Want to Read the Bible Better? (Part 1)

The bible is a very unique piece of literature. A single book that is comprised of sixty-six other books that have been collected over the span of thousands of years. More than that, it makes claims to be divinely inspired. The words that are contained on the pages of scripture proclaim themselves to be words that have been breathed out by God.

If this is true then that leaves the readers of the book with quite the task. They must approach reading it with care. They must look to read it in a way that does justice to it. They need to read it in such a way that the words carry out their intended purpose.

Now that all sounds a bit overwhelming. I know because I have been trying myself to figure out how to read the bible correctly. So to perhaps lend a helping hand to those who find themselves in the midst of the same struggle, I’ve compiled a list of things to keep in mind when reading scripture. Because of the length required to do justice to this topic, I will be breaking it into multiple parts. What follows is part one.

1. Context, context, context!

I can spend an entire post on this portion alone. I think that many of the mistakes we make when reading the bible fall under this category, so bring on the subpoints!

1.1. Identify the author and the audience.

It is often tempting to think that every individual verse written is supposed to be read as if it is God speaking directly to you about your circumstance that you happen to be facing. However, doing this will leave you with some unfortunate misconceptions of both God and what He would advise you to do. If I don’t realize that God is speaking to a particular people, during a particular time, in a particular place, then I might end up thinking some strange things.

For example: If you were to be reading through the book of Leviticus and read chapter 11 about unclean animals that the Israelite people were not to eat, which includes pigs (Leviticus 11:7-8) you may believe that God is telling you directly that you need to give up that yummy bacon. Praise be to God that you will know that isn’t the case (if you apply tip 1.1 to your bible reading)!

While it is indeed true that God commanded those people at that time to not eat pig, you are free to indulge in all the pork chops you can handle. But if you are an Israelite in the time of Moses you better turn off the grill right now. To know that we can indeed eat pigs, we need to look no further than 1 Timothy 4:1-5 where Paul (an Apostle) is speaking to Timothy (a leader of the church in Ephesus). Paul instructs Timothy that there are to be a group of people who are going to try to do a number of things, including forbidding people to eat food “that God created to be received with gratitude by those who believe and know the truth.” And the very next sentence Paul says that “everything created by God is good and nothing should be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

Now we can feel better about God’s view on pork knowing that what was once commanded to those people now doesn’t seem to be binding upon believers who are part of the New Testament Church age. Much more could be added to this as to why that is, but that’s for another post.

1.2. Read the part in light of the whole.

This is perhaps the one that I notice the most when it comes to people reading the bible. Although scripture is broken into verses, this does not mean it was meant to be read that way. In the world of “verse of the day” it is easy for us to think we just need one verse and we are good. Unfortunately the bible isn’t recorded as a large collection of true statements about God, but rather contains stories, poems, letters, and more.

My point is that we need to take the time to identify what takes place around the passage we are reading. Let me give an example:

Imagine you have just read Job 16:11 which says, “God hands me over to unjust men; He throws me into the hands of the wicked.” If you just read a verse and see what it has to say, you would easily walk away thinking that God is unjust and wants you to suffer. Thankfully this is not the case based on the context of what is going on around the text.

Job 16 picks up in the middle of an already ongoing story. Job is upset based on some tragedy that has gone on within his life, and that verse catches him in the middle of his complaining. If you read that verse in light of the whole, you are able to realize that Job is not necessarily speaking truth right here. Even more so, if we continue on and read the entire book of Job we discover that God shows up to correct Job’s wrong views of God. This goes to show that we need to be careful when isolating verses outside of their context and not seeing how they relate to the whole.

1.3. Understand it’s place within the biblical narrative.

Here is my final point revolving around context and my final point for this part of my posts on bible reading. This one is in many ways identical to my previous statement about reading a text in light of the whole. However, I want to point out something more specific regarding this topic. (Perhaps point 1.2.1 would have been more appropriate.)

Here is a tip that is a little more difficult, and in some ways requires that you be familiar with the entire storyline of the bible to some degree. If that isn’t you now, then hopefully it will be you at some point. Spoiler alert, I may reveal some things to come if you are early on in the biblical narrative.

I had already discussed earlier that the bible isn’t a list of theological facts about God or even a rule book handed to us by God. Rather, it is a narrative of God’s redemptive work throughout history culminating in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Now I say all this because there are times when we are reading the bible in context as well as identifying the author and recipients when we may still come to some overall incorrect conclusions.

The pork idea begins to get at this, but I will also give a more clear example later on. We discovered earlier that God prohibited the Israelite people from eating pork. Now with our good bible reading skills we have acquired so far, we may still come to an overall incorrect conclusion. We may read and understand that God wanted this behavior from his people at this time and then might ask ourselves, “If he wanted that behavior from his chosen people at that time then perhaps I should do the same now.” The reason we didn’t come to that conclusion overall was because of something that was said way later in the narrative. In other words, it wasn’t until we got way farther in the story that we realized that God did not desire that of his people any longer.

Let me give another example: you could read Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, or Deuteronomy 19:2 which all state that whatever one man has done to another, the same punishment must be inflicted on him. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now we can read all three of these passages in context and see that God desired for his people to pass out retributive justice on wrongdoers. Now in reading this, one would rightly get the idea that if God wants this sort of justice done amidst his chosen people (much like the prohibition of pork) then God would want it done amidst those who follow Him and are His people today.

Yet I would argue that this is not the case, and here is why. These specific passages take place within a portion of the biblical narrative that is early on within the redemptive work of God. Much later in the new testament Jesus addresses this very topic, yet he has something unexpected to say. In Matthew 5:38-39 He says, “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

It seems that Jesus is redefining law that was given from God! Now I don’t have adequate time or space here to explain why that is, but we can see plain and simple that something has happened throughout the narrative that shows the former way to now be void for those who would want to follow God. The story has progressed and revealed new information that changes how we perceive the old.

This is much like in a movie with a big twist. When you watch it through the first time you only have to go on what you have seen thus far. But later on a big twist happens that changes everything else within the movie, it even redefines and brings to new light the things you had seen before! Then when you go back and watch it through the second part you see that first portion drastically different. The bible is no different. The person and work of Jesus drastically reshape how things are seen and done. This is evident in the ways that people responded to his teachings during his time.

So this means that sometimes we need to read the text in light of the entire revelation of scripture, not just the specific book that the passage is found in. This is difficult for those who have not yet made it all the way through, or just aren’t as familiar. The biggest advice I can give to those people is to keep reading and not jump to too many conclusions until you get to the climax of the story, and the fullest revelation of God: Jesus.

Hopefully this post encouraged you more than overwhelmed you. I hope to continue the second part of this topic within the next week. However, hope is the key word here. Until then, implement this into your reading of the bible. Context, context, context!

Image by Ryk Neethling via flickr

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Curtis Snell

I am first and foremost someone who is trying to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. I serve on the pastoral staff of a church in Iowa and I love writing, reading, and my dog Pepper.

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