We’ve discussed the purpose of Scripture and how two approaches to reading Scripture that work. Hopefully by now you have begun to pick out some Scriptures to read. Well, having opened the Bible and begun to read, how can you make sure you understand what is being said?
I find the best way to explain this is to read through a Scripture together with you. What I’ll do is read a Scripture with you and guide you through the questions you need to answer to figure out what God is saying to you. For sake of example, I want to pick a text from 1 Corinthians, particularly 1 Corinthians chapter 7, verses 8-14.
I mentioned last time two important ways to begin: First, the need to invite God to speak to us. Let’s take a second to do so. Please join me in asking God to speak to us through His Word. God, we know you know us. You know our needs and concerns. Please, speak to us through these verses. Please show us your will for our life and how better to hear your voice. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Next I said to pick an easy to understand translation. One of the better translations I’ve found for conveying what God is saying in modern language is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. So we will be using that for our example today.
Well, let’s read together what the Bible says in these verses.
“I do, though, tell the unmarried and widows that singleness might well be the best thing for them, as it has been for me. But if they can’t manage their desires and emotions, they should by all means go ahead and get married. The difficulties of marriage are preferable by far to a sexually tortured life as a single.
“And if you are married, stay married. This is the Master’s command, not mine. If a wife should leave her husband, she must either remain single or else come back and make things right with him. And a husband has no right to get rid of his wife.
“For the rest of you who are in mixed marriages — Christian married to non-Christian — we have no explicit command from the Master. So this is what you must do. If you are a man with a wife who is not a believer but who still wants to live with you, hold on to her. If you are a woman with a husband who is not a believer but he wants to live with you, hold on to him. The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be left out; as it is, they also are included in the spiritual purposes of God.”
Ok, there is a lot going on in these verses and you may already be scratching your head about “how could this apply in my life?” I find the best thing to do after praying when I read a section of Scripture is to ask a lot of questions.
1. Whose words are you reading? Is it an author (like Paul)? Is it a character in a Bible story? Are they giving their personal opinion? Or are they sharing God’s words?
At times, such as in the section in 1 Cor. 7, we are looking at, the author is good enough to tell us who they are and what parts of what they write is their own opinion.
At other points, the Bible tells us it is quoting or paraphrasing what particular characters have said. Sometimes it is clear who is sharing God’s Word (such as Jesus) or is sharing something different (like when the Bible quotes Satan). Other times, such as when Paul says he is giving his opinion, it is less clear. He is led by the Spirit, but a human being who makes mistakes. You may need to look further into the verse to figure out how much it applies to you and how true its statements are.
As I said, the author is good enough to tell us who he is. If you go back to 1 Corinthians 1, you find out that we are told that St. Paul wrote this letter. Paul is an apostle, which is sort of like a missionary who goes places where people haven’t heard about Jesus and tells them about Him, but with a bit more authority than that. Most missionaries don’t write Scriptures, for instance, while what the apostles wrote became Scripture.
When this isn’t so clear, check a Bible Dictionary, Bible Encyclopedia, or Commentary. This may tell you more about the author. Also you might follow step 2 and it might give you more insight.
In this particular case, Paul also is good enough to tell us what parts of what is written is his own opinion based on his experience of God and what parts are actually God’s very words. In verses 8-9, when Paul talks to single people and tells them he thinks most of them should find a life partner or spouse, Paul is sharing his opinion based on his experience of God. In verses 10-11, when Paul tells people who are married or in a committed life-partnership to try and do what they can to stay in that relationship if possible, Paul says that he is quoting God’s actual spoken words. Paul doesn’t say if that is because they are a recorded word of Jesus (Jesus does say this at one point in the Gospels – remember “what God has brought together let no man separate?” from weddings; yep, that’s Jesus’ words) or a word God spoke personally to Paul. But this is what God directly said Himself.
In verses 12-14, Paul makes it clear that when he tells people whose spouses or life-partners don’t share their faith what to do (try to make it work if possible), he’s addressing something God had not given him a specific word about. This is his own opinion, not a direct word from God. So to quote it like it is God speaking would be a misuse of the verse, although I can say though I don’t know about you, I think something such a great man of God as Paul thought, is really a worthwhile opinion to consider. That said, Paul’s opinion and God’s very word to you aren’t exactly the same thing.
2. What do the verses before and after this section of Scripture tell us about what the author or speaker is discussing?
Take a moment and look in your Bible at the verses before and after this one to answer this question.
In the first several verses, the Message Bible makes it pretty clear in its translation that Paul is answering a really down-to-earth question: is it good to have sex? His answer is that for most people it is impossible not to express yourself sexually. Sex is a good thing but only when used in the right way. What is the right context? Marriage, which in this case means a life-partnership of two people. Marriage of course isn’t just paperwork or a religious ceremony. In times when their was no government marriage registry or church wedding, people were considered married when those two people made the commitment that people voice out loud in a wedding ceremony. Come on, you know those words – to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, from this day forward, til death do us part.
