When you pick up a Bible, you’re not reading a book. You’re holding in your hand a library of books. 66 books! (Well, 66 writing as a Protestant. Other Christian traditions include additional books in the Bible.) 66 books, written by about 35-40 different authors, writing over a period of about 1500 years, inspired by God to tell one story. It is an astounding book. But for many it is also an intimidating book.
If you feel at all hesitant about reading the Bible, please know you’re not alone. Many people think just like you do. If we’re honest, we respond to our unpleasant feelings about the Bible by ignoring it. Please hear me out when I say that if you have not read a Bible in years, I’d like to share five keys that can help make the Bible accessible to you.
As I said, the word “book” is actually not a very good description for the Bible itself because it is a library. The word “book” is also not a good description for many of the 66 books of the Bible. For example, I recently preached through 1st Timothy. Was that a book? No, it is a letter. Obviously, letters are different from books in many ways.
We call this distinction “genre”. What does the word “genre” mean? “Genre” has French origins, stemming from the word “gender”. That should help us understand what it means. Gender is a type of person, either male or female. Genre means “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content”. That is the first important step when reading the Bible:
Answer the question, “What genre is this?”
There are many genres of literature in the Bible.
The Bible includes Non-fiction and Fiction. Real-life stories and ones that are made up.
You might think “Wait a minute, Joel, the Bible is true, it is non-fiction. How can you say it includes fiction? Are you saying some of the Bible is false?” Nope, I’m not. What I am saying is that the Bible includes works of fiction. Take, for example, Jesus’ parables. Was he telling true stories, like news reports? Maybe some were based on real-world stories, but generally Jesus created the stories to teach a main idea. The parables are generally fiction. Now to be precise, they are works of fiction within a non-fiction account of Jesus’ life.
There are many fiction and non-fiction genres of literature in the Bible. In the Bible you’ll find History, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Letters, Prophecy, Lists, Laws and more. There are also some very unique biblical genres. Take the four Gospels, for example, which are quite unique in the ancient world. They are biographies, four accounts of the life of Jesus. But they are biographies with a theological purpose. Each of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are endeavoring to tell the story of Jesus’ life, but they have purposes for telling that story.
I say all this about genres for a reason. To try to explain that reason, I first want to talk about two specific genres of literature.
The first genre I encountered a few weeks ago when my son graduated from high school. We showed up at the venue, and as we entered the room, ushers handed out commencement programs the school created for the event. That commencement program is a work of literature, and as such, it is a particular genre of literature. The program starts with an order of events for the evening, and then it includes lists. Lists of award winners, lists of graduates and so on. When I read the commencement program, I expect that it will tell me lots of true information about the graduation ceremony and the participants.
On the other hand, the second genre is a book of poetry by GK Chesterton, a wonderful English Christian thinker, author and poet from the 20th century. I have this book on my shelf at home, and it is called Poems For All Purposes. As the title suggests, it includes a variety of Chesterton’s poetry. When I read poetry, I have to use certain principles to understand it, right? In poetry I know that there is likely going to be a lot of figurative language for example. The poet might talk about a stone, but mean something very different. Often poetry is mysterious and hard to understand. We learn that about poetry when we study it in school.
So what would happen if I took the principles of reading and understand poetry and applied them to the commencement program? I could try to find symbolism or metaphor in the names of the students and the awards. I could try to count how many more boys or girls there are and discern a secret message about masculinity or feminism. But that would be an improper way to read the commencement program! It’s just a list.
Likewise it would be improper for us to read the Bible like we read, say, a novel by John Grisham. The Bible is different from a novel.
So when we read the Bible, it will be very helpful to remember Genre. If you are reading the book of Joshua, which is primarily a historical book, you will have a different approach than if you are reading the book of Proverbs, which is primarily a bunch one-liner wise sayings.
Once you have an idea of what genre you are reading, it is time to move to the next key.
Answer the question, “What was the cultural situation that led to this work of literature?”
Because the original situation of a particular portion of the Bible is so far removed from us, we should do a little bit of work to find out what was going on in that culture.
Think about it this way. When you read The Lord of the Rings, you are familiar with the name J.R.R. Tolkien. He is the author. He is British. He lived through the two World Wars. He was a soldier in WW1, and when you consider the impact the World Wars had on Britain, that tells you something. The Hobbit was published on the eve of WW2, as Hitler was rising to power, and The Lord of the Rings series came out in decade after the War. Do you think knowing Tolkien’s cultural situation might help understand The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books? It absolutely will help.
The same thing goes with the Bible. When we start to read a book of the Bible like Jeremiah, we should consider it important to answer a few basic questions. Who wrote this? When did they write it? Why did they write? Was there something going on in their lives or in the world that motivated them to write? Who were they writing to?
Before we ever read one word of a passage of Scripture, we should take a few moments to answer these questions. But where do we find these answers? Not all Bibles include that information. And that is why I am so thankful for Study Bibles.
I want to recommend two Study Bibles to you. The NIV Study Bible or The Life Application Study Bible. The NIV Study Bible is a tad more scholarly, while the Life Application does what its title suggests, it helps you focus on applying the Bible to your life. Both are excellent.
This Bible I hold every Sunday is a NIV Study Bible. I’ve had it for nearly 25 years, and I love it. In the palm of my hand I have not only the text of the Bible, but also loads of helpful resources. Before the text of each book of the Bible, there is an introduction that seeks to answer the questions I just mentioned. Who? What? Where? When? Why? For every single book of the Bible. Sometimes, for the shorter books, the introduction is about as long as the book itself!
The next major feature of a study Bible is the notes. Many of the verses have explanatory comments helping you understand the text of the Bible.
