A mission trip to Peru provided an experience that is perhaps the most vivid explanation of how to understand the Bible. As a medical doctor, able to read, write, and speak fluent Spanish, the group with which I traveled decided I could go alone to the most rural church in northern Peru.
In developing nations, the sermon does not end at midday. It is all encompassing, and Sabbath services continue all day. As the guest speaker, it is understood that you will teach the Sabbath School, present the sermon as well as the children’s story, give an afternoon meeting and then vespers, as well as any other possible speaking slot. If you can sing, you will also lead out in the song service and provide the special music.
Finishing vespers after sundown, the church announcements were made. They showed a book that they proposed to study for the following quarter’s prayer meeting. It was The Great Controversy, and they would have to raise money to purchase the books. Plans were made to sell things or work to acquire the books that they so desperately desired to study. Two church members, Cory and Heidi, said they would be willing to do anything for this book that they wanted to study and share with their families and friends. Returning to my hotel room, I arranged for books to be given to them.
During this trip our medical group was at a different place every day, providing free medical care. Three days after my speaking experience, we held a clinic near the church. Hundreds of people from the surrounding villages converged on the area. Many of the surrounding churches had sent members to assist us, and I could see that Cory and Heidi were helping with the hydrotherapy station.
When the opportunity came, I asked them if they had received the books. They had, and they were so excited. Six-year-old Heidi and nine-year-old Cory had already started reading their books and sharing with their families and friends. Heidi had to have her Mom read with her, not so much to share it with her Mom, but that she couldn’t understand some of the larger words in Spanish. Seeing the enthusiasm of these two children made me realize that I did not understand God’s word. I did not love God’s word at all compared to these youngsters who would prefer reading The Great Controversy over playing with toys or their friends. Returning home, I pulled out my copy of this book and reread it, going over several intriguing chapters more than once.
These two children in Peru, who would give anything to just have the opportunity to read about God, taught me the greatest thing necessary to understand the Bible.
Three Keys in Understanding the Bible
Key One – David makes quite a claim in Psalm 119:99: “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for Thy testimonies are my meditation.”
To meditate means to focus on one thing. To meditate on Scripture is different than Eastern religion’s transcendental meditation where the focus is on the word “oom” or a mantra.
Often times we neglect to stop our multi-tasking to spend time with God. We dart our prayers to Him while driving in the car or eating breakfast, which is not wrong as long as we schedule time to give Him our full attention during those intimate moments with Him, meditating on His word in the early hours of the morning.
I was baptized by Doug Tilstra, a very intriguing pastor. While talking to someone, he will not look at his watch or answer his phone, and he is never distracted. His focus is with one person at a time. More than anything else about him, I was moved by his interest in whomever he talks to; they are important and receive his complete focus. One reason we don’t understand the Bible is because we do not seek it at the loss of all other things, like Heidi and Cory. We are too distracted by many other things.
When Jesus visited His friends’ home in Bethel, Martha was so busy getting the food ready that she wasn’t focused on her guest. You can just hear the pathos in Jesus’ voice when He said, “Martha … ,” and He probably paused a little bit as she was still moving around, and then He said one more time, “Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41, 42.
Mary understood that although there were many good things in life, there was only one that was necessary. Ultimately, at the end of time, only one thing will matter, and that is going to be God and what we have done for others in His name. We have devalued an understanding of the Bible, placing more value on books, people, and academic degrees. We must seek an understanding of Jesus at the loss of all things.
Key Two – David said, “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Thy precepts.” Psalm 119:100. The ancients were those people with the long beards and were hundreds of years old; the wise people with much experience.
It is not merely meditating on God’s word that gives understanding, not only focusing in on God at the loss of all things, but there needs to be an execution of what we learn. Jesus taught a very important principle in John 7:17. He said, “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.” Isn’t it interesting that another key to understanding is in doing it!
While doing some evangelism and presenting the health message in Holland, I said that we cannot always trust the medical literature to steer us in the right direction. True science will always be in harmony with revelation, but we do not always have true science in the journals. It is a matter of time before science will catch up with the Spirit of Prophecy and, eventually, it will. To illustrate my point, I shared an article from the 1935 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which is basically the premier journal for physicians, that stated that smoking cigarettes was good for several health conditions such as asthma.
Smoking is not good for asthma, and we recognize now that the second hand smoke can cause pediatric asthma. I had presented this to show that the medical literature does not always steer us in the right direction when it comes to true laws of health. In regard to matters of health, I have reminded people many times that it is more important what comes out of our mouths than what goes in. I believe in the health message. I’m a physician; I love the message, but we need to deal with the bigger issues first.
