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….
I have found this to be a great encouragement (and, at times, a gentle rebuke). This also serves as a good prelude to my series on Hermeneutics and the Doctrine of Scripture. I am finalizing the first post and will have it out soon. Happy reading!
A sermon delivered in 1879, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, and first
published in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 25 (London, 1880) entitled How to Read the Bible.
…the diligent reading of the word of God with the strong resolve to get at its meaning often begets spiritual life. We are begotten by the word of God: it is the instrumental means of regeneration. Therefore love your Bibles. Keep close to your Bibles. You seeking sinners, you who are seeking the Lord, your first business is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; but while you are yet in darkness and in gloom, oh love your Bibles and search them! Take them to bed with you, and when you wake up in the morning, if it is too early to go downstairs and disturb the house, get half-an-hour of reading upstairs. Say, “Lord, guide me to that text which shall bless me. Help me to understand how I, a poor sinner, can be reconciled to thee.” I recollect how, when I was seeking the Lord, I went to my Bible and to Baxter’s “Call to the Unconverted,” and to Alleine’s “Alarm,” and Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress,” for I said in myself, “I am afraid that I shall be lost but I will know the reason why. I am afraid I never shall find Christ but it shall not be for want of looking for him.” That fear used to haunt me, but I said, “I will find him if he is to be found. I will read. I will think.” There was never a soul that did sincerely seek for Jesus in the word but by-and-by he stumbled on the precious truth that Christ was near at hand and did not want any looking for; that he was really there, only they, poor blind creatures, were in such a maze that they could not just then see him. Oh, cling you to Scripture. Scripture is not Christ, but it is the silken clue which will lead you to him. Follow its leadings faithfully.
When you have received regeneration and a new life, keep on reading, because it will comfort you. You will see more of what the Lord has done for you. You will learn that you are redeemed, adopted, saved, sanctified. Half the errors in the world spring from people not reading their Bibles. Would anybody think that the Lord would leave any one of his dear children to perish, if he read such a text as this,—“I give unto my sheep eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand”? When I read that, I am sure of the final perseverance of the saints. Read, then, the word and it will be much for your comfort.
It will be for your nourishment, too. It is your food as well as your life. Search it and you will grow strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.
It will be for your guidance also. I am sure those go rightest who keep closest to the book. Oftentimes when you do not know what to do, you will see a text leaping up out of the book, and saying, “Follow me.” I have seen a promise sometimes blaze out before my eyes, just as when an illuminated device flames forth upon a public building. One touch of flame and a sentence or a design flashes out in gas. I have seen a text of Scripture flame forth in that way to my soul; I have known that it was God’s word to me, and I have gone on my way rejoicing.
And, oh, you will get a thousand helps out of that wondrous book if you do but read it; for, understanding the words more, you will prize it more, and, as you get older, the book will grow with your growth, and turn out to be a greybeard’s manual of devotion just as it was aforetime a child’s sweet story book. Yes, it will always be a new book—just as new a Bible as it was printed yesterday, and nobody had ever seen a word of it till now; and yet it will be a deal more precious for all the memories which cluster round it. As we turn over its pages how sweetly do we recollect passages in our history which will never be forgotten to all eternity, but will stand for ever intertwined with gracious promises. Beloved, the Lord teach us to read his book of life which he has opened before us here below, so that we may read our titles clear in that other book of love which we have not seen as yet, but which will be opened at the last great day. The Lord be with you, and bless you.
This is an excerpt from G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. He is speaking about the development of biblical theologies and their relationship to the Christian life:
A proper understanding and development of OT and NT theology reveals that theology is not only descriptive but also prescriptive. That is, the mere development of a theology of either Testament is a descriptive task, but the content of that theology manifests an imperative for God’s people to follow and obey. (pg. 5)
Unfortunately, this presupposition (and a good one to have) is easily lost on students of theology. Ultimately, the God of the Bible and the theology that can be derived from the Bible calls the church to faith and obedience. It calls Christians to live holy lives for the glory of God. Without that, the study of theology is nothing more than an academic exercise that is best left out of the church and in the halls of liberal academia.
