Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How to Read the Bible Right


After noticing that many of my friends, especially those with whom  I converse on the Internet seem to read the Bible and come up with strange ideas, I decided that we all, Christian and skeptic alike, need a refresher course in reading the Bible.

We read the Bible in different ways. The most common for Christians would be reading it
devotionally.  That means we read it to understand its promises, to encounter God more deeply, and to discover God’s instructions for our lives.

    A second way both Christians and skeptics read the Bible is to read it for information. For example, we might read the Gospels to get a better picture of what Jesus said and did. Or we might read Exodus to learn how God saved the Israelites from Egypt. Or we might read it to see what it says about the problem of sin or about the nephilim in Genesis. Usually, this way of reading the Bible is focused on particular passages and ignores the context of the whole Bible.

     A third way of reading the Bible is that adopted by skeptics. They read it to find fault. They focus on the "contradictions" and the controversial.

    Those ways of reading the Bible, however, don’t give anyone the whole picture. They provide bits and pieces here and there. But reading like that misses one of the most amazing truths about the Bible, and it misses the connections (in literature this is called coherence) between the parts of the Bible that would make them more understandable to us.

READ THE BIBLE AS A SINGLE STORY
So sometime it would be a good idea for Christians and skeptics to read the Bible as a single connected story. That is what the Bible is, after all. It is a story that begins at the beginning of time and human history in Genesis and ends at the end in Revelation. But there is a caution.

    For the most part, the Bible we have is organized chronologically just as most stories. But there are some parts that are out of order. The books of the prophets, for example, are organized as a group rather than organized  in sync with the time in which the prophets spoke and wrote.

    Isaiah and Micah both lived and wrote during the time of the king Hezekiah. The story of Hezekiah and his time is found in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32. It will provide a much richer, more meaningful story if  we read the books of Isaiah and Micah along with those passages in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

    The books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah were written during the time when Judah, the southern kingdom, was under attack by Babylon and  in captivity in Babylon. Reading them at the same time you read the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles will give you a context for what they have to say.

    You can use a chronological Bible to place the prophets in the proper time sequence with the history books. Or you can use the NIV Study Bible and the introductory material to help you place the prophets in their proper order.
  
    As you read the Bible this way, you’ll come to several books that are difficult to get through, particularly Leviticus and Numbers. It will help if you recognize that these books were written as instructions to the people of Israel as they were building the kingdom in Canaan. That understanding will allow you to see many of the laws given to Israel as laws related to this kingdom and not other kingdoms. Laws such as the laws about slaves or about dress or about sacrifices are peculiar to Israel. Other nations were not and are not today expected to follow those laws. The New Testament explains that in Colossians and Hebrews. These laws were “shadows of things to come.”

    Some laws, however, are general and universal. The Ten Commandments are that. Those laws are reinforced in the New Testament. And those are the laws that Jesus said in Matthew 5 will never pass away.

    There is one exception that everyone will wonder about. It is the commandment regarding keeping the Sabbath. That law is addressed in Hebrews 4 where the writer explains that the Sabbath looked forward to a rest of faith. It was what is called a type, a picture of something that would be more fully seen later. So according to Hebrews, if we are resting from our works and trusting in the works of Jesus, we are fulfilling the purpose of the Sabbath as God intended.

    Of course, we can keep the Sabbath on Saturday as the Jews do, and many Christians do so. We are not disobeying by keeping the Sabbath. And if you have slaves, you probably should follow at least the principles of treating slaves humanely that we read of in Exodus and Numbers.

    The fact is, however, that the laws specific to Israel as a kingdom in Canaan are not specific for us. That we will understand if we read the Bible as a single story.
  
    When we read the Bible as a single story we also get the plot.  The plot is about what happened to mankind, how we fell from perfect fellowship with God (Genesis 3)  and what God is doing about it: he is providing reconciliation through his Messiah Jesus.

    If we read the Bible as a single story, we will see that plot unfolding from the first promise God gave of reconciliation in Genesis 3:15 to the actual coming of the Messiah in the Gospels and finally to the  resolution of all the conflicts in Revelation. And it will make perfect sense.

