Read the Book Articles Poems Buy the Book Contact Us

Chapter 4

Reading and
Understanding Scripture

“Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law.” (Psalm 119:18)
Table of

Much has been written on this.14 I want simply to give a few ideas that I have found helpful. If what I say seems simplistic to some, it is because I am trying to make my meaning very easily understood.

Working with Scripture involves three steps: Observation, Interpretation and Application.

Observation means noticing everything in the text and its context. This can include the meaning of the words used; the grammatical, logical and literary structure; the persons to whom the text was addressed; the characters involved and their relationship; the social and historical setting; the kind of writing involved; and much more. The more carefully we observe all these things, the better we will be able to proceed to the next two steps.

Interpretation asks, “What does it mean?” “What is the author saying to us?”

Application asks, “What do I need to do about it in my own life?” This is the point to which the first two steps lead. We do not really understand anything until we have applied it to our own life and experience. I find that it is as I try to live by Scripture, try to follow its guidance, and try to do what it calls on me to do in my life, that my faith in God grows, my understanding of Scripture deepens, and my confidence in the reliability of Scripture increases.

In this chapter, I shall touch on some aspects of observation and interpretation. Most of the rest of this book deals with issues of application.


There are many ways to read Scripture. The most important thing is to read it. Find a dependable translation you can understand and are comfortable with. (See Chapter 2.) Some grew up with the King James Version and like to use it; I prefer a modern translation because I find it easier, with contemporary language, to see how the Bible applies to my life.

Sometimes I like to read large chunks of Scripture at a time, to get a sense of the overview, the continuity. Sometimes I will spend a lot of time on one or a few verses. Martin Luther said that in Scripture every daisy becomes a meadow, and I have often found that to be so. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will call a passage to mind and I will keep reading it or thinking about it day after day. Some people like to sing or listen to songs based on Scripture and let the words sink in. Some like to listen to tapes in which Scripture is read aloud.

I like to read Scripture out loud with my family. We discuss it, look up cross-relationships with other passages of Scripture and read those other passages, etc. Sometimes we pray a passage through, putting it into the first person and applying it to our lives. We especially like to do this with such passages as the marvelous prayers in Ephesians (chapters 1 and 3) and Colossians (chapter 1).

There are times when it is good to read Scripture in a disciplined way, to set yourself a program for reading through the whole Bible in a certain period of time, for example. There are also times when it is good to feel free to go wherever you feel led to go. There are no set formulas. I would strongly caution you, however, not to confine your reading to a few favorite or familiar passages. We need to become familiar with the whole counsel of Scripture. Work through some of the difficult or unfamiliar passages. Don’t just stay with the familiar and comfortable.

Some like to use a commentary or guide in reading Scripture. I will use various secondary sources when needed, but I generally prefer to let the words of Scripture speak for themselves. It’s a matter of choice.

I enjoy seeing how different passages of Scripture fit together. For example, compare the following: Deuteronomy 4:29 (about 1350 B.C.); Psalm 9:10 (about 1000 B.C.); Jeremiah 29:13 (about 600 B.C.); Matthew 7:7-8 (spoken about 30 A.D.); and James 4:8 (about 45 A.D.). I delight to see how, over a period of almost 1,400 years, five different human writers, all led by the Holy Spirit, are saying essentially the same thing. The margins of my Bible are full of this kind of cross-reference.

I enjoy doing word studies—seeing how the same word is used in different passages in Scripture. Anyone can do these with a good Concordance; with today’s computer programs they are easy to do. I find they can give you a much more detailed sense of the meaning of particular words in Scripture.

The important thing, however, is that with Scripture you don’t just want to read it. You want to immerse yourself in it, let it sink in to your very being, let it change your attitudes and the way you think, let it transform you, let it challenge you and convict you. Sometimes you want to let it really bother you.

It is a good idea, whenever you take up the Scriptures, to ask the Holy Spirit to show you what he wants to show you. When you do this, you may find that certain words seem to jump off the page at you!

Sometimes, in reading Scripture, I come across something I just don’t understand. I may want to dig into it then, look up definitions of words, consult a commentary or other source, talk to a mature Christian about it, etc. Quite often, however, I find that if I just put the question aside and go on trying to apply what I do understand, then when I come back to the passage a few months or years later, after having worked with other portions of Scripture, the difficulty seems to have disappeared. My sense is that there will always be passages in Scripture that I don’t understand, and I don’t want to let them distract me from working with what I do understand. I like the comment (I think it was by Mark Twain), “It isn’t the parts of Scripture I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the ones I do understand.” Being able to change our lives by what is clear in Scripture is more important, and usually more difficult, than unraveling every obscurity.

We also need to remember that we don’t just understand Scripture with our mind, but with our heart. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us real understanding. (See 1 Corinthians 2:14-15.) It is good to approach Scripture with a prayer, “Lord, give me understanding” (Psalm 119:73).

The most important thing is the attitude with which we come to Scripture. Scripture can do much for us, as I have pointed out in the previous chapter. But it can do these things only if we come to it in a spirit of humility and of seeking. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). I understand that the tense of the Greek verbs means “keep on asking,” “keep on seeking,” “keep on knocking.” Jesus expects us to persevere. “Men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). James says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).

If we approach Scripture in a spirit of humility and seeking, it will be a “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), it will change us, it will do all the things I have talked about in the previous chapter. I try to come to Scripture asking God to “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts” (Psalm 139:23 KJV). I ask, “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18). Our spirit in coming to the Scriptures should be that which Paul expressed in Ephesians 1:17-18 (NIV): “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…” If we approach Scripture in that spirit, there is no limit to what we can get from it. God “…is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV). “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Psalm 119 is a wonderful Psalm about God’s word. Its author wrote, “O how I love Your law!” (verse 97). (Also see verse 163.) “I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love” (verse 47). God’s words “are the rejoicing of my heart” (verse 111). “Great peace have those who love Your law” (verse 165). “I love Your commandments more than gold, yes, than fine gold” (verse 127). (Also see Psalm 19:10.) My experience, and that of others I know, tells me that if we come to Scripture with the right attitude of humility and searching, we shall find all these and more in it.


It is sometimes said that there is only one interpretation of Scripture, but many applications. If this is so, why do so many committed Christians, who know their Bible well, differ so often in their interpretations? My experience is that, in interpreting a verse or passage, there often are some arguments pointing one way and other arguments pointing another way, and I have to weigh them and see which seem to me the weightier and more reasonable. Words are often capable of more that one meaning. You may have observations that pull in more than one direction. Different principles of interpretation may pull in different directions.

Let me give one example by way of illustration.

In Romans 7:14-25, Paul talks of warfare inside him between God’s law and his sinful desires. Is he speaking of a time before he was saved, or after? It makes quite a difference in how you understand and apply the passage. Because it is written in the present tense, and appears between chapters 6 and 8 of Romans, I believe it is talking of a time after he was saved. I see it as an illustration of the inner conflict (also referred to in Galatians 5:17) that occurs between the Holy Spirit and our fleshly desires after we have been saved and have received the Holy Spirit. (See Chapter 15.) But I can understand how some people, whom I respect, could think that Paul is speaking of a time before he was saved. I am convinced by my interpretation, but I don’t think the issue is proved beyond a doubt. We must, as in many issues of life, go with what, on balance, seems most likely.

A great deal has been written about how to interpret Scripture. It has a scholarly term—hermeneutics—and courses are given in it. Let me suggest, in very simple terms, a few basic principles that I have found helpful.

The Basic Message of Scripture
Is Simple

My starting point is that God intended, by his scripture, to communicate a message that would be understood by ordinary people. He is not communicating in some code that only a few could decipher. He is not just talking to experts and theologians. He is talking to all of us. John R.W. Stott, British teacher and preacher, puts it this way:

“We may be quite sure, therefore, that He [God] has spoken in order to be understood, and that he has intended Scripture (the record of the divine speech) to be plain to its readers. For the whole purpose of revelation is clarity not confusion, a readily intelligible message, not a set of dark and mysterious riddles… God’s whole purpose in speaking and in causing His speech to be preserved is that He wanted to communicate to ordinary people and save them.”15

I think we should always keep this in mind in our reading and understanding of Scripture. Scripture has some complexities. Translating from the realm of the Spirit to the realm of the material is never easy. But the basic message of the Bible is simple, and we do well to focus on that basic message and not let ourselves be caught up in difficulties of detail.