I am amused, whenever I present the health message to an Adventist audience, that someone always asks me about mushrooms. Why mushrooms? I can present information that I know about them that are insignificant compared to other unhealthful practices. These audiences are often eating meat, eating at night, drinking alcohol, and I think the mushrooms are at the bottom. Deal with the big issues first. What we don’t seem to understand is that God is not going to give us any more light in whatever area it is until we obey and do what He has asked us in the fundamental areas, like what we say and how we treat people. Those are the major things that need to be taken care of first.
When we obey what we do know, God will help us understand what we don’t know. That’s the key to understanding the Bible.
In Steps to Christ, 110, Ellen White wrote, “Whenever men are not in word and deed seeking to be in harmony with God, then, however learned they may be, they are liable to err in their understanding of Scripture, and it is not safe to trust to their explanations.” That is a very powerful statement. It does not matter how many letters you have after your name; it does not mean anything. In word and deed, to be in harmony with the Master in heaven means everything.
“Successful work for Christ depends not so much on numbers or talent as upon pureness of purpose, the true simplicity of earnest, dependent faith.” The Desire of Ages, 370. I can’t think of any better picture of simplicity and earnest dependent faith than the two children, Heidi and Cory, in Peru.
“For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. … Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” I Corinthians 1:19–21, 25, 26.
Now I can tell you that I am very thankful that the words are “not many” instead of “not any.” I am educated, and if it said “not any,” then that would exclude me and several other people, but it says “not many.” Very, very few people who are educated, who are mighty or who are wealthy understand what God is all about. Why is that? Highly educated people, with their degrees, tend to trust more in man. People tend to judge the quality as good on their intellect and their degrees. The amazing thing is that this is the reason God chooses the foolish things and the weak things, because when we look at Heidi and Cory, with their fervor and devotion to God, it is God Who gets the glory. Heidi has not gone to Stanford University or Harvard. In fact, she has not yet even gone to school. Whereas, if someone is learned, very intelligent and talented and smooth in their presentation, there is a tendency to give that person the glory. When God chooses children, the weak things of the world, to do things like this, there is no way we can miss the illustration, and it is clear that it is God at work.
Key Three – Once you know God, putting into practice what He has revealed to you, the last step is critical. “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” Luke 6:38.
The best way to learn a subject is to teach it. When I return home from presenting meetings, I can meet someone on the street and can often remember my whole presentation to share with them. The most critical part of understanding the Bible is sharing what we do know with those around us.
There is a very important concept, which I believe is not only important for understanding the Bible but is important to being saved. It is the concept of trust. When I was young, I liked to climb those walls beside the sidewalk that started off low and gradually became a little higher. I would get up on the wall, with my Dad beside me on the pathway, and I would go higher and higher and higher, to eventually a place where the wall was about six feet high and it would end. At the end of the wall, my Dad wanted me to jump down into his arms. My Dad is a pretty big guy, so he would not have any trouble catching me. But as I got older, maybe 5, 6, or 7, I would come to the end of the wall and I would get down myself. Something had changed, and it was not because my Dad was no longer able to catch me. I had become more dependent on myself. A normal part of human nature is to become self-sufficient and independent, but that is lethal to your spiritual life. The more dependent you are on yourself and your own abilities, the less likely you will be saved. Jesus tells us this is critical, not only to understanding the Bible but to salvation itself. “And [He] said, Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3. Because a child is dependent, it is humble and teachable. It is far easier for God to save little children than you and me.
I praise God that He had mercy upon my soul and sent me two children in Peru to teach me what it really means to understand His word.
“God can teach you more in one moment by His Holy Spirit than you could learn from the great men of the earth.” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 119. That is very impressive!
“Understanding of Bible truth depends not so much on the power of intellect brought to the search as on the singleness of purpose, the earnest longing after righteousness.” The Great Controversy, 599.
You may not have a PhD; you may not have any formal education at all. You may not have gone to school past high school or even elementary school, but you can understand the Bible. In fact, you may be able to understand the Bible much better than those who have gone to school, because you are not dependent upon yourself but are dependent upon Jesus Christ. As you open God’s word, I pray that you will remember the toothless grin of six-year-old Heidi, deep in Peru with her nine-year-old friend Cory, and remember that the key to understanding God’s word is to seek it with all your heart at the loss of all other things and to obey what God reveals to you and to share it with others. Ultimately, although we are not all children, unless we become as little children we will never understand God and His truth and be saved.
Tim Riesenberger is an ER physician in Washington state with a passion to share the gospel both locally within the United States of America and also in foreign mission fields. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.