How to Read&Study the Bible
“We do not read the Bible simply to fill our minds, but to change our hearts. We do not read the Bible simply to be informed, but to be conformed to the image of Jesus. We read the Bible to stir our affections: our fear, our hope, our love, our desire, our confidence. We read it until our heart cries out, ‘The Lord is good!'”
― Tim Chester, Everyday Church
In all the doing and communal life found in Acts 2, Luke says: “They were committed to the apostles’ teaching.” These early disciples were committed to learning and re-learning the message of the gospel of Jesus through the Apostles and through the Scriptures. The Apostle’s teaching, as you look at Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, Stephens preaching in Acts 7, or Philip’s sharing of the gospel with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, is the message of the scriptures. They don’t just use scripture, but preaching the coming of Jesus, his death, and resurrection through the scriptures. In Luke 24:45-49, before Jesus ascends to heaven, he teaches the disciples the gospel through Scriptures. He makes himself known through the bulk of scriptures, and the Apostles continue that trend through the book of Acts and through their writings to the church.
The Bible was viewed from that early point in time, as God’s message of redemption, restoration, and recreation. God made himself known through it and the early churches were marked by a commitment to learn it. However, it must be noted that their commitment to learning the message of God wasn’t simply a private affair but was also a communal one. They gathered together to listen to the Bible and to learn from it. Learning the gospel from the Apostles and the Scriptures, was an influential and consistent activity of a Christian community. This comes as no surprise to many who have been part of Christian communities. Of course, the Bible is important. But how? What is the Bible and how does it function in building a gospel community on mission?
What is the Bible?
Authoritative wisdom for our community’s enjoyment of the Gospel and guidance in the mission flows from the Bible. But anyone with passing familiarity with the Bible knows that it is not at all obvious just how to derive that wisdom from the Bible. Flipping it open at random, especially in places outside Paul’s letters, you would be hard pressed to find clear marching orders from God for the group – who should we serve and how? When, how often, and what should we do when we gather? Neither is the Bible arranged in a convenient topical index of subjects, so that we can seek out God’s mind on depression, eating disorders, homosexuality, human trafficking or any number of modern moral or intellectual concerns.
Some of this frustration comes from trying to make the Bible what it isn’t – it isn’t a rule book for life, containing detailed instructions for the circumstances we are facing. It isn’t a textbook, offering carefully argued explanations of physical or social science. Neither is it a self-help book, offering therapeutic chicken soup for our souls.
The Bible is, instead, an authoritative storybook into which we fit our lives that brings us into a living encounter with the Author. Within this single story, which is ultimately about Jesus, there are multiple perspectives riffing on six themes which are contained in all of Scripture: Creation, Fall, Promise, Jesus, Church and New Creation. We enter the stage of this six-act play with the first four acts having been concluded and the sixth yet to come. As actors in the 5th act of the play, we have an understanding of what has happened to this point in the first 4 acts (God’s creation of the world, the fall of humans, his promise of restoration in Israel and the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus) and a picture of the consummation of all things in the last act (the restoration of the world in Jesus’ return).
The problem is that beyond the basic plot and a few sketches of church life in Acts we aren’t given a detailed script! Fortunately we have brilliant direction in the Holy Spirit’s creative genius to help us improvise the rest of the story in a way that doesn’t run off the rails of the plotlines established before and yet brings the plot forward toward its consummation. As we read and study Scripture together and follow the Spirit’s guidance in our attempt to faithfully continue the plot, we are brought face to face with its author who reveals himself to us and invites us deeper into the story he’s writing. God’s one voice speaks to us in the Bible in a few different tones – at least five of them.
How does God speak in the Bible?
Narrative sections of the Bible (Genesis-Esther, Gospels, Acts) are the spine of the story, telling the great drama of God’s commitment to restore a world gone wrong, worked out through a people gone wrong, Israel, and finally in his ultimate sacrifice of love, Jesus. The story is a breathtaking big picture of the world beginning with the good purposes for which it was made, humanity’s creative role in shaping its beauty and subsequent plunge into ruin, God’s enduring and repeated deliverances in his commitment to bring things back from the brink through this fragile and non-cooperative people and finally his dramatic inclusion entry into the story to fulfill his promise and do what they could not on their behalf through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This stunning victory is then to be lifted on the voices of a new people, created to experience and tell of God’s triumph until its final consummation in Christ’s return. As the story is told elements of the big picture are highlighted throughout – God’s good purposes in creation, man’s insurrection and ruin in the fall, God’s faithful promise of deliverance, the fulfillment of the promise in the person and work of Jesus, the nature and task of God’s new people and the restoration of the world to come. Every human story from every human culture unfolds within this plot.
When you read narrative, allow the biblical narrative to shape the way you tell your own story, the story of your community and ask:
- What is God saying about the bigger story (Creation, Fall, Promise, Jesus, Church, New Creation) in this passage?
- What is God saying he’s like in this story and how is he like that in our story?
- What is God saying people are like in this story and how are we like that in our own story?
- How is God showing you Jesus, our need for him or his work on our behalf, in this story?
- What does this story reveal about the goodness, brokenness, potential and redemption of the people, places and institutions in your life?
Wisdom sections of the Bible teach us to grapple with God’s story as individuals. Things that may look somewhat clear from 40,000 ft. are sometimes a confusing chaotic mess on the ground. The doors drop to whizzing bullets and the disorienting, concussive waves of senseless human suffering in the book of Job. Psalms gives an unparalleled window into our emotional lives, scaling heights of spiritual ecstasy and plummeting to the depths of doubt and despair. Proverbs tries to throw its arms around generally stable principles in order to steady ourselves and help navigate a broken world. Ecclesiastes writhes in anguished questions that interrogate the settled certainty of our doctrinaire over-simplifications of God’s story. Song of Solomon intertwines spirituality and sexual intimacy in an intoxicating exploration of human passion. Wisdom roots our thinking about the story in the dirty, hard ground of reality and in so doing puts us in touch with the wisdom of God contained in the person of Jesus who experienced greater suffering than Job, whose life exemplifies the skillful living of Proverbs in the midst of a fallen world, whose agony included deeper inner turmoil than the Teacher of Ecclesiastes and whose passion was greater than Solomon and proved stronger than death.
When you read wisdom, allow it to shape the way you wrestle with God’s story and ask:
- How does what I’m reading express my own doubt, emotions and desires so that I can express them to God?
- What is God revealing to me about the heart of Jesus in these expressions of doubt, emotions and desire?
- How is God’s gift of Jesus a response to these doubts, emotions and desires?
- How does the wisdom of God both channel and challenge the doubts, emotions and desires of your non-believing friends?
Prophetic sections of the Bible are contained in Isaiah through Malachi (but not Daniel). Even though we tend to associate the prophets with future events, the whole point of prophecy was really to encourage obedience in the present. The common thread throughout all the prophets is their strategy to motivate Israel out of their apathy and hypocrisy with both a whip from behind and a carrot on a stick. The whip comes in the form of prophesies about coming judgment and exile, and the carrot on the stick are prophesies about the nation’s ultimate salvation and restoration, at great cost to their coming Deliverer. In the meantime they railed on Israel for their collaboration and cooperation with the powerful who oppresses the poor and pervert justice. They stood against the dead orthodoxy of their day, even against the most accepted religious traditions among their own people. Jesus was the ultimate prophet, standing against the religious establishment, passionate for justice and righteousness, hater of hypocrisy and fulfillment of God’s justice – calling down the harshest judgment of God on the injustice of men only to step out under it on behalf of the unjust that by his sacrifice they might become the righteousness of God.
When you read the prophets, allow it to shape your passion for justice and ask:
- What does this passage reveal about what God wants for the world?
- How does this expose ways I justify myself, cooperate with evil or betray what I say I believe?
- How do passages about judgment and salvation find fulfillment in Jesus?
- What does this say about the way the world is supposed to be, and how can that shape our hopes for our city?
Epistles or Letters
Teaching parts of Scripture include the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude and the letter to the Hebrews. They spell out doctrine along with practical implications for Christian living by explaining particularly important parts of the bigger story of Scripture. In fact, many of the letters can be divided into doctrinal reflection for the first half and commands for living in the second half. Looking through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection epistles interpret the significance of the Biblical story for God’s people in their particular circumstances and then apply it to their lives. So this “instruction” is a lot less like teaching physics in the classroom and a whole lot more like teaching football in the locker room. The coach sits down with his players and reviews the tape of a game and then pauses it in various places to show his players what they need to do. Each letter addresses the particular problems and issues in that church by “pausing the tape” on the choosing of Abraham, the exodus, the wilderness wandering, the crucifixion or some other event and showing the implications of the Biblical story for their lives. And for that reason, the epistles are great places to learn how to think about the story we’re supposed to be living in.
When you read teaching sections of Scripture, allow it to deepen your community’s understanding of the story and ask:
- What does this teach us about who God is, who we we are?
- What does this teach us about the kind of world we live in, what’s wrong with it, and what the answer is?
- What are the implications of this teaching for our relationships? Our schedules? The way we spend our money? The way we use our time?
- How is the story of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection and return more real to us through what we’re reading?
- What kinds of false belief, idolatries or false hopes are exposed in what we are reading?
Apocalyptic parts of the Bible are found in places like Daniel and Revelation. They’re weird. These passages have beasts rising out of the water to chase pregnant women, angels dumping bowls of plagues, leopards with four wings on its back chewing up people with iron teeth, and a hundred other special effects that would blow Steven Spielberg’s mind. There are things that make this kind of writing different from prophecy, even though both of them use symbolism and predict the future; however apocalyptic literature focuses on the very end of God’s story – and it does so in a very powerful way. It reveals what has been going on in the heavenly realm which is normally hidden from us and talks about the end of God’s plan when these two realms – heaven and earth, are going to come crashing into one another. There are places where you can see that happening already within God’s story – Paul talks a lot about “the heavenly places” in Ephesians, and how it affects life on earth for you and me now. But for the most part, apocalyptic literature feeds our hope in God’s future victory over evil. The attitude behind apocalyptic literature is also a lot more pessimistic than prophecy – it doesn’t bother trying to encourage us with the potential for change or motivate people to try and reform things that are going wrong. Instead, it’s written so that the faithful few who love God and His righteousness will just hold on a little longer, until the time when God will enter our space and time to personally crush all evil and vindicate those who are suffering for righteousness in the presence of their enemies.
When you read apocalyptic literature, allow it to stoke your hope for the defeat of evil and restoration of all things and ask:
- How is God’s glory or victory being lifted up?
- Who is being judged or saved and what is their response to God?
- How does Jesus satisfy our hope for a world finally at peace?
One of the many ways God’s people have learned to engage God in Scripture throughout history is called Lectio Divina (latin for divine reading). It is a simple practice that can be done both individually and communally. It is a practical way for your gospel community to be led by God himself as it teaches us to listen to Him and respond appropriately in 4 basic steps:
1) READ: read a small passage of Scripture, no more than a couple of paragraphs. If reading with your community, read it aloud. Make a mental note of a word, phrase or sentence that struck you as you read
2) MEDITATE: think carefully about what this word teaches – what does it say about God and what he’s done? What does it say about me and who I am? See the questions listed under each genre of Scripture above. If reading with your community take turns sharing a sentence or two about what word or phrase struck you, what God is saying to you and how he is calling you, specifically, to respond.
3) PRAY: read the passage again, slowly and pray using the actual words of the passage in your prayer, responding honestly to what he has told you. If reading with your community, pray no more than a sentence or two.
4) REST: silently rest in the Gospel by consciously putting yourself in the unconditional, loving embrace of God. Silence your thoughts and experience being in His presence.
Four Simple Questions
As you read through a book of the Bible ask these simple questions of the text:
- What does this tell us about God?
- What does this tell us about what God has done?
- Who are we according to this passage?
- What does it mean to obey this passage, what does it tell us to do?