Apprentice Lesson 2: How to REALLY read the Bible

During my first few years of secondary school, I often read the dictionary during break times.  Yes, you read that correctly.

I didn’t have a great time at my secondary school, and I generally preferred reading the dictionary than trying to get to know my classmates.  Sad times.

Since leaving school, I haven’t really used a dictionary (to my parents’ dismay).  I mean, who needs to, when you have Google definitions, and the Oxford English Dictionary online?  Hard copies of dictionaries WILL become extinct within fifty years.

But dictionaries are so handy aren’t they? You can find definitions and spellings for words in minutes, without having to read pages and pages of information which seems irrelevant.

And this is how, very often, I read the Bible before last year.

a) Out of context

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think that certain books of the Bible were irrelevant.  But often when finding verses to meditate on, I would often completely blot out the verses in my mind before and after.  This is what I mean mentally, using Lamentations 3:

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness[a] is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.”

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man that he bear
    the yoke in his youth.

28 Let him sit alone in silence
    when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
    there may yet be hope;
30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
    and let him be filled with insults.

31 For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men.

3To crush underfoot
    all the prisoners of the earth,
35 to deny a man justice
    in the presence of the Most High,
36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
    the Lord does not approve.

Sometimes this was due to laziness – I wanted to find a few verses to dwell on or encourage a friend swiftly, and couldn’t be bothered to analyze the verses before and after.

Sometimes because I genuinely thought that it was better to focus on what was in one verse, instead of having to look at the entire book of the Bible it was from too.

Sometimes I deliberately blocked out what was before and after. Often because they were about God’s judgement or wrath.  Or it seemed too complicated to understand.  Or the verses made me feel uncomfortable.

But the Bible is not a dictionary.  It has a plot.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  Everything which we pull out from the Bible needs to be explained in context.  We can’t block out things which happen before and after a moment in a story.  In the same way, we shouldn’t block out most of what God says.

For example, here’s a popular passage read at weddings, but (if I get married), I NEVER want it read at my wedding.  It’s 1 Corinthians 13 .

But why? (You may be asking). It’s such a NICE passage, all about what love should look like in practice.  It’s well known enough: Love is patient, kind, it doesn’t envy or boast..

And I agree.  That is how we are to love (what a challenge!).  But up to this point, Paul has been telling off the Corinthians.  (Don’t take my word for it, read it for yourself!) They’re a church focused on the here and now, and fixated on their spiritual gifts.  Paul stresses almost ad nauseum in chapter 12 that regardless of what gifts a believer of their church has, they are all part of one body.  They must all love each other.  The fact that Paul had to tell the Corinthians this, emphasizes that they weren’t loving each other at all.  Therefore, chapter 13 is a harsh rebuke to a church not loving each other.  It’s not about marriage.

So chapter 13 isn’t to be studied apart from chapter 12.  In fact, the importance of love is even more pronounced when examined alongside the previous chapter.  I think that chapter thirteen on its own is fluffy, idealistic and even optional.  But when it’s explained in light of chapter 12, love becomes essential and pragmatic in gatherings of believers.

b) Skimmed over

On top of my tendency to ignore chunks of text whilst reading, I’m now a speed reader.  Otherwise my English degree would have consumed every minute of my university experience.  I had to read about three solid books a week, and half a dozen critical essays and secondary materials.  I then had to discuss what I’d read at weekly seminars.  And also write clearly, concisely and imaginatively about it in assessed essays.

And this approach dramatically affected my regular Bible reading.  Sure, I listened during sermons, and enjoyed them (the ones which actually focused on the passage and didn’t digress into rants about how the UK needs to pray more, or how conservative baptist churches are the only way forward).  But when studying God’s word by myself, I was keen to jump quickly to what the passage meant, and also how it applied personally to me right here and right now.  Even if the original audience was in a totally different situation to me regarding God’s revelation of himself.

I remember Dad (who loves reading the Bible properly and has done a fair bit of preaching sermons over the years), trying to make me read Dig Deeper when I was a teenager.  I can’t remember if I actually properly read it, or said I had to get him off my back.  But I didn’t see the point in having to really work hard at working out what the Bible said.  I thought taking the post-modern approach of interpreting the Bible (within reason) however I wanted, was absolutely fine.  Yeah, focusing on judgement and predestination was a bit embarrassing with other Christians who didn’t ever talk about it.

And then I struggled through some Bible study reading notes (back in September 2012) produced by Navpress, on friendship (on which there is very little about in the Bible).  It took passages totally out of context and tried to apply them to friendships.  It was also pretty naff.

