Where do we begin in our quest to understand the bible? The answer is deceptively simple. We begin by reading it. “How” you read your bible, as important as that is, is nonetheless completely outweighed by “if” you read your bible. There is a classic story about the 20th century evangelist D. L. Moody. It is said that a woman approached Mr. Moody and said, “You know, I really don’t like how you approach evangelism.” Humbly, Moody responded, “I’m not very fond of it either. How do you do it?” After shuffling about and stumbling over her words the woman confessed, “Well I guess I don’t really evangelize.” Moody smiled and quipped, “Well I like my way better.” That principle is appropriate with bible reading as well. Any method of reading it is better than not reading it at all.
That brings us to a rather helpful point. Reading is, in and of itself, methodical; we start at the top of the page and read from left to right until we reach the bottom, then we move on to the next page in numerical sequence. As elementary as that sounds, it might be a greater truth than you realize. The bible is best read methodically. There are three primary methods to reading the bible, each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, but together they form a robust approach to reading the bible.
Survey the whole bible
The first way to read the scriptures is seeking to read and master it in totality (although not thoroughly). Although the bible is made up of many separate books, it is one story. It begins with the creation of the world and ends with the destruction and recreation of that same world. Humanity is barred from the tree of life and the presence of God in Genesis and returned to both in Revelation. The first two chapters, as well as the last two chapters, are completely without sin. In between these four chapters is the story of God intervening and redeeming a fallen world. It is helpful to read the bible this way, watching for the big picture of what God is doing and how he is accomplishing his plan.
This approach is best accomplished at a quick pace. If you read just three chapters a day you can read the entire bible in one year. There are many resources online, along with iPhone and Facebook apps that will provide you a reading plan in your favorite bible translation or even email you daily with the corresponding portion of scripture. You should not see reading the bible the whole way through as something on your bucket list that you check off when completed. Instead, I would challenge you to make this survey approach a regular method of bible reading.
Master a single book
The second approach to reading the bible is to focus on a specific book. As mentioned before, the bible is made up of 66 separate books and each one is there for a reason, each one has some unique contribution to the cannon. Each author varies in vocabulary and important themes. By focusing on a single book, you begin to see the standalone emphases that aren’t as apparent to a less-careful reader.
The method here is simple. Choose a book of the bible that you are unfamiliar with or desire to know better, and then read it repeatedly. Unlike survey reading, this is best done at a slower pace (I recommend one chapter at a time). When you finish the book, return to the beginning and read it again. Because the length of bible books varies (66 chapters in Isaiah, only one in Philemon), you should determine an appropriate duration of time to focus on your current book. For example, if you dedicated a month to reading the book of Ephesians, at a chapter a day you will read it through five times. As you read look for the themes of the book, try to unearth the overall structure, and try to follow the logical argument of the author. Read with a pencil in hand for underlining repeated words. It is also helpful to write down questions for your next read through. If you have given yourself enough time on any given book, you should be able to summarize its main message and recall the basic outline of the book.
Meditating on a single verse or passage
The bible speaks highly and often of meditation. Not to be confused with Eastern Meditation where the goal is to empty your mind of all thought, biblical meditation seeks to fill the mind with a single verse or a short passage for better understanding. A common illustration of meditation is cud-chewing animals (yuck!), but I prefer the process of making tea. A teabag contains all the essential elements that give tea its flavor. However you can’t just slap a teabag into a cup of water momentarily, you have to let it steep. It is the act of leaving the teabag in the hot water that draws out all of the elements of the tea. The longer you let it steep, the stronger the tea. Biblical meditation is the same way; you are taking a small portion of scripture and thinking about it thoroughly, letting it steep in your mind until you have drawn out all there is to learn. This is an especially helpful method for growth in sanctification.
Biblical Meditation is accomplished by reading a small portion of scripture repeatedly in a single sitting. As you read the verse(s) over and over, you will find yourself growing familiar with the verses, perhaps even memorizing them; (a very good sign!) As you read, ask questions about the verse, allow the verse to stimulate prayer, and seek to apply its truth specifically to you. One of the great benefits of this method of reading is that it doesn’t have to end when you close your bible. As you go about your day, try and recall and repeat the verse(s) to yourself. Let the text soak in throughout your day.
By incorporating all three of these methods into your bible reading routine, you will discover that they feed off one another. For example, your meditation on Matthew 5:17 will change your understanding of the whole book, your newfound grasp on the whole story of the bible will provide a new perspective on the book of Ruth, repeatedly reading 1 John will provide you with new verses for meditation. Although any method of reading the bible is better than none, reading the bible in different ways is exponentially better than a single approach. Develop a healthy bible diet by varying your “usual” bible reading between these three methods. If you are bible-starved because you don’t know where to begin, choose a method, make a plan, and begin today!
There is a silly example of inductive reasoning called the duck test. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…then it’s probably a duck. This is a simple formula indeed. However sometimes we forget to apply the same logic to the bible. We must be careful of treating the bible as something other than a book. We sometimes act like because it is the revelation of God normal rules of literature need not apply. Surely, it is much more than “just a book” but it is a book nonetheless. Consider this: God could have revealed himself through an opera, or neon signs in the sky, or a multitude of other ways but he has instead chosen to reveal himself in writing. If that is how God chooses to reveal himself then we should respect that choice by recognizing the “bookishness” of the bible. The fact that God’s revelation is contained in writing should actually be encouraging to us because we can rely on a standard set of literary features to guide us in our quest to understanding the bible.
A piece of writing has an author
Writing in general, and books in particular don’t just appear out of thin air. Behind every piece of writing is an author. Not only that, but books are always written with a purpose or meaning. Letters are combined with intention, words are chosen and others are not, events are focused on while others are ignored. Each of these choices is purposefully made by the author in order to express the author’s intentions. That means that ultimately the true meaning of a text must begin with “what the author meant to mean” and not “what this means to me”.
The truth of the bible isn’t subjective, different for every reader. We don’t get to determine what a text means based on our own experience, or a burning in our bosom, or what we really wish it said. A text in the bible can have many applications because it has many readers but it can have only one meaning, because it has one author. More than that, any application that doesn’t find its foundation in the meaning of the author is invalid, a form of hijacking the text for our own agenda. What a relief! Because books have authors, and authors create meaning we can know what the bible teaches with confidence. Any time you approach the bible make sure your goal is to answer the question, “what is the author saying?” and that will lead you to understanding the truth the bible teaches.
A piece of writing has an intended audience
When an author picks up a pen he does so with a recipient in mind. The recipient may be an individual, as in a personal letter, or a culture contemporary to the author, as in a novel. We have seen that authors write with a purpose and that purpose is always tied to his recipient. Paul wrote to the Galatians in the book of Galatians and to a church in Philippi in the book of Philippians. This is not to say that those letters and the rest of the bible has no application or significance for us. 2 Timothy 3:16 is clear that, “All scripture is profitable for us”. It does however mean that although all the bible is FOR us not all the bible is TO us. This is common sense that is easy to demonstrate. Look at 2 Timothy 4:13 as an example.
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”
This verse is a command (it’s in the imperative tense) and yet you’ve never felt convicted for not fulfilling it. Why? Because Paul was talking to Timothy. Recognizing this literary principle, that writings have an intended audience, is helpful to us because by understanding the needs and circumstances of the original audience we can better understand the meaning of the author. Instead of just taking every word in the bible as if it was spoken directly to us, we must compare our needs and circumstances to the intended audience and therefore custom-fit the application to our personal needs and circumstances. By discovering who the author was originally writing to we move towards a better understanding of biblical truth for ourselves.
A piece of writing follows the rules of grammar
Grammar is the basic rules of literary communication. It allows us to distinguish between an action and an object, a question and a statement. Although grammar is a human invention and the bible is divine communication, it is not absolved it from following the rules. There is an interesting story in Genesis 15 where Abraham is struggling to believe God’s promises. So, God commands Abraham to cut a bunch of animals in half and lay them out side by side. After dark, God appears in a fiery form and walks through the space between the animals. It doesn’t seem reassuring to us does it? This is not some divinely created ritual; historians tell us that this was a normal practice in Abraham’s day when any contract was made. When God wanted to reassure Abraham that he would keep his word, he did so using a man made way. Why? Because God wants Abraham to understand. The theological term for this is condescension. God humbly condescends and uses human means of communication because he wants to be understood by human us. Amazing as it seems, God has restricted himself to the rules of grammar in his communication. This is good news. It means that every noun, every present-tense verb, every accusative case is chock-full of meaning.
