At the start of this year, I read a very thought-provoking and timely article by Christianity Today, which published the reflections of three Bible scholars in Singapore who discussed the nation’s top 10 Bible verses based on 2023 data from the YouVersion app. 

There were some reflections I had after reading it, particularly when it comes to the subject of how we interpret the Bible. This is something important to think about; if we believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, we should be diligent in examining it closely (Acts 17:11).

What’s up with our focuses?

For starters, it is interesting to consider how our cultural context influences the way we view Scripture.

In the article, Samuel Law, a dean and professor at Singapore Bible College, pointed out that the reason for many Singaporeans so resonating with Proverbs 3:5-6 was perhaps due to a Confucian influence. In Law’s view, the call to trust in the Lord with all of our hearts, lean not on our own understanding, and in all our ways submit to Him parallels an Asian/Confucian attitude towards life’s journey and even reflects some aspects of a Daoist worldview.

More pointedly, another observation which numerously featured in the article was whether this list of verses reflected an attitude of focusing too closely on how God can bless us — whether in our studies, careers or finances. And relative to that, that seemed to be a neglect of how we can serve God, faithfully follow Jesus and show His love and justice to the world.

If I may say so, I found such observations a little more harsh than necessary.

For example, if someone likes to regularly meditate on Isaiah 41:10 or 1 Peter 5:7, that does really mean that they are lacking faith in God’s goodness or being consumed by fear? I would think not.

And it’s also not true that most people choose these verses motivated by material yearnings and fearful feelings rather than a sincere desire to know God.

I think we should be wary of being too quick to judge others’ spiritual walk, their relationship with God and their understanding of the scriptures.

That said, the observations raised in the article touch on a very valid and important point.

A lot of the popular verses of last year — if you look at them individually without considering their context — would indeed suggest that local readers have a greater focus on things like blessing and providence, over spiritual formation or other aspects of the faith.

I joked with a handful of friends that you would never see, in such a list, a verse from Revelation 18 – where God is pouring out His righteous judgement against the symbol of Babylon.

So, I think that there are other passages that all of us in Singapore would do well to place more focus on.

Instead of the usual suspects, how about other verses like…

…Deuteronomy 6:5, which tells us to love God with all our heart, soul and strength?

Or when Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” in Matthew 4:17? Elsewhere in Mark 8:34, Jesus also tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him. Such verses tell us the importance of seeking God and serving His Kingdom above all else.

There are also scriptures that remind us of the need to show genuine, Christlike agape love to others, even when it is difficult or inconvenient for us. For example, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s not an easy commandment to obey, yet it is what Jesus wants for us!

There are also other New Testament passages that call us to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and never to repay evil with evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

Finally, we should also look at scriptures that show us God’s heart for justice for all people, especially the most vulnerable.

Take Isaiah 58:6 for instance, which urges us to loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free and break every yoke. 

We must remember that we are called as God’s people to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Indeed, Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that whatever we did for the least of these — we did for Him.

Understanding the broader context of Scripture

As Maggie Low (a faculty member of Trinity College) mentioned in the article, we should all hope to understand the context surrounding certain biblical texts.

She pointed out that Jeremiah 29:11 and Isaiah 41:10 are tied to the specific historical and cultural context of the Jewish exiles (which is something we in 21st century Singapore are far removed from) and that the promises in the verses also “presuppose repentance” on the exiles’ part.

The broader point here is that we are often prone to interpreting many biblical texts in an overly individualised and reductionistic manner.

As the biblical scholar John Walton wrote, the Bible may be written for us, but it was not written to us. That is to say, the biblical texts always have something profitable to teach us as we strive to become wise for salvation in Christ (2 Timothy 3:15-16).

None of the human authors of these biblical texts would have ever had people like us – 21st century humans living in modern societies – in mind when penning their messages. On the contrary, they were ancient figures, speaking to ancient audiences, influenced by ancient contexts.

Alongside this ancient context, it is crucial to consider the bigger picture.

The Bible is not primarily about how we can achieve our dreams and fulfill our destinies. Nor is it simply a bunch of religious rules God tells us to follow so that we may avoid displeasing Him.

Instead, Scripture displays to us the full measure of God’s salvation plan for us, fulfilled through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

With that in mind, let’s not focus on interpreting these passages in the Bible through the lens of our earthly desires and goals, which are fleeting. Neither should we look at Scripture as a religious rule-book.

Instead, let’s embrace a gospel-centred lens of the redemption plan God has for this entire world (because that’s how we discover our part to play in that!).

How will we pursue Jesus?

The final point I want to bring up regarding biblical interpretation is the importance of fixing our eyes on Jesus as we read through and study the scriptures (Hebrews 12:2).

We should remember that ultimately, all of the scriptures – both the Old and New Testament – are primarily about the person of Jesus Christ, the Word who became flesh.

The scriptures thus testify to who Jesus is. Jesus, after all, is the ultimate revelation of God’s nature and character. This is why He is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:16) and “the exact imprint of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus shows the human race a perfect view of who God is through His teachings, His life of radical love and compassion, His atoning death on the cross and His resurrection to defeat death and darkness forever.

Knowing who Jesus truly is, and the weight of what He has accomplished for us, should be our biggest motivation for studying God’s Word.

Let us have the confidence that Jesus remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) and that the Word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8)!