Donita had started reading the Bible two years before. She read it a lot and made copious notes of her impressions while reading. I later learned no one had actually shown her how to read the Bible or what dangers she might run into while reading. That is like telling someone food can be found on the other side of six-lane freeway and then putting a blindfold on them and pointing them in the right direction. They might make it okay, but it’s not likely.
She was frantic on the phone. “Pastor Mike, I am just sick about something. I guess I’m supposed to know how to fold the Holy Spirit, but I really don’t”. Yes, she said “how to fold the Holy Spirit”. I couldn’t believe it either.
“What are you talking about Donita?”
“In Revelation. I was reading along and several times I read about the Seven-fold Spirit of God. I don’t know how this folding works? Do I do it or does someone else?”
I rushed over to her house for what ended up being an enlightening 20 minutes for her. There is no such thing as ‘folding the Spirit’. The phrase ‘seven-fold Spirit’ means there are seven aspects or characteristics of the Holy Spirit regarding His work in our lives. When I explained this to her, she wanted to know what they were. I explained that in the first century, Greek philosophers liked to catalog the various characteristics of the gods of Olympus. The community of John who wrote Revelation had ideas about the various works of the Spirit in our lives. They mention most of these in Revelation. I went through the ones I knew and encouraged her to read the book in light of that understanding.
For several weeks after, I did a short teaching with her on how to read the Bible correctly. To this day, she regards that season as when she really began to appreciate what God gave us through the many authors of the Bible. She was appreciative.
I find people still make the same mistakes with the Bible as they were making a half century ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun. There may be many more than just 10 mistakes, but these cover a lot of the most common ones.
- Applying All Bible Promises to Your Life: There is a book called “All the Promises in the Bible” and it catalogs 7400 different promises God made in the Bible to various people. The author of this book has taken all of these promises and listed them under different headings. They have titles like “Promises of Rescue”, “Promises Regarding Healing”, “Promises about Money”, etc. All a person has to do, according to this writer, is look up your need, find out what God has promised, and claim that promise for yourself.There are several things wrong about this approach. First, it ignores the possibility of situational promises. In the Bible, God made promises to people which very clearly apply to the situation there were in. In Acts, Paul promises the Philippian jailer that he and HIS WHOLE FAMILY would be saved. Does this mean that every head of a family who believes will result in their whole family following God? I have heard a number of people claim exactly that. In the book of Joel, the Lord promised Israel after an attack of locusts that every one of the crops would start growing again in great amounts. Does this mean God is promising every farmer that bad crops will be followed by bountiful crops? Does this mean God promises everyone who goes through dark seasons that good times are just around the corner? I know many people who apply this exact situational promise to their lives. It is nothing more than wishful thinking at times.Many times these are conditional promises. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God promises that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, seek my face, turn from their wicked ways and follow me, then I will come and heal their land.” This may be the most quoted promise from the Bible. But it is a conditional promise. God will not heal a land where the people do not pray, or do not turn from their wicked ways, or do not humble themselves. In Romans 8:28 it says “for we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to His purpose.” People read that and see a shorthand version of it: “We know God works all things together for good.” Or, we shorten it even further, “Good is going to come out of this.” But that is not necessarily true. There are many evil things in this world which God cannot do anything with. The key to the verse is this idea: “To those who are called according to his purpose” This means, God will orchestrate things when, and only when, a person is lining up with God’s will and obeying the next thing God shows them to do. God does this because helping these people also helps God’s plans.
When reading a promise in the Bible, ask yourself these two questions: Who was this promise given to? and Is there a condition attached to this?
- Relying on Only One Translation: Unless you are reading the Bible in the original languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) you are reading a translation. All translations have been done with meticulous care. And though every translator sought to keep their version free of theological and cultural bias, no one can do that perfectly. This is not to say there aren’t better translations than others. Each of us who teach the Bible have our favorite translations for various reasons. But any time you translate a word from one language to another, you will lose some of the inherent meaning. So how can an English reader get the most out of the Scriptures without losing the meaning?The best way is to have two or three translations open when reading. I find it helpful to have one translation which focuses on the common way of saying things (eg. The Message, The Living Bible, The NET Bible) one which focuses on textual accuracy (eg. The New American Standard Bible) and one which seeks to translate idioms best (eg. The New International Version, New Living Translation). You could add an interlinear Bible (the Greek and the Hebrew are right beside the English) or any number of other bibles which have versions in parallel with each other.
At the very least, if you’re studying the Bible for understanding, have a few different translations to get a fuller flavor of the original words.
