What Is Required to Understand the Bible?
Reading the Bible regularly is a good thing. But to benefit fully from your reading you must understand it.
A CHRISTIAN minister was going from house to house in one of the poorer sections of Brooklyn, New York, encouraging study of the Bible. At one doorstep a lady said, “We already have a Bible!” and with that she at once proceeded to bring out a beautifully ornamented cardboard box. Proudly she opened it and displayed a lavishly embossed large Douay Bible containing many colored pictures. “I paid forty dollars for it,” she assured the calling minister. But had she been reading it?
What good is God’s Word, the Bible, in the home unless it is read—more than that, unless it is understood? For how can the Bible increase our faith in God and Jesus Christ when we do not understand what we are reading? And most important of all is it to apply the Bible’s principles to our lives. How can we do that if we do not understand it?
So many persons think that it is enough to have a Bible in their homes and so they give little thought to reading it and becoming familiar with its contents. Or they find themselves so busy with their everyday cares that their intentions to read the Bible never materialize. Often they get little encouragement from their religious leaders; either because these lack faith in the Bible as God’s inspired Word or because they are conscious of their inability to answer questions that their parishioners might ask if they read the Bible.
Thus when a certain woman’s auxiliary of an Anglican church in Canada started a Bible study group they repeatedly embarrassed their clergyman by coming up with questions he was unable to answer. Seeking help from his bishop, he was first told that the ‘Trinity, the fable of creation and the myth of the birth of Christ are not meant to be scrutinized too closely.’ And when the clergyman made still further inquiries of his bishop regarding questions his parishioners asked, he was told, “Close down that study or you are going to have to close down your church!”
Why all this lack of understanding of the Bible? One of the chief reasons for it is the failure to appreciate the importance of God’s holy spirit. It is needed to understand the Bible, even as in the first place God used it to inspire men to write down His thoughts. Said that Bible writer David: “The spirit of Jehovah it was that spoke by me, and his word was upon my tongue.” Yes, “prophecy was at no time brought by man’s will, but men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.” This holy spirit is no person, but may be likened to a powerful electric current that cannot be seen, or to the invisible television, radio or radar signals that send out information and which require a certain kind of receiver to be reproduced.—2 Sam. 23:2; 2 Pet. 1:20, 21.
GOD’S SPIRIT NEEDED
But we are not left merely to reason on the subject. God’s inspired Word plainly tells us that his holy spirit aids in understanding his Word: “‘Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, neither have there been conceived in the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those who love him.’ For it is to us God has revealed them through his spirit, for the spirit searches into all things, even the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:9, 10) Likewise Jesus, shortly before leaving his apostles, assured them: “The helper, the holy spirit, which the Father will send in my name, that one will teach you all things and bring back to your minds all the things I told you.” “The spirit of the truth . . . will guide you into all the truth.”—John 14:26; 16:13.
Many are the examples in the Christian Greek Scriptures that might be produced to show that God’s spirit is necessary to an understanding of the truth regarding God and Christ. Why, even before God poured out his holy spirit to anoint Christ’s followers on the day of Pentecost this had been true. A case in point is the time Jesus asked his apostles whom they believed him to be, and Peter answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Had Peter reached this conclusion solely on the basis of his own study, reasoning or observation? No, but by means of the help of God’s holy spirit, even as Jesus indicated when he told him: “Flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father who is in the heavens did.”—Matt. 16:16, 17.
Of course, that the holy spirit aided in understanding God’s Word was unequivocally demonstrated on the day of Pentecost, 33 C.E. There Peter was able to quote and correctly apply some prophecies that had not been previously understood, such as that found at Joel 2:28-32, which tells that Jehovah God would pour out some of his spirit on all sorts of flesh, and prophecies in the Psalms that applied to and were fulfilled by Jesus Christ.—Acts 2:17-21, 27, 34, 35.
Likewise, with the aid of God’s holy spirit it was learned that not only Jews but also Gentiles who became believers could be in line for the honor of being associated with the Messiah: “In other generations this secret was not made known to the sons of men as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by spirit, namely, that people of the nations should be joint heirs . . . with Christ Jesus.”—Eph. 3:5, 6.
A particularly striking instance showing how God’s spirit helps Christians to understand God’s Word is seen in the record of a meeting held by the apostles and older men in Jerusalem. These, who constituted the visible governing body of the early Christian congregation world wide, came together to consider the question as to whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised. After going into what the Scriptures had to say and hearing the testimony of the apostles as to how God had been giving his holy spirit to Gentile believers, they sent out a letter in which appeared the following: “For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things,” and so forth. Here, then, we have an example of the enlightenment of God’s holy spirit, which spirit searches into the deep things of God in that it caused these early Christians to make a thorough search into the Scriptures and the facts and then aided them in coming to the right conclusion.—Acts 15:1-29.
The fact is that not even the men who were inspired to write the prophecies, nor even angels, were able to understand them until God’s due time, when they were made plain with the help of God’s holy spirit: “It was revealed to them that, not to themselves, but to you, they were ministering the things that have now been announced to you through those who have declared the good news to you with holy spirit sent forth from heaven. Into these very things angels are desiring to peer.”—1 Pet. 1:10-12.
HOW CAN YOU OBTAIN THE HELP OF GOD’S SPIRIT?
Since it is important that we understand God’s Word and it is necessary that we have God’s spirit to understand it, how can we obtain God’s spirit? First of all by praying for it, even as Jesus showed: “If you, although being wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so will the Father in heaven give holy spirit to those asking him!”—Luke 11:13.
Obviously that implies having the right mental attitude when we approach the study of God’s Word. We cannot be filled with the spirit of the world, which is greedy, lustful, materialistic, critical, captious, superficial and irreverent, and expect to understand the Bible. In fact, the Bible assures us that no such “ones at all will understand.” Only by approaching God’s Word in the spirit of humility and reverence, seriously, with open mind and a consciousness of our spiritual need can we hope to understand and appreciate it.—Dan. 12:10; Matt. 5:3.
But in looking to God for his holy spirit we may not overlook God’s manner of imparting his spirit. Not only must we study God’s Word, have the right mental attitude and pray for God’s spirit, but we must recognize God’s visible organization. God is consistent, a God of order, not a God of disorder, even as his Word assures us. (1 Cor. 14:33) He does not impart his holy spirit and an understanding and appreciation of his Word apart from his visible organization. Thus Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, did not get an understanding about Jesus’ being the Messiah and receive the holy spirit merely as a result of his own prayers, perusal of God’s Word and gifts of mercy, but he needed to get in touch with the Christian congregation, which God was using as his agency; and for that reason God sent Peter to Cornelius. Only then did Cornelius and his house hold receive God’s holy spirit and understanding.—Acts 10:1-48.
Should we expect the same today? Yes, for Jesus prophesied that he would have a visible agency upon earth at the time of the end of this system of things where we now are: “Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his Master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? Happy is that slave if his master upon arriving finds him doing so. Truly I say to you, He will appoint him over all his belongings.” The magazine you are reading is a part of the spiritual food that that “slave” is providing at the present time.—Matt. 24:45-47.
So we can see that it is not enough to have a beautiful Bible put away in a cardboard box, nor even just to read it. The Bible must be understood if it is to give us faith and if we are to be able to apply it in our lives. And to be able to understand it we need the help of God’s holy spirit, for which we are told to pray. However, for God to answer our prayers for his spirit we must meet his conditions, among which is that we recognize the visible channel he is using for that very purpose.