Mark Twain observed that “common sense is very uncommon.”
That observation can often be applied to our approach to Bible Study. Common sense says, this book is not just a book of words and moral beliefs. It is God’s word spoken and written to a different people in a different culture. If it wasn’t always easy for those who heard it originally to get it, then perhaps it’s not going to be easy for me to get it. My goodness, on multiple occasions the disciples sat scratching their heads about something Jesus had said.
If we stop and reflect, when we take-up anything, whether it’s woodworking, running a marathon, growing a garden, or baking a special cake, it requires us to do some preparation—some work. Most of us wouldn’t just go out and buy a saw and start building a new dining table. It’s unlikely any of us would just get up one morning and show up at the starting line to run our first marathon. We read, we study, we workout, we ask questions, we prepare.
The same is true when it comes to Bible Study. It’s unrealistic to think we just pick up the Book and automatically understand each book, chapter, and verse. That’s not to say we can’t with the aid of the Holy Spirit, it’s to say it’s unlikely. We might get an overview of a text, but not the nuance of the text that adds texture and flavor. Here’s an example. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he says that we are to be salt and light. Here’s the exact verse from Matt. 5:13-16 in the NIV:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
We have heard these verses a lot, even memorized them. We may approach the text casually and with some pre-understanding of what these verses mean. I’m guilty of that myself. It’s almost, “Yeah, let’s get on to the important stuff.” But what we’re reading is the important stuff.
When looking at verse 13, we usually focus on the “salt”. That’s understandable because salt was an essential ingredient when it came to preserving food, eating food, and perhaps most important of all, a reflection of establishing a “covenant” or treaty between two parties. Something very common then and even now among many Arab cultures.
But what about the phrase, “lost its taste”? There’s some real significance in that idea. It’s not just a word in the original language that denotes a lack of seasoning ability. The root word, from which we get our word moron or simpleton, means to act foolishly. Losing taste is not just a matter of tastelessness or lack of preservative power. To a certain degree, it’s a matter of losing sensibility. If I may, acting opposite of the intended purpose or goal. Knowing this gives the phrase a bit more vigor, wouldn’t you say?
What about light in verse 14? Even the smallest candle can shed great light in a totally dark environment. We don’t have to be MacGyver to figure that one out. But, and it’s a big but, Jesus says his disciples are to let their light shine—even in a dark world—in such a way that people cannot ignore the light, but see it and give glory to God.
Now, in a few chapters, Jesus is going to chastise the religious leaders for doing just what he’s suggesting the disciples do—doing their “good works” in front of people in order to be seen. So perhaps there are two things to consider in this verse: 1) what are these “good works”? And 2) how are good works to be done? That is, how are our good works to be done correctly so they are seen and bring glory to God and not to self?
“Marinate on that.” As one local pastor is fond of saying.
When we come to a text and begin to ask these kinds of questions about what we’re reading, we’re going to make some valuable discoveries. Of course, it’s going to require some tools. We’re going to have to do some preparation in order to intentionally engage the text. We don’t just jump in and bake that triple-decker cake without reading a recipe that provides the ingredients and the steps to follow.
Preparation is vital. And that’s what we’ll talk about next week.