How should we read the Bible and relate to the words within its pages? Scripture should be read through the eyes and the worldview of the people that God picked and prompted to produce it, and we should recognize that the authors were writing to people that lived at the same time as they did. I share my experience, a brief story, and some practical tips that have helped me better understand the Scriptures.
Hi friends, Josh here. So - the Bible. It’s a big book. Maybe you’ve heard or even said before that the Bible is God’s “love letter” to humanity, or that it it’s “basic instructions before leaving earth”, or it’s just a book of laws and rules for how we should live our lives. While each of those might sound like an easy shorthand way of describing the Bible, I don’t think any of those statements accurately portray what the Bible is and why it’s important to read it and understand it. I think saying those things leads to more confusion and actually leads us to misread and misunderstand the Bible. We’re pretty guilty here in the West of taking the things the Bible says out of context, where we often misapply things to our own personal lives or church vision statements and even put our confidence in things that the Bible might say but don’t have any relevance or application to us. So what is the Bible and how should we read it?
First, the Bible is a collection of ancient literature. Even the word “Bible” can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek where it literally meant “paper” or “scroll”. Each of the “books” we have in the Bible are individual writings, and each have their own genre or style that it was written in. Of course some of these writings were originally spoken and others were sung. Some are historical records, others are poetry or prophecy. And genre really affects how the specific writing is to be read or understood. For example, poetry is read and understood differently than history or prophecy.
So we have a collection of literature, written in different styles. Now the next step is to realize that the literature that makes up the Bible was written to people from another time and another place in the world. We could possibly say that the Bible is FOR us, but it’s not TO us. But even this needs nuance, because we tend to want the oversimplified answer to everything, and unfortunately it’s not that simple. By and large, the authors and audience of the literature in the Bible were not only, but primarily the Jewish people. For example, when Jesus spoke the sermon on the mount as we read it in Luke or Matthew’s gospel, he spoke to a specific group of people at a specific time period - the Jews in the first century. He wasn’t saying “hey you scribes in the back, write this down and make sure you get it right, because this is really for some people who are gonna be born a long time from now. But you guys here, let me give you some bread and you can just snack for a bit while I give my monologue.” That’s not the way we should look at it, right?
Of course we can read specific letters or portions of the scriptures that were addressed directly to non-Jews or certain groups of people of the author’s day, but there is no passage in the Bible that was written directly to 21st century Gentiles living in the West. This means that we can’t be responsible readers and just take a passage from Isaiah or Jeremiah and claim it as a personal or corporate promise that God has to fulfill to us or our church or something because it’s “in the Bible”. We tend to bring preconceived ideas and a modern perspective to these ancient words, and we apply it to our time and our situation often times without even thinking about the ancient people they were originally addressed to.
So back to how we should read the Bible. First, I said it’s important to understand that the Bible is a collection of ancient writings that are written in many different genres. My second point builds off of this one - that these ancient Hebrew writings are not just random, but they are a collection whose contents come together to form a coherent, connected story. From the beginning of the story in Genesis all the way to its conclusion in Revelation 21 and 22, there are several important threads that tie the writings of the Bible together. These threads are woven together throughout the various genres of literature to reveal more and more of God’s plan to restore all of his creation to its original glory as it was before Adam’s fall in the garden. This weaving isn’t always smooth and easy though - we see setbacks, failures, and all sorts of questions are raised about when and how these promises will come to pass. In fact, this is one of the burning questions on the minds of so many Jews at the beginning of the first century. Had God abandoned his promises to the nation and thus to the world? The resounding answer that the Jewish apostles of Jesus give us after his death and resurrection was “no” - God had not forgotten, altered, abandoned, or redefined his promises, and that what God said he would do through Moses and the Prophets was still on track.
You might be thinking, ok Josh, well you’re just being overly specific and really picky here. And maybe you could argue that I am in some ways, but I think this really matters. I’m sharing this because of how my faith has been strengthened and how I’ve gotten so much more out of the Bible by changing the way I read it. Context really matters. I don’t have a quiet time where I play Bible roulette and flip somewhere looking for my promise for the day to keep me going. I open my Bible to remind myself that I’m a part of a grand story that God has been writing where he has a lot to say about his people Israel, but that he really has chosen to take a people for his name from among the Gentiles and even to give them the Holy Spirit as a down-payment of the glory to come when he redeems Israel and restores all creation.