Take Scripture at Face Value

As with any writing, we start by trying to see what the author intended. Usually this means taking it literally. But there are exceptions to this. For example:

METAPHORS —When Scripture uses metaphors, they should be read as metaphors. Thus Jesus is variously referred to as the lamb of God, the lion of Judah, the light of the world, a stone of stumbling, a cornerstone. Obviously these statements do not mean that Jesus was literally a four-legged beast with wool or a mane, or that he is a lamp burning oil, or that he is made of granite or limestone. They mean that he has some of the qualities of these things to which he is compared.

PARABLES —Jesus often taught in parables. These are not things that actually happened; they are stories he invented to make a point, and are best interpreted by looking at the context to see what point he was making. He showed us how to do this by giving the interpretation of some of his parables.

VIVID LANGUAGE —Sometimes Jesus used very vivid language to make a point. When he said we should cut off a hand or foot or pluck out an eye that causes us to sin (Mark 9:42-48), he was not really telling people to mutilate themselves; he was simply expressing very graphically how essential it is to get rid of sin. There is no example in the Bible where anyone actually mutilated himself in response to this teaching.

KINDS OF WRITING —We need always to look at what kind of writing we are dealing with. Parts of the Bible are poetry. Not everything in poetry is meant to be taken literally. Parts of the Bible are prophecy. Predictive prophecy should not be read as one would read an expository statement.

What we must not do is to read our own preconceptions, or desires, into Scripture. Scripture was written by people living in the Near East during the period of about 1350 B.C. to 95 A.D. Its human authors believed that God does supernatural things. If it says that a miraculous or supernatural event occurred, what right have we to impose our 19 th to 21 st century Western mindsets on it and either seek to find a naturalistic explanation, or interpret the words contrary to their evident intent, or find some plausible or implausible ground for rejecting them as not authentic because they do not fit our mindsets?

Jesus made many extraordinary statements about himself. If we believe Scripture, then we must accept such statements at face value. We cannot ignore them, or interpret them to mean something other than what they say, or reject them as not authentic, and say that we are being true to Scripture. Scripture itself warns against those who distort or twist Scripture “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).

Draw the Meaning Out of the Text

Two Greek words that I find helpful are exegesis, drawing the meaning out of the text, and eisegesis, putting a meaning into the text. In exegesis we look at the text, the meaning of the words used, the grammatical structure, the textual and historical context, parallel passages, and other aspects of the document to find the meaning. In eisegesis we impose on the text a meaning derived from our own preconceptions and mindsets. It’s a matter of mental attitude. Are we coming to Scripture to learn, to see what God wants to say to us, to see how we need to change? Or are we seeking to use (and sometimes misuse) anything we can find in Scripture to justify where we are now?

It is sometimes said, “You can find support in Scripture for anything you want.” The statement implies a totally wrong attitude. If you are looking for support for a preconceived position, you can often find in Scripture a verse which, if distorted or taken out of context, could be thought to support whatever you want it to support. But if you are genuinely looking for the truth of Scripture, and seeking to draw the meaning out of what is written, you will often find that it convicts you that your preconceived position or attitude is wrong and needs to be changed.

It is easy to see instances in the past where people used Scripture to justify a wrong position. For example, before the Civil War many southern pastors sought to justify the slavery of blacks by Scripture. We now can see how false their reasoning was, but at the time they were persuaded by it. Today there are “white supremacists” who seek to find support for their position in Scripture, despite the clear statement of Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We need to be careful that we do not fall into similar errors.

One of the most serious forms of eisegesis today is the attempt of some to make Scripture conform to our contemporary Western scientific/materialistic mindsets. To do this is to distort the intention of its authors and to destroy its power and value. Paul wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world…” (Romans 12:2 NIV). We make a serious mistake if we try to conform Scripture to any pattern of this world, or to any viewpoint other than that which it itself expresses. We need to conform to Scripture, rather than distort it to conform to our way of thinking.

Interpret Scripture by Scripture

I believe Scripture is basically consistent with itself. The more I work with it, the more convinced of this I become. One of the principles of interpreting any writing is that, where possible, we avoid putting a meaning on one passage which makes it conflict with another.

When Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, the devil quoted Scripture at him, saying, “it is written” (Matthew 4:6). Jesus replied with another passage, saying “…it is also written…” (Matthew 4:7 NIV). We need to look for the “it is also writtens” of Scripture. I think one major cause of false teaching is a tendency to rely heavily on certain passages in Scripture and ignore others that tend to qualify or limit their scope.

