I was delighted to hear that our church was starting a short series of messages from the book of Nehemiah yesterday. I fell in love with Nehemiah chapter 8 a few years ago when I was in the midst of writing a blog (which I will repost today) on the importance of clear communication. You may fall in love too, when you read the dramatic power of what happened in that chapter. To get the full impact of the change that occurred in that story, read Nehemiah 8:1-12 for yourself.
Summary: In chapter 8 we hear the story of the exiled Israelites coming back from captivity to their previous capital, Jerusalem, which was in ruins. Discouraged by their circumstances, the men, women and “all the children old enough to understand” (Neh 8:2) gathered together to hear Ezra read what we would call the first five books of the Bible. Not only did they hear the text read, but additionally thirteen leaders spread out among those listening and “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (8:8 NLT). Many commentators suggest that the large crowd was divided into smaller groups so that the 13 leaders could translate and explain the information passed down from Moses. The people responded, shaken by their realization of their sins and then elated by God’s promises to them. After this, verse 12 explains “so the people went away to eat and drink at a festival meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.” (NLT).
The people of Nehemiah’s day did not just hear the Bible being read; they were instructed in what it meant. The power of the word of God, causing life change, comes from hearing and understanding.
We, like the Israelites in Nehemiah’s time, initially approach God’s word by hearing or reading a biblical passage. The first step is understanding the words (E.g., What do the individual words mean?). This level of understanding is foundational but may be limited to the surface meaning.
The next level of understanding deals with what the passage actually means (E.g., If this is true, what does it teach or explain about God, about other people, about me, about truth? What is the deeper meaning behind the surface meaning of the words)?
Then, how does the passage apply to me and how do I need to respond to it? This is the level that the people in Nehemiah 8 reached when they understood God’s words. They understood God’s requirements, their needs, and God’s gracious provisions and promises for them. This is the level of understanding that brings about significant transformation.
Hearing/reading the words > Understanding the meaning > Applying and responding > Life change (in this case, repentance, joy)
My personal take-away: It’s important to read the Bible. But if I want the Holy Spirit to speak to me through it and change me to be more like Christ, I need to meditate on what the passage really means, apply it to my life, and respond as He leads. I am grateful for the “leaders” God has placed in my life, in person and through books, to help me understand His word.
For more on the effect of language on presenting the message of the Bible, I encourage you to read the following post, Plain Language.