So here’s my main point: We should read scripture through the eyes and the worldview of the people that God picked and prompted to produce this thing, and recognize that they were writing to people that lived at the same time as they did. If we do that, we’re going to get a lot more out of it.
Let me tell a story to illustrate my point. I’m a pastor but let’s say I’m a businessman and I had to go overseas for 3 weeks on a very important business trip. And while I was out of town, I wrote my wife a letter and sent it to her in the mail. Yeah, a letter… not an email, not a text, a real letter. And in this letter I say lots of awesome things about her, how much I love her, how committed I am to her, how much I miss her and our kids, and how when I get back I can’t wait to take her out on an awesome date and really treat her well. So that day comes, and I’m back in town and I ask one of my dear friends to come over and babysit my kids for the night while I take my wife out on a date. I say “hey, you can give the kids a snack at 7, and put them in bed at 8, and my wife and I will be home at 10.” So 7pm rolls around and it’s time for the kids’ snack. So my friend goes to the fridge and as he opens the door, he sees the letter that I wrote my wife hanging on the fridge, and he starts to read it. Now, let me ask this question - how awkward and strange would it be if my good friend read the letter on the fridge and thought that I wrote it to him and that the things I said to my wife could somehow also apply to him? Not only would that be very weird, but it would not be correct. Though I love my friend dearly, he’s not my wife, and the things I wrote in the letter aren’t things that I said to him. So does this mean that the letter has no relevance or application to him at all? Well, not so much. Though I love them both, my relationship with my wife is very different than my relationship with my friend. So what benefit does my friend gain by reading the letter? He can discern my character, my commitment, my extravagance, he can see the way I care for my wife and what I long to do for her when I come back from my trip, how much I miss my family, etc. There’s so much understanding he could gain, and he could say to me “wow, I’m so grateful for our friendship and for the way you’ve invited me to be a part of your life with your family.”
Now of course we can’t directly apply all the details of this little story to how we read the Bible, but I hope you can at least see the main points that I’m making with it.
I think it’s really important for us to ask questions like: who were these words originally spoken to, what context would they have heard them in, and what meaning would the words have had for them? Once you answer those questions, then it’s possible to ask “what can I, as a 21st century Gentile, understand about God and his ways and his character and his promises as a result? And how then should I live? How can I join the story he has been telling that is primarily focused around the ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the nation of Israel? What’s the place of the nations in this story and how does this whole thing end? So much more could be said about this but here’s just two practical points that have really helped me as I’ve sought to read the Bible and obey Jesus more:
1. Read the introduction to the letter or the book if it has one. Often times there’s a recipient listed, there’s the timing of a king’s reign, there’s geographical information, or something similar. This can help us answer the questions like who the words were written or spoken to and what meaning the words would have had for them.
2. Pay attention to the pronouns, like the words “we”, “I”, “you” and “us”. For example, don’t just assume that the “we” in one of Paul’s letters is all-inclusive of every single disciple of Jesus for all time. If you want to see where this really matters, read Ephesians chapter 1 verses 11 through 14 and pay attention to the pronouns. I may make a separate video on this specific point later, but check that out for now and let me know in the comments down below if you notice anything interesting.
3. When there’s a concept or idea that might be confusing, always begin by working from the beginning. Start by looking backwards, to earlier in the story instead of looking forward. For example, when Jesus talks about righteousness and we want to try to understand what he means, we shouldn’t start by looking forward to Paul’s letters, but rather by looking backward, back to the Prophets.
Well, there’s a lot of other good resources out there on how to best read the scriptures and there’s so much more that I could say, but I hope this was at least a little bit helpful. If so, click that thumbs up button and subscribe for more, I’d like to say more about this in some future videos, so if you have something related you’d like me to talk about, leave a comment down below. God bless, and Maranatha.