- Not Asking Holy Spirit to Help You: Even highly trained people can make mistakes reading the Bible. I think it is best for a Christ-follower to ask the indwelling Holy Spirit for guidance. He inspired the Bible to be written, and He understands what it means. I believe if you start any time of reading the Bible with a short prayer asking Holy Spirit to give you understanding, your time with the Bible will be rich and more fulfilling.
- Reading the Bible Only in Small Amounts: Here is a pattern I am seeing more often in this busy world. People are reading no more than 2 or 3 verses in the Bible at a time. Or they may read one Psalm, a few proverbs and a small portion out of the New Testament. Though that certainly isn’t a bad way to start, especially if you find it hard to fit Bible reading into your life right now, there is a mistake inherent in this. With the exception of Psalms and Proverbs, the rest of the books of the Bible were meant to be read in one sitting. They were not meant to be chopped up into little pieces. The only reason there are chapters and verses is to make it easier to find where you left off your reading. They do the same thing with Chaucer’s works and Shakespeare’s plays.I advise people to have at least one or two times a week where they practice “chunk reading”. During this time, you read entire books of the Bible or very long sections. Rather than having a time limit, keep reading so you get a bigger picture. Though the majority of Christ-followers have never read through the Bible even once (yes, you read that correctly), even those who have do it over such a long period of time they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. The Bible actually does have a unified theme, which is hard to see if you only read little chunks. Even a relatively slow reader (i.e. 200 words a minute) can read the entire bible straight through in about a month if reading 2 hours a day. Give chunk reading a try and see if it doesn’t open up a broader understanding of the Scriptures. More about this in a moment.
- Over-Reliance on Tradition When Reading: Most cult leaders tell their people, “Don’t read the Bible for yourself. Instead, rely on my interpretation of it.” That insistence on listening only to one viewpoint is a hallmark of all cults. However, many churches, denominations and church traditions can do the same thing. This is one reason I’m not a fan of so-called “Study Bibles”. These are bibles which have commentary at the bottom or on the side of every page. If you rely upon those notes too much, you will only see one theological point of view as you read. This can be true of those who grew up with certain creedal traditions, who rely on certain liturgies to understand the Bible or who follow certain commentaries when reading the Bible. 1 John 2:26,27 is pretty clear we should not rely on any man to teach us the Bible. This means, we should not lean too heavily on one point of view when reading the Bible.
- Under-Reliance on Tradition When Reading: The opposite is also true. When you read the Bible and rely solely on your own understanding, you will probably come up with very novel and interesting interpretations. This can be helpful occasionally, but often leads people into very dangerous territory. This is the mistake Donita made when she was worried about “folding the Spirit”. When you are reading the Bible and you see something which seems to teach something very radical or dangerous, you should rely on tradition to help you. This is what commentaries and other bible teachers are for. If you’re the only person in the world who has a particular interpretation of the Bible, you ought to be careful of walking it out in real life. I remember a guy who called me and asked about the verse in the Sermon on the Mount regarding sexual temptation, where it talks about “cutting off your right hand”. He thought this literally meant disfiguring himself. I had him come by my office and we talked at length about figures of speech like hyperbole and why we need to understand the purpose of them. He left my office and to this day has two hands (I think).
- Errors in Applying what you read: The best teachers of the Bible have said there are three steps to studying the Bible: a) Observation (what does it say; b) Interpretation (what does it mean); and c) Application (what do I do with it). There are many people who read the Bible who don’t do anything with it. For them, the Bible is a magical book which makes them feel better just for reading it. This is not enough. The Bible was written so we can observe what is written, understand what it means and then live it out in our lives. But the application must be built on careful study beforehand. You don’t just read a verse and then jump out and start living it a few seconds later. As opposed to a self-help book, the Bible needs to be meditated upon and prayed through before leaping.I remember a young man who read in the Bible how a rich ruler was told by Jesus to go sell all he had and come follow him. This man owned several parcels of land. He believed he needed to follow this advice and do the same. He came in one day and wanted to give all the money to the church. As the pastor, I was quite willing to take the money. After all, we had a number of projects we were working on which would be much more easily financed through this money. But I asked him what led him to do this and he told me about the Bible verse. I asked him if he and his wife had prayed about it. He didn’t even tell his wife what he was doing. I had a little talk about how to stay alive in marriage and sent him on his way. A few weeks later, he made a gift to the church–a much smaller gift than before. He did talk to his wife and he did scale back some of his enthusiasm. This was wisdom.
