Thursday, December 22, 2016

Do You Understand What You Read?

Then the spirit said unto Philip, “go near and join yourself to this chariot”. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said: “do you understand what you read?”
And he said, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” And he desired that Philip would come up and join him. (Act 8:29-31)

There is no one way to interpret, and therefore understand, the true meaning of any bible verse. Every pastor, evangelist, and students of the bible – including the congregation and theologians read the same bible verse, or some versions of the bible, and render different interpretations of that same verse. Most of the times, their intent is to make the interpretation suitable or commensurate with the message they want to impart to their audience. The same situation applies to how students in schools of varying levels interpret and understand the textbook they use for their various school courses and exams; that is why some students would study hard and fail their tests, while others will study less and do very well. It is all about your level of understanding and incorporation of the message in what you read.

In the passage under discussion, an Ethiopian Eunuch, a man of great authority akin to a vice-president or Prime Minister of a country; a Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, or in the case of the Old Testament stories, a Joseph to the Egyptian Pharaoh. This man was a man of great authority in the then Ethiopia under the Queen – the utmost authority in Ethiopia as at that time; his status was like that of Joseph in Egypt or Oliver Cromwell in the 1600 England. According to the story, the Eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship and was on his way back to Ethiopia; it is also obvious that he was new to Christianity, so God saw an opportunity to use him to open up a Christian front in Ethiopia – what better person to use than a man of wide authority who easily had the ear of the ruler Queen. We do not know the name of the queen ruling Ethiopia then, since the word “Candace” was the Latin version of Kandake – a Meroe word used to describe a queen. Historians have even suggested that the queen then was Amanitore who ruled in the 50CE.

Having had a taste of Christianity during his trip to Jerusalem, the Eunuch was thirsty for more; so, he collected articles on the late prophet Isaiah to read on his way home. Problem was that, not being from part of the region where Jesus Christ’s missionary work took place, he was not familiar with the stories that form the bible today. Also, since the missionaries of Paul, Silas, and the other Disciples of Christ had not started, Christianity had not spread widely in Ethiopia beyond the queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon in the Old Testament. So, the Eunuch could be excused for not understanding what the story of Isaiah was all about. In came God, using Philip who happened to be available at that time. God commanded him, specifically, to go “towards the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem to Gaza, which is desert”. God had to be clear in his description to Philip so that he will not miss His subject of interest; his vehicle for the spread of Christianity beyond the Middle Eastern region. We have to remember that many other people were returning to their various towns and communities from having gone to Jerusalem to worship, just as the Eunuch.

Interestingly, that was where God’s instruction to Philip stopped; He never told Phillip that he will meet an Ethiopian Eunuch heading home from Jerusalem; Philip was to discover that all by himself, and God ensured that he will not miss the opportunity to meet with this man traveling in an unusually expensive and well-endowed chariot by urging him to get closer to the chariot, where he overheard the Eunuch reading out loud. For those who might wonder how Philip was able to hear the Eunuch reading, remember that when we are new at reading a text we are not familiar with, we tend to read it out loud, and slowly too, to better absorb it.

“Do you understand what you read?”

Good question! This same question applies to many of us, not just when we are reading the bible, but when we are reading anything that is worth reading for any reason. I have been around groups where members were asked to render their understanding of an assigned passage, and all of us had very different interpretations. Understanding of what we read is very important towards not just for accurate interpretation, but for proper implementation/application of the instructions, be they in the bible or in a textbook. The Eunuch was interested in what he was reading, and desired to understand what the story was all about; however, being a stranger to a new religion, he needed someone to explain things in simpler terms to him. Sometimes, that is all we need to better understand the verses in the bible and get the intended message.

Beyond the bible, understanding what we read is very important; school assignments, an ordinance, accurate interpretation of court verdicts, contractual and partnership agreements, wills and even pre-nuptials where such things are desired. The deeper a person’s level of understanding, the better his or her level of interpretation. Many have fallen victims of many acts of criminals because they could not understand the documents they were reading, and lacked the capability to interpret it properly. Many Christians have misapplied their pastor’s instructions, or biblical teachings, just because they could not understand these teachings. Unfortunately, instead of admitting their lack of understanding and seeking further explanations, they would form their own opinions and run with it.

And he said, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” And he desired that Philip would come up and join him.
The Eunuch, this man of great powers who has the ears of the Nubian queen of Ethiopia, did not see it as humiliating to admit that he did not understand what he was reading; he even went further to ask Philip, whom he has never met, to come on to his chariot and help explain to him. How many people of means and influence will be humble enough to admit that they do not know something and seek the assistance of a “nobody” to educate them? The Eunuch in his request of Philip, expressed the desire to be further educated, which is very important. If we can overcome our ego and superiority complex, and seek the services of those who know better than us, we would be the best for it. Most times, we suffer for lack of knowledge; and we lack this knowledge because we refuse to seek it. We refuse to seek it because the knowledge is, in most cases, possessed by those we consider inferior, until something goes terribly wrong. By then, it is usually too late.

The Ethiopian Eunuch did not want to leave anything to chance; he did not want his ego and position in society to get in the way of acquiring knowledge. He also wanted to be able to say to his fellow rulers: “this is what I learned from my travels. Here, partake of it and your life will be better”. By acquiring knowledge through the understanding of his readings, he will be able to spread the message of Christ to his people. This is what God had intended, not just for the Eunuch but for all of us. If we cannot properly understand the words and teachings of God, we cannot share or spread it; if we learn and understand the wrong thing, that is what we will share; the same thing those we shared it with will pass on to their converts, and the cycle will just continue. When that is the case, what do we get? “People being led like a sheep to the slaughter house, and like lambs dumb before their shearers, so opened they not their mouths”

Felix Oti

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