Interview with Matthew S. Harmon, author of ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING AND APPLYING THE BIBLE

Published on September 5, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Crossway, 2017 | 144 pages

Matthew Harmon wants to disabuse you of the mistaken notion that only the professionals can read the Bible profitably.

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, and I have to say that reading Harmon’s new book, Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible, is genuinely exciting. Profitable Bible reading was never intended to be reserved for scholars only, and Dr. Harmon is with us today to tell us just how that is so.
Matthew, great to have you with us again!

Harmon:
Thank you, Fred. I appreciate it.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, tell us first—who is your intended audience, and what is the contribution you are hoping to make with this book.

Harmon:
Well, I really tried to write Asking the Right Questions in a way that I think any believer can really profit from. I understand that I live in a world where I’m interested in books and like to read a lot and a lot of my friends do; but, there’s plenty of believers who are not necessarily big readers. So, if you want to give them a book about how to help them read the Bible it needs to be something that they can easily grasp onto and not something that is going to overwhelm them. I really wanted to help any believer learn to understand and apply the Bible well. But I’ve also seen believers who have been walking with the Lord for many years start to use the principles and the tools that I provide in this book and found it very helpful as well. So, I really think that any believer who wants to grow in their ability to understand and apply God’s Word can really benefit from this.

 

Zaspel:
In Part 1 of your book you “Lay the Foundation.” Here you talk about the “big picture” of the Bible, the story-line, especially as it is advanced by the covenants. Just very briefly, tell us how this helps set up the reader for more profitable Bible reading.

Harmon:
I think that when we approach the Bible, one of the dangers that we can encounter is that when we come to it with our own pre-existing, self-centered worldview and then we read the Bible, we end up pulling out these little snippets that we then try to twist and distort and put into our own pre-existing, self-centered worldview system. So, what I try to do in that opening chapter is to explain—here’s the basic story of the Bible that runs from Genesis to Revelation. And that’s the true story of the world; that’s the story that gives our lives meaning and purpose and significance. And so, when we understand, or at least have a basic grasp of that, then we are in position to understand the individual parts of the Bible that we might read as we are working through our daily Bible reading or other exposures to God’s Word. I wanted to get that basic, “big picture” map as a reference point so that when you read any passage you have a better sense of, “Okay, this is the kind of book the Bible is, and that should shape how I understand and apply it to my own life.”

 

Zaspel:
How to fit each little picture into the big picture.

Harmon:
Absolutely. In my experience so many believers have a lot of pieces of the Bible in place, and so they have heard Sunday school lessons or sermons on the famous stories of the Bible or certain parts of it, but they don’t really have a good sense of how that fits into the larger sweep of what God is doing in the world as revealed from Genesis to Revelation.

 

Zaspel:
Next here you describe the purpose of the Bible with reference to those who read it, making it individualized. Highlight that for us.

Harmon:
The ultimate purpose of God giving us the Bible is to transform us so that we more and more closely reflect his son, Jesus. And there can be a danger, I think, sometimes that we approach the Bible as if God gave it simply for informational purposes, rather than understanding it as—not only does God want me to understand, in an intellectual sense, what the Bible says, but there is a call for a response in what the Bible says and I’m responsible to respond in the way that God expects me to. And so, the idea of emphasizing that is to highlight this. We need to have as our mindset, God gave me this book to make me more like Christ, not just to fill in the blanks of some interesting information that might be helpful to me somewhere along the lines. As God shows us who he is in the Bible, he also shows us who we are and in that combination of things comes the dynamic mix for us growing in our resemblance to Jesus.

 

Zaspel:
In the next two major sections of your book you address how to read the Bible itself and how to read our own lives. Let’s take that first part. In summary, how can we approach Bible reading in order to read profitably?

Harmon:
Yes. I take is my starting point, Jesus’ own teaching; and I think this is a neglected piece of how we should read the Bible, because Jesus does have some very specific things to say about how we are to read the Bible. I talk a little bit about his encounter with the religious leaders in John 5:39, where he is interacting with these individuals who were experts in the Old Testament law and yet he rebukes them because they’ve missed the main point of the Scriptures, who is standing right in front of them. So, that’s something that we need to pay attention to if there’s a possibility of really knowing the content of the Bible really well, but missing the main point, and that’s Jesus.

