David Lawler is originally from Forked River, New Jersey, and will be a senior at Milligan College in Elizabethton, Tennessee. His summer internship has been with the Downtown Kansas City Missions team. He loves to run, and is on the Milligan College Cross-country team.
It was “race relations Sunday” in Blountville, TN. There were about 10 of us in Sunday school class discussing the meaning of Romans, chapter 3. At the head of the table sat our study leader, and to my right was a wonderful African-American woman who had recently joined the church. The study very quickly became a rather fierce debate. The study leader asked, “What about those who have never heard the gospel. How can they be saved?” The African-American woman thought the question was outside the bounds of Paul’s message in the particular passage and the letter as a whole. She believed the passage speaks about righteousness as it pertains to faith in God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ versus the law, and the implications of Jesus being the “Righteous Servant” seen throughout Scripture. Paul, she said, wasn’t addressing the question of universal salvation. The study leader disagreed with her—in chapter 3, he said, Paul was too speaking about universal salvation because he used the phrase “the whole world held accountable.” The study leader began interrupting the woman, raised his voice, and told her to re-read the passage and consider her “position.” At that point, I interjected, asking that both people settle down and conduct the discussion in a tone of love. By the end of the day, I had to console a new church member, and received an argumentative email from the study leader talking about leaving the church.
Why do I begin my GPS reflection with this anecdote? I believe we must study to understand the whole of Scripture in an attitude of humility and love. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, but do not love, I am nothing.” (NRSV) Jesus warned in the 15th Chapter of Matthew that Bible interpretation can become distorted into hypocrisy. Bible study as a selfish means to maintain tradition (Matt 15.6), rather than working together to learn the Way of Jesus (2 Tim 3.16-17) and to better understand God’s love (Col 1.9) will always lead to disunity in the Body of Christ—which defeats the whole purpose.
There are 3 important details to the story in Luke 24. First, the two disciples said they had expectations about Jesus, based on their interpretation of Scripture. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). The words, “the one to redeem Israel” tap into the whole history of the idea of “redemption” in the Old Testament. Studying that helps us understand why Jesus of Nazareth is to be proclaimed as Redeemer of all humanity. Second, Jesus’ taught them that all Bible interpretation’s goal is Himself (v.27). Jesus is truly the Lord of all Life. God revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate point to which the Bible bears witness. Third, we have a part in this story. Jesus opened their eyes when he was “at the table with them” (v. 30). They recognized who Jesus was, saw him as God incarnate and their Crucified and Risen Lord, when he took a meal and blessed it. Every time we take part in the eucharist, we have a new opportunity to recognize who Jesus is. So we cannot separate our Bible study from everyday life, because for us as for those early disciples, Jesus is recognized in light of His contact with the parts of real life like a meal. Bible study only really helps us when it shows that God worked, is working, and will work in real life, not just in abstract theory or concept. We know and serve the Living God who calls us to see His Son’s life as the measuring stick for all life.
Interpretation involves searching the Scriptures for both its divine and human elements, with the goal of understanding the Scripture in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. At times, there are points of tension that require us to think through how the text bears witness to the Living Christ. I find these questions helpful as I study any Bible passage:
1. What kind of text is this and how is it to be read? (Literary forms, poetry, narrative, historical, parable)
2. What was the author(s)’ intent in writing the particular message at the particular time? Who was to receive the message? (The Who/What/When/Where/and Why of each text, the key historical and literary context questions, provide these answers.)
3. Given God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, how do I understand this story/text?
4. In what way(s) does this story/text bear on my thinking and lifestyle as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Our Bible study needs to be both personal and communal. It is important to have study personally, and to seek understanding of the human aspects of a text. The divine aspect of any Scripture will always point us toward the goal of living in the community of faith. Each of today’s GPS passages were written for communities to hear and understand. So as I study, I also ask, “How much of my interpretation is dictated by my personal experience and conviction, rather than the heritage of experience and conviction present already within the text?”
I’ve found Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth a great resource to help me read the Bible. At school I also use several commentaries that help me gain an understanding of the historical, theological, and literary heritage of any text.
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.