Read the Bible Well
In Doctrine & Disciplines of the Bible, Part One -You Are Invited, we determined the lack of spiritual disciplines in our society and the vast need for Christians to feed on God’s Word. Sadly, it is possible that many who call themselves Christian no longer place their trust in the Scriptures. They seek wisdom, guidance, and salvation elsewhere.
In parts 2-5, we’ve considered the Doctrine of the Word of God and the trustworthiness of the Bible. In doing so, it must be with the understanding that the Scriptures were not written to satisfy our curiosity; the Bible was written to change lives. And as the scriptures, referenced in biblical support, have shown, Jesus emphasized that the actual, written words of the Bible can be trusted (not just the ideas). Christians should learn to read, believe, and obey the Bible. When reading the Bible, we should “read the Bible well” to enjoy all God has to offer.
Now, as we ponder Part Seven, Read the Bible Well, and Part Eight, The Hard Work of Bible Study, I emphasize that Bible reading, and study, are not for only a select few. God’s Word is meant to be enjoyed by all Christians, and yet a few essential insights can clear up a lot of common misconceptions.
In this online context, however, I will not attempt to cover everything, from translation, to interpretation, to application. Rather, it is my desire to help the reader understand that there are different parts of the Bible, affecting their meaning, and that context analysis is essential to determining implications for today. I will let you know in advance that I encourage even further study on reading the Bible well. For that purpose, I recommend: How to Read the Bible Well by Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart and Knowing Scriptureby R.C. Sproul.
Communicating stories through literature is an ancient art. As we have established, however, the Bible is not an ordinary book. Who needs to read the Scriptures? Throughout history, the Scriptures have been read aloud for the benefit of various groups of people. Priests and Kings were commanded to read the Word (ex. Leviticus 17:18-19). And as the Bible teaches, God’s Word needs to be taught to families and read by individuals (ex. Deuteronomy 6:7-9).
- Exodus 24:7
- Numbers 24:17-19
- Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 17:18-19; 31:9-13
- Joshua 8:34-35
- Nehemiah 8:1-18
- Psalms 1:2; 119:11, 105
- Matthew 4:1-11; 5:17-18
- Luke 4:16-21
- Acts 8:27-32; 15:21
- Colossians 4:16.
- 2 Timothy 3:15
- Revelation 22:16
According to Deuteronomy 17:18-19, how often was the king to read the Scriptures, and for what purpose?
In your own words, paraphrase what occurred in Nehemiah 8:1-18.
Read Psalm 1:2. When you come to the Bible, do you immerse yourself in Scripture? Do you do it in a manner that Jesus Christ himself would rise in your heart? Do you delight in him?
The emphasis on Matthew 5:17-18 is positive, not negative. With this perspective, who came to fulfill the law?
The only reason the Bible seems boring to some is we can come to it having been dulled ourselves. Kevin DeYoung writes, “I’ll bet there are times you get passionate about words on a page. We all pay attention when the words we are hearing or reading are of great benefit to us, like a will or an acceptance letter. We can read carefully when the text before us warns of great danger, like instructions on an electrical panel. We delight to read stories about us and about those we love. We love to read about greatness, beauty, and power. Do you see how I’ve just described the Bible?” He continues, “To be sure, the Bible can feel dull at times, but taken as a whole it is the greatest story ever told, and those who know it best are usually those who delight in it most.” If we can read a novel, we can read the Bible. We need to read the Bible imaginatively and meditatively. We need to reflect on it. Like a good mystery, we should read the Bible thoughtfully and inquisitively. We should read the Bible acquisitively, to take possession of its treasures. However, proper Bible reading first begins with prayer. Revisit Psalm 119.
Food for thought: What words or phrases in each of the verses below describe the psalmist’s appreciation of the Word? List them as you read.
- Psalm 119:48, 97, 119, 127, 140, 167
Is your goal in Bible reading for information only? Or is it, as it should be, for affection, worship, or obedience?
We must not only read the Bible for information transfer. We must retain it, and process it over time; this involves study and thinking. John Newton wisely penned, “The course of reading [the Bible] today will prepare some lights for what we shall read tomorrow, and throw a further light upon what we read yesterday.”
Vital for overall understanding, we must understand that even though it contains two distinct testaments, the Bible is a single unit. The Bible is God’s own revelation, inspired by God Himself. We can rest in the applications of our reading and study, knowing that the Bible is inerrant. The Word of God is holy and sacred. The Word of God is able. The Word of God is inspired by God. It is profitable or useful; it can thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:15-17
Specifically, which biblical doctrines do you recognize in 2 Timothy 3:15-17? What might be their application in your life?
Howard Hendricks, a professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, gives ten strategies to first-rate reading. In those strategies, he includes the practices of reading thoughtfully, reading repeatedly, reading patiently, reading selectively, reading prayerfully, reading imaginatively, reading meditatively, and reading purposefully.
Purposeful reading looks for the aim of the author. Let’s remember from Inspiration of the Scriptures that not one word was written by chance. As readers, we are responsible to contribute only these words to the meaning. Many times, the Bible clearly states the purpose in the author’s writing. Yet sometimes, the intent is less obvious, and requires consideration of a larger portion of the text.
- Joshua 1
- Psalm 1
- Proverbs 2:3-5
- John 20:30-31
In Joshua 1:7-9, what is the significance of the Book of the Law and what were the specific instructions?
Proverbs 2:4-5 is a reminder that prayer and earnest effort in our walk with God are required, but what do we have to gain? Why is it important to find out what the original author intended?
Are you ever been tempted to add to your Bible reading’s takeaway, making it easily mesh with today’s ideals?
Do you ever wish for a more direct revelation than what you get from slowly, yet diligently, reading through the Scriptures?
Because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, reading the Bible well gives the Christian unimaginable understanding. Paul tells us that it is by reading God’s Word that we can understand what was not made known in its full significance (ex. 1 Corinthians 2:8-10). But, God wants us to pay attention to the words of Scripture, and know how they are being used. He intends we use the brains we’ve been given.
- 1 Corinthians 2:8-10
- Ephesians 3:3-5
The Bible is not such an obscure book if it is read and studied properly. When we read the Bible well, devotional reading is not the only kind we do. We read for learning, and for understanding. An essential element of Bible reading, study, and teaching is what Danny Akin refers to as the two evangelical views of revelation today: normative and private revelation. He states normative revelation as “in the Bible only, for ALL believers, provides general guidance.” He follows with the other view, private revelation, defined as “Bible PLUS experience, for individuals only, provides special guidance.” Akin adds that “this view is not biblical; it is dangerous, unnecessary, the origin of cults, and it can be reduced to the absurd.” (emphasis mine). In recognizing the characteristics of revelation, we can understand revelation is distinct from illumination. Revelation is objective – disclosure of truth. Illumination is inward and subjective – discovery of truth revealed. It is distinct from inspiration. Revelation is the what, the content, the message, the product. Inspiration is the how, the conveyer, the means, the process.
“Who speaks for God? …we should be properly concerned whenever anyone says they have God’s deeper meaning to a text – especially if the text never meant what it is now made to mean. Of such interpretations are all the cults born, and innumerable lesser heresies.” – Gordon D. Fee
As established earlier in this series (and worth mentioning in Bible reading), it is vital to recognize that the overarching storyline of the Bible is God’s activity in history, his revelation given in different ways and at different times, and the fulfillment found in Jesus Christ. The Scripture as a whole can be presented as three elements (paraphrased from the teaching of Danny Akin):
- Historical –God has been active in history in order to show his power and love.
- Progressive and cumulative – God gave his revelation in different ways and at different times, but now he has given his final revelation in these last days.
