Learning to See – How to Read the Bible Well

To best understand what God is saying to us today through Scripture, we have to make sure we have the right map—one that would have made sense to the original hearers.

Learning to See

I stared at the map for a few seconds and then looked up at my surroundings before studying the map again. No matter how intensely I stared, which way I held the map, or how I repositioned myself, I couldn’t figure out where we were. My wife and I were officially lost.

All around us stood the ruins of ancient Pompeii, a city that had become a tomb for thousands of poor souls when Vesuvius blew its top nearly two thousand years ago. And now, it seemed the city had trapped us too. I mean, maybe our situation wasn’t as dire as the ancient Pompeiians. There was no molten lava to speak of, but we might miss our cruise ship if we didn’t find our way out soon.

It didn’t matter which way I flipped the map; I couldn’t seem to align the reality I was seeing around me with the drawing I held in my hands. What I eventually discovered was that the map had been designed a few years earlier when the entrance to the ruins of Pompeii was located in a different place. The administrators of the Pompeii archaeological park had apparently moved some things around but had neglected to print up new maps. The map actually didn’t make any sense! I was trying to find an exit that no longer existed.

No one likes feeling stuck, and certainly no one likes realizing they’re holding the wrong map in their hands, so when it comes to the Bible, most of us would like to imagine we see everything clearly. After all, it’s God’s Word—God’s precious message for humanity. We shouldn’t need any special tools to understand what God has to say to us. On one level, that’s certainly true. The gospel is a simple message that requires no special training or keys to decipher. We were meant to understand it and take hold of it.

The Bible, however, is a different story. It’s so deep and so rich, a person could study it for a hundred lifetimes and never run out of treasures to uncover. That’s because the Bible isn’t just any book. It was “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV); His fingerprints are on every page. The Bible is also an ancient book—a collection of books, really—and while it was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. To best understand what God is saying to us today through Scripture, we have to make sure we have the right map—one that would have made sense to the original hearers.

Take, for example, the account of Jesus and blind Bartimaeus. It’s a straightforward miracle story from the gospel of Mark you may have read before. The entire episode takes just seven verses to tell. On the surface, it seems like dozens of other miracle stories in the Gospels: Jesus comes along and discovers someone with a physical need. He has compassion. He heals. The person is blessed. Cue next scene.

But that’s just the way the story of Bartimaeus appears at first glance. In reality, there’s an Old Testament context for the miracle that most of us miss; there are first-century pragmatic realities that show how remarkable ol’ Bart’s faith really is; and there’s even an important truth tucked away inside a Greek word that’s not easily translated into our English Bibles. When we start out with the right map—that is, when we learn to read the story the way an ancient reader might have—we’ll find there’s much more to this simple miracle story than first thought.

The Son of David

Jesus wasn’t the first person to heal people or perform miracles. Anyone who’s ever been to Sunday school knows the Old Testament is chock full of signs and wonders. Moses parts the Red Sea and causes water to spew from a rock. Joshua makes the sun stand still, and Elijah calls down fire from heaven. When it comes to physical healings, leprosy is cleansed, barren wombs are opened, and the dead are raised. But do you know what sort of healing miracle never happens—not even once? There isn’t a single record of a blind person receiving their sight back.

Scan Genesis through Malachi, and you won’t find a blind person being healed—not even a little bit. But do you know what is there? Prophecies about the Messiah, and several of them say He will heal the blind. In describing the coming of the Lord’s holy one, Isaiah writes, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5). It’s also in Isaiah 42:7, a passage Jesus borrowed for His own mission statement: “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (see Luke 4:18–19).

Since blindness was more or less permanent, and because it was such a tragic impairment, it was often equated with judgment for sin (see John 9:1–2). People who were either born blind or who lost their sight through disease or injury were thought to be beyond hope, forever consigned to a miserable life of begging and scraping by on the kindness of others. But for a blind man like Bartimaeus, the Old Testament promises of healing through the Messiah are like streams in the desert, trickles of hope in a world of despair.

“And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” We tend to read right past these words of Bartimaeus, but there’s more there than a simple plea for help. The title Son of David is Messianic. God promised David that one of his descendants would sit upon the throne forever (2 Samuel 7:12–13). Bartimaeus is saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, I know who You are—the promised Messiah, the one whom the Scriptures say can open my eyes!” The people in the crowd try to hush Bartimaeus, afraid he might bother Jesus. Translation: they don’t really understand who Jesus is, at least not the way blind Bart does. As readers of Mark’s gospel, we are meant to see the contrast between Bartimaeus and the crowd. Bart is deemed nearly worthless by society; he can’t see, yet he knows who Jesus really is. The crowds, who have the privilege of watching Jesus perform miracles and hearing His teaching, are missing the truth right in front of their eyes.

The Coat Flung Wide

When Jesus does stop and call Bartimaeus, the blind man leaps up to meet the man with the power to rescue him from the darkness. Here Mark includes a small detail easily overlooked. He says Bartimaeus “[threw] off his cloak.” If this were a movie, we might think that the garment being tossed aside is for dramatic effect, an image designed to add some flair to the scene. But in the ancient world, ink and papyrus were not cheap. Everything written in the gospel of Mark is important. There’s no fat left untrimmed, no details to toss aside (like that cloak).

In reality, many poor people had only one outer garment. In the Mosaic law, it was even forbidden to hold someone’s coat overnight as collateral for a loan: “If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep?” (Exodus 22:26–27). An Israelite’s outer garment served as a shield from the wind, protection from the sun, a blanket at night, and a cushion to sit upon. It was therefore incredibly valuable—and it was this way on into the first century as well, especially for the poor.

Blind Bartimaeus, who depends on the kindness of passersby for his livelihood, doesn’t have an extra coat, and so he cannot afford to lose his one and only. But at the sound of Jesus’ voice calling him, he tosses his security blanket aside with reckless abandon. If Jesus doesn’t heal him, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to find his cloak again, but Bartimaeus is so certain Jesus will restore his sight, nothing else matters—not even the most precious thing he owns in all the world. Again, Mark is pressing us to see deep faith from an unlikely source. Bartimaeus is no expert in the Scriptures, no rich man on a quest for spirituality. He’s just a beggar who’s held onto hope until that Hope came walking down the street.

More Than Physical Healing

The exchange between Jesus and Bartimaeus is a thing of beauty. We might expect that when a blind man comes rushing through the crowd shouting for mercy, Jesus would have a clue as to what he wants. Yet Jesus still asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). Of course Jesus knows what Bart wants; He just wants to make sure Bartimaeus knows what he’s really asking for.

You see, if Bartimaeus has been blind for any length of time, he’s come to depend on panhandling. If Jesus heals him, he’s going to have to rejoin society, find some work, and provide for himself. For someone who may have never worked a day in his life, it could be a jarring adjustment. Jesus’ question, then, is a moment of grace for Bartimaeus to make sure he really does want to see.

Here’s the kicker: when Bartimaeus requests his healing, Jesus says, “Go your way; your faith has made you well” (v. 52), or in some translations, “your faith has healed you” (NIV). The Greek word underlying “made . . . well” or “healed” is sozo, a verb that means “to save, deliver, heal, restore, make whole.” Though the word can certainly refer to physical healing, its meaning is much bigger than that. And it seems in the case of Bartimaeus, we’re meant to see a total transformation.

The blind man not only receives his sight, he also receives eternal life and a new purpose. Jesus tells him, “Go your way,” but which way does Bartimaeus choose to go? He goes with Jesus to Jerusalem. He becomes a true and committed follower of the Messiah—and as far as we know, he never returns to get his coat. He’s found everything he’ll ever need in Jesus.

Beyond Maps

Approaching Scripture on its own terms means asking questions of the text. It means looking for the little details that may not seem very important at first. Because the Bible was written by human authors who wrote from a particular time and place, we must do everything we can to understand the world the way they did. Only then will a passage or a book speak to us the way it spoke to its original audience. This is like having that map we need. But in truth we need more than a map, more than a technical guide to the Word of God.

We need to remember that the Bible was breathed out by the Holy Spirit, that the same divine Author is behind every word from first chapter of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation. Everything written is there for a reason. There are no throwaway lines, no unsolvable mysteries, no errors to avoid. God knew what He was doing when He inspired the Scriptures, so let’s come to our Bibles confident that He wants us to meet Him within its pages.