Want to Read the Bible Better? (Part 2)

Last week I wrote a post with some tips on how to read your bible better. If you have yet to read that post then you can find it here.

This week I am finishing up the post with part two. My hope is that after these two posts you will feel as if you are able to approach reading your bible more confidently, as well as walk away feeling as if you are reading it how God intended you to. I know that after I began applying these principles to my time in scripture, I felt as if I was tapping into a greater spiritual experience when I opened my bible. I felt as if I was doing it right and actually being able to apply the bible to my life.

With that being said, let’s jump in!

2. Look at the principle that transcends culture.

That may seem a little confusing. Sometimes when we are reading the bible we will come across some instruction (read in proper context!) that seems to go against what makes practical sense. In these situations the instruction given is normally culturally conditioned but doesn’t translate to our culture and time today very well.

At this point I would look at the principle the biblical author is getting at that transcends the culture it was written in. Perhaps an example would make this more concrete. In 1 Corinthians 11:4–6, Paul says

4 Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved. 6 So if a woman’s head is not covered, her hair should be cut off. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should be covered.

Most churches today do not require women to cover their heads while they pray. If we take this teaching literally and apply it to us today then we are in violation of a teaching of the New Testament. However, I do not believe that we are to take everything the bible says and literally apply it to our lives. Instead we should look to see what the principle being taught is, and then decide if that should lead us to the same application that it did during the culture it was written in.

When I take a look at the teaching of Paul in context, it appears that he is telling the women to keep their heads covered during prayer because to do otherwise was radical in their culture, and it even perhaps had a pagan influence. So when these women would pray with their head uncovered it would cause a confusion and people would be offended. Now the women understood that they were free in Christ, yet Paul tells them to not be so radical in it’s application. (Why that would be is the subject for another whole post.)

So the transcultural teaching, detached from the cultural association with head coverings, is to act decently within the church and not cause unnecessary commotion. The first century application of that is for women to wear head coverings when they prayed or prophesied. To apply the same principle for us today does not lead to having women wear head coverings in those situations. It does however lead to an application that might look something like “don’t come to church without being fully clothed.”

3. Read the entire letter.

This is one that really helped me when it came to reading the bible. Many of the writings in the New Testament are simply letters that are sent to churches, individuals, or groups of people. I want to suggest that the best way to read and understand what is being said is to read it as it was meant to be, in its entirety.

When Paul penned his letter to the Colossians he wanted the letter read out loud (Colossians 4:16). It was to be read to the church start to finish in one sitting. It is a four chapter book (with short chapters at that). Surely we can take the extra ten minutes to read the other three chapters and not just stop at one. I think something great happens when you read the letter as a whole and really begin to see the flow of the author’s thought and have the letter serve the purpose that it was supposed to.

Now I’m not suggesting that we can never just read a chapter or focus on a few verses in particular. However, I am saying that I think we gain more from reading the entire letter at least once before we do that. From that we are able to gain a greater understanding of the context in which those verses came, keep in mind the author’s purpose for writing to help us see how those verse contribute to that, and also see the whole picture that is being presented to us and not get tunnel vision on two verses while ignoring the whole thrust of the argument the author is presenting to his reader.

4. Don’t read yourself into the bible.

This is something that I see happen far too often. Because we sometimes hear the phrase “the bible is ‘God’s word.’” I think we often make the mistake of reading each verse as if it is God saying it directly to us. We have this bad habit of reading ourselves into the text. Here is an example:

When we read the story of David and Goliath I do not think that we are to read the story in such a way where we are David and Goliath is our problems. We shouldn’t read that story and say “God is telling me right now that (insert problem here) is going to go away! I’m going to defeat it!” If we do that we will become dismayed when the problem really doesn’t go away. You still didn’t make that rent payment or you still don’t have a car. That’s because God wasn’t trying to tell you that mystically through the text.

Rather, David is just David and Goliath is just Goliath. Now what we can do from this story is look and see how God cared for his people and used an unlikely person to help them. We can look and see how the small person had faith in God’s commitment to protecting his people and stepped on in action based on that faith. We can then look at the entire biblical narrative and see that time and time again God comes to the aid of those who seek and submit to Him.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem you are facing is to go away because God cares for His people and is committed to them. The Israelites were enslaved to the Egyptians for 400 years before God freed them. The Israelites also wandered through the wilderness for 40 years. The people of God in the New Testament were persecuted, beaten, and killed. However, God ultimately is for His people and also desires to provide and protect them (and He will indefinitely, despite whatever has happened to them now, in the last days when He raises them from the dead and gives them eternal life).

So there is much we can learn from the stories and circumstances described in the bible. However we cannot read ourselves into them and say this is God’s promise to me. There are instances where God makes promises to His people that we are able to hold onto as well today, but we just have to be smart readers and see when that is.

5. Read the bible normally.

What I mean by that is to read it as you would any other book. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking this book is supernatural to the point where we must read it supernaturally. We have to find the meaning behind the meaning. Everything is symbolic and nothing is plain.

It is easy to get intimidated by the bible. However, I would encourage people to just read it, and read it normally. Go through it and you will find that most of it is understandable and is not that difficult to know what is going on. However, there may be some times when you know what is going on but are extremely confused as to why it is going on or why God would do certain things. And to that I say, hold that question in your mind. Continue to think on it and ask those good questions as you read, but continue to read and see if, as you continue, some of those questions get resolved.

As I said in the first post, some things that happen much later will give light and definition to some parts that raise those questions. Now I also have to be honest. There are some parts you will read that are just plain confusing. Do your best to understand it, don’t place too much weight on it, and keep moving. There are parts that I am still not totally clear on but I have a greater understanding of now than I ever did. My hope is as I keep re-reading and learning they will slowly become even more clear. I am always gathering more questions and slowly getting more answers.

Don’t attempt to make the text all mystical and shrouded in secrets. Just read it like another book and do your best with the parts that don’t seem to read plain. Ask good questions and don’t stop! Read it normally and you will find it to be a much less frustrating book.

Image by Rky 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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