The Bible exists to help people to know and love God more truly, and to teach us how to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. This ancient collection of books, brought together over many centuries, has always served the Church by pointing us to Christ. In fact, though we call the Bible “the word of God,” it is only the word of God in a secondary sense. The true Word of God, the truest act of self-revelation that God has ever performed, is Jesus Christ himself. The Bible is true and helpful, and serves the basic function of using human words to point us to the divine Word.
The purpose of this blog post is to help you get the most (or at least a little more) out of reading your Bible.
What the Bible Ain’t and What the Bible Is
Let’s start here: the Bible isn’t an instruction manual. I’ve heard any number of people call the Bible God’s instruction manual for life, but truthfully this description really does Scripture a disservice. Certainly, there’s a lot of instruction in the Bible, but there’s also a lot of poetry, a great many stories and histories, as well as a whole host of other kinds of literature. Treating all of the Bible as though it were one uniform kind of book inevitably leads to problems. You don’t read a novel in the same way you read the instruction manual for your new phone. Similarly, you can’t treat the Psalms as though they’re legal material, or the book of Revelation as though it’s one of the letters of Paul.
But, if the Bible isn’t an instruction manual, what is it? How should we think about it, and how should we engage with it? The Bible is a diverse set of books, with many kinds of literature, all of which tell us about God, and all of which together point us to God by showing us Jesus Christ. Each individual book in the Bible has its own history, genre, and context, and is trying to tell us something unique. The book of Job is not like the book of Romans, and we shouldn’t treat them in quite the same way. Job is a dramatic poem (or a poetic drama?) that explores questions of suffering and the sovereignty of God. Romans is a letter that explores the way that different people encounter God through Jesus, and how those people should relate to one another.
But here’s the other thing – God hasn’t given us just the letter to the Romans, or just Job, or just any one book of the Bible. God has given us the Bible as a whole. That means that the various parts of it, while they have their own contexts and themes, are always in relationship to all of the other parts. To put it another way, the book of Galatians all by itself is an interesting piece of 1st-century Christian literature, but it’s only Scripture when it’s put together with the rest of the Bible.
But even this isn’t quite enough. We speak about the Bible as a revelation of God, as a way in which God shows us who God is. But, as Christians, we believe God’s truest, purest act of self-revelation is in the life, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus Christ. This means a Christian way of reading the Bible is only complete when the Bible points us to Jesus. Not every single passage in Scripture is specifically about Jesus, but every passage works together with every other passage to direct us to a deeper and more powerful knowledge of and experience with Jesus Christ. That’s the point where the Bible becomes Christian Scripture.
Why Read the Bible?
Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the 4th century, said the Scriptures are so beautiful that there is no limit to how often we can return to them and receive new joy and beauty and grace (Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Epistle 137). For the person who’s new to the Bible, there are many helpful places to begin. For the person who’s been reading the Bible for decades, every part of it can fruitfully be read and re-read again and again. Having said that, for new readers especially, there are some better and worse places to begin.
I don’t usually suggest to a new Christian that she begin her Bible-reading with Isaiah or Zechariah. Don’t get me wrong, those are great books, but it turns out that tossing a person who can’t swim into the deep end is actually just a good way to drown them. Instead, if you’re new to the Bible maybe you should start with one of the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark is an especially good place to begin, because it’s the shortest and most straightforward of the stories of Jesus’ life.
What I’m getting at is that not everybody has to read every part of the Bible all the time, and it’s fine that different people are at different stages in their growth with the Bible. There isn’t anything particularly magical about having read the Bible cover to cover; and if you keep trying to do this, and it’s derailing your regular Bible reading (probably around the middle of Exodus), try a different strategy. While it’s certainly good and healthy for a mature Christian to read all of the Bible, there isn’t any particular sin in not enjoying Numbers all that much.
As I said above, the purpose of Scripture is to draw us into closer relationship with Jesus. In fact, when Paul speaks about Scripture, he tells us it’s “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be capable, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Whether a person has been a Christian for 20 minutes or 20 years, this is the litmus test for how and why we read the Scriptures. Does your time in the Bible help to teach you? Correct you? Train you? Set you on the path for every good work? If the answer is “yes,” then at the very least you’re moving in a good direction. If the answer is “no,” then perhaps it’s time to make some adjustments.
How to Read the Bible
There are some basic, practical tips that also help make reading the Bible easier and more valuable. The first of these is to pay attention to three types of context:
1. Historical Context
The historical context of any part of the Bible is about when, where, and by whom the book was written. Authors of different parts of the Bible wrote for their own time and place, and assume their readers have all sorts of information we may not have in the 21st century. For example, it’s helpful to know Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were probably all written and collected together into one long and unified history some time during the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BC, give or take). That kind of information helps to frame the meaning of many parts of those books. History matters.
2. Literary Context
The second kind of context is literary context. By this I mean the ways all the parts of a given book of the Bible are connected. One of the most common kinds of misinterpretation that contemporary people commit is to ignore what precedes or follows the bit we’re actually reading. Each of the books of the Bible is a carefully crafted piece of literary artistry, and the order of the chapters matters. That’s why it’s such a bad habit to just open up a Bible randomly and pick a verse. That single verse is almost certainly a small part of a much bigger story or poem or argument, and it depends on all the other verses and chapters for its meaning. A famous verse like Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you …”) is nestled within a letter written by Jeremiah to a group of people from Jerusalem taken into exile in Babylon. Reading the passage as a whole makes the meaning richer and deeper, and also protects us from misunderstanding, or applying a verse where it doesn’t actually apply.