- Christ centered – God’s revelation reached its fulfillment when he spoke his final word to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is the superior and final agent of God’s redemption and revelation (Hebrews 1:2-4, Psalms 2 and 110).
“In Christ God’s revelation has been completed.” – Herman Bavnick
Recognizing genre leads to intelligent Bible reading. Clearly, biblical genre influences our understanding. We must always consider, “What type of literature is this?” Before reading/study, the first thing a reader needs to know is what type of writing the book’s author meant it to be. In other words, what kind of literature was he writing? As with reading any other writings, there is a difference in reading a psalm from Paul’s letters. Revelation is read differently from Ecclesiastes. A prophecy cannot be read in the same way you would read a parable. Our enjoyment in Bible reading is complemented by distinguishing these different writings in the Bible. Their work and the impact on their original audiences are more fully realized in our proper understanding of the author’s intent to communicate their messages. Genres of biblical literature include the Law, History, Wisdom and Poetry, Prophecy, Gospel, and Letters.
Can you see that intelligent Bible reading comes with the reader putting on his/her thinking cap?
Read Philippians 2:14. With understanding, could the problem of grumbling possibly come from one knowing that obedience (putting the reading into practice) should follow the reading of Scripture?
Are you offended when another person takes your words out of context? In the same light, would God and the biblical authors be offended when the same is done to His words?
Does conversation look different with a person who is familiar with your cultural norms and traditions? What about someone who is unfamiliar with these same aspects of your life?
There is no exception; reading in context is of utmost importance. Context refers to reading and comprehending that which goes before and that which follows a given passage. It refers to the circumstances that form the setting for an event, a statement or a written text by which that event, statement, or text can be rightly understood. Our understanding of the contexts in which God spoke His Word has a profound impact on the way we hear what God wishes to say to us through that Word.
“Without realizing it, many people develop their own lists of favorite passages of the Bible that then become their controlling grid for interpreting the rest of the Bible.” – D.A. Carson
Ample resources exist to aid in our deductions. I suggest you use a good Bible dictionary. Read a good Study Bible (my personal preference is the ESV Study Bible), and good commentaries (such as the Christ-Centered Exposition commentaries), which will help you understand the grand themes of the Bible. This big-picture view keeps us from lifting passages out of context, or reading something into the Bible that is not there. We should consider several kinds of context: Reading any verse in literary context requires us to consider the larger part in which the text was derived. The larger part is chapter, leading into the book, with the ultimate context being the Bible in its entirety. The reader should ask herself, Where does the passage fit? How does it function?
Andreas Kostenberger, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, notes, “When we speak about ‘literary context’ we mean the broader section of a literary work, which surrounds a particular passage we are reading or studying. In short, literary context refers to what comes before and after a passage, and we want to try to understand the role our particular passage plays in the development of the book we are reading.”
Historical context requires we ask questions: When is this taking place? Where does this passage fit in history? What else was taking place? What influences were on the writer and those to whom he was writing? When historical context is ignored and we begin our interpretation of the text with the here and now; we stray from the original author’s intent. One easily can read into the text some meanings that were not originally intended. We disrespect the Scriptures in making a text mean anything that pleases us, placing credit due to the Holy Spirit. Remember, the Spirit inspired the original intent.
Professor of the Bible, George Guthrie, reminds us: “At the same time we need to remember that Scripture is an ancient text that has come down to us from millennia ago. With such an ancient text we would expect to find certain words, events, concepts, and cultural features that are obscure to us.”
The Bible is the written Word of God, but it is also an ancient book about people and cultures very different from us. “Culture has to do with attitudes, patterns of behavior, or expressions of a particular society; and these are aspects of the ancient world that have an impact on our understanding of the Bible,” Kostenberger states. A full understanding of cultural context demands that we look at ancient cultures for insight. The reader should look into worship practices, clothing, food, and currency, as the text necessitates. A biblical text cannot mean what it could never have meant for its original readers, what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken or written. My suggestion to aid the reader in cultural context is a Bible handbook (such as the Holman Illustrated Bible Handbook).
