The Bible is God's word. We know this is true not only by faith but because countless people have heard from God and experienced God while reading and meditating on its words.
Sure, you can hear from God at any time in any place. You can hear God while running or fishing on a lake. You can hear God while reading the newspaper or watching the news. You can even hear God while listening to a sermon!
But there is something special about the Bible. It is a specially designated place to hear from God, like prayer or worship. It is a divinely appointed "means of grace," an instrument that God uses to transform and change us.
It is not just about ideas and answers. Certainly God is welcome to use the Bible to give you answers to your questions. He can speak however he wishes. That's what it means to be God.
But the Bible also records moments where God's people expressed their fears, their sorrows, their joys, even their anger. The psalms are not so much about teaching us lessons as instances of God's people crying out to God. The prophets involved not only correction to God's people but they offered hope for the future as well. Certainly much of the New Testament is more about giving us hope for tomorrow than it is about giving us the answers to a test.
Much of the Bible was about how to live at specific times and places. These were God's authoritative commands for his people in various circumstances. We need to be careful to recognize those points at which our contexts are the same and those where ours are so different that God's will does not play out exactly the same.
At the same time, the Holy Spirit seems to do just fine whether we pay attention to these finer points or not. Apparently, God can speak through the words of the Bible even when our interpretations are far from anything Paul or Isaiah would recognize. Perhaps by the end of this book you will be amazed at the extent to which God must speak to us despite the limitations of our understanding.
Of course a great deal of what people think is a word from God is just as likely their own imagination. Indeed, some people have heard God tell them things that are hateful or even downright evil. God will not tell you to have an affair or to murder some group of people.
Different Christian groups tend to approach the Bible in different ways. Those that are more charismatic or pneumatic may hear God saying things completely unrelated to what a biblical text actually meant. Others that are more historically oriented may so delve into the historical meaning of the text that the Bible becomes a distant or dissected document that hardly speaks to them. There are thus cautions to be made on every side.
Each approach has its own ambiguities. Those who hear spiritual revelations out of context often lack clear means by which to arbitrate between competing interpretations. Those who focus on the original meaning will have to clarify how to get from that time to this time, and significant uncertainty often comes into play here.
The purpose of this book is to present the basic issues and methods that are part of reading the Bible in its original context. Our intent is not to diminish the more direct way that God often speaks to people through the words of the Bible. But there was an actual meaning the Bible had to its first audiences, and surely that is not irrelevant to understanding the Bible as God's word.
There is a scenario that can take place here, one that I want to air as a cautionary tale before we begin...