable conundrums? May we never accept it so! Beyond Peter’s admission, he also forewarns that some people will “twist” these “hard to understand” passages “to their own destruction”. Therefore, God does not give us a free pass on these “hard to understand” passages. He expects us to put forth the effort required to ultimately understand them, warning that failure may result in our “destruction”!
Does God demand of us what we cannot do? Does God punish where there is no ability or reasonable expectation? Only a cruel and capricious God would punish His creation for performing exactly as it was designed - for His failure! Therefore, if our eternal salvation may hang on our understanding of any passage, we can know that we can ultimately grasp it, regardless of whatever difficulty it may initially present.
Furthermore, those who so “twist to their own destruction” these passages will not rest with perverting the “hard to understand” passages. Eventually, they will wrest the “rest of the Scriptures” as their depravity spirals downward. Please be forewarned as we each look first to himself and then to his brother (Ezra 7:10)!
What is the answer? What is the solution? How are we to obtain what we so desperately need? How will we avoid “being led away with the error of the wicked”? Instead of despairing, we are to take advance notice and prepare ourselves, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. And, how do we grow in such knowledge without turning to the source of such promised knowledge, God’s Word, the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17; Ephesians 3:3-5)? The more we know about God through His Word, the more difficult it becomes to be deceived.
Beyond our separate individual interaction with God through the Bible, the joint spiritual education and instruction of the church is a central component of the church’s mission, to help each other grow to avoid such errors and their destruction:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
One of the greatest tools that God has provided me and you beyond His inspired sufficient Word are you and me! We are all supposed to help each other grow into this marvelous picture, “ the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”! This is God’s design. This is His purpose in both His Word and His church! Do we believe it? Are we being diligent to see it fulfilled? If we are, then as move closer to that complete maturity, we move away from susceptible “children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting”. The key lessons to learn are to first recognize the real danger and to second undertake the measures required to circumvent the danger - to work together to grow in the knowledge of Jesus through His sufficient Word!
As if the previous verses were not sufficient, many have openly doubted if the Bible can be used to truly prove any truth. Beyond the empty cries, “You can prove anything by Scripture!”, the cry has arisen that even after careful handling the Bible is insufficient to prove God’s will for us. The lament has been heard that there are too many competing confusing passages, which provide too much unresolvable “tension”. But, is this case? Or, can we use the Bible to determine God’s will accurately? Can we really use the Bible to persuade and convict each other of the truth? What was His expectation? Logically, it has already been shown that we can prove truth from the Scripture, simply because God insisted that we can and should. However, how did Jesus and His apostles use the Scriptures? What was their expectation? What can we learn from their examples?
The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying: “Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were with us seven brothers. The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother. Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her.” Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. (Matthew 22:23-33)
Notice the reaction of the listening crowd. Clearly, Jesus’ grasp of Scripture was extraordinary and astonishing, although that should be no wonder to us. In a few sentences, with one observation and one passage He definitively proved that there must be a resurrection as “spoken by God”. Elsewhere we examined the precise use of logic employed by Jesus here, so please focus here on His expectation, “Have you not read?”. Although Jesus’ power of observation is demonstrated in a staggering fashion in this context, He still expected them to have noticed and concluded the same! What Jesus did that day was not removed from those Sadducees. If the hypocritical, wicked Sadducees who would ultimately participate in the crucifixion of Jesus were expected to understand God’s Word, why would we expect God’s expectation for us, who desire God’s mind, to be less?
Some may argue that this application is overblown, that there are multitude of passages that prove the resurrection, and that Jesus did not really prove His point by this one verse. What does the Scripture say?
“But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ (Luke 20:37)
“But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. “You are therefore greatly mistaken.” (Mark 12:26-27)
Although there may be many passages in Old Testament Scripture, which imply a resurrection, Jesus flatly stated that the “burning bush passage ... showed” the point! What greater justification can we find of rightful “proof-texting” than Jesus’ demonstration? Can “proof-texting” be abused? Yes, too frequently it is, but the abuse by some - maybe even by most - does not eliminate its need and place any more than the failing of any “Christian” discredits Christianity or Christ! This is one of the key areas where we help each other, by challenging each other’s usage of Scripture. Is it any wonder we fail to understand, when we place ourselves beyond such confrontation and openess to challenge?
Again, although stunning we must not stagger at Jesus’ feat, because this ability is also expected of us, lest we also be “therefore greatly mistaken”. God has issued us a challenge and expectation? Why do we doubt Him?
(For more demonstrations of Jesus and inspired writers wielding Scripture with remarkable precision, while leading us by example, please see: Do Silence of Scriptures Prohibit or Permit?, An Introduction to Bible Silence, and The Sin and Danger of Presumption.)
“That Your Joy May Be Full”
Do you want to have fellowship with God, the Father? Do you want to have fellowship with His Son, Jesus, the source of eternal life? I sure do! Like the Ehtiopian we may ask, “What hinders me?” (Acts 8:35-36).
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (I John 1:1-4)
Disappointingly, we do not have direct fellowship with God and His Son. That is, we cannot directly experience Jesus through our senses. We cannot see Him, gaze steadfastly upon Him, or touch Him. However, His apostles serve as witnesses for us. They experienced Jesus in a close proximity that excites the jealousy of any fervent Christian. Their writings, the Scriptures, reveal that we can still have fellowship with God and His Son through them, specifically through their writings! My dear friends, if we desire to ultimately enjoy eternal life in that heavenly abode with our perfect Father, His Son, and the Spirit, we must “fellowship” Jesus’s apostles and prophets, which we must do through their writings. If we reject the that the Scriptures are sufficient to “make our joy full”, then we leave ourselves in hopeless, hapless misery without any recourse or opportunity for fellowship with God! When we dismantle our confidence in understanding God’s Word upon any topic, we dismantle it on every topic, including those that bring confidence, joy, and comfort!
Therefore comfort one another with these words. (I Thessalonians 4:18)
In years gone by, “The Sufficiency of Scripture” was a common sermon title, but it seems less popular in our post-modern liberal age, which wants to deny any absolute truth, except that there is no absolute truth. It seems to this writer that worldly faithless thinking has continued to press upon the Lord’s people and crept into the minds, speech, teaching, and agenda of some. Maybe it is high time to dust off some of those old sermons? Please be on guard and beware those who want to throw just enough dust in the air - who want to muddy the waters just enough to eliminate any hope of confidently understanding Scripture. With whatever doubt they employ to blur the lines of fellowship to embrace a few, they will inevitably embrace all, because such is the unprincipled end of compromise. It is just a matter of time. But, God will not compromise:
If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself. Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. (II Timothy 2:12-16)
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (I Corinthians 1:10)
We have been given a charge to keep, which comes with a promise of empowerment. Do we believe it? Will we keep it? Or, will we despair? The prospects can be frightening, intimidating, and almost unbelievable. Experiences, scoffing, and sin may discourage us. But, if we keep our eye fixed on Jesus and the hope of His empowering command, “when we read, we can understand”. Are you ready to step out of the boat onto the water and go to Jesus? He commands you, “Come.”
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