We recently purchased a small fire-proof safe for our home in which to keep important papers. As I was learning to work the combination dial, the first time or two I couldn’t get it opened. I initially thought there was something wrong with the safe . . . until I re-read the directions. I simply hadn’t followed the steps correctly. I had the right numbers, but I had not spun the dial the right number of times in the correct direction. Once I gave attention to the directions, the safe clicked open without difficulty. It was a simple thing. I just need to make sure I had not overlooked any of the instructions.
Although Biblical texts are not all “sets of instructions,” the underlying idea is still essential. When reading, we shouldn’t skip over any of the words that we find there in the text. To grasp what any passage says, we will have to attend to the words in the passage.
I saw this clearly in a conversation I had with a friend. We were reading and discussing Romans 3. Here’s the text we were working through:
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21–26)
We bumped against the last phrase of the passage: “So that [God] would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” I asked, “What does Paul mean by saying that God is both just and the justifier of the one who believes?” The response? Well, it means he saves those who believe.
Not that is absolutely true. But that isn’t all Paul was saying in writing what he did.
So we went back through the text, determined not to skip any of the words. We wrestled with “justification” and “redemption;” we sought to think well about “propitiation” and God’s “forbearance.” We realized that we had been a bit casual in how we read those words. We hadn’t initially slowed down to think; we just read the passage with our already formed conclusion in mind–Jesus died for sinners to provide forgiveness.
But once we read all the words–once we gave careful attention to what was actually written–we had to stop and rejoice. There was something there, in the text, we just hadn’t seen in our casual reading. We had spun the dial but nothing clicked . . . until we slowed down and decide not to skip any of the words.
And that caused me to think better about those times when I find a text that seems particularly difficult to understand. Perhaps it’s not that the text is all that hard. Maybe it’s just that I’ve spun the dial without really being attentive to what is there, in the passage.