By Pst.John Musyimi
You are in your favorite chair, Bible open before you, prayerfully studying a passage. You desire to gain helpful spiritual insights that will move you forward in your maturity as a follower of Christ. But today’s passage is particularly difficult. It is not immediately obvious what the inspired author means by what he is saying.
What do you do? Two possibilities lie before you. First, like the Levite and Priest in Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, you could pass by the text and move on swiftly to another passage that is easier to understand. (Haven’t we all done that?) Alternatively, you could wrestle with the text until it yields its meaning to you.
For the avoidance of doubt, I believe that the Scriptures’ overall message is clear and can be understood by all who desire to know it. The Bible is a communication by God to us. God knows how to communicate. To use an expensive word, the Bible’s message is perspicuous.
However, due to various reasons, (none of which are the Bible’s fault) some individual passages require more rigorous effort on our part to understand. Even the Apostle Peter conceded that some things in Paul’s epistles are hard to understand. (2 Pet 3.16).
Important to note is that they are not impossible, rather are hard and it is not all things in Paul, but only some things. The same can be said of some of the writings of the other Biblical authors. So, it will not be very long into our Bible reading that we stumble upon hard to understand texts.
Plainly then, to reap all the benefits of spiritual insight that the Scripture offers, we must be ready to expend mental energy. Sometimes, the mental rigor required will be more than what is required at other times.
A text stood in the way
I have always been encouraged by the example of Martin Luther on this. Like in all things, he was tenacious in seeking to understand the Scriptures. The most famous breakthrough for him came as he tried to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans 1.17. Feel the struggle in his words:
‘..a single word in Chapter 1, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” .. stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.’
The effect of this faulty understanding of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ led Luther to have a very troubled conscience. Hear him again:
‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God..’
Luther’s struggle was directly related to his understanding of what the righteousness of God that is revealed through the gospel meant for him. To him, it meant an unattainable standard placed on him by God. He knew he would never be able to meet it no matter how much he tried. And try he did.
Beating upon Paul
Then he expresses how he dealt with Paul and his text I Romans 1.17:
‘Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.’
This was Luther’s Bible study method; to beat upon Paul in Romans 1.17 over and over demanding that Paul give up his meaning of his phrase ‘righteousness of God.’ This wrestling with Paul led to a magnificent spiritual breakthrough for Luther:
‘At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’
It is this breakthrough in Bible study that led to his conversion and planted the seeds for the Protestant Reformation. What he ‘discovered’ through a rigorous study of a passage would greatly shape him and then later shape Christianity.
I will not let you go
Here is a model for us to follow when we encounter passages that are difficult for us to understand. We can employ all the resources at our disposal to get underneath the text and extract its meaning. We can commit ourselves not to give up until we know what the author intended. If we do so, we will find that God is merciful and will often grant us wonderful breakthroughs that prove to be huge for our spiritual growth.
I am saying nothing of the mechanics of Bible study in this post. I am only interested in commending a particular attitude in Bible study; Tenacity. I want you to be discontent with rolling over when confronted with a hard passage. Like Jacob, if I may use his overnight match with God as an illustration, I want to encourage that attitude that says to all Biblical texts ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’.