How to read the bible?



This post is a follow-up and companion to this past Sunday's sermon, Take and Eat.

Recently I was at the American Bible Society, located in Philadelphia. They presented some fascinating research, looking at "the state of the Bible" in America. It's no secret that America is a post-Christian nation, which provides ample opportunities to speak about Jesus and scripture to others. But one sad statistic is 50% of church-goers do not read the bible on their own initiative more than once a month. Christians, followers of Jesus, don't find Scripture relevant, or they find it boring or have a hard time creating a habit of engaging Scripture. Yet the more we center our lives on Scripture and engage God's word, the deeper our life with God will be.

The One Story of Scripture

The Bible, while a collection of 66 ancient books, is actually one story. It is the true story of the world. God created the world good, perfect, beautiful, and true. He made this world out of love and delight. The first time we see and read about humanity in Scripture, Adam sings and delights in Eve (Gn. 2:23). Every aspect of life was good and beautiful. Yet we vandalized this perfection... the consequences of that act are devastating (Gn 3:1-7; Rm. 1:18-22). Humanity, now, is a deeply flawed creation, where we have a propensity to mess things up. Thankfully God, who is rich in mercy and full of love, could not tolerate his creation remaining broken, corrupted, and vandalized (Eph. 2:4). So he promised redemption and launched a rescue mission (Gn. 3:15). That mission includes his people, who are meant to be a blessing to the world (Gn. 12:1-3). God worked in his people's lives, speaking with them so that they could have a life with him for the life of the world. As God continued to work in their lives, he promised that a great rescuer would come; this rescuer would be the king whom we need, a king that could deliver us from the penalty, power, and presence of sin. God spoke about this rescuer to prophets; he sporadically appeared to his people, and poets wrote about him. Every story whispers his name; Moses spoke about him, the psalms are about him, as are the prophets. His name is Jesus (Luke 24:27). 

The Bible, in other words, is one story about redemption in and through Jesus.... and it includes us! It is a story about what God is doing in this world through Jesus Christ. Everything in Scripture hinges on him. The Old Testament promises redemption. As you read the prophets you can feel this emotional tension. God's people long for redemption and wait for him to provide it. Jesus accomplishes just that. So the New Testament, specifically in the books of Luke and Acts, show what Jesus is up to through his people.  

We need to remember the alien world in which Moses, David, Isaiah, and Paul lived. It is very different from today. Yet despite our changing world, God's word is eternal. It's true for all time, regardless of our cultural moment. So we cannot forget the context, whether literary or historical, that it is written in. All of this needs to bear on our scripture reading.

So what's the way forward? 

Questioning Scripture

So as we take and eat God's word, there are three questions we need to ask of Scripture. When we ask these questions, we are simultaneously asking God them and we're checking our own beliefs. When we have questions, it reveals our relationship with God and cultivates a deeper one. Consider Genesis 1, where the one, true and good God creates the world and everything in it to be good and true. How does Scripture present God? Do I believe that? 

So here are the three questions to ask:

  • Eternal -- On the basis of this text, who is God? If every story speaks about God, then Scripture reveals his character and personality to us. We learn who it is that reigns over us; we learn who it is who we worship; we learn more about the God who loves us. 

  • Personal -- On the basis of this text, who am I? This is a question that we long to answer, and almost every problem in this world exists because we've forgotten who we are. We aren't gods. We cannot be everywhere, we cannot do everything, we cannot know everything. We're creatures who live in a specific time and place, meant to live and enjoy God and be loved by him as his children.  

  • Mission -- On the basis of this text, what's my role in this world? God made humanity to do something. We are made, and we image the maker by making. We're meant to fill the earth and subdue it. So we have a cultural mission, and we also have an evangelistic mission. "You are his witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Jesus sends us into the world to love people, places, and things.... just like he did (Jn. 3:16; 17:18). 

These questions invite us to dwell with God, to inhabit his story, because God is up to something in this world. He is making all things new, and he includes us in that endeavor. As you engage God's story, you'll find that your story is included in it.