“The influence of the twenty-first century mindset is a far more formidable obstacle to accurate biblical interpretation than is the problem of the conditioning of ancient culture.” – R.C. Sproul
A good Bible Atlas is helpful in understanding geographic context. The reader should ask, What was this location known for? What was the size of the city? What was the terrain and was it unique in any way? What was the distance from one designated place to another?
In gaining understanding of theological context, the reader must first consider where the passage fits in the unfolding of Scripture. Questions to ask would be: What did this author know about God? What was the relationship of his readers to God? How did people worship God at that point in history? How much Scripture did the writer (and his audience) have access to? What religions and worldviews were competition at the time of the original writing? It is at this point in the process of reading well that the reader benefits from systematic theology. Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology or Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology are both good choices for the Christian woman.
Kostenberger notes, “When we speak about theological context, we are referring to the tapestry of theological themes in the story of the Bible…So we are not just looking for historical facts but also asking questions about what stories, or practices, or institutions tell us about God, or about ourselves as human beings, or the world in which we live. We are asking about the development of those ideas over time, as God revealed truth progressively in the development of the biblical story.”
Can you think of events and statements whose context can be altered by the setting?
What expressions of society might affect your understanding of a passage?
What particular words can you recall that have changed or expanded their meaning in your lifetime?
Giving further warning, Kostenberger believes that we should consider the impact of our own context on our Bible reading and study. “The key is to have a posture toward God’s Word by which His Word is changing us in our context rather than our molding the Word to our cultural tastes and values.” Beyond context in our reading, we also consider interpretation of the text.
Do you have a tendency to treat the Scriptures too generally?
What is one specific biblical truth you have applied to life in the past year? Recall its impact. Was a nonbeliever looking on to see its effects?
Guthrie proposes, “We do not read the Bible as some magical book full of superstitious spells or as a talk-show-style, quick-fix manual for life. Rather, we read the Bible as God’s Holy Word, a Word that speaks relevantly and authoritatively to all aspects of our lives as we take all of the Bible seriously.” We seek to live in light of God’s Word. Therefore, with any passage of Scripture, we need to ask, So…what?
What is your favorite Old Testament story? Are you quick to find yourself in that story?
Do you find parallels in Old Testament stories and our lives today? Can you identify the strategic tension in the stories?
We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. Should we always act as the Old Testament characters acted? Explain.
Are you challenged to interpret Scripture looking to the real hero of the Bible as God, not yourself?
“If the political mood of our age favours one-issue politics, and sometimes one-issue Christianity, serious readers of the Bible must think more comprehensively. They will want to stress what Scripture stresses, and focus on the largest and more certain themes of God’s gracious self-disclosure.” writes D.A. Carson.
Christ-centered interpretation demands we leave behind moralism: be brave like David, pray like Daniel, be nice to your mother-in-law like Ruth, etc. The real hero of the Bible is God, not mankind. The massive problems with moralism are that we cannot apply this method consistently. This method often falls into the trap leading to legalism.
How does knowing this alter your reading and telling of the stories of David and Goliath, Daniel, and Ruth, knowing that they were not the true heroes, but their God instead was?
Moralism teaches us that our own good performance for God is what makes Him accept us.
Remember, the Bible is not ultimately about us… It is about Jesus Christ. The good news of the Bible is not to be good and do good. The good news of the Bible is that God sent a rescuer to save us, because we aren’t good. Therefore, we must read the Bible with that beautiful truth foremost in our thoughts. Christ, and the Apostles, read the Bible with Christ as the center.