At times there are passages in Scripture which, to our limited human logic, may appear inconsistent with themselves or each other. My experience is that often, as I mature in my understanding, I come to realize that they are not inconsistent at all. For example, Philippians 2:12-13 says, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” I used to say, “Wait a minute. Do we do it? Or does God do it? Isn’t this contradicting itself?” Now I realize that this passage is a beautiful example of a basic principle called co-laboring. In most of our Christian life, we and God are working together. We do it, and God does it, and together we get it done. “We are God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Jesus gave the image of being yoked with him, as two oxen would be yoked together (Matthew 11:29). We can’t do it without him, and he (usually) chooses not to do it without our participation. So a passage that I once thought self-contradictory turns out to be an excellent illustration of a very basic principle of how God works.

Other seeming inconsistencies often disappear on closer examination. For example, Jesus said that those who follow him must “hate” their own family (Luke 14:26 KJV). How can this be, when we are told to love our neighbors and our enemies? When we look at the Greek word translated “hate” (miseo), we find that it has several meanings. According to Strong’s Dictionary of the Greek Bible, it can mean to “love less.” According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, it can refer to “relative preference for one thing over another.” In a parallel passage in Matthew 10:37 (KJV), Jesus made this explicit, “He that loveth father or mother more than me.” Jesus was not telling us to reject our families; he was telling us to put nothing ahead of him.

Where I still find an inconsistency, or have difficulty in reconciling two principles, I simply say, “God, I don’t see how these two principles fit together, but you do. I hope some day you will show me. But even if you do not, I will work with both principles as best I can. I cannot reject anything that is in your Scripture just because it does not fit my limited logical understanding.”

God did not give us a tightly organized, logical system of theology. He gave us living principles to work with and live by. I think he did this deliberately. He did not want us to be controlled by rules, but by an active love for him. He wanted us to be dependent on him rather than our own intellects. Our primary faith needs to be in a person—Jesus Christ—and not a set of doctrines. Even when we are not sure about doctrine, we can put our faith in the person of Jesus.

Theology is important. We need to have as clear an understanding of God as we can. But our theology is only man’s inadequate attempt to describe who God is and what he does. Sometimes God has acted to shake up men’s theology. Acts, chapter 10, is a beautiful example. God told Peter to go to a Gentile’s house. Then he told him to eat food that was unclean under the law of Moses. Both statements must have shocked Peter to the core; they violated all his training and everything he had lived by. And then the people of Cornelius’ household received the Holy Spirit before they had been baptized or had made any profession of salvation! (This one has puzzled many scholars ever since.)

God has often said, “Behold, I will do a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). That’s his privilege, as God. He is not bound by our theology. If he does something that seems contrary to our theology, he is not breaking the rules; he is merely showing us that our understanding of him was incomplete. We need to distinguish clearly between the words of Scripture, which are true, and the intellectual systems which men have erected on those words, which are useful but fallible.

Stay With What Is Written

God said, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2). (Also see Deuteronomy 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19.) “Every word of God is pure… Do not add to his words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6). Paul wrote, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6 NIV). Jesus rebuked those who “…nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6 NIV). I think sometimes today we come very close to doing this.

This is a very basic principle. We must not ignore or disregard anything that is in Scripture, just because we do not like it, or it does not fit into our logical schemes. If we believe what we like in Scripture, and reject what we don’t like, then our confidence is in ourselves—not in Scripture. We are leaning on our own understanding instead of trusting the Lord. (See Proverbs 3:5-7.)

We also need to take what is written at face value. Too often, we try to water down or explain away what Scripture clearly says. Or we read it and then ignore it. This can be a form of taking things away from the text of Scripture. In subsequent chapters, I shall give examples of passages in Scripture that I feel many Christians have not taken seriously enough.

We must also not add to what is written in Scripture. Sometimes, without meaning to, we seem to give to a human interpretation of Scripture an authority equal to the very words of Scripture themselves. If we learned it in seminary, or if our pastor or denomination has taught it, we tend to think of it as “gospel truth.” It is good to be like the Bereans, who “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Paul addressed this issue in two of his letters. Galatians was written because some were trying to add, to the Christian gospel, a requirement that Gentile Christians must adhere to every detail of the Jewish law, including many rules imposed by the Jewish rabbis. Paul wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all…” (Galatians 1:6-7 NIV). The Colossians were adding to the Christian gospel a number of rules and practices about celebrating particular days, worshiping angels, not handling or tasting certain things, etc. Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NIV). He emphasized that Christ is all we need.