    If we read as we usually do, a bit here and a bit there, it is like reading a novel by opening randomly to this page and another page. We could never make sense of a novel that way. Even the common practice of reading the New Testament first, although better than reading randomly, is like starting a novel in the middle. We might eventually get enough to figure out the whole story, but it would be difficult. We would miss a lot. No. Read it like a single story.

    However, if you are completely new to the Bible, it is not a bad idea to read the Gospels first. Just don’t stop there. Eventually go back and get the whole story by beginning in Genesis.


READ THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE
Literature comes in various genre or types. There is poetry, proverb, history, law, biography, prophecy, and story in the Bible. Each of these requires that we read it with some understanding. We don’t read poetry with all of its metaphors and personification, etc. as we read history.

    Among all the different types of literature we find in the Bible, story is the most common. It almost seems that God made us to read and think in stories.  Stories have power.

    Now, don’t read “story” to mean not true. A story can be true, and the Bible story is true. What “story” means is that there is a structure that makes it interesting and a point or lesson  to learn from it. It is not just a string of events. It is not random. A story is going somewhere.

    Take the story of Abraham. It is thirteen chapters long and includes many events in Abraham’s life. But it is really all about faith. It is faith illustrated in Abraham’s life. Paul in the book of Romans in the New Testament underscored the point of Abraham's story when he said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). So, as you read the stories, whether a parable told by Jesus or the story of Abraham or Joseph or the Gospels, look for the point. As you read the whole Bible, look for the point.

    You may need help in reading some kinds of Bible literature properly. If so there is a book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth written by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart that will help.

READ THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT
Reading in context means to read with an understanding of the larger piece where the particular piece you are reading is found. For example, the book of Genesis precedes the book of Exodus and was written by Moses for the Israelites who were escaping Egypt. That is the larger piece called the context. It was, therefore, written to give the Israelites, who had been in Egypt for several hundred years as slaves, information about who they were and what God’s purpose for them was. They had forgotten their heritage. Genesis would restore that to them.

    So, when you read the creation story in Genesis 1, realize this story was intended to tell the Israelites that God was God and the gods they had learned about in Egypt were not. In Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve was to remind them why people are as they are, estranged from God. And it was to give them hope that one day things would be different.

    The story of Abraham was to remind them that they were of the family of Abraham and were given the promises God gave to Abraham’s family. It was to remind them that they were in line to both be blessed and be a blessing to the world.

    Finally, the story of Joseph was to remind them how they came to Egypt and where they came from in Canaan, the land God had given to them. The context of Genesis is the whole story of Israel’s return to the land and the mission God had for them.

    Context also is important in understanding pieces in a smaller passage. For example in Mark 13 Jesus tells his disciples what will happen in the future. The temple will be destroyed; there will be wars and troubles; there will be false messiah’s. Toward the end of that list Jesus says “This generation will not pass away until all of this is fulfilled.” Some people have read that to mean Jesus promised that the disciples, "this generation," would not die until all these things were fulfilled and he returned as king. But that is assuming a context that is not there in the passage. The context of the passage is clearly that the generation of people living at the time when the things described earlier happen will not pass away before the Son of Man comes and these all are fulfilled. Context makes a big difference.

    The context of any piece is the passage in which it is found, the type of literature it is, the place in history in which the events take place, and the culture of the time, plus other more technical things such as language. Don’t be put off by  the idea of context. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. When context is important, a study Bible will provide adequate information.


READ LOOKING FOR GOD’S MESSAGE TO YOU
There is always something we need that the Bible will supply. Ask as you read. Is there something I need to know that this passage is telling me? Is there something about God I need to know? Is there something about me I need to know?  Is there something I should do? Is there something I should not do?

    Apply the message to yourself.

    And pray. Ask God these questions and expect his answer. You will be surprised how specifically God answers that question as you ask and then wait expectantly.

THE BIBLE IS A REMARKABLE BOOK
There is no other book like the Bible. It was written over a period of 1000-1500 years by dozens of different human authors. Yet it holds together as one story as though it were written by a single author. It is powerful to change lives and nations and civilizations. And it has. It is the story of the whole human race and covers all of human history. It is so deep and personal that you will never exhaust what it has to speak to you. It is a divine book. It is loved by billions - and yes hated by others. It has been banned and burned, yet it survives. And it will survive until the story is complete. Read it. It will change your life.

No comments: