How We Receive Guidance From the Bible’s Story

We talk a lot here about reading the Bible as a story.

We believe that’s good and appropriate, because that’s what the Bible actually is—a library of books that come together to tell a story and invite us into the big, beautiful drama of God’s redemption of all things.

But how exactly is something like a story useful? Is a story the kind of thing that can show us what to do? Can a story somehow have authority?

The “reference book” model of the Bible had an easier way to answer to these questions. How is the Bible useful? Well, you simply look up the topic you’re interested in, find the right passages, and there it is! Put a list of those texts together, add them up, and you’ve found your answer.

We can discover God’s wisdom on everything from marriage to money by doing topical searches.

So let’s take slavery, for example. Since slavery was a fundamental part of the ancient world, the Bible mentions it a lot. We can track down every reference, add up the teaching, and get the Bible’s message on slavery, right?

No, actually.

In his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll describes the intense argument 19th-century Christians had over the Bible’s position on slavery. Those advocating a biblical defense of slavery had the easier time defending their position. It’s not difficult to produce a long list of Bible verses that explicitly endorse or assume human slavery. So . . . the Bible teaches us that slavery is okay?

No, it doesn’t. But it takes reading the Bible a certain way in order to rightly discern what the Bible does teach.

It takes reading the Bible as a story. In particular, it takes reading the Bible as a story that moves in the direction of greater redemption, greater flourishing, greater life. The full revelation of God’s purposes for humanity can’t be simply lifted from a page just anywhere in the Bible. The Torah regulations on slavery are not God’s final answer on that question.

The Bible is a narrative that unveils more and more of God’s intentions over time. The story is heading towards the full realization of God’s intentions. To be specific, the story is heading towards Jesus. It’s in the coming and work of the Messiah that we find the clearest and most definitive revelation of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. As that beautiful opening to the book of Hebrews has it: “And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. . . . The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (NLT)

The life, death, resurrection, and powerful ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, now with authority over all things—this is the centerpiece of the whole long and winding tale of the Scriptures. In the work of Jesus—sent by the Father and empowered by the Spirit—is where the story finds the redemption and restoration it’s been looking for.

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But wait. Doesn’t the New Testament continue to assume slavery in its teachings that come even after Jesus? Well, yes. The letters from the apostles to the churches do continue to give instructions to both slaves and masters within that relationship.

Huh?

The Bible clearly shows us a God who insists on working within our ongoing story to bring more light and more life over time.

Here’s the thing: the creation’s restoration in the Messiah is indeed the crux of everything. But as always, God does not simply intrude into human history in artificial ways. The Bible clearly shows us a God who insists on working within our ongoing story to bring more light and more life over time. That is, God has committed to us—humans—as his creation-ruling partners. This was decided at the beginning, when God made us to his image-bearers, reflecting his good rule into the world. As decisive as the Jesus event was, it didn’t fix everything overnight. The implications of his kingdom-launching still have to be worked out by those who join his world-transforming movement. The kingdom has come and is coming, but it has not yet fully arrived. The kingdom of God is like a seed that is planted.

Let’s stay with our slavery example for a moment. After the coming of Jesus, slavery did not simply disappear. Not even among God’s own people. But then there’s Paul’s letter to Philemon. This one very short and simple letter to one slave-owning Christ-follower shows how God’s story with us does its work. Paul here shows us where the redemptive movement of the Bible’s narrative is headed. At the end of the day there is no place for one brother in Christ to own another brother in Christ. In the new humanity brought to us by the Second Adam we are all equal, members of one single worldwide family.

So don’t read the stories of the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to get the perfect picture of God’s intention for marriage. (No, really, please don’t.) Don’t read the Torah to get God’s final answer on slavery. Don’t even read Paul’s letters to first-century churches to get the final word on church practices for today. All of the Bible was directed first of all to its original audiences. We find ourselves in a different place, later in the story, listening in on earlier conversations.

So the way a storiented Bible tells us what to do is to give us a deep, long look at a God who is slowly working to bring life to the world. He begins where people are, and then starts to bring them to a new place. The fact is, for example, that the Torah’s instructions on slavery were a redemptive advance over the common rules for slavery at that time. Slaves in ancient Israel had more rights and more protections. God’s story had begun to move things in a better direction.

Our job, then, is to discern where the redemptive story in Jesus is headed. This is more nuanced, and a bit more work, than simply looking up reference book answers like definitions in a dictionary. This requires mature, big-picture reading. This means Spirit-led reading in community as we work together to discern how to live this same redemptive story in our very different late modern setting.

Our job, then, is to discern where the redemptive story in Jesus is headed. This is more nuanced, and a bit more work, than simply looking up reference book answers like definitions in a dictionary.Click To Tweet

The Bible invites us to look for gospel trajectories and redemptive endgames and then work to implement them in our own world. In the light of a dawning new creation we live as people of the coming Day, showing people what the future of the world looks like, not it’s past.

