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Reading the Bible 101

March 24, 2015 No Comment

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by William Mundt

Planning to read through the Bible this year? It is important to remember the Bible’s structure and context. Although many resolve to read the Bible from front to back, this may not necessarily be the best approach.

In his Exploring God’s Word study guide, John Scharlemann reminds us that the Bible is composed of two divisions: “The Old Testament books describe God’s creation and protection of a chosen people… and encompasses a period of time from the creation of the world until about 400 years before the coming of Jesus Christ. The New Testament books, on the other hand, begin with the birth of Jesus Christ. They describe His ministry, death, and resurrection as well as the creation of God’s church… and encompasses a period of only about 100 years.” Many Bibles indicate clearly in the Table of Contents that there are different kinds of books in each Testament (history, poetry, prophets in the Old; history, epistles and apocalypse in the New).

The Bible is not like a novel but is rather a collection of 66 books, organized not chronologically but rather by types of literature. Some of these were written during the time spans covered in other books. For example, many of the New Testament epistles were written during the period covered by the book of Acts. The prophets were announcing their messages during much of the time accounted for in Kings and Chronicles.

One of the marvels of the Bible is the great unity despite the diversity. Here is a book written over 1600 years, spanning 60 generations, by 40+ authors from every walk of life including kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, scholars, written in different circumstances including war, peace, in the wilderness, in a dungeon, in a palace, on a hillside, in joy, in despair, written on three continents (Asia, Africa, Europe) in three different languages. Biblical authors spoke on hundreds of controversial subjects with harmony and continuity as if written by one author.

This demonstrates what the Bible says about itself: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic Word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1).

“Go kill the Amalekites!”

“Another danger of trying to read the Bible like any other book is misinterpreting and misapplying verses. Sure, God said “Go kill the Amalekites” (1 Samuel 14:48), but, to borrow one of Martin Luther’s questions of an enthusiast (one desiring to take all verses literally), did He tell you to kill them? The first hearers or recipients of the words in Scripture understood, in most cases, the content in the context of the revelation. One exception would be that sometimes the prophets did not know all the details of what was to come. (For example in 1 Peter 1:10-11, we read: Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.) Thus the words of Scripture are not to be understood as personal messages to those who read them nor as words primarily for individual interpretation and application. That said, the Christian will often find words of sorrow or joy that seem well-suited to their own situation, especially in the Psalms.

The words of Scripture are not to be understood as personal messages to those who read them nor as words primarily for individual interpretation and application. That said, the Christian will often find words of sorrow or joy that seem well-suited to their own situation, especially in the Psalms.

Principles not particulars matter

Principles not particulars matter. In other words, look for the primary meaning of the text and don’t get bogged down in details of lesser importance. Parables, for example, have one main point of comparison. Look for that rather than trying to pull special meaning out of the little things; don’t go developing theologies out of allegories and particulars. The parable of the unjust steward, for example, in Luke 16, urges believers to faithful service with the gifts God entrusts to them. It is not advising us to make shrewd, shady investments (or buy lottery tickets) so we have more to give the church.

The Book of Revelation, as another example, is a special kind of literature, written during a period of persecution to comfort believers. Since it would be dangerous to get caught carrying a book saying “the emperor is a fink,” figurative language says the same thing in describing a beast (whose 666 designation works out handily to Caesar) and the dangers connected with his reign.

Helpful hints

Here are some hints to remember when reading the Bible.

1. Begin with prayer. The Bible is God’s Word so we have the advantage of knowing the author and being able to ask Him to send the Holy Spirit to aid us in understanding.

2. Look for Christ. Martin Luther maintained that God’s revelation for our salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ is the golden thread that runs throughout the Bible so we can find something pointing to Jesus on every page. If we find a passage that seems to be saying something different from the rest of Scripture and its main message (the analogy of faith), then our interpretation is probably wrong.

3. Let Scripture interpret itself. That is, let the New Testament help you understand the Old; let clear or easily understood passages help you with more difficult ones. Stick with the plain and obvious meaning of a text. (For example does Malachi 3:10 really teach us there are windows in heaven?)

4. Distinguish Law and Gospel. This is one of the more difficult approaches to master. Perhaps you learned the SOS principle. The Law “shows us our sins,” while the Gospel “shows us our salvation.” Sometimes it is not that simple to tell. Basic questions to ask might include: a) Is God telling me to do something? Is this a command? Is this a reminder of someone’s sin of which I might also be guilty? b) Is God giving a promise, providing comfort and reassurance, or an example of His love and mercy? Remember that in the Law God is condemning sin and commanding good works, but no one can be forgiven and saved by trying to obey it. The Gospel is the good news that Christ kept the Law for us. The Gospel brings the promise of forgiveness, faith, life, and the power to please God.

Consider these examples from the Gospel of John. In 2:1-11, Jesus changes water into wine. All the planning and preparation was not enough (Law). Jesus provides where human resources fail and improves upon our best. He is worthy of our trust (Gospel). In 14:1-31 we see that fear and uncertainty often blind us to the truth (Law), but Jesus is the way and promises His Spirit to keep us in it (Gospel).

5. You may not understand everything that you read the first time. Repeated readings, Bible classes, and daily devotions will aid your understanding. It is also often helpful to read through an entire book quickly to get an overview and then go back slowly over the individual chapters and verses. A good study Bible, like The Lutheran Study Bible, available from Concordia Publishing House, provides explanatory notes, cross references to other verses, and other aids to understanding. A good Bible dictionary, a Bible atlas, and a concordance are all useful tools too to help us grasp first of all the “then and there” meaning and the principles for a “here and now” application. CPH has also recently published an excellent two-volume Lutheran Bible Companion.

More, more, more!

An ancient historian once observed that “Scripture is like a river… broad and deep, shallow enough for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim” (Gregory the Great in his Moralia on Job). Or to use a more familiar analogy: The Bible is like our food. Some of it goes down quickly, like milk or mushy peas. But other parts of Scripture are like steak. That is also nourishing but takes more time to chew and digest. But don’t get discouraged, God wants you to know what is on His mind and in His heart. That is why He sent Jesus and had all His revelations recorded, for, as the Apostle reminds us: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

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Rev. Dr. William Mundt is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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