You are in your favourite chair, Bible open before you, prayerfully wrestling with a passage. You desire to gain helpful spiritual insights that will move you forward in your maturity as a follower of Christ. But today’s passage is particularly difficult. It is not immediately obvious what the Spirit inspired author means.
What do you do? Two possibilities lie before you. First, like the Levite and Priest in Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, you could pass by the text and move on swiftly to another passage that is easier to understand. (Haven’t we all done that?) Alternatively, you could enter into wrestling match with the text until it yields its meaning.
For clarity, I believe that the Scriptures’ overall message is clear. It can be understood by all who desire to know it. The Bible is the communication from God to us. God knows how to communicate. To use an impressive word, the Bible is perspicuous. However, due to various reasons, none of which are the Bible’s fault, certain passages demand more rigorous effort on our part to understand. Even Peter conceded that some things in Paul’s epistles are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16).
wrestle with the text until it yields its meaning
Important to note is that they are not impossible, rather they are hard. Also, it is not all things in Paul, but only some things. The same can be said of some of the writings of other biblical authors. So we will stumble upon hard to understand texts in our Bible reading. Plainly then, to reap all the benefits of spiritual insight that the Scripture offers, we must be ready to expend mental energy. Sometimes, the mental rigor required will be more than at other times.
A text stood in the way
I have always been encouraged by the example of Martin Luther on this. Like in all things, he was tenacious in seeking to understand the Scriptures. The most famous breakthrough for him came as he tried to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans 1:17. You can almost feel the the wrestling of his soul in his words:
‘I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.’
I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St Paul wanted
The effect of this faulty understanding of the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ led Luther to have a very troubled conscience. Hear him again:
‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.’
Luther’s struggle was directly related to his understanding of what the righteousness of God revealed through the gospel. To him, it meant God placed an unattainable standard on him. He knew he would never be able to meet it no matter how much he tried. And try he did.
Beating upon Paul
Then he expresses how he dealt with Paul in Romans 1:17, “Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St Paul wanted.” This was Luther’s Bible study method. He beat upon Paul’s words repeatedly, demanding that God give up the meaning. This wrestling with Paul led to a magnificent spiritual breakthrough for Luther.
What Luther ‘discovered’ through a rigorous study of a passage irreversibly shaped him and Christianity since
Let’s read about it at length. “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
It is this breakthrough in Bible study that led to his conversion and planted the seeds for the Protestant Reformation. What Luther ‘discovered’ through a rigorous study of a passage irreversibly shaped him and Christianity since.
Wrestling until we understand
We must follow his example when we encounter difficult passages. Employ all the resources at your disposal to get underneath the text and extract its meaning. Commit yourself not to give up until you know what the author intended. As we do so, we will find that God is merciful and grants wonderful breakthroughs. These might prove to be huge for our spiritual growth.
we will find that God is merciful and grants wonderful breakthroughs
I am saying nothing of the mechanics of Bible study in this post. I am only interested in commending a particular attitude in Bible study: tenacity. I want you to be discontent with rolling over when confronted with a hard passage. Like Jacob, if I may use his overnight match with God as an illustration, I want to encourage that attitude that says to all biblical texts, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’.