Everybody hears Psalm 23 at funerals and 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings. The biblical language seems quaint, important and reassuring. But can we get behind the religious-sounding cadences and tap into some real meaning? Is it possible to get a message for today from those long-ago documents? Oh, sure, an assortment of preachers, authors, and cult leaders will try to sell you on their pet theories, but can ordinary people actually understand the Bible on their own?
I’m going to say yes. And it might help if you consider these tips.
- Know your genre.
The Bible isn’t just a book; it’s a library. Its 66 books were composed over more than a millennium by about forty different authors. These people were inspired to report on God’s doings in specific times and places, to celebrate the wonders of God, or to relay a divine message to people in specific situations. They used a number of different forms to do this.
Much of the Bible is history. Some is law. The five books beginning with Job are a sort of arts section—poetry, fable, pithy sayings, clever essay, perhaps even drama. From Isaiah to Malachi, we’re dealing with prophecy. The prophets were not just predicting the future, but also applying God’s truth to their contemporary societies. In the New Testament, the gospels tell the story of Jesus, using his own sayings and sermons. The book of Acts is a history of the early church, and then there are 21 letters offering instruction and exhortation to churches throughout the Roman Empire. The last book, Revelation, is its own beast—a mashup of prophetic symbols used to describe current and future events.
Take each book of the Bible on its own terms. Don’t build theology on poetry. There’s a theological precision in Romans that you won’t find in the Psalms (but you will find expansive celebration and gut-wrenching pain). Don’t treat Jesus’ parables as history. Don’t try to explain how someone could have an actual log in his eye; Jesus was just telling a joke.
- Learn the context.
As much as possible, get a sense of the time, place and culture in which a book was written. What events had happened previously? What message did God have for his people in that particular situation?
You’ll learn that David committed adultery after he was well-established as king, sitting fat and happy in his palace while his comrades were out fighting battles, and you’ll see Psalm 51 as his public prayer of repentance for that sin. You’ll understand the complacency of the people who dismissed Jeremiah’s warnings as alarmist. Hadn’t God always defended Jerusalem? Well, not this time. You’ll read Lamentations as Jeremiah’s mournful I-told-you-so. The two letters to the Corinthians will take on new meaning when you get that Corinth was a port town, known for loose living, graft and exotic religions. You don’t have to become a history scholar, but a quick perusal of the pertinent material in a Bible dictionary or study Bible will be very helpful.
- See what it says.
People often grab a “to do” item from a passage without actually reading what it says. This can result in bad application, where people make a passage mean whatever they want it to mean. Instead, take your time with a Bible passage. Answer the old journalistic questions—Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?—before you jump to conclusions.
Here’s an example—Philippians 4:8, which says, “. . . whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” People routinely interpret this passage to mean we should shield our minds from all thoughts that aren’t true, noble, right, etc. That might be a fine notion, but is that what the verse actually says? It doesn’t tell us to avoid thinking about anything. On the contrary: we should be thinking about whatever is true, if anything is excellent, and so on. The previous verse says that God’s peace “will guard your hearts and your minds.” Does this passage, then, give us permission to engage mentally with our mixed-up world, finding truth and loveliness wherever we can, even if it’s mixed up with ugliness and impurity, as we trust God to guard our minds? That meaning would seem to be closer to what the text actually says.
- It’s not a code.
Some years ago, a theory emerged based on computer analysis of the Hebrew Scriptures. Patterns were supposedly found in which every fortieth or fiftieth letter spelled out a prophetic message. People still treat the Bible as a code to be cracked, a puzzle to be solved. Some verse from Deuteronomy gives us the key to another verse in Habakkuk, which gives us the structure for making sense of Revelation. Or something like that.
Don’t go there. Keep it simple. Keep it personal. The biblical writers were moved by God’s Spirit to communicate messages from God. These messages regularly had to do with the relationship God wanted with humanity. I love you. I want you to trust me. I want you to live in the way I’ve shown you.I’ll forgive you. Don’t worship other gods. Return to me. It’s not complicated.
When we get obsessed with finding some secret “key” to “unlock” the Scriptures, we often blur the main message: our relationship with God.
- Think like an actor.
“This character is like me in certain ways and unlike me in others,” says an actor preparing for a role. The same could be said of any people in the Bible text (including authors and original recipients), and the situations around them. Good actors identify with those common points and imagine what it would be like if they lived as a different person in a different world. The same strategy works for Bible study.
Put yourself in the sandals of young David standing with his slingshot before a much larger Goliath. Let Esther remind you of a time when you had to say something difficult to a powerful person. Use your life to understand these biblical human beings, and use your imagination to bridge the gap between their culture and yours.
This blog is the second in a three part series. Check out Part 1: “How Do I Start Reading the Bible?” on our blog post from November 28.
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