Also, study Bibles have cross-references. Not Jesus’ cross. But references to other parts of the Bible that might relate to the one you are reading. That is very helpful for study. If one biblical author says something similar, you have a cross-reference telling you where to go in the Bible to find that similarity. And when you read that other verse, it can help you have a more full understanding of the original passage you started reading. This can be especially helpful for learning how New Testament passages are based on Old Testament passages.
Most study Bibles have additional resources like maps and concordances. Have you ever been in that situation where you are trying to remember a verse or concept from the Bible, but you are not sure of the specific verse number? Your concordance can help you. You think to yourself that the verse had, for example, the word “milk” in it, but you have no idea what verse that is. You open up your concordance, scroll down to the word “milk”, and you find that “milk” is listed numerous times in the Bible. You look them up until you find the right one. Most study bibles only have partial concordances because an exhaustive concordance is massive. An exhaustive concordance lists every single time every word in the Bible is used.
All of these resources are found in a good study Bible. Each book has an intro, there are study notes, cross-references, maps, and a concordance. Some will have other features too. But those resources will help you study this ancient book.
In our day and age, all of these resources are available free online. You can pay for Bible study programs that have astounding capabilities, or you can use free online services, which are amazing in their own right. I recommend Bible Gateway or Blue Letter Bible. Frankly, there are plenty of times that it is much faster for me to do a search in Google than it is to flip through a concordance. Google is a powerful Bible study tool too!
But for those of you not interested in computer tools, I urge you to purchase a Study Bible and practice using it.
So I have surveyed two key tools that are important for reading the Bible. Learn the Genre and seek Introductory answers. Before you even start reading do that. You might think “Really, I have to do all that? My life is too busy. If I have to do that, I don’t think I’ll be reading the Bible. And why can’t I just pick it up and start reading?”
First of all, with a Study Bible you will get through those introductory questions very rapidly. It is all laid out for you. Second, I urge you to consider reading through whole books of the Bible. I often use this method in my preaching. Don’t just pick a random verse here and there. Go to the Gospel of Mark, for example, and slowly read through the whole thing, maybe a chapter per day. But first, answer the introductory questions. That way you aren’t doing introductory work every day on a new book of the Bible. You do it once for Mark, and then, depending on how fast you read, you might not need to do the introductory material again for a few weeks because you are reading through Mark that whole time.
At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you are thinking: “Joel, this still sounds like a lot of work. Can’t I just pick up a Bible and read it, and expect to hear from God?”
Yes and no.
Hearing from God when we read the Bible is what I want to look at next. I believe there is a vital attitude that we need to have when we read the Bible if we want to hear God speak through it.
Bring an attitude of humility to your reading and study of the Bible.
Humility says “Lord, teach me from your word. Even though I may have read this passage 100 times, teach me. Even though I may have Psalm 23 memorized, teach me when I read it again.” Come to the reading of Scripture with a teachable, humble heart. A humble heart will learn from God, and a humble heart says “I don’t have this Scripture all figured out.” We should not come to Scripture arrogantly thinking that our reading, our interpretation is the only right one.
And that leads us to the necessity of prayer when you read Scripture.
In 1 Cor 2:12 we read that Spirit helps us understand the things that God has given us. There is no doubt that some parts of the Bible can be hard to understand. We should not assume that we can just read them and understand them and easily apply them to our lives. Instead we need to pray that the Spirit will help us understand them properly.
Every time we read and study Scripture, whether in private, at church, in small group, we should have a humble teachable attitude that asks the Spirit to help us understand.
Read with a mind to discover the author’s intent
And that brings us to a key issue in reading Scripture: Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response. If you’re not familiar with those terms, let me illustrate.
Do we want a lawyer to read our last will and testament and interpret it however they want? Imagine your will says the estate is going to be divided 10% to the church and the rest equally distributed to the children. But the lawyer says “I interpret that to mean ‘give the money to whomever they cared about the most.’ And they clearly cared about me the most, so I will just take it all.” How do you think that would go over?
That lawyer is using reader response theory to interpret the will. Reader response theory says that the reader provides the meaning of the text.
When it comes to a last will and testament, we don’t do that. We believe the author of the last will and testament had a will, which is why it is called a will. They had a desire to use their estate in a certain way. So when we read a last will and testament, we should strive to find out what their desire is. We cannot give it whatever meaning we want. The same goes for the Bible. We believe God was communicating his will to us. That’s why we pray for the Spirit to help us understand it. And that is why we use these tools and methods I’ve been talking about today.
We should avoid reading a passage of Scripture and saying, “Well, this is what the Scripture means to me.” Instead we should be asking, “What did God mean this Scripture to say?” And then we strive hard to determine what God intended. In addition to humility, then, we ask God’s Spirit to help us understand his Word.
Read the Bible personally and together in a community
Furthermore, reading and understanding Scripture should not simply be a solo effort. Before the printing press it was exceedingly rare that someone would have their own copy of Scripture. So people would have to come together in groups to hear it and discuss it.
Nowadays we have such easy access to the Bible. Not just paper copies, but also on our phones and computers and via audio versions. Because of this easy personal access, and because of our culture that prizes individualism, we can get the idea that reading and understanding the Bible should primarily be a personal thing. No doubt it is healthy and important to read and study the Bible on our own. But we should also see our interaction with God’s Word in community.
And by “community” I mean the church family, which could be your small group, your class, etc. If you are thinking that God is speaking to you in his word, take what God is saying to the community and discuss it. You might have it wrong and need to have your interpretation corrected. Or you might have it right, and your word from God might impact others.
These five steps have helped me greatly in accessing and learning from what is often a very difficult book. The Bible. Are there any of these steps that you need to add to your life?