We have similar problems today. There are those who seek to add other things to Christianity. Some of these additions include principles and practices from the New Age Movement (much of which is derived from ancient paganism, Far Eastern religions, native religions, and other non-Christian sources), or from Wicca (a modern pagan religion), or from Hinduism or Buddhism, or from various schools of psychology, or from other non-Christian sources.

But the principle of staying with what is written has a broader importance. Let me give a few further examples:

THE SUPERNATURAL —There has been a movement among some Bible scholars to “demythologize” the Bible. They say that modern man will not accept the supernatural things in the Bible. Therefore, to make it acceptable to modern man, they would delete, as not authentic, every passage that deals with the miraculous or other supernatural events. Basically, it seems to me, they are saying that the Holy Spirit made a mistake when he caused the Bible to be written as it was written, and they must correct the Holy Spirit’s mistake. In doing so, they depart seriously from the purpose and intent of the original text.

PICKING AND CHOOSING —There have been some who would reject, as not authentic or irrelevant, any passages which do not conform with their idea of God’s character and his ways. It is from Scripture that we learn of God’s character and ways, and we therefore have to deal with everything that Scripture says about them. We cannot pick and choose only those passages that fit our preconceptions. For example, we may not like to have to deal with the ideas of judgment and of God’s wrath, but the Bible (including the New Testament) speaks of them quite often, and so we must deal with them.

TRADITION —Jesus warned us that human traditions can “…nullify the word of God…” (Mark 7:13 NIV). (See verses 5-13.) We sometimes have doctrinal formulations, teachings, or practices which have become so entrenched that almost no one would consider re-examining them to see whether or not they are solidly based on Scripture. The test of any teaching should be, not “Does it conform to this or that doctrinal formulation or theological teaching?” but “Does it conform to Scripture?”

LOGICAL DEDUCTIONS —There are some teachings which rest on logical deductions from what Scripture says. The Bible tells us to distrust human logic. Scripture tells us that the human heart—which includes the mind—“is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Proverbs tells us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). We should be reluctant to base our doctrine on human reasoning rather than on revelation from God. It is better not to add to what the Holy Spirit has written, or to attribute to him conclusions that may seem logical by human reasoning, but which he did not state.

Recognize That We Do Not
Have All the Answers

Paul wrote that now “we see in a mirror, dimly” and we “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We shall not see clearly or know fully until we are with God in heaven. I believe these statements apply as much to our understanding of Scripture as they do to anything else in this world. We should seek all the understanding we can get, but we need to recognize that it is still incomplete.

Scripture says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). If we think we understand everything in Scripture, we may run into the danger of leaning on our own understanding rather than trusting in God.

Paul wrote much of the New Testament and was probably the best educated and intellectually most acute of its human authors. Yet he keeps talking about the mysteries of God’s ways. He writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways beyond finding out” (Romans 11:33). He speaks of the love of Christ “which passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19), and the peace of God “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). The Psalmist wrote that “…no one can fathom…” the greatness of God (Psalm 145:3 NIV). He wrote of knowledge of God’s ways that is “too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). God’s ways and his thoughts are vastly higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). No matter how profound our knowledge of Scripture may be, there will always be this element of mystery, of things that are beyond human understanding.

God has given us “…everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3 NIV). He has not answered all the questions our fertile minds can come up with. The Book of Job is instructive. Job asked all sorts of questions of God, deep questions that came out of his intense suffering. God answered none of them. He simply said, in effect, “Job, look at who I am.” (See Job, chapters 38-41.) Job replied, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). Then God put an end to his suffering and blessed him richly.

This helps explain something which often troubles many. They say, “How can we believe Scripture when Christians so often disagree as to what it means?” I have said that Scripture is true. But our human interpretations of Scripture are fallible. Hence we humans can differ in our understanding of Scripture. (Actually most of the disagreements, while they attract a lot of attention, do not deal with the basics.) We also need to recognize that any human interpretation or teaching is probably incomplete and may be seriously wrong. This is not because the Bible is confusing or unclear. It is because anything humans do is subject to error.

