The Bible Lacks Meaning – I mean It!

[This is part one of a series on the Bible and meaning/meaninglessness. Part two will be up next Monday.]


Some people read the Bible as if it were a Rorschach ink blot:  all impressions are equally valid.

Ink blot (What do you think it means?)

If that were the case, though, then passages like this would be meaningless:

… you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (1 Timothy 3:15-17.)

My take: God’s word means something, but it doesn’t mean everything.

The passage from 1 timothy 3 is a good place to begin understanding the Bible’s meaning or purpose. And when a book has a purpose it’s not fair to then read the words as if we could make them mean anything we want them to.

  • For example, try reading a recipe and then assigning your own meaning. The chili recipe’s list of ingredients includes cayenne pepper? Go ahead and read that as meaning you should use strawberry jelly. After all, they’re both red, right?
  • Or perhaps you’re on jury duty and the judge instructs jurors not to talk about the case with any other person. You hear the word “person” and think, “Well, the internet is not a person so I can write all about the case on Facebook and Twitter!” I bet the judge would rather you not come up with your own meaning for the jury instructions.
  • Maybe your car is low on oil, so you read the manual to see what to do. It says to fill with oil to the level on the dipstick. That seems like a waste of time because you’ll just need to add more again later, so you decide the manual must mean to fill above the line and you put in a couple extra quarts. Let’s see how that works out for your engine as the oil pressure goes higher – much higher – than the car is designed to handle.

As I said above, it’s important to get the author’s meaning when reading.

With the Bible, that means not only reading it carefully but also comparing what one part of it says to what another part says. Sometimes that’s easy, such as when Jesus quotes a prophet from the Old Testament and says he is fulfilling a prophecy.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21.)

Other times we need to find the reference for ourselves, as in seeing the fulfillment of Old Testament visions in the Book of Revelation. Compare these two passages:

I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. (Daniel 7:11.)

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. (Revelation 20:7.)

But one thing we can’t do is read these passages and make up our own meaning to them. Well, I suppose we can. But it won’t give us a right understanding, and it won’t give us the blessings described in 1 Timothy 3 above. How to understand the Daniel and Revelation passages, then? Start by reading the rest of the Bible to get the entire context of God’s work in this world.

Not an ink blot (What does God mean in the words it says?)

So when I said the Bible lacks meaning, I meant it. The Bible does not mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.

But it also does not lack meaning. It means what God says it means.

If there’s something worth reading and understanding, it’s reading and understanding what God’s word means.


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16 Responses to The Bible Lacks Meaning – I mean It!

  1. Thank you for a very apt and enjoyable post! I once read a great description of reading any given verse or sentence as an isolated piece of guidance: the author compared it to Mao’s “Little Red Book”, saying that some people read the Bible as though it were a collection of wise sayings from Chairman God.

  2. Aimee Byrd says:

    Preach! This very issue came up in our Sunday School class this week. It’s always interesting when those who didn’t even bother to look at the passage, much less to actually do their homework, wants to offers their opinion of a verse that contradicts the teacher’s. We have this silly idea that all opinions are valid.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Aimee. Sometimes I think the people who spout off like that think the teacher is also only expressing an opinion about a passage. The listener might not realize the teacher has done the heavy lifting before standing up in front of the class. It’s a facile way to look at it, but from my teaching experience it’s not uncommon.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this post, Tim. I’m involved in a study at church right now of Beth Moore’s “Jesus, the One and Only” (based on Luke). I’m continually impressed and enlightened by the “heavy lifting” Moore has done (background O.T. passages, word studies, etc.) to clarify the meaning of the gospel passages — verses I’ve probably read 50 times yet never completely understood. I’m learning so much from it. So I think you’ve made very good points here.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jeannie. I’ve done a few Beth Moore studies too, and have been impressed by the background she’s been able to bring forth. I don’t always agree with her doctrine (she’s decidedly dispensational from what I could tell in her Daniel study) but it’s not a matter that prevents me learning from her.

      • frances says:

        And she claims to “hear from God”.. as in, audibly. I for one am staying far away!
        Tim- just discovered your blog today. Thank you for perservering in the open! 😉

        • Tim says:

          I’ve heard a couple comments like that in her videos, but couldn’t tell if she was speaking more figuratively or if she meant audible to her hears.

          Thanks for your kind words about the blog too, Frances!

  4. Laura says:

    Good post Tim. In an on-line conversation recently, it was emphasized “Never read a Bible verse” – meaning the importance of context.

  5. Rev. Carlene Appel says:

    Good piece on the importance of reading in context. It’s what I also teach about Bible interpretation as well. There’s way too much of what I call “Salad Bar Theology” out there. (the Bible being the salad bar that people take a verse here a verse there from and arrange them on their theological “plate” to justify their interpretation of the Scriptures.) There are even some pastors and famous Bible teachers and preachers who insist that their interpretation is THE correct one and you’re headed for Hell in a hand basket if you disagree with them. I remember back when the Southern Baptist Church was taken over by a very small group of people who declared that women pastors and women’s ordination were unbiblical. SBC missionaries, churches and other SBC related institutions who wouldn’t sign a statement that towed this new party’s line had their funding cut off. The result was a mass exodus. Some of my seminary professors who were published authors were former SBC people who had taught at Southern seminary.

    When I was a church pastor, even though I spent a minimum of 20 hrs. each week preparing a sermon, I would tell people to go and study it for themselves. My reason for this was the desire for an intelligent, biblically literate congregation. There was no basket by the sanctuary door for attendees to check their brains into before they came in. My interpretation, regardless of all the hours put into it, was never to be the end all be all “how dare you question it” interpretation.

    That was a good illustration with the recipes. If someone was making a cake and they decided to leave out a key ingredient–say sugar—because they were insisting that “this is the way it is” the result would not be correct. However, you could have 5 different bakers give you a recipe for the same thing all a little different from one another, and each one is still a valid way to make the product. They are just variations on the same thing, but you will notice there are key ingredients common to all. I find this same scenario when I’m reading Bible commentaries during sermon prep after sitting with the passage for a while. I’ll look at perhaps half a dozen all from differing theological perspectives (conservative, liberal, dispensational, amillenial, etc.) and find that there is always a common thread and theme amongst them

  6. Rev. Carlene Appel says:

    Thanks Tim. A lot of people seem to like the phrase too. I suspect because it draws a word picture of something nearly everyone is familiar with. Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” fame is a master at this. He’s so good that if he paints a word picture of say, a snow drift on a hillside, you can see the snow crystals in your mind. Jesus of course is THE master of word pictures using Middle Eastern storyteller techniques especially hyperbole. His audience knew that if their right hands were offensive he didn’t mean to literally cut them off.

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  8. Pingback: The Meaninglessness of the Bible | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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