Read the Bible (Really!)

This May 1, I will mark 56 years as a follower of Jesus. I still think about that day in Santa Cruz, CA when the evangelist offered the invitation to come forward and accept Christ as my Savior and Lord. Well, I didn’t go forward (I was pretty shy at that time) but I prayed the prayer the evangelist asked us to pray right there in my seat. And I knew that something happened. At the time, little did I realize that I was beginning a journey that would last a lifetime and take me to Seminary, to doctoral work in Christian history, and even for more training as a theological librarian. Now, I’m ready to retire at the end of June.

It’s easy to think that retirement marks the end of the story. But following Jesus does not stop when we transition to another season of life, and I’m looking forward to more good years for research, writing, and teaching. Even more, I know the journey will not end when my earthly life is complete, but will continue at the end of this age when the Triune God will renew the entire creation and followers of Jesus will be raised to life in a new heaven and new earth.

I’m old enough to look back, and a big part of my journey of faith involves reading Holy Scripture. I never tire of reading the Bible. I think I still have the first New Testament that someone gave me back in 1966, Good News for Modern Man, one of the first modern translations designed for folks like me who struggled with Elizabethan English. I devoured that New Testament and it was my companion throughout Junior High and High School. Soon, I was reading the New American Standard Bible in college, and the Revised Standard and the New International versions when I was a young adult. Today, I like to read both a translation and a paraphrase at the same time. My preferred translation is the NIV, and I supplement that with The Message, the paraphrase translated by Eugene Peterson between 1990 and 2011 that I very much like for reading large portions of Scripture.

I also love reading books about the Bible. John Stott’s commentary on Romans is one of my prized possessions. N.T. Wright and Michael Bird’s The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (2019) is a stunning introduction to the New Testament. These are only two of many excellent resources for understanding the Bible in which I’ve been privileged to sink my teeth.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the shock that Renee and I experienced when we saw a sign with three Bible verses outside of the U.S. Capitol during thee 1/6 insurrection. We copied them down to read and discovered that they were ripped out of their original context and made to say things that the biblical writers had no intention of saying. My love for reading the Bible means a concern for good reading of the Bible, as opposed to bad reading of the Sacred Book. Hence, this post. What can we do to make sure that we are reading the Bible well? Let me suggest four ideas that help me and that will help you.

Read the Bible in Context

This is foundational to good Bible reading. Context. Context. Context. Yet, how many times do we hear people rip a Bible verse out of context and use it to say something they want to say. It happens over and over in Bible studies, small groups, youth groups, Sunday school classes, parachurch ministries, and sadly even from many pulpits.

The idea of context simply means that before we can understand what the Bible may be saying to us, we must understand what it said to the people who first heard or read it. What did Paul, John, Matthew, Peter and the other New Testament writers want to say to first-century Christians who made up the early congregations scattered throughout the ancient world? Only when we grasp that, can we fully grasp what it might say to us.

Context involves seeing the verse or passage of Scripture you are reading in light of what comes before and what comes after. Context also means that we read a verse or passage as part of an entire biblical book. In addition, we must understand some things about the history and culture of the time. For example, look at 3 John 2, “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually” (NIV). I’ve read and heard health-and-wealth preachers use this as justification that God’s will for you is to be healthy and rich, and that if you are not, then something is wrong with you.

But that is not what John is saying. With a little reading in a good study Bible (I like the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible) you discover that John used the format for a standard Roman letter, and in those letters it was the custom to offer a greeting that includes hope for the reader’s good health. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of these Roman letters and they follow a standard format, one that John uses here. So we dare not rip this little verse out of context and make it say something that it should not. You will find things like this when you are reading, and if you don’t understand what Paul, John, or others are trying to say, jot down your question and do a little background reading. I’ve been reading the Bible regularly for over 50 years and I don’t have it figured out by a long shot. I have some questions jotted down and when there is opportunity, I’ll do some research.

Read the Old Testament in Light of the New

The New Testament writers were adamant that the teaching of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians do not neglect the Old Testament. We value it because it tells us the story of God’s rescue plan to save humanity including you and me. That rescue plan centers on Jesus Christ.

