In our last video on spiritual disciplines, we talked about using scripture as a resource for praying - reciting the poems and Psalms and prayers contained in the Bible. The words of scripture are meant to be lived and experienced - to bring us into the presence of God and in touch with the spiritual world. The Bible gives us a window into the nature of God, and into the journeys that countless people have taken with Him.
But the Bible must not only be engaged experientially, but also must be studied intellectually. The two sides cannot be separated from each other. There are different kinds of literature in the Bible, and they weave together a cohesive story that reveals who God is and points us to Jesus. It is not enough to find the words beautiful or inspiring, but it also matters that we understand what we are reading.
Learning to study the Bible and read it for its details and context is very important, and the act of simply reading it regularly is a spiritual discipline. The more often you read the Bible, the more the pieces will start to fit together, especially if you learn how to read in context and in light of the different styles in each part of the Bible.
While there are very many factors to keep in mind while reading the Bible, we are going to split them into two very broad categories to help get you started:
1: The Objective study. We first read the Bible to find out what it says objectively. Some Christians find this step can sometimes feel awkward if they are used to immediately making applications to their own life. This stage can be very slow and sometimes means you may walk away from the text not quite sure what is going on. Or at very least, you may have to stare at the page for a long time and reflect on the passage, or look up another passage that is being quoted or referred to. Sometimes this stage also requires looking up a difficult word, or comparing translations, or looking up a historical event or even consulting a map.
At this stage, you ought to ask questions like: What did this mean when it was originally written? What happened? What does the text say? What kind of literature is this? When in Israel’s history did it emerge? Where did this happen and what are the cultural elements at work? How is the language being used? What are the major themes? Does it use any literary devices? Is there an argument in the text? What is the structure of the text?
If we don't take these crucial steps to really understand what the passage originally meant, we might be in danger of making a story about something that it's not about.
For example, the second half of 1 Samuel 16 tells a story about Saul, the first king of Israel, being harassed by an evil spirit which is only chased away when David plays the harp for him. Some people, while ignoring the context, assume that something was wrong with Saul's mental health, or perhaps that the Bible is warning us about the danger of listening to the wrong music genre. But this passage is actually a transition moment in a larger story: in the chapter before, God rejected and renounced Saul as Israel's king because of his poor leadership, and at the start of chapter 16 God sends Samuel to appoint David as the next king who will eventually replace Saul.
The natural question that occurs in context is, "When will David come to the palace and begin preparing to be King?" Suddenly, in context, the story makes sense: God allowed the influence of an evil spirit to create an opportunity for David - the next King - to be brought from his home in the countryside into the palace of the King, and to begin learning the basics of life in the royal court.
This leads us to:
2: The Subjective study. If you know what the text meant when it was originally written, what does it mean for you today? How does the text affect your life? How does the same concept apply in a new situation? What should you change (or maintain) about your life? What impact do the words have on you? Does the text encourage you? Does it frighten you? Do you feel offended by the text? Do you feel empowered? What does your reaction to the text say about who you are? What does it make you think about God?
Taking our 1 Samuel 16, how does it matter to you or I at all that God created an opportunity for David to be brought into the palace? Well, we learn a handful of things about how God operates: God often works in unexpected ways behind the scenes. He carefully creates opportunities and circumstances that move his plan forward - sometimes so subtly that it's easy to miss! In the larger context, we learn that God is concerned about good leadership and is willing to shift those who are in power in order to fulfill his plan. And speaking of plans, if we look at the larger Biblical story, we see that David becoming the King was one major step in God's larger plan to send the Messiah - one of David's descendants - to earth.
While most of us will never find ourselves in that exact situation, reading this story should help us to appreciate and trust the masterful way God executes his plans. We should feel moved with admiration and loyalty to this God, who works situations together for good.
When we read the Bible, we become part of its story. God has been working with humanity for a long time, and we are joining in on that partnership. We're human beings, just like those epic characters in the Bible. Seeing their lives, their failures, their mistakes, and their triumphs tells us something about ourselves, and it shows us how God works with humanity in the midst of all the things we face in life.
Sometimes the Bible can be challenging to read, but the solution is to keep reading it, slowly and carefully, piece by piece over time, and letting the stories in it transform the way you think. And trust us, there’s a lot there to read. Better get to it! ;)
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.” [Psalm 1:1-2 NIV]
- This week, because the topic is more "meta," we won't be doing a lot of Bible study questions. Instead, I will be pointing you towards some useful resources you can use to enhance your own Bible-reading. What follows are a few study questions, and then some resources.
- Read Psalm 1:1-3. How does this passage describe the ideal Bible-reader? How much time is needed in order to get the most out of the Bible?
- Read 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and answer the following questions:
- What assurance does Paul assume that Timothy has that the instructions he has received throughout his life are correct? Do you personally have this as well, or no?
- The "scriptures" that Paul referred to at the time would have only included the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) since the New Testament wasn't finished being written yet. What interesting claim does Paul make about what the Old Testament teaches about?
- What practical thing can scripture do for our own lives?
- Is simply becoming a good reader or a very knowledgeable person the goal of reading scripture, or is it meant to lead to something else?
- The YouTube series "How To Read The Bible" by Bible Project is an excellent resource for learning the basic skills and concepts behind reading different sections of the Bible. You can check out the first video in the series below: