When studying or reading the Bible, I’ve heard countless people say that we shouldn’t ask, “What does this verse mean to me?” Those who forbid this question will then rail on how dangerous it is to focus on the “me.” They will say, “It doesn’t matter what it means to you. It matters what God meant, and what Paul, Peter, or Moses meant.”
I want you to ask what it means to you. It’s a necessity.
Now, I think I know what people are warning. They want Christians to avoid conjuring up a multitude of meanings for a biblical text. They don’t want a small group study to spin out of control as Christians argue over their versions of what the biblical authors meant. Nor do I.
The reality is, there is an objective truth. Every biblical text was written with authorial intent—human author and the Spirit. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church for a variety of reasons, and God has provided that word to us too. Solomon wrote much of Proverbs to teach his sons. God wrote Proverbs to teach us how to think, feel, and act like Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God.
Readers do not assign interpretive meaning to a text. It’s already there. And here is the key: what do we even mean by mean?
The Meanings of Meaning
We need to ask what we mean when we ask, “What does this mean to me?” If we mean by mean, an interpretation, well, there are ways of discovering that meaning. Context, grammar, flow, sentence structure, cross-references, theology, church tradition, etc. On this level, it should mean what it meant, what is intended.
But there is another common sense and popular way of using, “What does this mean to me?”
- What does this mean for my life?
- My walk with Christ?
- What significance does the reality of this passage—of God’s wisdom—have on my spirituality?
- Since these words are true, what does this mean for me today?
We must ask what it means to us, to our lives, to our personal discipleship. Kevin Vanhoozer states in his great work, Is There A Meaning in this Text?, “‘What it means’ is ultimately not a matter of theory only but of practice” (431). Meaning is connected to doing, to cross-bearing, to living resurrected with Christ.
This level of meaning is seeking the significance of the text on the Christian life. The meaning/significance/application can vary from person to person. “The meaning of Scripture is revelatory and fixed by the canonical context; the significance of the Word is relative and open to contemporary contexts” (Vanhoozer, 423). I would also add that the significance is relative to each Christian’s context—life-stage, situations, sufferings, age, maturity, etc.
"Unless we thus read all Scripture with self-application, we shall do just enough to flatter and deceive ourselves that we are something when we are nothing."
— Henry Venn (d. 1797)
For example, your small group is studying Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and you get to the part where Jesus addresses lust and adultery (Matt 5:27–30). The interpretive meaning is simple, straightforward, plain as day—Jesus wants his followers to repent of any and all lust. That meaning is then granulated into the specific situations of each person’s life—their temptations, choices, and unrepentant sin. One person may need to confess a sexual sin. Another person may be convicted about certain accounts she follows on TikTok. Another may be compelled to repent of glaring at the opposite sex at the gym. Spirit-breathed sentences give life and breath to meaningful, significant steps in sanctification.
Meaning Begets Meaning
In my previous example, the meaning for every Christian was the same, and the meaning—significance, force, change—was different. We need to operate in this double-meaning of meaning. This is how we become hearers and doers of the word. It’s far too easy to accurately attest to the meaning/truth of a text, without reckoning with the meaning/personalized application of that same text. Vanhoozer says that “the Bible may be significant in different ways to different readers who nevertheless agree that there is a single meaning in the text” (424). Meaning doesn’t change; it widens, deepens, expands, consumes, and calls us to die and rise with Christ. The Holy Spirit drives the meaning home, not by altering it but by amplifying it.
Significance is situational, connected to the immediate context of the Christian’s life—their trials, temptations, sufferings, good works, joys, and sorrows. Christians that have gone through profound suffering will often find that certain Psalms mean more to them than they did before. The truth never changed. The reader has been changed, and therefore, the meaning of Psalm 23 has deepened for them.
Nobody ever outgrows Scripture, the book widens and deepens with our years.”
— C.H. Spurgeon
Discover what a passage means in its grammar and prepositions. And then discover what it means to you—for you—in light of the gospel and personal piety. Study the words, study your life, and follow Christ accordingly. “We show that we understand Scripture when we recognize Christ, the wisdom of God, and follow him” (Vanhoozer, 381).