Grown-up Bible reading means asking: What stays the same in the biblical story? But also: What changes? The Bible gives us the light and revelation of God’s truth. It just doesn’t do it in a childish, simplistic, or artificial way. The only way this works is if we know the Scriptures deeply and well.

The Bible tells us what to do by telling us the Jesus-shaped story we’re a part of.

For further reading, see: Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright; Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William Webb

How Personal Application Can Derail Your Bible Reading

I’ll never forget the time I was preparing to teach an adult education class at a church and I was told by the director to make sure that each lesson had a personal “takeaway” for each member of the class. “Application is the key,” he said, “the only point of teaching people the Bible, and the only thing that will hold their interest, is the personal application.”

This is an interesting statement, and it’s at least half true. The true part is that we read the Bible with the expectation that we’re doing more than learning ancient history. At the end of the day we hope to get something beyond information. We want it to say something to us, to be relevant to our lives, maybe even to do something deep and significant in us.

This is good and proper. So what’s the problem?

The problem is a set of expectations that typically go along with our longing for a Bible that’s always relevant to me, today, right here. There are likely more, but here are three key ones:

1. Talk to me

We begin by assuming the Bible is speaking directly to us. Maybe if we stopped and thought about it a little we’d remember that, oh yes, these are letters to people in first-century Corinth, or songs from ancient Israel. But it’s easy to forget and just start reading the words straight off the page and into our hearts.

2. Talk small to me

Problem #1 is only strengthened when the Bible we have is broken up into bite-sized pieces easily taken out of context. Reading Bible “verses” reinforces the idea that I can pick the tidbit that is just for me. And since some of those bits clearly don’t have anything that applies to me, I can safely stick to the good ones and ignore the rest.

3. Talk to me alone

Finally, we forget the Bible was written overwhelmingly to communities, not individuals. When we isolate the words and think only about our individual situations, we don’t even consider how a group of people would put the Bible into practice together.


So if these mistakes are distorting our Bible reading, what can we do to stay more clearly on track?

Let’s take up these correctives in the same order:

1. Listen in

The Bible is a collection of writings from the ancient world that we are essentially listening in on. The initial step in reading well is to consider what the various books meant in their own world first. The words were given in a context—historical, cultural, and religious. God was speaking to other people before he was speaking to us, and to know what he’s saying now we begin by knowing what was meant then.

2. Read big

The Bible is a collection of writings that were intended to be read in their entirety. The books are each a particular kind of ancient literature that work in their own way. They are stories, songs, letters, and more, and have to be read as the type of writing they are. Then, they come together to tell the ongoing narrative of God’s saving work in history. So read whole books instead of always jumping from little piece to little piece. Then put the books together and read them as a big story. (It’s easier to do this if you get a new reader’s edition without all the modern reference numbers.) We find our identity as a part of the story more than in individual promises or truths.

3. Think about us

The Bible is a collection of writings to communities, seeking to tell them what God is up to and how they can join his project of reclaiming the creation for good. God is creating communities of restoration that are meant to showcase where the story of the world is going. Our individual lives are crucial parts of this bigger story, but the transformation happens through entire communities of God’s people working together toward redemptive goals. Read the Bible with others.

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So here’s the thing: the Bible was never really intended to give you a personal application from each and every little verse. Sometimes it’s okay to simply read, learn, and understand what God was doing in the history of his people. We can relax, read big, and listen in. There is no need to force some application where there is none.

The Bible was never really intended to give you a personal application from each and every little verse.Click To Tweet

We need to give the Bible time and take away the pressure to constantly apply it.

But don’t worry. If we engage the Bible regularly and well, it will have more than enough to say to our lives right now. We will inherit a deep knowledge of God and his longstanding work to change the world. This kind of formation in us takes time, but is deeper and more transformative than the kind of instant application so often urged upon us. This kind of formation will take shape when we know the books of the Bible intimately and begin to live out the story in our own setting.

So yes, the Scriptures are useful to us today. But they are meant to be useful in a particular way. We have not been given a handbook filled with on-the-spot practical tips. We have been given a library of books from the ancient world that tell us the first part of God’s great story. The Bible slowly unveils the shape of God’s restoration and healing, and then it invites us in to take up our own roles.

We are players in the drama of redemption. And the most useful tool we have to help us learn how to live like this is the Bible—the script of the story that came before us.

Read it. Learn it. Live it. That’s the kind of application the Bible was built for.

Reading the Lord’s Prayer in Context

We all know it. We’ve all heard it, we’ve most likely prayed it, and perhaps we’ve even sung it.

The Lord’s Prayer. The one Jesus himself taught us to pray. It’s straight from the Master. How can we not do what he says? Since this is a Jesus prayer, we might be reluctant to admit we’re not especially thrilled with it.

But let’s admit it. At this point it can seem so . . . what? Mundane? Common? Safe?

Maybe there’s more to our lethargy with this prayer than simple overexposure. Maybe we’re verging on boredom with it because we haven’t captured the heart of it. And maybe this is because we haven’t focused on the context in which we first received it.

What context?

It’s easy to forget that this was prayer was introduced to the church by being embedded in two of our Gospels—Matthew’s and Luke’s. We don’t have space to explore both settings (or even one in any detail), but we’ll look more closely at Luke’s version in light of his Gospel’s bigger project.

The purpose here is to briefly set forth the kind of difference reading the Bible in context can make. In this case, we’ll see that there’s a whole lot more going on with the Lord’s Prayer than we’ve known.

Fitting Jesus’ Prayer into his Mission

Luke gives us the shorter, compact version of Jesus’ prayer, generally rendered along these lines in modern translations:

Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.

Crucially, Luke tells the story of Jesus in light of Israel’s bigger history with God. Jesus is fully embedded in Israel’s first-century context, announcing the arrival of God’s long-standing purposes for his people. In a fascinating passage that occurs just a little before Jesus teaches his disciples this prayer, we read that Jesus himself went up on a mountain to pray. Then this happens:

As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his exodus, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.

His exodus? Yes, this is one way Luke signals that the entire mission of Jesus was conceived in terms of a fresh Exodus experience for God’s people. This is precisely what the prophets had foretold. God would again come down and act decisively for his people’s liberation. God’s great new act of redemption would follow the pattern of the previous one. Biblical scholar Brant Pitre has written: “Each line of the prayer is rooted in the language and imagery of the Scriptures of Israel and in the prophetic hope for a new Exodus.”1 When we take a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer in the larger context of the Bible’s whole story, we find that it moves from being somewhat abstract and tame to bold and even risky.

When we take a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer in the larger context of the Bible’s whole story, we find that it moves from being somewhat abstract and tame to bold and even risky.Click To Tweet

Jesus is telling his disciples to urgently plead with God to bring this promised, future New Exodus. And to do it right now. In short, pray in the future. Tell God to free his people, bring them home, and establish his kingdom fully right here on earth.

Reading the prayer of Jesus in context recognizes all this:

• The Exodus was the first time God called Israel his son, and became Israel’s Father.
• The Exodus is when Pharaoh asked, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey him and let Israel go?” So God showed up and made his name holy, known among the nations.
• . . . when God brought his power and reign to earth to rescue his people.
• . . . when God brought his people daily bread in the wilderness.
• . . . when God forgave his people and revealed the Jubilee when all debts would be forgiven.
• . . . and when the time of great trial or testing came right before the great redemption.

Israel had been praying for centuries for all this to happen again. But Jesus told his closest followers and mission partners to pray for God to do it all right now, through the work of the Messiah. And then Jesus went out and did the work. He fought the great battle and brought us the New Exodus, freeing us from God’s biggest, baddest enemies—sin and death.

When read in this light, the prayer and its urgent Greek imperatives go more like this:

Father,
Make your name holy.
Bring your kingdom.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone indebted to us.
Do not bring us to the time of trial.

The early church brilliantly connected the Lord’s Prayer directly to its observance of the Lord’s Supper. A New Exodus prayer right before a New Exodus Passover meal. Those early followers of Jesus also routinely introduced the prayer with the words, “We make bold to pray.”

Who are we to tell God what to do? It may be that we shouldn’t even have the nerve to pray this way, to demand that God act decisively right now to finish his work of the world’s redemption in and through Jesus. Except that Jesus himself told us to have the nerve.

So go ahead and pray that bold prayer in all its glorious biblical context. The way Jesus taught us.

1See his article The Lord’s Prayer and the New Exodus for a detailed exploration of all the connections

Our Favorite Books About the Bible

When God chose to give us the kind of Bible that he did, it came with a set of expectations. The contents don’t automatically jump off the pages and go directly into our minds and hearts. The Bible is a library of books spanning a long period of time. They’re not all the same kind of writing. The entire collection is set in an ancient world. In addition, the books all come together to tell a great story. All of this means that to read the Bible well, we have to understand the Bible’s true character and be intentional about engaging it as the kind of book it is.

Which means we need help.

Thankfully there are lots of great resources on the Bible out there, including more books than any of us could ever read. And since there’s so many, we thought it would be helpful to give you a short list of our favorites. So we created a Recommended Reading page featuring 13 books that will provide you with a sound and useful perspective on the Bible, leading to better reading of the Bible itself. We hope it proves to be a helpful resource as you seek to deepen your understanding and love of the Scriptures.

IFBR’s Recommended Reading →

How To Teach the Bible Without Chapters and Verses

We’ve been making the case over the last few months for rediscovering the power of Bible reading. In many ways, simple and straightforward reading has been the forgotten practice in the modern era of the Bible. We contend that reading whole books remains the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible.

But what about all the other things we do with the Bible? In our last two articles we explored new ways to think about Bible study and preaching. This week we’ll look at the implications our “read first” approach has for how we teach the Bible.

Reimagining Bible Teaching

As we saw with the typically modern approach to both Bible study and preaching, the fixed grid of numbered chapter and verse divisions gives the Scriptures the appearance of having been analyzed, systematized, and solved. This is further reinforced by the presence of footnotes and section headings which often appear as predetermined conclusions.

All of this has decisively shaped how people think about the Bible and what they do with it. Study has too often been reduced to stringing together a set of Bible references and trying to add up their meaning. Meanwhile, modern preaching frequently becomes an attempt to boil off the actual biblical stories (or songs, prophecies, visions, etc.) and extract some timeless doctrine or practical principle.

In both cases the modern form has misled us about what to do with the Bible.

The return to a clean, additives-free Bible invites us to rediscover the beauty and forcefulness of the Scriptures in their inspired literary forms. This has implications for how we teach the Bible also. We have the opportunity to delve once again into a living word, and to do this together, in community.

If preaching is primarily storytelling—connecting the audience and their stories to the bigger story in the Bible—teaching can now be the new space we create for exploring together what the Bible says and how the Bible works. Teaching is first of all based on the same core disciplines as preaching, that is, due diligence on being familiar with an entire literary work in the Bible, and then learning how its parts fit together to create the overall message.

Whatever we’re doing with the Bible—reading, studying, preaching, or teaching—should be built on engagement with whole, natural units of the text. Isolated study of Bible fragments is the common thread through much of modernity’s approach to the Bible. The rediscovery of holistic encounters is the doorway to the new Bible paradigm.

Exploring the text together

For starters, we should consider spending more of our time together simply reading the Bible out loud. This is the closest thing we have to the original experience of the Bible’s first audience. Something unique happens when we take the time to be still and let the Scriptures just wash over us.

Like preaching without chapters and verses, teaching is best based on an in-depth look at a single passage in context rather than jumping around from reference to reference. But now, in addition to the benefit of having trained and validated leaders preaching the Bible, we can gain from teaching experiences built on open and free-flowing dialogue.

It is one thing to take in the leader’s perspective. But learning goes deeper and tends to stick more when we get to be part of the interaction—asking our questions, listening to others, and following new threads.

This joint exploration can certainly begin with some kind of shorter presentation by one person on the chosen passage and its place in the overall literary work and the story of the Bible. Or we can simply jump in right away with a shared expedition into the riches of the biblical text. Either way, the key point in the new model of teaching is that it is community based.

The risk of truly open interactions around the Bible follows the pattern we see so often in the Bible itself. (And since real human beings are involved, it is a risk!) The Scriptures tell us of children asking parents questions (see Deuteronomy) and family discussions ensuing.  We see Jesus and Paul both engaging in forceful back-and-forth exchanges in synagogues, the community gathering places of their day (see the Gospels and Acts). We hear of people sharing stories and perspectives at city gates, temple entrances, watering places, market squares, and even official gathering places of Greek philosophers.

The Bible is made for more than private study and one-way declamations. There is a time to listen, and a time to speak. Together.

It is tempting to want to tightly control the content of our teaching times, whether in the life of the church or even in other, more public settings. But this desire seems closely related to the idea that the Bible is a tightly-controlled, closed set of teachings with only a single interpretation or perspective.

The Bible is a conversation, and is meant to spark conversation.Click To TweetBut actually what we see in the Bible is the presentation of multiple perspectives. This doesn’t have to imply outright contradictory viewpoints, but if we wish to do justice to the Bible, we must reckon with its polyvocal character. For example, there are four unique presentations on the character and meaning of the life of Jesus. There are two distinct offerings of Israel’s history, with quite different emphases. There is a series of wisdom books that at the very least are having an intense dialogue on what it means to live according to God’s wisdom and what we can expect from such living.

The Bible is a conversation, and is meant to spark conversation.

If the sacred library itself contains this kind of internal discussion about the story of God and world, we should not shy away from it ourselves. Modern Bible teaching methods reinforce the impression that the Scriptures are a storehouse of established facts and right answers that can be retrieved at the proper coordinates. But the Bible offers us so much more—it wants to be a community formation book, based on authentic, respectful human engagement.

God, his revelation, and his people, all together in the room and working together. That’s Bible teaching.

*Adapted from After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations by Christopher R. Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Rev. Dr. Smith is a Fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. Our thanks to him for his genesis of these proposals for rethinking our use of the Bible today.