Don’t forget that the bible is primarily written in Hebrew and Greek and therefore follows the grammatical rules of those languages. By familiarizing yourself with these rules, and then looking for how they operate in a biblical text, your understanding will increase greatly. A wonderful free tool that can help make these things visible even to someone unfamiliar with the Greek and Hebrew language is blueletterbible.org. I know your elementary school teacher never found a way to make grammar particularly exciting, but when we recognize grammar as a key to the bible its worth giving it a second chance. God wants to speak clearly and he has utilized grammar to do so. That makes grammar a means for us to understand the bible.
A piece of writing has a genre
There are many types of writings and we don’t interpret them all by the same rules. Therefore we cannot know WHAT is being said until we know HOW its being said. The bible is full of different types of writing. There are narratives, poetry, legal code, prophecy, personal letters and more. Although there are general rules of interpreting literature that apply to all writing (like grammar), each genre of writing also has its own specific rules that the author employs to create meaning. Think of the countless games you can play with a deck of cards. It’s not enough to know that you are playing cards. Since each game has its own rules, you need to know the name of the game to play it correctly. To treat a psalm as if it were a code of law is like trying to shoot the moon in five-card stud. It is helpful therefore as we approach a passage of scripture to learn the “rules of the game” for the type of writing it employs. Also, don’t make the mistake of assuming the rules are the same for a biblical genre and it’s contemporary English equivalent. Hebrew poetry is very different than English poetry in the same way that American football is nothing like football (soccer) anywhere else in the known universe.
Although there are many great resources to help you learn the rules of different biblical genres, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is a great place to start. Again we find a helpful tool in biblical interpretation encoded in the bible itself. The author’s chosen method helps us to understand his message.
If it looks like a book, reads like a book and is written like a book then we should understand it as a book. Embrace God’s method of revelation by settling for nothing less than the intended meaning of the author. Let the bible speak to you by recognizing the original audience the author had in mind. Gratefully respond to God’s condescension by utilizing grammar. Take seriously God’s choice to speak to us through different types of writing. Surely the God who spoke to Baalam through an Ass can speak to us apart from correctly interpreting the bible as a book, but do you really want to be that guy? Instead, see the bible’s literary features as tools God has provided for you to hear his voice and start listening.
If you’ve ever bought a house you’re probably familiar with the first three considerations in real estate: location, location, location. It is the location of property that gives it value. Understanding the bible has a similar principle. How do you find meaning in the bible? Context, context, context. It is the passage’s context that supplies meaning.
Context is not only an important principle in interpreting the bible. Context creates meaning in all language. Even when we lay out letters on a page, what makes any given character meaningful is the letters around it. In fact we can go even further. You cannot be sure you know the meaning of the phrase GODISNOWHERE until we add spaces. The spaces provide context and make the difference between a statement of encouragement (GOD IS NOW HERE) and one of atheism (GOD IS NOWHERE). This is also true of defining particular terms in language. If you overhear a conversation that I am having and you only hear the word “grill”, you really have no idea what I’m talking about. I may be referring to a BBQ, the front of a car, interrogating someone, or even my teeth. Without the context, whether the rest of my conversation or at least the setting in which it happened, the word grill is meaningless.
Because context IS meaning, it must not be oversimplified into the question “what’s the context?” There are layers of context; a word in a sentence, that sentence in a paragraph, that paragraph in the whole book, etc. There are also many different types of context. We have already discussed the importance of genre (literary context) as well as language (linguistic context). In this post I would like to focus on two of the most important types of context.
When we study a passage of scripture, we must be careful not remove it from its natural habitat. Isolating a text can be dangerous both for the text and the interpreter. We protect ourselves from this danger by paying close attention to both what comes before and after the passage in question. It is amazing how this simple tactic will increase your understanding of the bible. Questions will be answered. Misunderstandings will be avoided. New insights will be gained.
I can prove my point by looking at a few examples. As my first witness I call to the stand 1 Corinthians 2:9
But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.