Books of the Old Testament can pose a reading challenge. We’re confronted with all kinds of ceremonial and moral laws, especially in the first five books of the Old Testament. We find hymns, poetry, and wisdom sayings in books like Psalms and Proverbs. We read prophets pronouncing judgment on Israel and speaking of destruction of the Jewish temple. For Christians, all of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the story of Jesus did not end with his ascension into heaven. It is an ongoing story that Scripture teaches will conclude only when our Lord returns again.

Scripture’s Fourfold Symphony

Jesus Christ is the focal point of what I like to describe as God’s symphony, a great narrative or story described in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New-creation. The first movement found in Genesis 1-2 tells us that everything in heaven and earth is created by God. John adds to that in the first chapter of his gospel by telling us that Jesus Christ was an active participant in that creation and that through Jesus all of creation holds together. When you read those passages, notice that the emphasis is not on the mechanics of how God did it. Instead, the Bible in these passages and others, tells us that everything in all of creation, including you and me, are the result of God’s creative activity. That is the first movement of this great symphony, and I can imagine all of the instruments in the grand orchestra being played with joyful care.

The second movement becomes a dirge, where humanity chooses to go its own way independently of God’s purposes and plans. Genesis 3 describes it in terms of the first humans disobedience of God that results in you and I being cut off from our creator. That is the essence of sin, the human choice to live apart from God and his good purposes and the consequences are stark: we are cut off from God, our interpersonal relationships become deeply distorted, the human institutions that govern how we live no longer support human flourishing, and even God’s creation, to us a term from the Apostle Paul, “groans” under the weight of sin.

If the symphony stopped there, all there would be to life is hopeless despair. But the third movement shows us just how just and merciful our Triune God is. From Genesis 4 on all the way through the New Testament, we read repeatedly of God’s rescue plan not only for us, but for humanity, and indeed all of creation. It begins with God setting apart a people whom he desires to be a light to all nations and people. That rescue plan culminates in Jesus Christ, the one who dies for us and whom God raises to life. Through Jesus, God’s new world begins to break into our world, a reality that is in many ways hidden (see the Kingdom parables in Matthew 13) but is slowly leading toward the finale.

That final movement has yet to be played, but the orchestra is building toward it. We know that it will be played at a future moment known only to God. As followers of Jesus, we long for that day when God will remake the world without sin and disobedience, when the beauty of God’s creation will be restored to God’s original intent. I cannot even imagine what that will look like–a world and its inhabitants without the distortion of sin. The older I get, the more I realize how little I grasp of that reality, and perhaps the vision of Narnia described by C.S. Lewis is the closest that I can get to it. I do know that the enemy of our faith wants us to concentrate on fighting about the details instead of imagining the amazing future God has for us.

When I read the Bible, I keep this fourfold symphony in mind. I’m always asking what God is doing in light of this. How does what I am reading fit into his unfolding purposes? Whether the passage is a narrative, a poem, a proverb, a word of prophecy, a letter, or writing that uses symbolic images as metaphors, all of it fits into the symphony of Scripture. In fact, that is how the second and third century Christians identified what books and letters make up the New Testament we read. (Obviously, they were led by the Holy Spirit and I think that this is integral to the process of God inspiring the writing and the collection of the Scriptures we have.) They knew that the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures deserved to be read as Scripture because together they describe God’s rescue plan that culminates in Jesus Christ.

This is why I love reading the Bible. It is the Word of God expressed in human language, in the everyday idioms used by writers who sought to follow God. Sometimes, Bible teachers and scholars make it overly complicated. At other times, many resort to citing verses out of context to make a text or passage say what they want it to say to support their religious, social, or political views. The best way to deal with both of those extremes is to read the Bible regularly. Read it in context. Ask how specific passages fit into this fourfold symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and new-creation. Like the early Christians who wrote the New Testament we grapple with Jesus Christ and his significance for our lives, our churches, and all of creation. Join me in the ongoing adventure of learning to read well.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is Senior Librarian and Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.

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