It is in that context – of that sort of commitment between two people – that Paul says sex is good. And in that context, Paul says, have plenty of it – because you have sexual needs and if it is not expressed in a healthy, God-blessed context, you will find yourselves burning with desire in an unhealthy, destructive context. That is, unless you are one of the few people like Paul who are blessed without a great need for sex and companionship.
After the verses we read, Paul goes on to talk about what to do if despite all your efforts to save a relationship, your spouse or life-partner deserts the relationship. His answer? Let it go, move on, and give it to God.
3. Who is this addressed to? Is it addressed to a specific group in a specific situation? Is it to humanity in general? In what way am I like the people being addressed? Different? Again, the best thing to do is to look at verses before or following to answer this, if the text does not directly answer it. You have to go all the way back to the first chapter of this book of the Bible to get the answer – but the answer is it was written to a specific set of churches, located in the town of Corinth.
If you can’t find the answer there, check a Bible dictionary or an online resource like bible.org or textweek.com. If you do that on this text, you will find that Corinth was a place with pretty loose morals when it came to sex, which led new Christians to take two very different extremes in their sex lives – vowing off sex altogether as something “too worldly” to engage in and, on the other hand, deciding that since God had forgiven all their sins past and future, choosing to engage in as promiscuous sex as possible. Obviously Paul thought God didn’t approve of either lifestyle, encouraging people to be both realistic about their own need for sex and companionship as well as responsible in how they sought to express their sexual needs.
You have to decide for yourself how much you are like the people addressed. I can say that I see our culture very much like the one in Corinth. On the one hand, so much of society glamorizes sex that I know at times I have felt the temptation to think that sex with many different partners must be the happiest and best life. After all, isn’t that what is “normal” in how TV and movies portray sex? On the other hand, I’ve gotten the message from the religious establishment that sex is bad and dirty – especially if you enjoy it, or it is with someone you find attractive. I know in my own ministry many of the gay couples I have ministered to have had to struggle with a feeling that them having a life partner was somehow wrong since the church had given them the impression sex was dirty, instead of the Biblical message that sex was a good and beautiful thing when expressed in the God-given context of life-commitment.
4. Why is it written? Is it giving a timeless principle, or a practical consideration for a set place or time?
Again, the reason it was written is something you can find either in the context or through using a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. The reason was to address real questions people had about sex and life-partnership or marriage due to a culture that had misguided values about sex.
In the case of this section of Scripture, by Paul pointing out the difference between his own opinion on the issues and God’s very Word, Paul makes it clear that he is applying universal principles to a very specific situation at a set place and time. That means that not all of his conclusions can be applied as “rules to follow” for everyone in every place. However the principles he uses (such as about sex being a real need, about it being intended for the context of committed relationships, and about the danger of denying real needs for sex and companionship) are universally applicable.
By applying them to your own situation you can find out a lot of things about what God wants in regards to your relationships. You may discover God calling you to a life of contented singleness. You may discover God freeing you from a bad relationship. You may discover God telling you that you need to give up promiscuity. You may discover God pointing you to a need to renew the “spark” in your own marriage or life-partnership. The way you apply these principles will be unique to you, but the same principles Paul uses can be your guidelines.
5. What message did it give when it was first written? What lessons can I walk away with in the situations I am in today or in regard to the question I am asking?
This final question is one you need to ask for yourself. This passage was very transforming to me at one point. I read it and saw Paul pointing people in the direction of committed relationships, acknowledging the real need most people have for companionship and a healthy sexual life. I saw my own counseling that at that point was pointing same-gender-attracted people in a direction away from these needs Paul viewed as so significant. To me, the principles of this text pointed me toward a total change of opinion about same-gender relationships. It dawned on me that, yes, some gay and lesbian people are called to singleness and celibacy. But for most people, gay and straight alike, there is a deep need for sexual expression and life-companionship. It dawned on me trying to squelch that need and ignore it led many gay and lesbian people to express those needs in secret excursions that were dangerous, the dreaded “down life” sex life many have, which opens up the possibility of disease, rejection, and deepens their loneliness.
When I applied Paul’s principles to my own ministry, I found myself finding the answer that seemed most in line with Paul’s principles, the principles he drew from God’s Word to Him, was encouraging people to acknowledge and express these real needs for sexual expression and companionship in committed life-partnerships, just as I encouraged straight individuals to express their needs and longings in a relationship of love called marriage.
You will have to figure out for yourself how the principles of the text you read apply in your life, your situation, and your ministry.
Since you are just learning to study the Bible, it may be helpful to look at how others have understood it. Bible Commentaries tell you this. There are many provided online at textweek.com and bible.org, among other places. These commentaries can help you see if what you found in the text lines up with what others have found in the text.
However remember God wants a personal relationship with you and that means you yourself relating to God, not just depending on other’s opinions. God may reveal new things to you that apply this text in a more personal way. Ultimately it is not a Bible commentator or a preacher or a priest but God himself who needs to reveal His purpose for your life in Scripture.
In closing, I pray that as you embark on the adventure of reading Scripture for yourself, you experience God and begin, one day at a time, to come to know Him and His purpose for your life. In the end, that purpose will bring you more joy and life than you could ever imagine.
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.