Every once in a while I will hear this verse quoted in regards to the unfathomable joy of heaven. That heaven is beyond our own experiences and imagination. While that is a beautiful thought, I have a sneaking suspicion that Paul had something else in mind. He continues in verse 10
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit
Very clearly Paul is not talking about the future heaven God has prepared for us (as amazing as that will be) but something that we are already privy to through the revelation of His Spirit. Continuing to read this passage makes clear Paul is referring to our present Christian experience.
For one last example let’s look at Matthew 16:27-28
“For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
How can Jesus promise that some of his disciples will still be living when they see him coming in glory? Isn’t this evidence that Jesus was expecting a much quicker return than two-thousand years or proof that he was wrong? Not hardly. Once again a quick look at the immediate context tells us what Jesus meant. Granted this maneuver is a little more advanced because we have to cross the threshold of chapter 16 and continue reading 17 (remember that the chapters and verse were not originally in the bible but added much later). 17:1 says
“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.”
Just six days after a promise that some of the disciples will see Jesus come in glory, he takes three of them (some) up a mountain and is transfigured. They get a foretaste of Jesus’ coming glory. In fact, we can back up this understanding by the personal testimony of Peter on this event in 2 Peter 1:16-18
“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
By just checking the immediate context we insure a better understanding of the text.
The bible was written over a long period of time, but not long enough to include the present day. I’m sure this is obvious to you but it is worth remembering because we always need to remember to discover the historical context. What something seems to mean to us today, is not always what it would have meant in the day it was written. Although the bible has meaning for all times and culture, it was written within specific times and cultures. When I teach this to my students I always use a silly example from the King James Bible. Genesis 24 tells the story of Abraham’s servant going to find a bride for Isaac, Abraham’s son. His servant eventually finds a woman named Rebekah and brings her back home to introduce her to Isaac. It is when she draws near in verse 64 that the King James Bible gloriously records,
“And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she lighted off the camel.”
If we were unfamiliar with the world of the bible and this sentence was all we had, we might assume that Isaac was so good looking that Rebekah felt the need to have a smoke and therefore “lighted off a camel”. The meaning is obscured both by an unfamiliarity with old English, where lighted means to jump off, and not knowing enough about common transportation in the land of Caanan. Maybe you would never make this mistake, but it does illustrate the point that we need to be careful in interpreting a text apart from the culture of its composition.
The need for historical context is not only true of cultural practices (farming, weddings, hospitality etc.) but is also true of idioms and figurative language. When Jesus refers to Herod as a fox in Luke 13:32 he is not referring to him as sly or sexy, both of which are western connotations, but actually calling him a coward. The bible is full of Hebraisms and Greek culture references. (Paul even quotes a pagan poet in the book of Acts) so we must be sure to uncover their original meaning in order to understand them today.
Historical context also includes the time of writing. Knowing when a prophetic book was written in the context of Israel’s history, or a New Testament Epistle in the context of the book of Acts can often lead to great insight. One place where this is clearly seen is the book of Ruth. When you remove the story of Ruth and Boaz from its historical context you just get a foreign love story. However the author of the book of Ruth intentionally sets the story in the context of the book of Judges in Ruth 1:1. As well as adding in chapter 4 that Ruth’s great grandson was King David. When you remember the oft repeated refrain of the book of Judges that, “there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes”, you find that the book of Ruth supplies God’s answer to the problem by bringing a wife to Boaz and continuing the kingly line. Knowing when the story of Ruth and Boaz takes place reveals the value of the book in the Bible.
In order to “blow the dust” of the pages of scripture, it would be a good idea to invest in a bible dictionary, handbook, or a solid commentary. Although you don’t need a degree to understand the bible, you should always make use of the extensive knowledge of those who do.
Sometimes checking the context happens naturally and requires only common sense, but it can be an amazing tool when facing an obscure saying or difficult passage of scripture. By just reading the surrounding context and exploring the historical culture the bible was written in you will be amazed at the new insight you gain into the bible and it’s meaning for you today.
It takes a village to understand the bible. In our modern individualistic society we would like to think that’s not the case, but it is. To begin with, the bible was not written to you as an individual, but to a community that you are a part of. Consider all of the “one another” commandments of the New Testament. These commandments are impossible to fulfill outside of relationship. There must be another to compliment your one. The same can be said of spiritual gifts. Although each is given a gift from God, they are for the sake of the community and apart from the gift of tongues, can only be practiced in community. You cannot give to yourself, or show mercy to yourself, or exercise the gift of teaching without a recipient. The whole bible is to be received by a community. In fact, there is probably nothing more dangerous than trying to understand the bible in isolation. Because there is a direct relationship between understanding the bible and seeking to apply it in your life, this need for community makes reading apart from the community not only a hindrance but also a great danger. In order to make it applicable you will have to do such damage to the intent of the text it is almost guaranteed to distort your understanding. That is why so often when a crazy heretic shows up in the church, they have come from a ten-year stint in some cabin in the woods.
Another factor that makes community required in understanding the bible is our human nature. Humans are finite, fallible and fallen and each of these acts as an obstacle to rightly understanding the bible. However, we all suffer from a particular form of blindness: each one of us in blind in our own way. When we study the bible in community, there may be things that I would misunderstand or misinterpret on my own because of limited life experience or a hardness of heart to my particular sin issues, but they are brought to light by your albeit flawed but differently-flawed perspective. Although God has promised us his Holy Spirit to help us understand his Word (more on that in a later post), even this often comes to us through others in community. What does it look like to read the bible in community? We should think of this at two different levels.
Read with the Local Church
Reading in community begins with your local church. Above I mentioned the need of community in applying the bible and being a functioning part of a local church is the primary outlet for that. This is why the bible plays such an important part of when we gather together. Paul tells Timothy as a young pastor in 1 Timothy 4:13 that he is to be devoted to the public reading of scripture. He also tells the church in Ephesians 4:11-12 that God has given to his church pastors to teach God’s word. When we gather on Sunday we do so to read and learn the bible in community. Because the church is not a building or an event on Sunday (we are the church) this should also be true throughout the week in smaller gatherings. Studying the bible in a small group has some great advantages over the Sunday gathering including discussion, specific application and personal accountability. The bible should not just be limited to the routine gatherings either. Paul says that speaking the truth in love is what makes the body grow (Ephesians 4:15) and he tells the church in Colossae that the Word should dwell in them richly, to the degree that they regularly teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16). This generally takes place in the normal settings of life. You may share what God has been teaching you with a friend over coffee or receive counsel from the bible while making copies. Interaction with the church is a vital part of the Christian life in general and this is particularly true in understanding the Bible.
Read with the Universal Church
Beyond the local church that you are a part of, you are also part of the universal church. God’s church is not only made up of the people in your local church, your personal denomination, or even the Christians alive right now. The universal church is made up of all the sinners saved throughout the world throughout history. It is helpful as we study the bible to do so in the context of this universal community as well.
Christians have been studying the bible in its complete form for almost 2000 years and by the grace of God many have left behind their findings for us. One great advantage to reading the work of Christian authors is that just like individuals, specific ages and even particular camps of Christianity are prone to blind spots which can be compensated for in community. One difficulty in partaking of these writings is knowing where to begin. When the reading list is 2000 years in the making, how do you know what is worthwhile and valuable? A great place to begin is with the classics. Ultimately what makes a book a classic is that its value transcends the age and culture it was written in. To look at it another way, if millions of Christians throughout time have found a book to be helpful, that is a good place to start.
The bible was written in community, for community, to be applied in community and understood in community. Reading with the local church and the universal church is the way that God meant for the Bible to be read. You are not called just to be a recipient of the church but a participant in the church and this manifests itself by pursuing understanding of the bible together. Embrace the village that God has given you.
Imagine the insight you would gain by having personal and constant access to the author of your favorite book. Because books are written with purpose and intentions, and the author determines both of those, a close relationship with the author provides a degree of knowledge unavailable to outsiders. In understanding the Bible, like understanding any other book it’s all about who you know. The bible makes clear both that we know it’s Author and that the Author is available to help in our interpretation.