- Treating the Bible as an Academic Book: My undergraduate degree is in Theology. I took over 60 credit hours in studying various books of the Bible. I took four different theology courses. In the final course, one of my professors, Dr. John Dahms warned us at the beginning of one class: “Be careful young bible scholars you don’t misconstrue the intention of the Bible. It wasn’t compiled and inspired by God to be studied like a textbook. It is a living thing. God moved men to write it, God moved people to translate it and he moves you to study it. But it is all about God and man. In this, you should end up finding God. In this, you should end up finding yourself. Don’t miss God and don’t miss yourself here as you parse verbs and argue over predestination.”Those are wise words. It is not the intelligent who inherit the earth; it is the meek. The meek are those who know they don’t know it all, and keep searching to learn true meaning to things. If you seek God as you read the Bible, then you will find him if you search with all your heart.
- Failing to Recognize the Cultures to Which it was Written: There are many, many things mentioned in the Bible that only mean something when you consider the background of the culture. This is not easy to do, but it is so necessary. Almost every book in the Bible contains references to practices, beliefs, and reference points which are foreign to us. This is the value of not jumping to conclusions when you read the Bible. When you look at issues like slavery, place and roles of women, role of government, idol-worship, demons, head-coverings, sinful practices, etc. it is necessary to know what the people of that day believed and how God was trying to guide them. Then, when you have seen that, look for a universal principle to apply.One very common example should help. In the city of Corinth at the very southern tip of Greece, they practiced many, many strange sexual acts. The temples of that city were devoted to prostitution. Those prositutes, know as the Melissae, were experts at certain types of sex. They were the only women in Corinth who went around town with their heads uncovered. For the most part, women in Corinth did not leave their homes because they didn’t want to be accosted. That’s how many prostitutes were in that city. If they did go out, they wore full head coverings, similar to the burkas worn today in some cultures. If a woman went out without one, she was declaring herself to be a prostitute. For some reason, some women in the church in Corinth taught that since they were free in Christ, they could go to church with their heads uncovered. Therefore, Paul told them to cover their heads when they went to church. Otherwise, they would bring great shame on their families.
This is a strange teaching to apply today. Certainly, there are cultures which still require women to wear head covering, and other cultures which attach specific meaning to head coverings. The dominant culture in North America of course, is not one of those. We have other standards which we could apply here. We have both male and female expectations regarding clothing, jewelry, perfume/cologne etc. which may be violated by Christ-followers. The key when translating truth from one culture to another is to learn what a Scripture passage meant to the culture. Once you have done that, then strip away the culture from the Scripture and see what the universal truth may be. Ask God how you might apply that universal culture to your life.
- Failing to Read the Bible as One Story: As I mentioned earlier, the story of the Bible is one story. When you only read your favorite parts, or only read small little sections, the bigger story is not clear. In a nutshell, here are the Cliff notes for the Bible. You only get this when you have read it all through in a short period of time.
God created everything. God, being perfect, wanted to create a being who could choose to know Him and love Him. In order to make this choice a real choice, he gave mankind the ability to choose freely. This choice God gave them was to follow what God directed them to do, or do it their own way. The first humans, when they became aware of what God wanted, chose to do it their way. They walked away from God. And every generation of their children has been selfish, godless and destructive. God spends centuries looking for individuals who would seek after Him. He found one. A man named Abram. That man trusted God and followed as best he could in faith. God decided to use his family and descendants as a people-group to introduce God to the rest of the world. But Abram’s family went back to being conceited, violent and godless. Occasionally, there were members of that tribe who followed God and obeyed God. He used some of these people to write down truths. Eventually, through that family, God decided to be born as a human being. His name was Yeshua, a variant of Joshua. We today call Him Jesus. He lived as a human, even though he is God. Many people followed him and believed in him. In the 33rd year of his life, he gave his life as a sacrifice. He was killed by some of the selfish children of Abram because he claimed to be God–which He was and is. Then, He rose from the dead a few days after dying. Because of this, He is able to pay for all the selfishness all humans have done or will ever do. God allowed the punishment that Jesus suffered to be enough for humans. For this to be effective, each person has to accept this death and resurrection as real and want forgiveness. Many people did that and became a new family of God. That family included many from Abram’s family and many from other tribes. From that day until today, the followers of Jesus in the Christ family have been spreading the news that anyone can be in a good relationship and standing with God. Then, at the end of the book, God tells us how things are all going to end. Selfishness will battle the Family of Jesus and then Jesus will return to start a new age.