Learn a Secret Skill of Pastors to Help Understand the Bible

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 04/23/2013

Alan’s monthly letter for April 2011

Dear Friend,

Do you want to learn the skills taught at seminary without the time, money, and energy spent on going to graduate school? Sorry, that’s not possible, but how about learning just one of those skills? You can learn a skill that pastors use to help them understand the Word of God in the time it takes to read this letter. Sound impossible? Not at all! Sit down, buckle up, and get ready to be seminary-ized.

Imagine I’m at a party and my eavesdropping friend overhears me say to my brother that I was building a little butterfly at home. Since my friend has kids like me, he assumes I was making a craft with my four-year old daughter. But he would be wrong. What I was doing was planning an investment strategy in the stock market (a “butterfly” is the name of a specific trade).

My friend misunderstood what I said for two context-related reasons. The first was because he missed the context—he didn’t hear my conversation with my brother from start to finish. Instead, he heard just the one sentence about building a butterfly. Had he heard the whole conversation, he would have heard me talk about my IRA, my retirement, and different strategies in the stock market. It would have been inconceivable to conclude I was talking about my daughter’s craft. Why? Because the context surrounding my butterfly sentence would rule out that possibility. Context, more than anything, drives the meaning of an individual sentence.

The second reason was that he used his own context. My friend was using his own context—about his life and his daughter—and imposing that on my conversation. As a result, my sentence about building a butterfly was understood in light of his own context and not the context of my conversation. But mistaking the meaning of my words is not as significant as mistaking God’s.

Take, for example, Matthew 18:20 which says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” It’s common to quote this verse at Bible studies where two or more believers are present to affirm that God is among them. But remember my friend who didn’t hear the context of my conversation, but instead used his own context to drive the meaning of my phrase, “building a little butterfly”? The same mistake is being made here.

When you read the context surrounding Jesus’ words (Matthew 18:15–22), you discover what Jesus was talking about.

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.... Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Jesus begins and ends by talking about how to respond to a sinning brother. Therefore, the meaning of verse 20 must be restricted to that context, making it unlikely that it is about God being present among believers. Instead, Jesus is explaining the conditions that are necessary to render a judgment against a sinful brother (thereby kicking him out of the church). Two or three believers must agree about his sin. When they do, their testimony is ratified by their Father in heaven (“there am I with them.”) on the basis of the church’s judgment (the two or three believers). Now, verse 20 makes sense because we understand it in light of the context created by the Holy Spirit. It’s about church discipline.

Ignoring the context created by the inspired words in scripture is one way to miss the meaning of a passage. But that mistake is compounded by an additional error. If a group of believers at a Bible study cites Matthew 18:20, then their 21st century experience creates a context that is foreign to the passage. Not only does it overwrite the inspired context of the Holy Spirit, it also alters what the verse means.

Biblical context + verse = correct meaning as intended by the Holy Spirit

Our own context + verse = incorrect meaning created through our own experience

Reading a Bible verse without reading the entire passage creates a context vacuum that is filled with our own experience. By reading the biblical context, we allow the Holy Spirit’s inspired words to “guide our understanding of scripture”.

And guess what specialized, complex, and secret seminary skill is necessary to determine the Holy Spirit’s context? Sit down for this...reading. That’s right. It takes the basic skill of reading to avoid the most common interpretive errors. That’s why I teach, “Never Read a Bible Verse.” I believe we should always read a paragraph, chapter, or the whole book. That way you won’t miss what the Holy Spirit intended to say. And you’ll be transformed, not by your own thoughts, but by God’s. That creates a knowledgeable ambassador for Christ.

Transformed by His Truth,

Alan Shlemon