One of the biggest struggles in reading the Bible is understanding what it’s saying, and discerning what to do about it. For the past half-century, Western culture has fostered very shallow reading habits; sometimes it seems to me that all but the over-70’s were educated in such a way that critical reading was undervalued or ignored.
As a result, when we crack open the Bible, most of us are unprepared for reading it fruitfully. We want to hurry up, get to the point, learn the gist of things, find the simple and concise application to our own life; and, because we’re also a very pragmatic culture, we often want to know what we’re supposed to *do* about it. Some books work this way (mostly modern ones), but the Bible was not written with our bad reading habits in mind. That means some parts of Scripture are going to make a lot less sense than other parts, and we have to *learn* how to read it in order to understand it.
I’d like to propose four questions to help us read the Bible more effectively. This is nothing new; I daresay it’s pretty standard Christian wisdom and advice for Bible Study group leaders, for example. Anyway, here we go.
1. What does the text tell us about God?
We’ve got to kill off our self-centeredness. The Bible is about God, not about you or me. It’d be an oversimplification to call it God’s autobiography, but it’s certainly more a biography of Him than it is of you or me. Even the parables of Jesus and the Old Testament stories, which often seem to lend themselves to an “apply this to your life” kind of lesson, need to begin with this question. Very rarely will you find a text that focuses on you more than on God (sections of the Proverbs comes to mind).
2. What does the text tell us about the Gospel?
As Christians, we believe that the Gospel – the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ – is the heart of the work of God. As such, we should expect the Bible to be full of references Christ’s atoning work. After all, Jesus said as much about the Bible: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). So whether you’re reading a Psalm, Old Testament history, New Testament epistle, or anything else, be sure to keep an eye on the Cross.
3. What does the text tell us about the Church?
When the Scriptures talk about people, it’s more often dealing with God’s people as whole rather than speaking to individuals. When Jesus and the Apostles give instructions for Christian living, consider their fulfillment in the context of the Body before trying to take every burden upon yourself. Even in the Old Testament, consider the lessons about Israel. In John 10:16, Jesus taught that he would bring in other “sheep”, the Gentiles, so there’d be “one flock, one shepherd.” This union of Jew and Gentile is known in the Old Testament usually as Israel and in the New Testament usually as the Church. So consider the Old Testament the pre-Christ history of the Church, rather than relegate it to mere story-telling of a foreign people. The same can be said for linking the earthly and heavenly cities of Jerusalem, especially (for example) in the Psalms.
4. What does the text tell us about ourselves?
Finally, yes, the Bible does have a few things to say about you. There are commissions, callings, instructions, points of faith, and many other things that we must receive or believe or do as individuals. But we risk narcissism and self-centeredness if we jump straight to this sort of Bible-reading without giving due consideration to what it teaches us about God, his Gospel, and his Church.
There have been times when Christians perhaps over-emphasized the communal identity at the loss of personal committment and involvement. But for the most part those times are not now. Our present culture is hyper-individualized, we are taught to worship self-fulfillment, and there is a resultant longing for community and belonging felt by many young people and middle-aged adults. If we read the Scriptures with our true “Christian belonging” in mind – to God, to the Gospel, to the Church – then we will have a much more fruitful understanding both of the Bible and of ourselves!