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None of the Bible Was Written to You…And That’s a Good Thing.

Every single bit of the Bible was written to people from another time and place.

Therefore, exactly 0% of the Bible was originally addressed directly to you or to me.

The Bible is not a guidebook that blandly tells us what to do, no questions asked. The Bible is not an instruction manual for looking up the right answers to all our questions. It’s not even “a love letter” from God, or if it is, it’s the strangest love letter ever written. (That is not to say, however, that it’s not a love story, which is something else entirely.)

The fact is that many of the shorthand descriptions we commonly hear about the Bible just don’t accurately capture what the Bible is and how it actually works. And that’s too bad, because the way the Bible was built to help us remains undiscovered. The common descriptions often lead to confusion, distortion, and misreading, while the real benefits of these sacred writings remain undeciphered.

The key to finding the Bible’s purpose for us is first and foremost to be honest about the nature of the Bible itself. Grasping a handful of basic points will put us well on the way to a healthy and beneficial interaction with the Bible.

1. The Bible is Rooted in Ancient History and Culture

We begin with a full acknowledgment that the Bible is rooted in an ancient world. It is speaking directly to people in that world, not our world. Now it’s true that some things stay the same over the course of history, like the basics of the human condition. So the Bible will always be relevant in that sense. But it’s also true that a lot of things change, like the cultural frameworks that shape how people see their world and make sense of it.

The Bible is not trying to be modern (or postmodern). It’s simply trying to be what it is—an account of the beginning of God’s interactions with a family-turned-nation that is crucial to accomplishing his intentions for the whole world. So we must begin our Bible reading by doing all we can to understand what it is saying to those people first of all. What were the assumptions of Israel’s ancient world? How does the Bible both reflect and challenge those assumptions?

Another way of saying this is to affirm that while the Bible is certainly for us, it was not written to us. (We are definitely involved, but our part comes later, as we’ll see.)

2. The Bible is a Library

The next step is to realize that the Bible is not really a single book. It’s a collection of very different kinds of writing that were spoken, sung, written, and edited over a long period of time. A critical element of good Bible reading and interpretation is to ask: What kind of book is this? and What are the rules for understanding this kind of writing? The ancient Hebrews used lots of kinds of literature, and there are regular rules of engagement that go with each one. A failure to attend to them can easily lead to misreadings of lyrical poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, letters, and even historical accounts (which functioned with ancient standards of history writing, not modern ones).

3. The Bible Is a Story

But the Bible is not a random collection of ancient Hebrew writings. The Holy Scriptures are a library whose contents come together to tell a single, connected story. There are narrative threads that tie the books together, progressively revealing more and more of God’s slow and patient plan to reclaim his creation. That is, there is redemptive movement through the books over time. This movement is not always smooth and easy, effortlessly gliding toward God’s final intentions. Rather, the story moves in fits and starts, with huge setbacks and failures that lead to real questions about how God’s big plan is working.

Later this month I’ll be speaking at a seminar taking a deep dive into how the story of the Bible works. The seminar is free – click here to learn more and register.

One of the burning questions for first-century Jews was precisely this issue of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and the fate of his chosen people. For centuries the story had appeared to be stuck. Is this story even true? But the New Testament claim is that the utterly surprising story of Jesus reveals God’s remarkable work to save the story and rescue the world. The Bible itself claims the story has a beginning, a long meandering middle, and an ending that will embody God’s longtime intentions.

So the way to read the Bible is to feast on whole books, understood as the literature they are and speaking to the Bible’s first audience, while staying aware of the place the various books take within the developing narrative.

4. The Bible Is a Festooned Story

Sometimes it is objected that the “Bible as story” approach is overdone since not all the Bible’s books are narrative in form themselves. But this objection misunderstands how the books fit together. Of course it’s true that many contributions within the Bible are something other than narrative—there are song books, proverbs and longer wisdom reflections, apostolic letters, law codes, collections of prophetic oracles, etc. But the point remains that all of these other kinds of writing adorn the Bible’s narrative by adding depth and color, allowing us to see and feel more deeply what it was like to live within this story of God and his people.

The non-narrative books of the Bible offer crucial ways for us to enter more deeply into the story and understand it from the inside out, in greater detail and texture. These books open up what it was like for ancient Israelites or early Christian believers to live out God’s story in the real world. The “festoon” books allows the Bible to show and not merely tell what this great drama is all about.

How the Bible Actually Helps Us Today

So, putting it all together, the good news is that we don’t have to pretend that we’re supposed to read the Bible and simply do everything it says. God has never wanted us to be robots. Instead, God gave us the wonderful gift of the Bible so that we can see what he’s done throughout history and absorb the story deep in our bones. And he’s trusted us to faithfully carry the story forward today.

How do we do that well? First, we have to ask what any particular part of the Bible meant to its first audiences. We explore how it contributes to the ongoing story: What new thing is happening? or What’s going wrong here in terms of where God wants the story to go?

Then, once we’ve done our due diligence on what the Bible meant, we can proceed to what it means—for us, now. We do this by reflecting on that original meaning and looking for connections to our life now. What perennial human tendencies, weaknesses, temptations are addressed? What signs do we see of God’s ultimate redemptive intentions? What do we learn about how God works?

And finally, preeminently, we watch explicitly for how Messiah Jesus is at the center of the story. It is in his life and ministry that we see what the world looks like when God rules. Not everything that God will accomplish in the end was completed during Jesus’ life, but in him we do see most clearly who God is, what he wants, and what the central trajectory of the story is.

And it’s in that redemptive, restorative trajectory of new creation that we live. Our job is to read the Bible thoroughly and well so we know what God has done and what God is doing. Our work is to labor alongside God himself, making our own contribution to his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. And the only way we can know and do such things with competence and clarity is by reading and living the Bible well.

Want to learn more about the story of the Bible and how we can live it today? Register for our free seminar later this month. If you live in the Colorado Springs area, join us at the live event. If not, you can still register and receive a video recording.

5 Tips for Reading the Bible in Community

Bible with coffeeIn a recent survey the Institute conducted, we asked our audience where they usually find themselves reading the Bible. While 92% of them said they read the Bible alone or during their quiet time, only 31% said they read the Bible during their small group or Bible study. Clearly, reading the Bible alone – maybe accompanied by a cup of hot coffee and a pen – is the way most people choose to engage with God’s Word today. There’s nothing wrong with this on its own, but there’s a whole new world of understanding and engagement waiting for us if we regularly experience the Bible in community.

For most of Christian history, the personal Bible did not exist. Reading the Bible was a group activity because most churches only had one Bible. Only with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century did we see the Bible make its way into the hands of individuals on a mass scale. Since then, Bible reading has evolved into a solo sport. And while it’s certainly nice to have Bibles around our house that we can call our own, we’ve unfortunately lost the ancient practice of reading and wrestling over the text together.

If you’d like to try reading the Bible with your community of believers, here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Don’t make it all about finding the right answers

Most group Bible study guides today take a question-and-answer approach to the Bible. How does Paul identify himself to the Corinthians? Why might he do it this way? What does the word “sanctified” mean? All you have to do is open up your Bible and find the answer to the question. This diminishes the Bible into a sourcebook for answering the right questions to grow your faith.

Unfortunately in many group settings this can also lead to the person who is most knowledgeable about the Bible – perhaps they know Hebrew or Greek – taking over and providing all of the “answers” to the study guide’s questions. Other people in the group don’t get a chance to participate in talking about the Bible because they don’t know as much and therefore don’t think they bring value to the group. This situation can be especially intimidating for new believers.

Instead, open the discussion up for opinions and questions about the reading. A question like, “So, is there anything that stood out to you?” opens the text up for discussion at all levels.

2. Read big portions of Scripture

Try modeling your Bible discussions after book clubs. When book clubs meet, they usually don’t only discuss one paragraph or one sentence of the book. While they may dwell on a short passage for a while, they’ve often read large chunks of the book and can talk about how the story is progressing or what shifts they’ve seen in the characters. They can pick out turning points in the story and discuss what they think might happen as a result.

When your community reads the Bible together, read and discuss big portions. Read an entire letter from Paul or an entire story from the First Testament. Don’t be bound by chapters and verses – look at the content itself and determine a good stopping place.

3. Avoid “application” as the universal end-game

Bible StudyMany of us have been conditioned to automatically ask, “Okay, now what does this mean for me?” as we read. If a story or passage doesn’t have direct application to our lives today in the 21st century, it can be difficult to know what to do with it. Large portions of the Bible end up ignored because it’s hard to find something we can draw from it that we can start practicing immediately.

When talking with your community about a passage in the Bible, if you’ve found something you feel speaks to you that you can apply to your life, by all means share it with the group. But if it’s not there, you don’t need to reach for it.

4. Talk about things that bothered you

There are a lot of things in the Bible that are hard to digest. When we read alone we don’t have anyone to process these unsettling passages with, and when we’re in a group setting we sometimes focus discussion on the easier, more manageable parts of Scripture. We have a hard time talking about parts of the Bible that bother us, so we usually try to just push it out of our minds.

Talking through these uncomfortable passages with your community can be extremely helpful and valuable. It will help your group grow closer, and somebody within the group may have some insights to the difficult passage that can help make it more understandable. Even if your group can’t come to a satisfying explanation of a hard passage, wrestling over the text together will bring you all closer to God.

5. Be open to disagreement

Part of the beauty of group discussion is the opportunity to wrestle together over a passage and work together to sort out its meaning. It’s almost inevitable, though, that at some point there will be disagreement about the interpretation of a passage. When this happens, we have the opportunity to learn to see different angles on a Bible passage by listening well to other members of our group. And while we may end up holding different opinions, it’s important for these differences not to become deal-breakers for our relationships.

 

If your community has been in the traditional “Bible Study” mode for a while, I encourage you to try this “Book Club” approach. Read big chunks of Scripture together, then just open it up for group discussion. I think the results will surprise you.