Why is the Bible at times difficult to understand? Is this a fault with the translation of the Bible from its original text? Why are there so many differing viewpoints on various issues such as: speaking in tongues, salvation, spiritual gifts etc? The Bible does not always seem to be clear. So how do we know what to believe?
The apostle Peter answers this question with a short statement when he talks about scripture that Paul has written under influence of the Holy Spirit.
. . . just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (NASB) 2 Peter 3:15-16
Even the apostle Peter had difficulty understanding scripture. Why? Peter tells us. The answer is that God gave Paul a great spiritual gift of wisdom (1 Cor. 12:8). Apparently God gave Paul greater wisdom than he gave to Peter. Here is Paul’s comment.
And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations . . . (NASB) 2 Corinthians 12:7
God has not given all of us this spiritual gift. For most of us, we learn as Peter did – by studying – hard study. In the book of Hebrews, God wanted to talk with the Jewish readers about Melchizedek but there was a problem. Here is the problem.
Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. (NASB) Hebrews 5:11-13
What was the problem? They had difficulty understanding scripture because they were on a diet of milk. They were not interested in really studying scripture since he says they were lazy or dull. The Greek word for “dull” has the idea of being sluggish. It appears they were ONLY interested in having others explain the Bible to them. God does give us men and women with the spiritual gift of teaching. God has given them special insight into scripture to help each of us understand MORE. The Jewish readers did not want to study. They were happy with being taught – nothing more. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that we can understand scripture only by constantly studying and studying. This is the path to maturity.
Now we have some new questions. Why is it that pastors and teachers disagree with each other? Here are some of the reasons.
It is sad to say but there are many in the ministry of the church who are not really Christians. They are pastors, teachers, evangelists and missionaries. Sunday after Sunday, week after week they preach or teach God’s Word, but they are not Christians – the life of the Spirit is not in them. On many occasions pastors and teachers who once stood and taught the Word are now teaching another gospel or have rejected the faith.
One man that I personally knew was a pastor for many years. He was highly respected by his fellow pastors. Then one day he started teaching New Age beliefs. He is not alone. Other men are in the ministry who do not really believe what they teach.
I am also personally aware of a pastor of a large church in Berkley, California, who does not believe that Jesus is God, was virgin born, or died for our sins. Yet, he is called a minister and a Christian. History reveals a pattern of many solid Bible believing Christian churches and schools – college, university or seminary – which now reject the Bible as being the very words of God. They now teach that God either did not write it, or it becomes God’s Word as you discover meaning in it, or scripture only contains His Words in some parts of the Bible. Most of these schools do not believe that Jesus is God. For many of these churches and institutions, it appears the longer they are in existence the farther away from truth they drift. How do they drift? It starts with the educators and leaders of the school. The evil one is at work. This impacts what is taught in Christian schools, in the pulpits, Sunday schools, and in Bible studies.
Not Spiritual or Gifted
Many who do not have a personal relationship with God enter the ministry because they like people or they enjoy the independence and status of being a pastor. Unfortunately, they do not have the Holy Spirit to help them understand scripture. So we end up with many, many different interpretations. Differences in application are okay.
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (NASB) 1 Corinthians 2:14
There are also Christian ministers and teachers who do not have the spiritual gifts of teaching and/or knowledge. Some teachers of scripture have tremendous spiritual depth because they struggle and study constantly. Teaching and studying are not the same. Some men and women are great speakers and teachers, but their words are not truth. They are powerful speakers, but the Holy Spirit is not helping them. We must remember that even a non-Christian can be a great speaker. But they are not gifted nor called by God to teach or preach. What they teach may contain errors.
Some who teach are willing to allow patterns of sin to remain in their lives. This blunts the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19) and hinders their understanding and teaching of scripture. A news article a few years ago stated that a major group of Christian churches held a pastor’s conference at a very large hotel. The news article went on to report that the hotel experienced a tremendous increase in the viewing of sexually explicit movies during the conference by these pastors. Teachers, pastors and Christian leaders are called to a higher standard (1 Peter. 5:3). The Holy Spirit cannot effectively give such men an understanding of the Word if they habitually allow sin into their lives. They cannot be constantly Spirit filled (Eph. 5:17-18).
Those who have been given the spiritual gift of teaching must constantly use it (2 Tim. 1:6). I knew a pastor who regularly taught the Word for an entire year and during that time he did not study the Bible before he preached. The folks in his church knew something was wrong with his preaching, but they did not know why. The organization and spiritual depth of his preaching was missing. The mark of a man or a woman who is spiritually growing is fresh insights and spiritual depth. The mark of one who is not spiritually growing is repetition and the hearing of the “old and true.” One who is growing has new passions and new understanding to share. He or she will be learning more scripture and connecting Old and New Testament truth together. A well that does not receive new water soon drys up and has only dirt to offer.
Untaught & Unstable
Recently I heard a well known pastor claim that Jesus was “rich,” “lived in a big house,” and “John 19 says that Jesus wore designer clothes.” Then he added, “Now that is what the Bible says.” What does the Bible say?
And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (NASB) Luke 9:58
In John 19 the only reference to Jesus wearing anything is a purple robe placed on Him by the Roman soldiers.
Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and arrayed Him in a purple robe; and they began to come up to Him, and say, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and to give Him blows in the face. (NASB) John 19:1-3
The pastor did not turn to the passage or read it when he said, “Now Jesus did not get that kind of clothes off the rack – one size fits all. No, no He wore designer clothes.” Unfortunately, the pastor was not even close to the truth. The passage he was talking about refers to a robe the soldiers placed on Jesus. Matthew 27:28 tells us the soldiers had stripped Jesus of his clothes first. So the only garment Jesus was wearing in John 19 was the robe given to Him by the soldiers. Did this pastor read the passage and miss the point – the truth? Did he have an agenda?
A teacher once told a group of single adults that if they would walk around someone of the opposite sex seven times just as the Israelites did around the walls of Jericho, the walls of the heart of the one they “loved” would fall down, and love would bloom.
Another preacher claimed that he had a revelation that God has a “soul, spirit, and a body” just like us. Another has claimed that God has a body as we do. He stands six feet, has hands and feet and weighs 200 pounds. He refers to Isaiah 40:12 as proof, but the passage only says that God “marked off the heavens by the span.” The passage says that God measured the heavens using a unit of measure called a “span” – like a ruler. If this pastor is correct, then does God also have the wings of a bird (Ps. 36:7)? There are many other examples of men who are teaching scripture who do not really know scripture and apparently do not strongly desire to accurately teach God’s Truth. They are not careful about what they teach.
. . . even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions. (NASB) 1 Timothy 1:7
Yet, they may look good, sound good, and be dynamic. It is not a difference of opinion. In many cases it is shallow study or no study at all. Nor is it deep spiritual insights but their own ideas. Often a careful study of scripture will reveal they are wrong.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, Not from the mouth of the LORD.” (NASB) Jeremiah 23:16
Any teacher can have difficulty understanding scripture if he or she is not faithfully studying every day. This means more than reading devotionals, listening to tapes, reading books about the Bible and watching Christian television. It means real study.
Pharisee At Heart
Many Christians, including pastors and teachers, have already determined what they believe. The comment, “Please do not disturb what I believe” is true for them. Some of us have become modern day Sadducees and Pharisees. Matthew 22 records a conversation between Jesus and the Sadducees. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection (Matt. 22:23). They had a question for Jesus and He responded with,
But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God. (NASB) Matt. 22:29
They were sure they understood scripture. They were not interested in what Jesus had to say. This is a great lesson for us. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to use scripture to correct any error in our understanding. A famous pastor made this point when he said, “I know there is error in my theology, I just do not know where.” We need to be willing to let God teach us something new. We must come to scripture willing to learn and be corrected. We must honestly, openly reconsider what we believe and if after a complete study we conclude that we need to change, then we must! The Sadducees and Pharisees were unwilling to do so, so they rejected Jesus!
It is also common for many Christians to state the “truth” using just one passage of scripture. This usually leads to error because scripture rarely explains everything about a topic in one place. One example is the fact that Jesus is both God and man. If we look only at 1Timothy 2:5 and ignore Titus 2:13, we could conclude that Jesus was only a man. This is a favorite tactic of the cults. Yet, too often pastors or teachers look for scripture(s) that support a point they believe or want to make. This can lead to error. They are not worried about teaching error. This is called “prooftexting.”
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. (NASB) James 3:1-2
The Pharisees and Sadducees were not concerned about error. All to often men and women have been taught theology. They know theology but not their Bible. This is very common, especially of men and women out of seminary or Christian college. Then when they come to sections of scripture that are confusing to them, they rely on their theological training rather than struggling with the full meaning of scripture. All of scripture is needed to understand scripture.
Some teachers try to cite scripture to fit pre-conceived ideas. This also leads to error. The spiritual goal of every teacher needs to be – “teach truth.” Teach what God has said!
Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth. (NASB) 2 Timothy 2:14-15
This is a common problem with many who teach God’s Word. There is never enough time to study. But some either do not want to study, do not take the time to study, or do not possess a good library of Bible reference books. Some years ago a pastor of a very large church was invited to speak at a well known seminary. Near the end of the conference, a student came to him and asked the question, “What do you do to make your church grow?” The speaker responded with, “I study and teach.” At which the student asked, “No, I mean what programs, what things do you do?” The speaker answered again, “I study and teach – that is all!” The student responded with, “I do not want to study when I pastor a church.”
Many pastors allow the “activities and responsibilities” of the church to take time away from study, preparation, and the teaching of God’s Word. Some enjoy doing teaching but do not want to study. Many teachers and pastors obtain their sermons or lessons from prepared sermons, books, and tapes. Many wait until late in the week to prepare. If they run into a passage that is hard to understand – as the apostle Peter said – they have no time to study in order to understand the meaning of the passage. So some just guess and end up teaching error.
One teacher speaking from the King James Version of Mark 12:44 declared that a poor widow wanted something from Jesus. He declared, “She wanted something from Jesus.” But both the NASB, NIV and NKJV accurately reflect the Greek. The meaning of the old English word “want” is “poverty.” She did not want something. She gave even out of her poverty. The pastor took a short cut. He did not study the original language.
Finally, some are just false teachers. They are already present in the church. They look good, but they are false teachers. Here is a warning from the apostle Paul.
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (NASB) Acts 20:29-30
In short, a person who wants to know spiritual truth needs to be a godly, spirit-filled Christian who is committed to the constant study of scripture and is highly committed to truth. He or she must seek truth at all costs, even if it means changing what he or she believes. Not everyone is willing to do that. There is only one way for each of us to know the truth. We must pray, study and depend on the Holy Spirit.
A knowledge of the original languages is a must in order to understand difficult passages and solve many passages that appear to be problems in scripture. A library of some basic Christian books from different authors will help. Some books will help the non-Greek reader understand the Bible better. One is an English-Greek interlinear Bible. I would recommend the NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, published by Zondervan. Another book is The Complete Word Study New Testament, whose author is Zodhiates. Each of us also needs someone else to teach us and to give us new insights, someone we believe that God has spiritually gifted. But we must always check their words against scripture. The Bereans checked out the apostle Paul, and scripture praises them.
Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. (NASB) Acts 17:11
Most disagreements about the meaning of scripture are minor. We must not confuse the meaning of scripture with how it applies to us. There are many applications but only one meaning for a passage. Some passages are more difficult to understand and disagreements will and do occur, not because of the original language but because scripture is not always clear. Differences will occur between those who study and those who do not, between those who know scripture and those who do not care and between those who are spiritually walking with God and those who are not. Yet, differences will occur between those who faithfully study, learning the Word of Truth, and are spiritually walking with Jesus. These men and women will need to wait until heaven to discover what is truth. Peter said it well, There are “some things hard to understand.” Even the apostle Peter had difficulty understanding Paul, and they were apostles.