Not Understanding Is Not a Sin

“I really want to study the Bible; I do. It’s just that every time I pick it up, I start reading and come across something that doesn’t make any sense to me. I try to understand it, but I eventually lose interest and go and do something else. Then I feel guilty because I’ve given up.”
I’m convinced that the above words represent the story of a lot of people and their relationship with the Bible. If these words resemble anything that you’ve said or felt and if you still feel this way, I want you to know something: you are not alone! In fact, I want to share with you a story that I hope will both give you encouragement and get you back on the journey of understanding.

A long time ago, there was a man who somehow heard about the God of the Bible. Though he knew about God, he evidently didn’t know about Jesus Christ or His church. He does seem to have known something about the Old Testament and enough to determine that he needed to go to Jerusalem to find out more about this God and the people to whom He had revealed Himself known as the Israelites.

This man made a journey from his home in Ethiopia all the way to Jerusalem, over 1500 miles as the bird flies and probably between two and three thousand miles using his mode of transportation, a chariot. The journey would have taken a great deal of time, a commodity that this man couldn’t possibly have had much of to spare. Though he had reached a high standing in the royal court of his country, he was a eunuch, which meant that he had been physically mutilated and was possibly a slave. Like the Old Testament character Nehemiah, he evidently had a gracious monarch (master?) who granted him a leave of absence.

What this eunuch found when he reached Jerusalem must have been quite disheartening. As both a gentile and a eunuch, he was twice excluded from participating in the innermost festivities of the temple. However, it appears that he wanted to know more about God so badly that he managed to find, and, at what was likely a great cost to him, obtain a copy of a book from the Bible, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.1 What he couldn’t find or even buy unfortunately was someone to tell him what it meant.

If this story is ringing a bell at all, it’s because it’s actually found in the Bible in Acts 8. When Acts picks up the Eunuch’s story, he’s returning from his visit to Jerusalem, doing his best to read the Isaiah scroll that he’d purchased as his chariot bounced down a long desert road. He’s approached on the road by a Christian preacher named Phillip who asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). Please take note of his response: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). He’d clearly put in a lot of effort, but he didn’t understand the Bible.

Self-reliance is a value that many of us are taught from a young age. If something isn’t working out for us, we’re told or we feel, it’s because we haven’t worked hard enough or for long enough. No amount of hard work though would have resulted in the Ethiopian eunuch understanding what Isaiah was writing about. God didn’t intend for him to slave over the text until it became clear; he intended for him to be taught the truth by another Christian. Might I suggest that His intentions for us are not all that different?

I know that some portions of the Bible can be read and understood (Ephesians 3:4). I know that understanding sometimes is about my choice and my effort (Ephesians 5:17). I also know though that some things are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). I know further that the call of Christianity is not only for the scholarly; in fact, as Paul remarked on the membership of the Corinthian church, he said, “Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position” (1 Corinthians 1:26 NET).

Some, perhaps most of the early Christians couldn’t read. Copies of the Bible came book by book and at a high price, so few would have had a Bible to read. I’m going to suggest that understanding for these early Christians wasn’t about toiling away with personal copies of the Bible. A more historically accurate picture of the often-cited Acts 17:11 would see the “fair-minded” Bereans who “searched the Scriptures” doing so in “the synagogue of the Jews” (Acts 17:10) instead of their individual homes. There, using communal copies of Old Testament instead of personal copies, the literate would have read aloud, and all would have helped each other in the shared journey of seeking understanding.

Jesus didn’t send out His disciples to become scribes or publishers. Instead, He sent them out to become teachers and disciple makers. It was always His plan that people would help each other to understand.

Let me say again: if you’re struggling to understand the Bible, you’re not alone. And let me add this: God doesn’t want you to stay alone! Don’t be afraid to say to a preacher, teacher, elder, or mature fellow-Christian, “How can I understand this passage if someone doesn’t guide me?” I’m sure you’ll find what the Ethiopian found: a Christian happy to help.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
____________________________________________
1 Extrapolating from the well-substantiated figures provided for the cost of producing New Testament epistles by E. Randolf Richards in his work, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, one can safely assume Isaiah would have cost the eunuch about as much as the entire salary a working man earned in one month for skilled labor and in two months for unskilled labor.

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