The scene is quite familiar to many people: a nervous, well-intentioned, but sometimes ill-prepared Bible teacher stands or sits before the class, reads a passage of Scripture, and then begins a discussion with this simple question, “What does this mean to you?” The question seems innocent enough. Many people find it quite appropriate. After all, Bible teachers don’t know everything, and class discussions can be very beneficial. So why not give everyone an opportunity to tell the class what a Bible verse means to them?
In short, because it simply does not matter what a particular Bible passage means to you or me. The actual, true explanation of the text is ultimately all that matters (i.e., what did God mean?). If there is a right interpretation of a section of Scripture, then that particular, correct explanation should be the only interpretation we seek. Application of the sacred text to our own individual lives certainly is vital to genuine Christian living, but first, we must come to a right understanding of the text (Ephesians:5:17). How do we do this? By allowing God to explain Himself. Similar to how we frequently ask those with whom we are engaged in conversations to explain themselves when they use words or expressions that we do not understand, if God gave us the Bible, then we need to seek His explanation of His Word. Whenever possible, we must allow the Bible to explain itself. This principle of Bible interpretation is both logical and God-honoring.
As great and faithful as was Joseph the patriarch, he informed the King of Egypt that “it is not in me” to interpret Pharaoh’s divinely revealed dreams (Genesis:41:16). God was the only One Who knew for sure what the dreams meant (since He was the One Who caused them in the first place), and He chose to give Joseph the meaning so that he, in turn, could inform Pharaoh. More than 1,000 years later, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, also had a special dream from God. As he sought a revelation and an interpretation of the inspired dream, the prophet Daniel informed the king that “there is a God in heaven Who reveals secrets” (Daniel:2:28). Only when God revealed the meaning of the dream to Daniel (2:19-23) could he in turn be of real help to Nebuchadnezzar. In essence, the faithful prophet Daniel logically and honorably allowed God to explain Himself.
Bible students and teachers in the 21st century need to learn from the faithful prophets of old the important lesson of humbly seeking God’s explanation of His revealed will. Since some things in Scripture are “hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter:3:16), we must approach the study of the Scriptures with the utmost care and attention. Like the apostles, we prayerfully need to seek the Master’s truthful explanations (“Explain to us the parable of the tares,” Matthew:13:36) and not rely on the imaginative, diverse, biased, and ever-changing opinions of man. If the Bible is God’s all-sufficient revelation to mankind, and the entirety of His Word is truth and forever settled in heaven (Psalm:119:160,89), then whenever and wherever possible, we must allow the Bible to explain itself. Although helpful man-made commentaries have their place, no uninspired commentary can compare to the divinely authoritative commentary within the Bible itself. We must allow the immediate and remote contexts of inspiration to assist us in our studies. We must use the simple, straight-forward language of Scripture to help us understand the more challenging texts, and use the literal language to help us better understand the figurative. It is paramount that we use God’s Old Testament to better understand His New Testament and vice versa. If an authoritative elucidation to a particular biblical statement exists, we must (as much as possible) get out of God’s way and allow Him to explain Himself! Indeed, as has often been said, “The Bible is its own best interpreter.”
How often have we “heard” God, but not actually understood Him? Twentieth-century American author and children’s book illustrator Robert McCloskey once stated, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Sadly, billions of people on Earth either don’t care what God’s Word says or they don’t care enough to put forth the effort to understand it properly.
Some things are definitely harder to understand than others, and some things we may never fully understand, but one thing is for sure: if we humbly and honestly allow the Bible to explain itself whenever possible, we will successfully arrive at the proper conclusions that God intended for us to reach.