The most important influential book in the world is the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The Holy Bible is the top-selling book every year and the Youversion Bible app has been downloaded more than 3 million times.
The problem is that there are fundamental principles in reading the Scriptures that are lost to the average reader. It is not that there is a perfect reading that is attainable. We are all limited because we have been removed from the context by at least a thousand years. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use it. It doesn’t mean that His Spirit can’t reveal truths about life, struggle, strength, and the character of God. As N.T. Wright pens,
“It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion.”N.T. Wright Simply Christian.p.173
Keeping all of this in mind next time you read the Bible try and keep a few things in mind.
1) Think of it as one book
Yes, the Bible is a collection of books. However, when we fragment the Scriptures from each other, not allowing them to tell a unified story. There is a larger story of who God is and how He interacts with His people that you will miss if you are only reading parts and not as a whole. Believe it or not the chapters and verse were not in the original text. They were added much much later. There were also no headings.
Next time you read it, try thinking of each book as a chapter (I know that makes for some long chapters). This enables you to hear the unified story in each book, as well as the whole of Scripture. Ignore the headings and think narratives. In Matthew, the lost sheep, coin and son go together. They cannot be appropriately understood unless they are understood together.
2) Remember it is not about you
It may surprise you but the Bible is not about you. The Scriptures were written to groups of people in a very different time. In fact, the groups even represent different times. They related to a divine being differently. They had different hang-ups. They also had different struggles than many of us.
This is not to say there isn’t great power and might lessons to be learned. On the contrary, because it has great power and the wonderful lesson that can be learned we must approach with humility and listen to what is being said through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Greg Boyd points out,
“…Scripture is intended by God to be read as the word of God, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and with ‘the eyes of faith within the community of faith.'”Gregory Boyd The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.p.520
We need the Holy Spirit, we need faith, and we need the humility to hear each other’s interpretations of the Scripture and what the Holy Spirit is speaking to the community as a whole.
3) There are different genres
It is essential that we realize there are different genres. The is history, poetry, wisdom, allegory, metaphor, parable, apocalyptic. Further to the point, the way they told history 4000 years ago is not the same as we do now. Where nowadays we are concerned with facts rather than the overarching narrative, they viewed things the opposite. Facts, whether right or wrong, weren’t as important than communicating the lessons that can be learned.
What can complicate things a bit more is that just because part of a book is written in one genre that doesn’t mean the whole book is. This is why it is so important to invite other voices into our interpretation. If you stay only within your tradition, whether that be Reformed, Catholic, Charismatic, or Orthodox and are listening only to interpretations from your tribe, you are handicapping yourself. Also, we must read outside of our time and ethnicity. We need to pull from the ancient and the near; we must learn literature from the east and west, it’s imperative we engage the voices of men, women, young, old, white, black, brown, and all the shades and cultures in between. As we engage all these voices, it helps us understand the nuances of genres.
4) Remembering it’s an interpretation is key
Finally, we must remember that as you read the Scripture that is your interpretation of someone’s interpretation, using a collection of interpretations (ancient manuscripts). Men and women have studied and are doing their best. As we learn, we understand better ways to interpret.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our biases influence everything we do. As a reader, we have a theological leaning. These leanings affect how we read and understand. Also, the translators have a theological leaning. They do the best they can with their understanding, but there are times when you have to make decisions when interpreting. Our biases play into how it is translated. While much is the same throughout different translations, there are slight variations.
It is for this reason why I have decided to read a different translation each year. From ESV, Message, TNIV, NLT, NRSV, NASB, Amplified. We need to leverage all we can to engage the text in new, vibrant, and beautiful ways.
My prayer is that this helps you see that we need to wrestle, challenge, struggle, search, yearn, cry, praise, study, and humbly apply the Scriptures. They are challenging and to see them as though they are not is not to take them seriously. As Matthew Kelly writes,
“The Bible isn’t like other books. It requires patience. Reading the Bible is like meeting a fascinating person: it takes time to get to know him or her.”Matthew Kelly The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity.p.100
So let’s read, ask, and explore, inviting the Holy Spirit to reveal truth through the Scriptures.
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