- Luke 24:25-27
- John 5:39-47
- 2 Corinthians 1:20
- 2 Timothy 3:14-15
One should interpret Scripture with a spirit of humility. With the right of private interpretation (interpretation by the common believer, not through a hierarchy or magistrate) comes the responsibility of clear and accurate interpretation. Christ-centered interpretation can be applied to different narrative genres of Scripture. In addition, the law must be interpreted in light of Christ, with the understanding that it give us God’s standard. We have fallen short of that standard. Jesus kept it perfectly.
“The analogy of faith is the rule that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” – R.C. Sproul
- Genesis 3
- Deuteronomy 21:18-23 (laws)
- Joshua 7
- Judges 16
- 1 Samuel 16-17
For instance, when approaching poetry, we should keep in mind that many times the poems of the OT are retelling the mighty acts of God, pointing forward to Christ. We easily identify with the Psalms because they express an array of human emotions, but the words expressed are mostly about God.
- Psalm 22-24; 73; 19; 23
Can you see where we can look to Psalms for hymns, narrative praise, prayers of thanksgiving, or lament?
Can you see that the psalms help us reflect on God, who He is, respond to Him and think about Him appropriately?
One important thing to note is that there are two ways to interpret wisdom, one comparing wisdom as a person. Proverbs are not the same as promises: the Proverbs outline practical living.
- Proverbs 1:20-33; 5:7; 8:1-33; 9:1-6; 11:1-10; 26:4-5
- Luke 2:52
Another genre, the prophetic writings, are commentary on the Old Testament. Their imagery is often drawn from earlier themes, and the storyline mirrors the gospel story itself. Take Israel, for example. Israel was born as a nation in the Exodus, died for sin in the exile, and they resurrected from the dead in their return to the land.
How did the prophets do more than forecast the future?
What was the message of your favorite Old Testament prophet?
Can you think of examples where the prophets called people to faithfulness?
What part does their call to covenant faithfulness play in lives today?
Explain how the Old Testament prophets’ messages are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
True happiness cannot be experienced as long as we are ignorant of God’s Word. The Scriptures are God’s revelation of himself. However, when read in light of various contexts, the Bible can transform our own personal contexts, whatever they might be. We read the Bible to know the truth and to know God. Also, our purpose in reading the Bible well is to live well, experience God’s freedom, and to bring us joy in Christ Jesus. Ultimately, as with any spiritual discipline, when done well, Bible reading is done to the glory of God.
- Psalm 119:111
- John 8:32; 14:23-24
- Romans 2:2; 15:4
- 1 Corinthians 1:21
- Galatians 4:8-9
- 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
- 1 Timothy 4:16
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17
- 2 Peter 1:20-21
“Interpretation is one;application is many,” emphasizes Akin. There is only one ultimate interpretation of a passage of Scripture. The text doesn’t mean one thing today and something else tomorrow. Whatever it means, it means and has meant forever. But you will never cease the process of applying that truth to your life. Be careful how you interpret — You will only multiply error if you start with a faulty interpretation.
To clarify, it is vital we remember the Bible is one story about how God rescues us from sin, the curse, and death through His Son, Jesus Christ. It is ultimately ALL about Him, and we should likewise read it that way. However, that doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t apply at all to our lives. It means that it only applies to our lives in and through Christ. Ultimately, the more we know about God, the more we learn about ourselves.
- John 3:6-8; 6:36, 44, 63-65; 20:31
- Romans 10:17; 15:4
- 1 Peter 1:23-25
In the doing of our Bible reading as a spiritual discipline, we trust in the Bible’s inspiration, inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority. This provides the pathway for the Holy Spirit’s transformational work. It is crucial we understand that the Holy Spirit does not awaken and strengthen faith apart from the Scriptures. The Word of God sustains life and gives hope. With perfect posture in coming to the Bible, as well as thoughtful interpretation, the Christian should read the Bible well.
Reflect on your reasons for reading the Bible well.
- My goals for Bible reading are…
- As a result of reading the Bible well, I hope…
- My prayer for my Bible reading is…
All sources for this series are listed here: https://debbieswindell.com/2019/05/30/excited-to-share/