Hermeneutics (1): How To Read the Bible (Part 1)
First things first: How do you approach your time of Bible reading? If we want to become able interpreters of the Bible, we must first start with the basics. We can not interpret anything unless it is first read, and, I would suggest that how you read your Bible will make a world of difference. How you approach this holiest of books will determine whether you grow in your understanding of God’s Word. There is no doubt that there are difficult passages in the Scriptures which men have wrestled with throughout the ages, but the majority of the Bible can be understood if only we exercise certain principles and recognize that we are not just reading another book.
So, before we tackle the subject of Hermeneutics or Bible interpretation, let’s explore the deceptively simple task of reading the Bible. Here are some thoughts and principles for your consideration.
- Read the Bible with its Author.
“Huh?”, you might say. Let me flesh it out for you. Christians should not attempt to read the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit. Even though the Bible has multiple human authors with different personalities, proclivities, cultural backgrounds, and writing styles (compare John’s writing with Paul’s), the reality is that behind all of this is the one Author: God Himself. “All Scripture is breathed out by God”, says Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16).
There first thing we should do before we lay our eyes upon the text is to ask God to help us understand what we are about to read. I know this sounds basic, and some may even think that it’s unnecessary to say. But the truth is that we do not have because we do not ask. If we do not ask for understanding, can we really expect to get it on our own? Are we so presumptuous to think that we can pursue the knowledge of God without God’s help? God has given us His Word so that we might grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. But spiritual truths can only be discerned with the help of the Author. As Paul prayed for the Ephesians, we must also pray that we would be given “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.” (Ephesians 1:17) We must ask the Author of the Word to come alongside us during our time of reading and give us an understanding of the text. You will be amazed by how willing our God is to open up His Word to those who depend upon Him for understanding. And we express that dependence by coming to Him in prayer.
- Avoid rushing (like the plague) and pay close attention to grammar and syntax
This may sound contrary to what you might have been told: Forget scheduled reading plans IF you find yourself reading the Bible just to check it off as something else that you need to get done for the day. Many of us feel guilty about not reading every day or give up on reading, especially if we fail to meet the expectations of some “reading plan.” Now, I’m not knocking reading plans. They can be useful…for some people.
The Bible is a book that must be thought about. It has words that are connected together to make sentences that convey a thought. These sentences come together to form paragraphs that express ideas and arguments. God, through his human authors, has chosen to convey His truth by way of words, grammar, syntax, all coming together to form specific ideas that He wants us to understand. Slowing down allows you to see how these words form thoughts. When you slow down and pay attention to the line of reasoning in, say, Paul’s letter to the Romans, you will begin to see the flow of thought or argument. Suddenly, passages that were obscure and you purposely avoided because you couldn’t make heads or tails of them before will make sense. It pays to slow down and read less (but consistently) than to “marathon” read and not pick up the Bible again for days. If you get through a chapter or two, or even a whole book, great. If you only get through a paragraph or two because something caught your eye and you want to investigate it some more, great. The point is that this isn’t a race. Read to understand, not to finish.
Here’s a suggestion that I have found helpful when you want to deepen your understanding of a passage or book of the Bible. This is a page from my study of 1 Timothy. I print out the book or passage that I want to study more closely and leave wide margins on the page. I do this primarily because I don’t like to mark up my Bible for fear of the marking, questions, comments becoming a distraction when I just want to read. So, I print it out and keep those in a separate 3-ring binder. I have the freedom to mark up the text as needed, drawing lines to illustrate connections between words, writing questions/comments in the margin, using different colored pens/pencils to locate themes, important sentences, etc.
- Be aware of time and space
Many continue to read the Bible without any awareness of the historical context of the text they are examining. Instead, they read the Bible as if it was just a grab bag of personal promises and they look for the one that seems most applicable to their particular situation for that day. I am not saying that God the Father has not made promises that are personally applicable to our personal lives. But to ignore the historical context of the passage will lead to misinterpretation and false application of passages that were never meant to apply to us in a direct way. The Bible was never meant to be read divorced of its redemptive-historical backdrop.
The Scriptures are set in the context of space and time. In other words, there is a history behind those glorious words. We tend to forget that the stories and prophecies of the Old Testament were written at a specific time to a specific people in a specific cultural context. Paul wrote to specific churches and addressed specific people. That is important background to understand when we read the Bible. So, pay close attention to those verses that tell you who the author was addressing; watch for passages, particularly in the Old Testament, that tell you which king was on the throne of Israel at the time; pay attention to geography (there are plenty of free online Bible maps that can help with this); all these little details were purposely placed in the text and help us understand the historical context. Don’t be afraid to purchase a good Old Testament/New Testament introduction that will flesh out many of these details for you. This way you come to the text with an understanding of where the events, prophecies, etc., that your reading takes place in history. (There are also great historical timelines available online).
Here are some recommendations for books that have a lot of that background information on the different books on the Bible:
- A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised
- An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition (Highly recommended)
- A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized
- An Introduction to the New Testament (Highly recommended)
More to come soon….