The bible is the work of men, but it is not ONLY the work of men. It would be appropriate to say that any given book of the bible, from Genesis to Revelation, was coauthored. Look at how Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture is given by inspiration of God. Although we can use the word inspired to speak of something being merely insightful or enlightened, the word Paul uses here is much stronger. A literal translation would read that the scriptures are “breathed out by God.” The words of the bible are the words of God. This is more than man writing something and God blessing it with inspiration, as if God breathed into the words of man and gave them power. Paul says that they originate with God. Peter says the same thing in 2 Peter 1:21
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Notice the driving will behind the bible according to Peter, the one that determined the purpose and intent of the book, was the Holy Spirit.
This can be easy to misunderstand. We don’t want to oversimplify this idea. Biblical inspiration is not the same thing as dictation, as if the author’s of scripture listened as God spoke and wrote down what he said like some sort of holy secretary. It would also be an oversimplification to speak of God supplying the ideas in the author’s minds and they providing the vocabulary. What the bible teaches about its authorship is that God spoke through the personalities of men. Consider Acts 1:16
“Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.”
Peter goes on in this speech to quote a psalm of David. No writing in the bible is more personal than the psalms. David’s experiences, his pains, his very heart is exposed in every psalm, and yet here Peter declares that God was speaking through him. We find a good illustration of the co-authorship of the bible in the incarnation of Jesus. In Jesus, God became flesh. In order to reveal himself, God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The bible is like that, a form of linguistic incarnate, God’s revelation through the personalities of men. The Holy Spirit therefore is the co-author of scripture. Each bible has a human author (lower case “a”) and the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit (Capital A).
The Cannon of Scripture is closed. The Holy Spirits role as it’s author is ended, but He still has a part to play in God’s self revelation. The bible declares that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the writing of the scriptures but also illuminates our reading of scripture today. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the word of God living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12) to us. In fact, Paul says that the bible is incomprehensible without this work of the Spirit. He says,
“For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:11-14
Don’t misunderstand Paul here. He is not saying that apart from the illumination of the Spirit that the bible is meaningless, as if the grammar would not make sense or the language is unintelligible, but the truth of the bible is foolishness and therefore not properly applied. Notice the positive statements made about the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the bible. He gives comprehension and understanding as well as teaches and interprets. This is not a natural occurrence, as if God just throws a switch when we become a Christian and we now have all wisdom and understanding. Instead, the Holy Spirit is made available to us and we must be dependent on him for the bible to speak as God intended.
This should directly impact how we read and study the bible. To begin with, we need to be humble in our ability to interpret the scriptures. As interpreters we must remember that in our flesh dwells no good thing and apart from the Holy Spirit we cannot comprehend the things of God. On top of humility, the Holy Spirit’s role in understanding the bible should make us prayerful. Prayer is ultimately how we express our dependency on God. When we study the bible, we must pray that God would teach us by his Spirit and that he would make his word living and powerful in our life. Lastly it should make our reading active. There is always a danger in reading the bible passively, unaware that it desires not just to be read but to be heard. We must read with attentive ears listening for the very voice of God. That is not inappropriate mysticism; it is recognizing and embracing the bible’s intended purpose. As Christians we have a double privilege, not only have we been given the self-revelation of the living God, but God has made himself available to us as guide and teacher of his word. Taking advantage of our relationship with the Author of the bible does more than transform our study; it transforms us.
There are interpretive keys to the bible without which it cannot be understood. They are like active ingredients that make the difference between the bible imparting change or being as effective as a sugar pill. Probably the most important key is also the most shocking. In fact, when Jesus supplied it, his audience must have been speechless.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” John 5:39
Picture the scene, a homeless, jobless, thirty something man from the backwoods of Nazareth making the declaration that what we call the Old Testament, a book written over almost 4000 years and completed 400 years before Jesus was born was all about him. Jesus proclaims himself the main character of the bible; the unifying thread that ties together Genesis and Habakkuk; the interpretive key of the scriptures. Simply put, if you don’t understand how a passage of scripture relates to Jesus, then you don’t understand it at all.
Jesus taught this Christ centered approach to his Apostles. in Luke 24 he teaches the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “interpreting to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (verse 27)and then later revealed himself to the remaining 11 apostles, “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” (verse 44-47) When we read the bible today we have to put on our Jesus goggles in order to rightly interpret the text. How exactly this is done is a huge issue over which the church has wrestled from the beginning. There are great resources available including Edmond Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery, Sydney Gridanus’ Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, and Michael James Williams’ How to read the Bible through the Jesus Lens. For now, I just want to point to two major approaches.