3. Canonical Context
The third kind of context is canonical. When we talk about the “canon” of the Bible we mean the specific books that have been included, and the way those books relate to each other. This is kind of like the large-scale version of literary context. For example, when we’re reading Paul’s letters and there’s a strong focus on the way God saves us by faith alone, there might be a tendency to think our behaviour doesn’t matter at all. That error is corrected by reading the letter of James, where we’re told faith is vitally important, but faith without works is dead. The two portions of the canon correct each other.
There’s another kind of context that’s vitally important for Christians as we read the Scriptures: the relational context we live in. I mean two things by this. First, I’m referring to our relationship with God, and especially to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. One of the specific things the Spirit does for us is to open our hearts and minds to what God is saying in the Scriptures (we call this “illumination”). It’s certainly possible to read the Bible as a set of interesting historical documents (and nothing else), and many religious scholars do exactly this with beneficial results. But, when we’re talking about Christians reading the Bible, this simply won’t do. Followers of Jesus should see the Scriptures as one of the key ways in which the Spirit of God speaks to us today, and should therefore think about Bible reading as a way for us to listen for the voice of God in our lives. Reading our Bibles should be a prayerful and prayer-filled activity from front to back, and we should have the expectation that God will speak to us as we listen and pray.
The second kind of relational context is the Church. Nobody is a Christian all alone. Such a thing is literally impossible, because to be a Christian is to be a member of the Body of Christ (that is, the Church). So, all of our Bible reading and interpreting must be done with our ears open to what other Christians see when they read the Scriptures. Of course, you can read your Bible alone – and you should – but don’t ever imagine that your personal and private reading trumps the interpretation of the broader community. We all need to talk together about what we’re reading and what we’re learning, and listen to the ways in which the Spirit is speaking to all of us.
The last practical tip I’d like to offer, before I discuss a few tools for Bible reading, is this: be open to change and challenge as you read the Bible. This encouragement is directed especially toward folks who have been Christians for a long time. It’s very easy to assume that we know what something in the Bible is about before we ever really read it. I encounter this in my students all the time. I’ll give them a passage of Scripture to read, and they’ll give me an interpretation that is clearly just a distillation of some sermon they heard once, and which bears no real relationship to the actual passage itself. Close and careful reading is actually a pretty hard skill to master, and one of the key features of being a good reader is being able to let the text you’re reading challenge your assumptions. If we authentically believe God speaks to us through Scripture, we must be open to the possibility that we’ll quite often hear things that surprise us.
Building a Toolbox for Reading Your Bible
The last thing I’d like to do here is to suggest a few resources that will help people to practice Bible reading more frequently and more effectively. The first, and most common, resource is a Study Bible. This is a Bible in which there are additional notes and explanations added for readers. Sometimes this just means one or two pages introducing each book, and sometimes it means an extensive set of notes in the margins of each page, explaining and expanding on almost every verse. Study Bibles can be very helpful, especially for novice readers, as they help clarify some of the historical and literary context I mentioned above. However, I do need to offer a couple of cautions about the use of Study Bibles. First, only the biblical text itself is the word of God. The introductions and marginal notes are just helpful explanations offered by people who have some training and talent in biblical interpretation. Those notes are interpretations of the text, and nothing more. Readers should think of them as advice from people with a little more training in the Bible, and should always remember that the notes can be wrong. Second, any given Study Bible will be edited and presented from some specific perspective. It’s very helpful to remember the people producing a Study Bible have theological opinions and, therefore, biases that will influence their interpretations. Again, not a bad thing, but an important thing.
Another set of resources that can be helpful are biblical commentaries. A commentary is a book written by a pastor or scholar that walks through some part of the Bible (usually a book or set of books of the Bible) verse by verse, explaining in detail how the book works and what various passages might mean. Commentaries range from very technical, scholarly works that require the reader to know Hebrew or Greek, to less technical books suitable for people with some college or seminary training, to non-technical books designed specifically for folks who don’t have any formal training in the Bible. That last type, which we usually call “devotional,” can be incredibly valuable and fruitful for people who are looking to take their understanding of the Bible to the next level. If you’re wondering where to get started with commentaries, try this site: www.bestcommentaries.com.
For the Christian who really wants to dig in and develop her skills in reading and understanding Scripture, the final resource I’d suggest is an actual course in the Bible. There are short seminar-style courses in learning to read the Bible (these are sometimes hosted at FAC or at various other churches in the area), and there are also more robust for-credit courses in many different facets of biblical interpretation (Ambrose University has a full slate of Bible courses available for credit or audit students). Courses usually require a significant time commitment, and often require a financial commitment as well, but there really is nothing like a focused exploration of the Bible guided by an expert to jump-start your engagement with the text.
While most Christians agree that the Bible is very important to their faith, many find actual Bible reading to be daunting or confusing. Let me just say, that’s okay. One of the reasons I spent many years pursuing degrees in Bible and Theology is because I was confused and frustrated about what the Bible meant, and wanted to get a better sense of how to read it. Now, to improve you don’t need to spend a decade or two in grad school; I hope I’ve offered a perspective on the Bible that will help you approach it a little differently, and perhaps more fruitfully. That said, the most important trick to becoming a better reader of the Bible is fairly simply (even if it isn’t easy sometimes) … read the Bible. Like most things in life, practice is the only real path toward improvement. Don’t start with the hardest book in the Bible, and don’t start with an absurd schedule you can never follow (no, you’re probably not going to start reading the Bible for an hour every morning starting tomorrow).
Commit to something manageable and accessible. Start with the Gospel of Mark, and read just a short scene every day or two (or maybe even just once a week). Let the Spirit of God speak to you through the story of the life of Jesus, and as you open yourself to God’s work in your life, you may discover that this dusty old book can be extraordinarily provocative and powerful.
Dr. Colin Toffelmire is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies and Chair of the School of Ministry at Ambrose University, currently serving as Theologian in Residence at FAC while on sabbatical.
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