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Advent: Reading the Bible For the Real World

The biblical narrative knows all about times of change. It knows about seasons of darkness that that last way too long. How long was Israel in slavery before Moses was called? How long did God’s people sit in sadness by rivers of Babylon? How many days and nights did Anna, daughter of Penuel, sit in the Temple, fasting and praying for the redemption of Jerusalem? (She was there continually, Luke tells us, until she was 84.)

Exile. Suffering. Sadness and death. How long? How long?

Of course, the Bible knows all about days of rejoicing too. It knows about seasons of rescue, of God showing up and turning the tide, changing the story. It knows about times of refreshing, about good harvests, about a Messiah born amidst singing angels. There are seasons of light in this tale.

But think for a moment about the big story in the Bible. Think of what we learn about God’s founding intentions for the world, and for his people in the world. God wanted flourishing life, tended by image-bearing humans. God wanted to live with us in his creation-temple. God wanted us to trust him, to trust what he said, to follow his ways.

We struggled to live up to God’s call for us. We failed him. And he in turn struggled with us. He struggled with the family of Abraham that he called to rescue us, to bring us light and love and blessing. The story tells us about covenants and then more covenants, a never-ending series of promises about real change, about a new kind of future.

But the story seems stuck in pro and con, con and pro, an unending battle. It is about floods, but then doves with olive branches. About slavery, but then Exodus. About war, but then Promised Land. About tribal chaos, but then King David. God is trying and trying and trying, but it’s always a struggle. A new start, but then a turning away. It feels more like circles of frustration than straightforward progress with this biblical narrative, this so-called story of salvation.

We can get fully three quarters through the Bible and the same questions remain: Will God’s first intentions ever be realized? Will there be faithful God-imagers on earth? Will life flourish the way God wants it to? Will God’s plan to bring goodness and life to all peoples through Israel really work? When already?

What I like about the Bible (the actual Bible, not the filtered-cherry-picking-nice-verses Bible) is that it’s like real life. Real life is a struggle. Real life is about waiting. Real life is about watching the world fall apart on my news feed.

What I like about the Bible (the actual Bible, not the filtered-cherry-picking-nice-verses Bible) is that it’s like real life. Real life is a struggle. Real life is about waiting. Real life is about watching the world fall apart on my news feed.Click To Tweet

We are in the season of Advent these days, waiting once again for the coming of something genuinely new. And I’m noticing that the questions of Advent are the same questions of the entire biblical narrative before the New Testament.

Will he come? When? How long?

Advent teaches us, among many other things, to read our Bibles big and whole. Screening out the longing stories, the waiting stories, the struggle stories, won’t serve us well in the end. Our super-friendly, super-nice, super-encouraging piecemeal Bible won’t actually sustain us in real life. It’s better to know that God knows like we know that life is hard.

And when we read all of it, and are honest about all of it, then when that Messiah does really come, when those joyous songs do fill the night skies over the Judean countryside, then it’s so much better because it’s so much more real. This is reading the Bible for the real world.

God is in it with us for the long-haul. But the only way to understand the depth and truth of this is to know his whole story. Not just the easy parts.

Read the Bible for life.

How the Bible Is Like the Sistine Chapel

In 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project – if we can reduce this massive undertaking to a word as small as “project” – took four years and, as we all know, resulted in one of Michelangelo’s most famous works, as well as one of the most stunning and revered works of art in the world.

The painted area of the ceiling measures approximately 131 feet long by 43 feet wide, which means Michelangelo painted over 5000 square feet of frescoes. Nine scenes from Genesis run down the middle, including the famous The Creation of Adam. The border contains depictions of Israel’s prophets, including Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. The scale of Michelangelo’s work is truly monumental.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Of course, Michelangelo didn’t paint these stunning frescoes inside a climate-controlled museum, but inside a functioning chapel. This meant that they were exposed to many harsh elements that made it difficult for the paintings to survive, and practical measures had to be taken to ensure the paintings could be enjoyed by future generations. Linseed oil was applied to the paintings in 1547 to counteract some of the effects of water penetrating through the floor above. Then, in 1713 a layer of varnish was applied to protect them from the soot and grime accumulating from the candles below.

As the years, decades, and centuries passed, the smoke & wax from burning candles and smut from car exhaust fumes built up and made the frescoes so uniformly dark that critics accused the great sculptor of being insensitive to color.

Then, in 1980, a major restoration project was undertaken using modern technology and preservation techniques. They discovered that the layers of varnish and glue that had been applied over the years had hardened and become opaque. Animal fat and vegetable oil had been applied to counteract salination, but had also created a sticky layer that accumulated even more dirt.

So the restorers got scrubbing. They used a variety of different solvents to wash away the layers of dirt, grime, grease, soot, varnish, and exhaust that had accumulated on the original paintings, and what they found was stunning.

gardenbeforeandafter

“The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve” Before and After

sistine_chapel_daniel_beforandafter

“Daniel” Before and After

 

 

 

 

 

When the Sistine Chapel reopened after the restoration, people were shocked at the vividness of the artwork. Michelangelo hadn’t been “insensitive to color” after all. His incredible original work had simply been covered up by years and years of accumulation.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s a pretty good metaphor for the Bible.

Beginning around the year 1200 when Stephen Langton introduced chapter numbers to the text, and followed by the addition of verse numbers in the mid-1550s by Robert Estienne, modern additives have been accumulating inside our Bibles. Fast forward to today and you’ll see most Bibles come complete with chapters, verses, section headings, footnotes, red-letters, callouts, and cross-references, and all squeezed into two columns so that more information can fit on a single page.

These modern additives, of course, were all put into our Bibles with the best of intentions. Chapters and verses were both added so that referencing small pieces of Scripture became easier (for writing a commentary or concordance, for example). Footnotes undoubtedly showed up because publishers wanted to help people grasp more of the context around what they were reading.

But what has it all amounted to? Information overload. The Bible’s text almost seems hidden, overpowered by all of the extra “helps” we’ve included. Chapters and verses have papered over the natural structures of ancient literature, hiding them behind a uniform numbering system. Two-column formats make it much more difficult to see the parallel structures of Hebrew poetry that we find in the Psalms.

There’s a natural beauty to the Bible that is waiting to be uncovered. If we scrub away the years of varnish and soot, we’ll be surprised and awestruck by what we find. The encouraging trend of “reading Bibles” entering the marketplace shows us that the Bible can indeed be beautiful, and that we can actually have a more authentic, transformative experience with God’s Word if we get rid of all the modern additives and just let the text breathe.

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.

Why You Need a Bible Without Chapters and Verses

Update: The Institute for Bible Reading has created Immerse, a Bible without any chapters, verses, or other modern additives. Click here to learn more.


When it comes to reading and studying the Bible, chapters and verses feel about as essential as the steering wheel of a car. We wouldn’t quite know what to do without them. They give our Bibles a structure we can grasp. They make things easy to find and they break down long passages into manageable, relatively uniform chunks. It’s hard to imagine a Bible without chapters and verses inside.

But where did they come from? Surely the Apostle Paul didn’t write his letters with chapters and verses. Why were they added? And what unnoticed impact are they having on how we read the Bible?

A Recent Innovation

Many people are unaware that the chapter-and-verse system is only about 500 years old. Archbishop Stephen Langton created the chapter system we’re familiar with in the 13th century, simply because he was writing a Bible commentary and needed a way to reference more specific portions of Scripture. Similarly, French printer and scholar Robert Estienne added verse numbers in the 16th century. His reason? He was creating a Bible concordance, so he needed a way to reference even smaller portions of passages – a sentence or two at a time.

Shortly after these numbering systems were conceived, somebody made the decision that they should be a standard feature in all Bibles. Thus, a book made for reading was turned into a book made for referencing. One of the first Bibles produced on the printing press, the Geneva Bible, turned each verse into a separate paragraph, obliterating any sense of continuity within the literature and setting the table for the volleys of verses hurled back and forth during the theological debates of the Reformation.

An Unhelpful Innovation

It would be unfair to claim that chapters and verses are 100% harmful. They can certainly be helpful in many ways, especially in helping us reference specific portions of Scripture. But because every Bible we’ve ever had since the 1500’s is a chapter and verse Bible, many of us don’t realize the ways in which the format actually makes reading harder.

For starters, many of the biblical authors intentionally conveyed meaning through how they structured books, and we miss that natural structuring with a uniform chapter-based scheme. Matthew’s gospel, for example, does not have 28 chapters. It has 5 natural sections, which Matthew intentionally crafted to show his Jewish audience that the gospel of Jesus was a new Torah. The Torah of course has 5 books.

The book of Acts has 6 natural sections, each of which ends with some iteration of the phrase, “…and the word of the Lord continued to spread and flourish.” The number 6 in the Bible represents incompleteness or imperfection, and is always in striving toward 7, the number of completeness. The book is crafted with 6 sections to signify that the work of spreading the gospel is incomplete. It is the responsibility of those following the acts of the apostles – followers of Jesus in future generations – to be the 7th “section” of Acts.

To learn more about the history of chapters and verses and their impact on reading, listen to Chapters, Verses, and the Impact of the Modern Bible

Chapters and verses also make it much more difficult to follow an author’s thought process. Many of us see chapter breaks as good stopping points in our reading. It makes sense – when we read a biography or a novel the end of a chapter often signals a good place to stop. Bible chapters, however, are often totally ignorant of the story’s plot or the author’s thought process. In fact, the very first chapter break in the Bible at Genesis 2 comes three verses before the end of the opening song of Creation!

Finally, chapters and verses make it all too easy to grasp onto tiny Scripture nuggets and use them for our own purposes without considering the wider context. How often do we see Philippians 4:13, Jeremiah 29:11, and many others displayed in social media memes, completely misused and out of context? Many people craft entire theologies and worldviews around a set of verses that seem to support what they believe.

Moving Forward, Looking Backward

Chapter-and-verse Reference Bibles can still play an important role in helping people engage Scripture, but they need to be accompanied by a new genre: Reading Bibles. These additive-free editions of Scripture are a return to what the Bible used to be, made for at-length reading using the natural book structures the authors originally included.

Having a Bible created for reading rather than reference will not only make reading the Bible more enjoyable, it’ll uncover things you’ve never seen before and allow you to experience the Bible in a different way. Many people report getting “lost in the story” when they are able to just read without interruption.

Immerse: The Reading Bible / Photo: Bible Buying Guide

There are a couple reading Bibles that can get you started. Our top recommendation is Immerse: The Reading Bible, which we created in partnership with Tyndale House Publishers. The Books of the Bible from Biblica and Zondervan and the ESV Readers Bible from Crossway are also good options. If you know of any others, leave a comment below!

To read more on the idea of Bibles without chapters and verses, check out “After Chapters and Verses” by Christopher Smith and “Saving the Bible From Ourselves” by Glenn Paauw.