The Story of the Bible
The bible is not about you. It is not primarily a collection of stories about men, or even a collection of stories about men interacting with God. The bible is God’s story; a single albeit complex record of what God is doing in human history. The story begins in the Garden of Eden when God’ newly created first humans rebel against him and break his command. It is in the midst of God judging Adam and Eve that he makes a promise that sets the agenda for the rest of history. God promises to bring mankind back in right relationship with him by providing a savior. Although Genesis 3:15 is vague and mysterious, God continues to provided details progressively throughout the story. His words continuously point forward to the savior he will provide and the picture becomes clearer over the course of the Old Testament. At the same time, we see God moving towards fulfilling that first promise throughout the Old Testament. He does this by raising up a nation (Israel) to receive and record the promises, and prepares them for the coming of the messiah as well. Although Israel is constantly unfaithful, God graciously carries out his plan until the perfect time (Galatians 4:4) when he sends Jesus. Jesus preaches the arrival of God’s promises in himself, lives a perfect live, dies a sacrificial death on our behalf and is raised to life three days later. Before he ascends to God’s right hand he commissions his disciples to carry the message of what God has done in Jesus and call the world to respond. He also tells them that he will return and set all things right. We are called to continue that work today as God through his longsuffering withholds his wrath until the end (2 Peter 3:9-10) The New Testament, in the epistles and Revelation, makes clear this promise entails a recreation of the entire universe until all things are new and God’s creation mankind are restored to fellowship with him.
This incredibly condensed summary is the story that every passage of scripture fits into. God’s promise, provision, proclamation, and parousia (return) of Jesus make up the complete revelation of God’s story contained in the bible. To rightly understand a text in the bible, whether it is found in either testament, we must keep the context of God’s whole story in mind.
The Themes of the Bible
John calls Jesus the word of God. That creates a very close relationship between Jesus and the bible as they both show us who God is. However, John declares that Jesus is the final and fullest revelation of who God is, which means that all the great themes of the bible culminate and are completed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God’s love can be seen throughout the pages of the bible, but its fullest manifestation (1 John 4:9), even its very definition (1 John 3:16) is Jesus’ death. Many stories in the bible show us that God sovereignly accomplishes good through even the worst evil, but God using our murder of Jesus to bring about salvation is the capstone. God constantly pursues being with his people, first in the tabernacle and then in the temple (in fact much of the old testament law is devoted to complications of a holy God dwelling with sinful men) but ultimately God took on flesh and dwelt (literally tabernacled) among us (John 1:14) and even heaven won’t need a temple because Jesus will dwell with his people. (Revelation 21:22) Whenever we encounter the longitudinal themes of the bible we must follow the thread all the way to their culmination in Jesus.
Maybe you are familiar with the pithy saying about the bible being an acronym: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The bible is not an instruction manual; in fact, it is not ultimately about what you must do at all but about what God has done. When we pay attention to the meta-context of what God has through history in Jesus and follow all the themes of the bible to their climax in Jesus then we realize that the bible is a book about God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Only then can we rightly understand both what the bible means and how it requires us to respond.
For Further reading, pick up one of the titles I mentioned above:
Edmond Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery
Sydney Gridanus’ Preaching Christ from the Old Testament
Michael James Williams’ How to read the Bible through the Jesus Lens.
Throughout this series we have been exploring the interpretive journey, but we haven’t really dealt with our final destination. When are you done interpreting the bible? You are done interpreting the bible when you allow the bible to interpret you. The goal of understanding the bible is application. Because the bible is living and powerful, we cannot approach it scientifically, placing it on the operating table and dissecting it as a disconnected outsider. Interpreting the bible is necessary, but we cannot imagine ourselves as the authority in the relationship, as if we are the judges of truth and the bible is on trial. We stand not above the bible as interpreters, but below it as recipients. We allow it to be the final judge of truth not only objectively in facts but subjectively in a required response.
When we don’t allow the bible to have the last word we actually are in danger of distorting our understanding of the truth. Peter speaks of those who twist the scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). It’s as if they are trying to measure their crooked lives by the T-square of God’s word and call a bent T-square a job well done. Paul speaks of those who are always learning but never able to come to the truth (2 Timothy 3:7) and then goes on to by way of illustration show that the root issue is that they “oppose the truth” (verse 8). When we steel our hearts against the word of God, and the change it requires in our lives, our ability to hear God becomes distorted. Either we will be malleable to the hammer of God’s word (Jeremiah 23:29) or we remain unchanged and therefore call for the hammer to be the one to give. It must be one or the other because when we hold a truth and contradict it with our lives we experience cognitive dissonance. Our beliefs and our lives are in contradiction. As finite human beings we cannot sustain this condition for very long, if we do not change our conduct, we will change our beliefs. If we do not respond to the bible, we will twist or deny what it says.
We therefore must be quick to respond to the bible in the form of application, but how do we do this? No one has been more helpful to me in this than Bryan Chapell. In his book, Christ-Centered Preaching, he explains that whenever we apply the bible we must answer the following four questions:
What does God require of me?
The answer to this question is the essence of application. It is important to remember however that the bible speaks not only of our behavior, but also our attitude. It tells us not merely what to do, but also what to think, what to believe and even what to feel. If you leave the application here however, chances are you will feel like the job is done and yet experience no change in your life. Knowing what to do conceptually is not enough, which brings us to our second question.
Where does God require it of me?
This question seeks to bring the requirements the bible makes into direct contact of our daily lives. It helps us to move application from the general “what does God command” to the specific “What is God commanding me to do in my life”. What relationships are impacted by this command? In what areas of my life does my attitude need to change? How can I act upon this command right now? What are the practical steps that need to be taken? What would this look like in my place of business? Exploring where God’s word comes in direct contact in our life allows God to lay his finger directly on what he desires to change.
Why must I do what he requires?
Motivation matters. Consider Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about the hypocrites. All their actions are right, but the “why” of their actions, their purpose, is wrong. Rightly answering this question makes the difference between a sub-Christian application and a Christian one. In the broadest categories, there are really only three basic motivations for change. The first basic motivation is Guilt. Guilt says, “If you don’t do this, God will get you”. Jesus completely eradicated this motivation for Christians. He took all of our sins, guilt and shame on the cross and has removed it so that we are no longer under God’s wrath. Any change motivated by guilt is sub-Christian. The second general motivation is Greed. Greed says, “If you do this God will bless you”. Although God does promise to bless obedience, when this becomes our primary motivation for change it makes every action not an act of worship but of idolatry. We make God a means to an end. Any change motivated by greed is sub-Christian. Change in the Christians life is always motivated by Grace. Grace is the undeserved favor that God has bestowed on us in Jesus Christ. Because of what he has done, we are accepted, forgiven, part of God’s family, eternally alive and 1,000 other glorious things. It is in response to that that we seek to obey him. We love God because he loved us. We love others because God loves them. We now see the commands of scripture as the warnings of a loving father about the destructive dangers of sin. Whenever we seek to apply the bible we must remind ourselves of what God has done for us in Jesus and find our motivation for obedience in response to his grace.
How can I do what God requires?
This question also makes the difference between a sub-Christian application and a Christian one. Before God saved us we were not only unwilling to obey him, but unable. Now however, as Christians God has provided the resources we need for obedience. God has given us his Holy Spirit, his word, his church, and prayer among other things to assist us in obedience. It is important to remember however that these are the means OF grace not the means TO grace. It’s not, “if I read my bible then God will fix my marriage” (motivation is wrong) its, “God word can show me how to be a better husband”. When we seek to apply the bible in our lives, we need to consider the spiritual resources available and which ones we can draw on to help us change. Memorizing scripture, regular times of prayer, accountability with other Christians, dependency on God’s Spirit are all available to us in our endeavor to obey, we just need to avail ourselves to them.
Growing up my dad always said that a done job is not done until its done right. We are not done interpreting the bible until we have rightly allowed it to speak into our lives by considering the four components of application and allowed God to change us. Only then have we truly heard God speak and listened to what he said.
* I cannot recommend Bryan Chapell’s Book too highly. If you are interested, I encourage you to hop on over to amazon and pick it up: Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon