Understanding Understanding

Child ThinkingThe title of this article isn’t as strange as it sounds. It says we’re going to try to gain some understanding on the subject of understanding. Another way to say the same thing is that it’s important to understand understanding.

In a previous article, Experiencing Truth, I claim there is a distinction, and a relationship, between knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is mental, and acquired through your physical senses. You learn about the world around you by seeing, smelling, hearing, touching and tasting. Understanding is not a physical function, rather it is a spiritual activity. It is secured though the eyes and ears of your heart.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints. (Ephesians 1:18)

‘“For the heart of this people has become dull, With their [spiritual] ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their [spiritual] eyes, Otherwise they would see with their [spiritual] eyes, Hear with their [spiritual] ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I would heal them.’” (Matthew 13:15)

Since you can’t understand something without first having knowledge of it, there is a relationship between the two. Knowledge must necessarily come before understanding. However, gaining knowledge should not be your end game. Rather it should be considered to be a stepping stone to understanding.

It is important for effective Bible study to recognize the precept that knowledge is necessary, but when it is not connected to understanding its value is limited at best. On the other hand, understanding is of limitless value. Solomon (at the direction of the Holy Spirit) agreed.

13 How blessed is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding.

14 For her [understanding’s] profit is better than the profit of silver, and her gain better than fine gold.

15 She is more precious than jewels; and nothing you desire compares with her.

16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.

17 Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who hold her fast. (Proverbs 3:13-18)

Understanding is something that should certainly be sought most earnestly. Solomon instructed us to do that very thing.

1 Hear, O sons, the instruction of a father, And give attention that you may gain understanding,

2 For I give you sound teaching; Do not abandon my instruction.

5 Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding! Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.

6Do not forsake her [understanding], and she will guard youLove her, and she will watch over you.

7The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdomAnd with all your acquiring, get understanding.

8Prize her, and she will exalt youShe will honor you if you embrace her.

9She will place on your head a garland of graceShe will present you with a crown of beauty.” (Proverbs 4:1-2, 5-9)

Knowledge corresponds to the words on the page, what I call the content of the Bible. Every word of the printed text of the Bible is true, but they are one dimensional. Here’s what I mean … Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, He parted the Red Sea, and the people crossed on dry land. You can read that story a hundred times and it remains the same. Or read of David’s victory over Goliath, and the story is always the same. So, as we read the Bible we become acquainted with all that it says. In that way, we acquire knowledge.

Understanding, on the other hand, is multi-dimensional. Consider again the story of David and Goliath. How many have found strength to tackle a big problem in their lives after reading of young David’s faith and courage in the face of a seemingly undefeatable foe. This story projects unlimited shades of understanding drawn from a bottomless reservoir of meanings. Thousands of sermons have been preached on its myriad themes. The Holy Spirit is the source of the understanding. What does this mean for your Bible study? Simply and profoundly this:

The Holy Spirit has an unlimited wellspring of understanding

from which to draw and apply to

your particular situation at any given time.

He is willing and able to utilize this ability with everything you read in the Bible … with every story … every passage … every verse … even a single word. This is how a thousands of years old document remains current and right for every situation in every age.

Seeing & Hearing

“Did you see that?” You’ve surely heard that phrase before. In fact, there’s a very good chance you actually spoke it at one time or another. Similarly, we’ve all heard and uttered the query, “Did you hear that?” We aren’t baffled by these questions. We understand them as asking if we saw something with our eyes or heard a sound with our ears.

However, Biblical usage of the words see and hear, especially in the New Testament, have dual meanings. The word see is used for either physical or spiritual sight. In the same way, the word hear can mean to hear with either physical or spiritual ears. The matter is complicated further by the fact that the same words, see and hear, are used to express both meanings. So when you read see or hear, each could be referring to either physical or spiritual seeing or hearing.

Spiritual seeing and hearing is the understanding you receive from the words printed on the pages of the Bible. Jesus explained it to the disciples as follows.

That while seeing, they [the people] may see [with their physical eyes] and not perceive [but not see with their spiritual eyes, i.e., not understand], and while hearing [with their physical ears], they may hear [with their physical ears] and not understand [not hear with  their spiritual ears] otherwise they might return and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:12)

The words see and seeing and hear and hearing are used regardless of whether their physical or spiritual meanings are intended. Therefore, when you encounter these words as you read the Bible, it is necessary to determine whether the physical or spiritual meaning is intended.

The duality of meanings can produce some interesting word play. The following passage illustrates the point.

13 I speak to them in parables; because while seeing [with physical eyes] they do not see [with spiritual eyes], and while hearing [with physical ears] they do not hear [with spiritual ears], nor do they understand [seeing and hearing with spiritual eyes and ears is to understand]

14 In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing [with physical ears], but will not understand [hear with spiritual ears]; you will keep on seeing [with physical eyes], but will not perceive [see with spiritual eyes];

15 for the heart [the seat of understanding] of this people has become dull, with their [spiritual] ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their [spiritual] eyes, otherwise they would see with their [spiritual] eyes, hear with their [spiritual] ears, and understand with their heart and return [repent], and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your [spiritual] eyes, because they see; and your [spiritual] ears, because they hear. (Matthew 13:13-16)

That bit of verbal gymnastics is an indication of an important principle.


Principle: Seeing & Hearing Have Dual Meanings

This is an important foundational principle of Biblical understanding. In the Bible, especially the New Testament, seeing can mean either physical or spiritual sight, and hearing can refer to either physical or spiritual hearing.

The physical and the spiritual correspond to knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is a characteristic of your soul, while understanding is of your spirit. The same thing can be said by replacing soul and spirit with the words mind and heart respectively.

Knowledge of the Bible is obtained principally by reading, listening to sermons or attending Bible Studies. However, it is an erroneous belief that understanding is acquired merely by doing those activities. Consider the following description of one of Jesus’ post crucifixion appearances to the disciples.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” [Thomas wants physical evidence.] After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side, and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to Him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see [with their physical eyes], and yet believed.” (John 20:24-29)

When Jesus said, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed,” He was making an important statement concerning the two meanings of seeing and hearing. The point He makes is that it is not as important to see Him with our physical eyes, but that He be seen supernaturally with the spiritual eyes of the heart. Seeing and hearing with your spiritual eyes and ears is to understand, and understanding, being spiritual, is acquired by means of revelations from the Holy Spirit. No amount of knowledge will produce understanding. Knowledge of the Bible is important because it is the physical framework onto which understanding stands. That means that all the understanding you receive by way of revelation must fit into the written word of God. If it doesn’t, it is not a true revelation.


The duality of meanings for seeing and hearing is not meant to confuse you. Quite the contrary, the dual meanings of these words leads us to discover a great insight regarding duality. We’ll look at this in the next article.

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4 Responses to Understanding Understanding

  1. Roger Holloway says:

    Peter — Enjoyed this article, brother. Good thoughts. I’d never looked at it quite this way, but your emphasis of leaning on the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into familiar passages for daily situations is well said.

    Putting into practice what we understand, or becoming a doer of that Word is the next step. James 1:22-25
    22 Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear!
    23 Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror,
    24 walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.
    25 But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God — the free life! — even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.
    (from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.)

    Thanks for sharing.. ~Roger

    • Roger — Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your involvement. You are absolutely right about being a doer and not a hearer only. I would note that what we understand determines our actions. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” (Matthew 15:19) These actions come from the heart, which is the seat of understanding. Therefore, it is important to be as certain as we can be that our understanding is consistent with the whole counsel of God. We can also create understanding with our mind. That always leads people astray. We’ll be developing the importance and characteristics of true Biblical understanding as we go along, so please keep up with the postings, studies and principles. Have a blessed day in the Lord, Peter.

  2. shamtest says:

    I can’t seem to be able to reach this site from my droid!!!

    • This is the first I’ve heard of a problem with droid. I don’t have a problem with my iPhone. I will contact the support team at WordPress to see if they can help. I’ll let you know what I find out. Thanks for letting me know. Peter

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