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Religion Column

October 8, 2011

Studying the Bible can be transformative

In Romans, Paul urges, "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2).

What keeps us from being transformed in our Bible study? This transformation requires more than intellectual ascent. In my experience there are two keys that foster real transformation in Christ. Without these keys, study can lead to confusion and discouragement. But as Paul also says, "Don't lose heart" (2 Corinthians 4:1, Ephesians 3:13).

The first key is well stated by James, "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22). Are we doing the things that God has already placed in our hearts? Understanding the Scripture comes from living its contents. Because the Scripture is a book inspired by the Holy Spirit and given through obedient followers of Christ, our ability to interpret the Bible correctly is directly related to our obedience. Do you remember how Christ was revealed to Peter? It was not through "flesh and blood" but through the Holy Spirit. Unlike any other book, the Bible's words are "spirit and life," and so we must strive to live as followers of Christ in order to drink from the "living waters."

Clearly, prayer and obedience are necessary in order to understand the Scriptures properly. We should also make it a practice to examine our conscience daily. Is there something I need to correct in my life? Is there a relationship I need to heal? God will show each of us what our next step needs to be, if we ask.

The second major key is to understand verses in their original context, discerning the meaning intended by the writer. We need to be cautious when "proof texts" are picked from various books of the Bible to "prove" a point. To understand a Bible verse we must understand the context in which it is found. We must read and understand the sentence in which we find it. In turn, we must understand the paragraph in which we find the sentence and the entire letter in which we find the paragraph. As helpful as the numbering of Bible verses is, we might avoid the temptation to interpret verses according to our favorite scheme if we read the Bible (especially the Epistles) as letters, which is what they were.

Also, as the word of the invariable God, the Bible is an invariable whole. We cannot embrace the texts that say what we wish them to say and ignore the ones that contradict our favorite interpretation.

"There is only one truth in the Scriptures. It cannot be understood by pitting texts against each other. They must be allowed to speak together," religious author Matthew Gallatin recently said.

Finally, I want to invite you to broaden your historical context in understanding the Bible. In his "Church History," written in the fourth century, Eusebios mentions "An Exposition of the Apostolic Preaching" by Irenaios. Irenaios was a hero of the Church in the late second century. Irenaios was taught by Polycarp who, in turn, was taught by the Apostle John. In one letter Irenaios mentions being taught by Polycarp:

"I remember how he (Polycarp) talked about his relationship with the Apostle John and about how he knew others who had seen the Lord. He used to tell us what they said and tell us what he heard from them concerning the Lord. From memory, he told us of the Lord's miracles and His teaching-all consistent with the Holy Scriptures …"

This same Polycarp, who was born about A.D. 69, was visited in A.D. 107 by Ignatius of Antioch, who was on his way to Rome to be martyred. On his trip Ignatius wrote letters to seven churches, as well as one to Polycarp. Polycarp collected these letters and sent them to the church at Philippi along with a letter of his own.

The writings of Irenaios, Polycarp and Ignatius are available to us even today. For serious students of the Bible these writings will provide rich context to illumine our understanding of Scripture. It's worth noting that the Church was more than 300 years old before the New Testament canon was final. Therefore the Church did not come out of the New Testament, rather the New Testament is the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in the early Church.

These early writings and other information about the early Church may challenge some of our presuppositions. But this is good because we want to be "transformed, by the renewing of our minds" (Romans 12: 2). Our Lord Jesus Christ doesn't force this transformation. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth," (John 16:12-13).

May the spirit of truth guide you. Glory to Jesus Christ.

John Koch has more than 30 years of inner-city ministry experience. He is a member of the St. Innocent Orthodox Christian Mission in Oneonta and a member of the Central New York Coalition for Life. Please send comments and suggestions to johnkoch@frontiernet.net

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