Gradually it dawned on me that Bible handling requires brain power.  And reading Dig Deeper with a student at church last year, enforced this in so many ways.  It’s so profound that (unlike my last blog) it can’t be articulated.

Christians need to know the Bible in depth

I think that there is a Western Christian sub-culture (predominant in America, the UK and Europe) of young, keen Christians, longing for experiences of God and for wrongs to be made right in this world.  People who want to encounter God through singing and worship leading, and spending time with other believers who wear similar clothes, have similar hairstyles and share similar interests.  They’re determined to stay relevant in the way they live and talk, and care about the way they look (to avoid the socks and sandals Christian caricature in the media).  Lots of them wear checked shirts, go on short-term mission trips to far flung countries and serve in their churches and student mission groups in any way possible.  They use a whole lot of Christian jargon.  Many listen to unoffensive, religiously correct bands like Hillsong, Rend Collective Experiment and Switchfoot.  But lots of them probably don’t see right Bible handling as a priority.  And that’s such a shame.

Many believers tend to think that knowing their Bibles well is not their responsibility.  That they can trust their teachers at churches and those with more ministry experience – that because they spend more time studying the word, they’re more likely to be right than they are.  They learn solely from what is taught from the front or preached in the pulpit, and don’t critically evaluate what’s being said, as they assume that the preacher MUST be right.

Many think that knowing their Bibles is beyond them.  That passages are beyond our comprehension, and because they haven’t gone to Bible college, or studied theology at degree level, or aren’t naturally very academic/bookish, studying scripture in depth is something they’re incapable of doing.

Or they rever God’s word, but think that the Bible has no clear coherent structure.  Why some books are included is a mystery (like Song of Songs or Leviticus, for example).

But these attitudes are devastating.  In my previous post, I established that the Bible is God’s word.  God speaking to us.  And that it’s essential for ministry.

If the Bible is God’s word, and is THE way God speaks to us, then surely us believers need to persevere and really set aside time to really understand the Bible properly?  Loads of you do already, and I’m very thankful for those of you I know who want to get to grips with what passages actually mean.  But there are many brothers and sisters who don’t see the need. And it’s to their spiritual detriment.

The New Testament talks lots about false teachers.  I’ve just finished reading 2 Peter in my quiet times, and it addresses false teaching head on.  It can be tempting to think that there are no false teachers now, or that all false teaching is blatant and can be spotted a mile off.  But it’s everywhere.   It’s all over the internet.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stand on almost every street corner in Central London and the City, holding out a message which can be misconstrued as the gospel truth.  But it’s not the truth.  It’s a distortion of God’s word.  It’s not God speaking at all.

People are being led away from the truth, and are in serious danger unless they are rectified in their understanding of God, his character and WHY Jesus came to earth.  Jesus did not just come to be an example for us to follow, but to rescue us – a people so far away from our Creator, who shut Him out and deserve His judgement.  Jesus came to take our punishment, and to bring us into a wonderful relationship with God – through His death alone, and nothing else.

We don’t just need to stick to God’s word in our churches.  We must know God’s word well for ourselves.  We must persevere with studying it.  We must be like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), studying the scriptures every day to check what is being preached is true.  We must be so familiar with what God says, that when false teaching creeps into our churches, it can be dismissed before it takes root and ruins lives.

I sound like an ardent Bible basher (and I probably am an almost fully fledged one by now), but I’d really recommend (if you haven’t before), getting into a habit of reading the Bible (in a translation you feel most comfortable with) by yourself every day, and praying that God would help you understand what He’s saying AND that you’d grow in love for Him.

And if you’re already doing this, keep going, keep praying, and have a go at reading a whole book of the Bible, looking at how it fits together and discussing it with a Christian friend.  Start with a New Testament letter like Colossians or Philippians, or one of the gospels like Luke.  Read it several times, without looking at any commentaries or sermons from it, and try and work out what the big idea is running through the letter, and what the writer wants the reader to do (with New Testament letters, often the practical commands are in the later chapters – but they’re always linked back to what we’re told about God or Jesus in the first few chapters).

Here are some resources which I’ve found really helpful over the last couple of years:

Explore Bible Study Notes  

This incredibly winsome video, which basically says what I’ve said in this blogpost.

The Daily Reading Bible Notes

Dig Deeper by Andrew Sach and Nigel Beynon

Biblegateway – a website where you can read the Bible online in many different translations, search for references and print it off!

Blue Letter Bible – a website which gives you the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words and gives you the translations (to really get to the heart of the original text).

Until next time, Immy xx

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