Another key passage where Jesus addresses this is in Luke 24, where in two separate incidents the risen Jesus explains to his followers that the entire Bible, every part of it, in some way points to Him. Whether it’s his suffering, his death, his resurrection, and the announcement of repentance and forgiveness going to the ends of the earth, all of the Bible in some fashion, every passage, relates somehow to that basic summary of the Bible that Jesus gives. And so, I would simply say if you are going to read the Bible, you need to do it the way Jesus tells us to read the Bible. So every time you’re reading passage of Scripture, you need to be thinking about how does this connect to that larger story of the Christ and his sufferings and the announcement of repentance and forgiveness going to the ends of the earth. So, that’s kind of my starting point when it comes to reading the Bible well.

Now, in addition to that, I think there’s another little piece that we need to keep in mind here. And that’s the distinction between the Bible being written for us, but not to us. And this is a mistake that we can make. What I mean by this distinction is that none of us today are ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness receiving revelation from God through Moses, directly. None of us are first century Philippians or Romans or Ephesians. None of us are Jews living in exile, hearing the prophets message, directly to us. Yet, at the same time, the Bible was written for us as present-day believers and helping us keep that distinction in mind is important so that we don’t just draw a straight line from, “Well, the Bible says this; so, I need to immediately do this,” because it’s more complicated than that. Everyone, I think, recognizes that, even if they don’t articulate it. Because, when believers read through Leviticus, you don’t see them offering the sacrifices that Leviticus prescribes. They can’t necessarily explain why, they just might have a general sense that we are not supposed to do that anymore. And so, remembering that distinction helps us pause for a minute and say, “Okay, how does this particular command or instruction from God apply to us, today, in comparison to the original recipients?” Keeping that in mind, I think, is a helpful caution that we don’t make some very simplistic but unfortunate mistakes when applying the Bible.

 

Zaspel:
Explain for us what you have for us in Part 3, “Reading Our Lives.” How does “reading our lives” bear on profitable Bible reading?

Harmon:
Actually, let me just add one more thing to that previous part if I could.
In part two, that section concludes with a series of four questions that I use as the template for any passage of Scripture that I am reading. So, everything leading up to that sets the framework for these very simple and basic questions. I almost feel sheepish sometimes sharing them, because they are not crazy-profound; they are very simple. Those four questions are simply these: Number one – What do we learn about God? If the Bible was a book about God first and foremost, then that should be the first question we are asking ourselves of any passage. Second – What do we learn about people? What does God show was about ourselves and about other people in that passage? Third – What do we learn about relating to God? How are we supposed to interact with him and how does he interact with us? And then, fourth – What do we learn about relating to others? And really, all four of those questions revolve around Jesus’ own teaching of what’s the greatest commandment. And he says, actually, there’s two – love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. So that’s a paradigm that those four questions come out of to profitably read and understand any passage of Scripture.

 

Zaspel:
And that’s I assume where you got the title of your book, Asking the Right Questions.

Harmon:
Indeed! Yes.

 

Zaspel:
Alright now, part three.

Harmon:
Yes. I think, sometimes a missing point when we go to read the Bible is that maybe we’ve got a good set of questions in our mind about what we should be looking for, but sometimes we’re not very perceptive about reading our own lives. In this section, I start with just a basic explanation of what I call the gospel pattern of life. By which, I simply mean the pattern of repentance and faith. God shows us our sin in Scripture; he calls us to turn away from it and to grow deeper in our trust in Christ and his promises.

So that’s the basic pattern of the Christian life. And out of that comes two sides of that. So, focusing on the repentance side of things is something that Bryan Chapell, in his really helpful book on preaching, talks about the fallen condition. And really, that’s just a way of talking about what sinful tendencies, attitudes, actions, beliefs, inclinations do I see in the passage that I am reading. And then asking ourselves, how do I see those very same kinds of attitudes and inclinations and beliefs and thoughts and actions showing up in my own life? So that’s dealing with reading our lives in terms of exposing our sin so we can turn away from it.

Then there’s also the component of the gospel solution; which I’m simply using that expression to refer to what aspects of what Christ has done for us in the Gospel directly apply and overcome those fallen conditions that we are seeing in the text. When we expose that, that provokes us to think about how I need to respond in a way that shows a greater level of trust and belief and confidence in those promises.

With that framework in place, that leads me to the second set of four questions; and these are for applying the Bible. So, I have my four for understanding; these are for applying.
Number one – What Does God Want Me to Understand? Here, we’re just thinking about reshaping the way that we think and understand the world. What does God want me to understand from this passage?

Number two is – What Does God Want Me to Believe? Here, I’m just distinguishing between… We might have intellectual knowledge of something, but now I’m asking this question: what does God want me to believe in terms of putting it into action? For example, we might say we believe in God’s sovereignty; and yet, when we get stuck in traffic unexpectedly, and become angry and frustrated, on a practical level we are chafing against the sovereignty of God at that point. We’re not believing and trusting in the sovereignty of God in that moment, even though intellectually we say, I understand that God is sovereign. So, I’m trying to get at that distinction of not just what do I understand, but what do I actually believe and live out on a practical level.

The third application question is – What Does God Want Me to Desire? When I use that word “desire,” I wrestled with this because I’m trying to get at what Jonathan Edwards talked about when he talked about the affections, that complex set of desires and emotions and attitudes and inclinations that all work together that strongly shape the way that we live. So, I’m trying to get at that more affective sense of how does God want me to respond on the desire and emotional level to this passage.

Finally, the last question for application is simply, What Does God Want Me to Do? And this is a question that I think everyone naturally asks when they think of application; but, I would simply suggest that if you don’t ask the three previous questions, the danger you get into is, you are risking becoming a Pharisee, essentially, where you believe your relationship with God is based exclusively on what you do, rather than who God is and what he has done for you and his transformation of our entire person. I think there’s a lot of people in our churches, unfortunately, who might have their outward actions changed; and yet, their hearts and their minds are still not really transformed to reflect God’s priorities and values in their lives. So that last question of what does God want me to do, I think, really needs to be grounded in those three previous ones of what does God want me to understand, to believe, and to desire.

 

Zaspel:
Tell us about that last section, “Additional Resources” and the kinds of help are you offering there.

Harmon:
In the first resource, I wanted to provide a few quick thoughts on how to understand and apply different kinds of literature in the Bible. When we read the Bible, obviously there’s narrative, there’s law, there’s prophecy, there’s parables, there’s letters. And making sure that when we approach those different kinds of literature, I want to help readers look out for a few mistakes they might make and focus on a few things that can be helpful, that might be specific to each of those kinds of literature in the Bible. So that I can give them a little bit of guidance without turning this into a 500 page book on hermeneutics.

The second resource is a short little section trying to help anyone who has the privilege of preaching or teaching or leading God’s people in a ministry of the Word to think about ways to broaden out their application. I think sometimes it’s easy for us as preachers and teachers to fall into a little bit of a rut; and we come back to the same kinds of areas of application. So, I want to try to give a little bit of guidance to help people think about some different approaches. Whether it’s thinking about different kinds of people in their congregations, whether it’s different ages, different life stages, as well as thinking about individual and corporate levels of application. Sometimes we miss out on those corporate levels of application where the Scriptures might be calling us as a body of believers or as a small group towards a specific way of life or action or response. So, I wanted to help anyone preaching and teaching God’s Word to think through some of those categories.

 

Zaspel:
Before we sign off give us a quick reminder of the various questions you recommend we keep in mind in order to read the Bible profitably.

Harmon:
Absolutely. Any passage that we read, I think, when we want to understand that passage we should ask four questions:
1. What do I learn about God?
2. What do I learn about people?
3. What do I learn about relating to God?
4. What do I learn about relating to others?

Then, when we make the move to applying that passage to our lives, there are also four questions:
1. What does God want me to understand?
2. What does God want me to believe?
3. What does God want me to desire?
4. What does God want me to do?

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Matthew Harmon about his new book, Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible. I said at the outset here that I am excited about it—it has the potential to revolutionize your Bible reading. I hope to use it in our own adult Sunday School class at church, and I hope it will find wide use in our churches and by Christians individually.
Matthew, congratulations on your new book. Thanks for your good work and for talking to us about it today.

Harmon:
Thank you, Fred. I appreciate it.

Buy the books

Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible

Crossway, 2017 | 144 pages