Ask the Holy Spirit for Guidance

When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us (John 14:16-17). One of his functions is to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Paul tells us that without the Holy Spirit we cannot understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). On any question of interpretation, we should ask the Holy Spirit for guidance.

This leads me to a basic principle that I try to follow in everything involving Scripture. Our reading and study of Scripture involves the intellect. I find it as challenging intellectually as anything I have ever done. But the intellect must be guided by the Holy Spirit. The two work together.

Paul has told us that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). I find that, after I have done what I can with the intellectual techniques previously discussed, there will sometimes come an insight, which I believe is from the Holy Spirit, that makes certain words in the text jump out at me, or that sheds a new light on the meaning of the text and its relationship to other texts, or that directs my attention to some “it is also writtens” that I need to consider. There are also insights that lead me to consider, or do a study on, particular issues. I believe that the Holy Spirit sometimes leads me through gentle nudges and suggestions, and I try to keep myself open to these.

There is another reason not to limit yourself to an intellectual understanding of Scripture. I find that, if left to itself, my intellect can often lead me to error. I think that God was warning us about this when he told Jeremiah that the heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). (“Heart” in the Old Testament is often used to mean the non-physical part of man; what we today would call the “soul.” Thus it includes the intellect.) Proverbs 3:5 is even more explicit, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” When we rely solely on our own intellect in our reading and study of Scripture, are we not leaning on our own understanding?

Scripture is not of much value to us unless it results in a radically changed life. A purely intellectual understanding is not apt to produce this kind of change. Our understanding needs to move from “head knowledge” to “heart knowledge.” We believe and we absorb Scripture, not only with all our mind, but also with all our heart and all our strength. To do this, we need the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have experienced this recently. I am faced with advanced cancer. An intellectual understanding of God’s love and faithfulness, while useful, will not accomplish much to give me the strength, encouragement, peace, and joy that I need to have in spite of the circumstances. I have needed to bring my faith, and my understanding, to a heartfelt level that involves my whole being. It has taken something fairly dramatic to bring me to that point. All of us need to make that transition from head knowledge to heart knowledge.

But we also need to be quite careful about our reliance on spiritual insights. The Holy Spirit does guide us, and we need to follow his guidance, but there are also counterfeit spirits that try to deceive us. (See Chapter 12.) So whenever we think we have gotten guidance from the Holy Spirit, we need to make sure (1) that it really is from the Holy Spirit, and (2) that we have understood it correctly. Part of this process involves checking it against our understanding of the language and context of Scripture. The Holy Spirit will not contradict his Scripture. It may be that our understanding of Scripture needs to change. But it also may be that what we thought was a prompting of the Holy Spirit needs to be re-examined carefully. This process involves considerable use of our intellect.

What I am saying is that in this, as in so many areas of our spiritual life, there needs to be a balance. Our intellect, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, need to work in partnership. Our intellectual understanding needs to be deepened and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. But what we think of as spiritual guidance needs to be checked against our intellectual understanding.

Be Humble

Perhaps I can sum up much of what I have said by the words, “be humble.” “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). (Also see 1 Peter 5:5.) James wrote, “Receive with meekness the engrafted word” (James 1:21 KJV).

If we approach Scripture seeking to use it for our purposes, to find support in it for our agendas, to confirm and approve the way we are already living, it will do us little good and may do us much harm. Peter speaks of those who distort Scripture “to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). (Also see Psalm 119:21.)

If, on the other hand, we approach Scripture humbly, with meekness, seeking to know what it says, expecting to find wonderful things in it, willing to yield to what it says, eager to allow it to work in our hearts and change us, then we will find it to be an inexhaustible treasure house of riches that will transform our lives. This has been my experience, and that of many whom I know.


This chapter has only scratched the surface of many issues. There are many good books which deal with these areas in greater depth. You may wish to consult some of them. In addition, this book has an Appendix that describes some good resources for studying Scripture.

I encourage you to let the words of Scripture speak to you. Read them, reflect and meditate on them, memorize them if you can, and allow them to become a very part of you. You will find that they change your life. At one point Jesus asked his disciples if they would leave him because of a “hard” teaching he had given. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The words of the Bible are the words of eternal life, and all who truly immerse themselves in them will be richly blessed.

Table of

Copyright 2004 by James L. Morrisson