Does the Holy Spirit Speak Through My NIV?

I recently had an interesting conversation with someone named Dan about the value of exegesis and the role of the Holy Spirit in helping us understand God’s Word. I made the argument that faithfully studying the context, author, purpose, audience, and even the languages can help us to more fully understand a text. This doesn’t negate the role of the Holy Spirit in illuminating the words on the page but I think these language and contextual tools are helpful.

Dan said,

I agree that there is certainly value in studying the original language and historical aspects of a text, but I would lean toward those being nonessential, because ultimately The Bible is nothing but words without God’s Spirit working in the heart of the reader/hearer.”

I wouldn’t say they are nonessential. I would even say that they are essential because without them we wouldn’t even have an English translation. Further, I would say that the more questions we ask of a text and the more we can use cultural and contextual and linguistic tools to help us answer them, the more faithful we are as students of the Word.

When we get a letter in the mail it’s helpful to know the author, the recipient(s), the subject, the purpose, etc. Why wouldn’t we also employ what we know about a biblical text to help us more fully understand the message? Especially since that text is from a culture years removed from ours today. There is a lot of insight that can be gleaned just from doing 5 minutes of research from a commentary or with a word study. Again, no seminary education necessary just a healthy desire to meditate on and study God’s Word.

An Example

One Sunday I was preaching on Hebrews 10:24-25. It starts with “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,”. There’s no doubt that this is a pretty straightforward verse but after meditating and praying and studying, God gave me some insight into this text that wouldn’t have come simply from the NIV.

Tool: Sentence Structure

First, as I looked at the structure of the sentence in Greek, I discovered that ‘one another’ is the direct object of the verb that is translated ‘consider’. So, ‘let us consider one another‘ rather than ‘consider how to…’ This makes it a people orientation rather than a task orientation. This text is telling us to think about the people, not the plans.

Tool: Word Study

Next I looked at the word ‘consider’ that can also be translated ‘understand’. So, let us understand one another. We need to spend time with one another to do that. We need to care about one another to do that. This is a passage about Godly fellowship.

Tool: Context

Finally, I discovered that the author of Hebrews only uses ‘consider’ two times but in Hebrews 3:1 the NIV translates it like this: “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus…” So in chapter 3 he tells his audience to fix their thoughts on Jesus and in Hebrews 10 he tells them to fix their thoughts on one another. The parallel is obvious and it brings to mind the Great Command of Jesus to love God and to love one another. I love the idea that we should be fixing our thoughts on Jesus and on one another!

So, from this passage I get the following exhortation: Let us fix our thoughts on one another and really understand one another so that love and good deeds are provoked naturally. We don’t want to just come up with strategies and plans or a system to fit everyone into some sort of ministry structure, we want to fix our thoughts on one another.

Where was the Holy Spirit in all of this? He’s all over it. From inspiring the original authors, to preserving the text through the ages, to equipping faithful translators, to my own thinking, study and proclamation and everything in-between. So, can the Holy Spirit speak through my NIV? Of course, but the question is, are we using as many tools at our disposal to listen?

What do you think? Are Greek and Hebrew and archaeology and context and culture nonessential when it comes to understanding the Word of God? Aren’t these tools a form of listening and if we have access to these tools shouldn’t we employ them? Or do we reject them and just trust that the Holy Spirit will fill in the gaps of our ignorance?

Nathan is the pastor of City Life Church in Ridgewood, NY. He and his family are committed to making and multiplying disciples in the most diverse county in the US. Read more about Nathan here. Visit the City Life Church website here.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sara

    I would also say they are non-essential for most people. God calls some to dig deeper into the original meaning and language (like Bible translators, for example), but the Holy Spirit is sufficient to translate, transliterate, interpret for people who have the Bible in their language already.

    • I agree that some feel called to add to their tool chest, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we are all called to study the Word with as much diligence as possible. That is what the Holy Spirit honors. How many times is a verse taken out of context and used destructively but someone says, “this is what the Holy Spirit is saying to me.” Instead, if they would simply take some extra time to understand the verses surrounding it and perhaps think for a few extra minutes about the author and the audience and maybe a few other details might help them understand what the verse is actually saying. Again, this doesn’t mean a seminary education or fluency in Greek and Hebrew, this means having a deep desire to understand God’s Word. Yes, the Holy Spirit illuminates, but if we don’t carefully study then we aren’t allowing him to study. Understanding Greek might not be essential for everyone but faithful “listening” is.

  • Wesley

    I think Dan’s thoughts are valid, but the main issue may be that you two were discussing two different topics. Dan seems to be speaking of the application of Scripture (what it means to the individual) and Nathan, you seem to be speaking of interpretation (what the passage actually meant to the original hearer). Although I agree with Dan and Sara that the Holy Spirit brings substance to the Word of God and is able to bring application, I also believe that good interpretation brings better application. The Spirit leads through the entire process but not utilizing the tools available to us to increase our knowledge and understanding of the passage seems a bit lazy. Relationships are work. Our relationship with God is no different. We must be disciplined and work at our communication with Him (through prayer, being still and listening for the Spirit’s leading, and Bible study). I feel this a calling for every believer, not just those led to translate or teach.

    • Thanks Wesley for the clarification. It’s true, this conversation actually came up when we were talking about expository preaching. However, see my note to Sara that my point is that regardless of what tools we have in our tool chest we need to meditate and study God’s Word in order to hear God speak. I’m not simply concerned with what the text meant to the original hearer. Instead, I think it’s important to realize that a verse doesn’t mean 6 different things and the Holy Spirit isn’t speaking in 6 different ways. The verse means exactly what the original author intended for the original audience to understand. Our prayer, as we study, is that the Holy Spirit will help us to understand what He was saying to them and what that means for us. Otherwise, the Bible means whatever we want it to mean and we can just claim that it was the Holy Spirit who told us so.

      • Wesley

        Agreed. I would also suggest that their is ONE interpretation (the original meaning for original audience from original author), but there are many applications. I feel that the Spirit takes the freedom to apply Scripture into our lives by illuminating the truth interpreted into our context. This is not a reinterpretation but merely a reapplication. The truth communicated 6000 to 2000 years ago is still true, but its application into the reader’s lives is different. Fleeing sexual immorality is still the truth but it is fled from in different ways today than it was when the Holy Spirit led Paul to write the words. I guess that is what I was trying to say.

        • Makes sense and that’s what I thought you were saying. Good stuff!

  • He doesn’t have to YELL so loud if we’ve done our homework .)