How to read the Bible

The Bible, like any other book, has a beginning, a progression, a climax, and an ending. On the other hand, it isn’t like any other book. Putting it in crude terms, God is saying ‘I made a beautiful world for you, and look at the mess you have made of it. But, I’m not going to let you continue to destroy it. I’m going to show you how I resolve the problem. Read carefully what happens when people have their own way in this world. Don’t blame me for the mess you make. Learn from your mistakes, so that you will be ready to understand why it is necessary for you to experience the kind of salvation I alone can provide for you in Jesus Christ. When you come to understand the nature of this salvation, and accept it as the only solution to your predicament, you’ll be ready for the rest of the journey I have for you.’

Not A Book Of Devotions

The Bible is not a book of ‘devotions’ that we read regularly just for the sake of some kind of ‘inspiration’ to take us through the daily grind of life. If we use it like that, we will make the mistake some people make when they read certain parts of the Bible they don’t like.

One church leader came to his small study group one day and told them that he had just completed reading the book of Jeremiah. He got no benefit from this reading, he said, except for the one verse that stood out to him as an encouragement.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11).

However, the passage goes on to show that these plans of God for Israel could only be experienced when they call on him and pray to him, and begin to seek him with all their heart. None of this was mentioned when this man recounted his experience of reading this prophecy.

We cannot take an isolated verse of the Bible and claim that this is God’s message to us, especially when we are not prepared to submit our lives fully to God’s ownership and to his direction for us. The immediate context of what we read needs to be kept in mind if we are to be honest before God.

Context Matters!

There is also the wider context of the Bible as well. How is our understanding of what we read affected by the rest of the message of the Bible? I remember asking a group of high school students this question: ‘If God has said, a + b + c +d +e + etc, why can’t I assume that the ‘c’ passage in isolation contains everything God wants me to understand?’ A sixteen year-old could tell me that it is taking it out of context. I have to understand it in the light of everything else the Bible tells me.

The ’Larger Picture’

What is the implication of this? Doesn’t this point out the importance of understanding the ‘larger picture’ the Bible portrays for us? For people who want to sound more academic this ‘larger picture’ is the meta-narrative of the Bible.

An ethnic pastor, whose English was limited, wanted to show that his theological studies were superior to that of other students who also studied all the prescribed books as part of the course. He said, ‘I only read the Bible… the Bible…!’ A legitimate question is, ‘How did you read the Bible?’

Biblical theology helps us to understand the ‘larger picture’ we are to see in the Bible. Why biblical theology? Dr Peter Adam has stated that if we understand biblical theology, it saves us from “…the ultimate destructive postmodern question ‘What does this text mean to me?’ to the more fruitful question ‘What does this text mean?” In other words, ‘What does God want me to understand?’ not, ‘What suits me?’

A correct understanding of biblical theology is also a good safeguard against false and reductionist views of the Christian faith.