For what can be known about God is plain to them…For although they knew God…(Romans 1:19, 21)
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God… (1 Corinthians 1:21)
…the Gentiles who do not know God… (1 Thessalonians 4:5)
Do you notice the what apparently looks like a discrepancy? In Romans, Paul tells us that God can be known. He goes as far as to say that it is “plain”, uncovered, there, right in front of your face. You can point to it. That’s how plain it is. Later in the same chapter of Romans Paul tells us that humanity is “without excuse.” (1:20b) But in the first letters to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, he says that the world and Gentiles do not know God. In other words, there is no reason for humanity to not know God, but they do not know Him. Why is that? Let’s explore and see if we can come up with the answer.
- What can be known of God is revealed in the created order (Romans 1: 20) People can look at the created world and see the glory of God, His “eternal power and divine nature” is there to be seen. I’m not saying that God is nature; that would be pantheism. A distinction must be maintained between the Creator and the creature. However, the “invisible attributes” of God can be seen in what has been made. There is no reason why a person looking at a beautiful sunrise, the majesty of mountains, the power of thunder, brilliance of lightning, the intricate complexity of plants, animals, ecosystems, and the universe with its endless stars, planets, and galaxies which stretch to eternity cannot see the powerful and divine hand of the Master Architect. The glory of God is declared by what He has created. (Psalm 19)
- What can be known of God is also revealed in the heart of man (Romans 2:15) The law of God is written on the heart of every human being that has ever lived. Their conscience bears witness to God’s righteous requirement. Regardless of what part of the world you visit, or which culture you explore, there is an innate sense of right and wrong built into the very fiber of our being. Even the vilest of human beings, when being honest, will tell you that the evil they do and enjoy is wrong. The greatest philanthropist will also recognize that helping the weak, the poor, and the disenfranchised is the right thing to do. We all admire those who sacrificially give of what they have, to include in many cases their very lives. This is built into our very nature because God made man and put it there.
So, with all of this, why does man not know God? Why don’t they see His glory?
I would suggest the reason is hardness of heart. (Ephesians 4:18) The problem is that man in his fallen state cannot see the glory of God even though it is staring him in the face and bearing witness to his soul. The hardness in their hearts won’t let them see. But its more than that. That hardness of the heart is maintained by a love for darkness (1 John 3:19) People love the sin they live in; there is a greater love for that which antithetical to all that God represents than there is for the light of Christ in all His purity and glory. Their self-exaltation and narcissistic tendencies cloud their vision. The enemy of our souls, the Devil, has exploited this and enslaved mankind (2 Cor. 4:4) The natural mind of man, filled with their many idols, hears the gospel and considers it “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Man wants to be God, and blindly, ignorantly, and foolishly thinks he can be. William Collin, a Particular (Reformed) Baptist pastor in the late 17th century, clearly states the plight of man in his Baptist Catechism:
Q. 22: What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
All mankind by their fall lost communion with God¹, are under His wrath and curse², and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever³.
¹ Genesis 3:8, 10, 24
² Ephesians 2:2, 3; Galatians 3:10
³ Lamentations 3:39; Romans 6:23; Matthew 25:41, 46
This is why man is utterly helpless unless God steps in and rescues him. God must powerfully break in and shine His divine glory into our hard hearts (1 Corinthians 4:6), grant truth and repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), and give us the grace of faith in Christ (Philippians 1:29). In doing so, the blinders fall off, the stony heart is exchanged for one of flesh ready for molding by the Potter, and the eyes of the heart are enlightened (Ephesians 1:18). We are raised from the dead and experience the new birth. Our sins are forgiven and we stand no longer before a wrathful, righteous Judge, but before a gracious and merciful Father, the Giver of good gifts. (James 1:17) “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) Then, and only then, will we see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4: 4).