This week we kick off a brand-new teaching series. For the next four weeks, we are going to be talking about how to read the Bible. We’re going to talk about how to read it, why to read it, and what it even is in the first place. If you have ever felt like you didn’t really know what you were doing when it came to trying to read or study it, this is going to be a great series for you. Listen and share it with a friend who’s asking the same questions. You’ll be glad you did.
What Is the Bible Anyway?
If you are someone who’s been around the church for a little while, have you ever been told before that you should read your Bible? If you’re someone who hasn’t been around the church for all that long, do you remember ever being told by a well-meaning believer that you should read your Bible? Okay, here’s a follow-up question for both groups of people: Did you go from there and heed that counsel? I did. The reason I engage with the Scriptures on a daily basis today is because when I was about 13-years-old, two volunteers with my church youth group (who were both men in their late-50s or early-60s—if you find yourself in or near that category and you are not volunteering with our students, you are missing out on the opportunity to change someone’s life forever; case in point: I probably wouldn’t be a pastor today unless I had started reading my Bible all those years ago because those two men told me I should) told me that I should be reading my Bible every day and that if I did it for 21 days in a row, it would become a habit. I did and…it did. If you were another one of those folks who took that advice and started reading your Bible, did you know what you were doing when you got started? I didn’t, and I suspect there’s a pretty good chance that you didn’t either.
Pastors and church leaders of all shapes and sizes have been telling people they should read their Bibles since the printing press made it so everyone could have a Bible in their home and the Protestant revolution made reading the Bible for yourself something Christians actually thought was a good idea. In spite of this great and near-constant encouragement for followers of Jesus and people who couldn’t care less about Him to read their Bibles, what the church hasn’t always done so well at is telling them how to actually do it.
Now, I know that sounds kind of silly to say. I mean, it’s just a book. You pick it up and read it. Easy. But there’s a bit more to it than that. And if you do it wrong, the potential for faith-destroying consequences is frightfully high. Wait? Faith-destroying consequences? That sounds rather hyperbolic, doesn’t it? After all, this is God’s word we’re talking about. There are all kinds of stories out there about people who picked up a Bible without even the slightest notion of what it really was, and for whom such an act began a powerful journey of conversion from unbelief to faith. Whole destinies have been changed because someone picked one up randomly in a hotel room, opened blindly to the middle, and started reading. Where do I get off saying that reading the Bible “wrong” could destroy someone’s faith?
Well, for as many stories as there are of people coming to faith because of miraculous encounters with God through His word, there are at least as many stories of people who started reading the Bible without knowing what they were doing, ran into some of the hard stories in Leviticus or Joshua or Judges, and had their faith utterly destroyed by it. They came away with ideas about God that, while wildly inaccurate, were perfectly understandable given what they read without understanding what they were reading. The truth of the matter is that if we tell people to read the Bible without telling them why or how or what it even is they are reading (and, no, telling them it’s “God’s word” isn’t enough), we are setting them up for frustration and failure. Absent God’s miraculous intervention, they may wind up with less faith than they started with. Who is helped by that?
Starting this morning, I want to take a small step together in the direction of fixing this. This morning we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series called, How to Read the Bible. For the next four weeks, I want to spend some time talking with you about just that. In this series, we are going to get back to some of the absolute basics of reading the Bible. We’re going to talk about why to read it and how to read it and even what it is in the first place. Now, for some of you who have spent a lifetime building up your knowledge of the Scriptures and who have a healthy discipline of engaging with it on a regular basis, this might sound like it’s not really going to be for you. Well…it’s not really going to be for you. If you find yourself in that camp, you’re not likely to encounter anything particularly new over the next few weeks. What this series will be for you, though, is a chance to learn some of the things you need to be sure to teach other people who you encourage to read their Bible so they don’t do it wrong. That is, this series is going to make you a more effective disciple-maker. If, on the other hand, you are still someone who feels pretty unsure when it comes to the Bible, you are not going to want to miss a single one of the next few weeks. My goal for you is that you come away from this series with a greater confidence when you engage with the Scriptures than you’ve ever had before. Now, we will not by any means answer every question you’ve ever asked, but we will leave you in a place where your faith is a whole lot less likely to get blown up because you read something that doesn’t make sense. I also hope to leave you with at least a bit better idea of what to do when you open it in the first place.
If we are going to talk about the Bible, where should we start? Using another book to talk about it may be wise generally, but more for personal study purposes. This time is supposed to be about digging in to the Scriptures together. Well, there are a number of places in the Scriptures where the author talks about them in big picture terms. When these are in the Old Testament, they are typically in reference to the Law of Moses. In the New Testament, they are generally referring back to the whole Old Testament. The apostle Peter does have a line in his second letter suggesting that at least Paul’s writings were already being considered scripture before he died. But perhaps the most significant statement about the nature and purpose of the Scriptures comes from Paul himself. If we are going to be talking about the Bible, it is hard to think of a better place to start.
We find this powerful statement in Paul’s second letter to his protege, Timothy. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to 2 Timothy 3:16 with me. Listen to what Paul says: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness…” That statement is just fantastic. In a few words Paul lays out the nature and purpose of the Scriptures. From a wordsmithing standpoint alone it is remarkable. But if someone is going to engage with the Scriptures in a way that really sets them up for the most success possible, there is an even more fundamental question that must be answered than what Paul gives us here. What is the Bible anyway? We like to throw around the phrase “the Bible is God’s word,” but what does that even mean? What is “the Bible”?
Well, we often talk about and think about and are taught about the Bible as a book. That’s certainly an understandable way of thinking about it. After all, you can go into just about any bookstore in the country and find a copy of the Bible. It’s all bound together like a book. It sits on your bookshelf like any other book. (Unless you have a softcover binding in which case those don’t do so well on bookshelves unless you’ve got them wedged tightly between several other hardback volumes.) It only makes sense that we think about it like a book. The trouble with all of this is that…it’s not a book.
At its most basic level, what we call “the Bible” is a collection of ancient documents. There is a reason I consistently refer to “the Scriptures” and not “the Bible” when I talk with you about this kind of stuff. I don’t want you thinking in those terms. And I know that most of you haven’t heard it talked about in any other kind of way and aren’t necessarily thinking wrongly about it, but if you talk about it the ways you’ve always heard it talked about, you are going to leave people around you who don’t have the depth of experience you have thinking wrongly. You won’t do them any favors that way. Unless I slip up, you’ll never hear me say something like, “the Bible says” this or that. Thinking in those terms, “the Bible” doesn’t say anything. Instead, Paul had a lot to say. So did John. And Luke. And Isaiah. And Jeremiah. And Moses. And Ezra. And a whole bunch of other guys.
For that matter, “the Bible” as we are often taught to think about it isn’t a thing. Again, it’s not a book. It’s not even 66 books. From a word-count standpoint, it’s at best a collection of short stories. Some of the things we call books, though, don’t even have as many words as the average children’s board book. Most of the entries in the New Testament are letters…not books. Instead, the Scriptures are composed of 66 ancient documents written over the span of about 1,500 years in three different languages by as many as 40 different authors. These ancient documents were written from out of cultural situations vastly different from our own. The most ancient documents we have were first written down about 3,500 years ago. The worldviews of the authors were not uniform. Their concerns were often incredibly specific to a given audience. There are at least 13 different literary styles contained in the Scriptures, with sometimes several different styles appearing all in the context of a single document. In other words, if you sit down blind with this thing we call “the Bible” and try to make sense out of it on your own, you don’t stand a chance.
And yet, the Scriptures are God’s primary means of self-revelation. That is, they are the primary way He introduces Himself to us. Now, of course He revealed Himself in and through Jesus, but we mostly know about Jesus through the Scriptures, so the point holds. And in spite of their incredible diversity on so many different points, they nonetheless tell a consistent story from start to finish. That, along with their consistent preservation over the centuries, is one of the more miraculous things about them. This story is all about God’s creation of the world, our breaking the world through sin, God’s careful, patient plan to redeem the world through Jesus, and a look forward to the end of history when He’s going to wrap the whole thing up with a bow. What all of this means is that we can know God more and better through the Scriptures than by any other means.
If you think, however, that you can just pick up the Bible, start reading randomly, and you will magically get to know God better…you might. If the belief shared by hundreds of millions of followers of Jesus around the world that the Bible is truly inspired by God and that His Spirit is alive and active in and through the words is correct, then in theory, yes, it can work just like that. As we said, there are not a few stories of something like that happening. But as we also said, if you go in not knowing what you’re doing, you’re just as likely to see your faith trashed. So, what else do we need to know?
Perhaps the next most important thing to know is that what we call “the Bible” is made up of two different parts. These two parts describe and explain two different covenants God made with people. A covenant was a special kind of binding agreement between two parties defining what the relationship between them was going to be like. One covenant was for the descendants of Abraham. This covenant is governed by the law given to Moses. That law consists of ten headlining commands along with 613 others which were intended to regulate just about every part of the lives of the people of Israel. Now, did you see or hear anything about us in my description of that first covenant? There’s a reason for that. That covenant wasn’t made with us. It doesn’t apply to us. If you want to talk about us, we are covered by the other covenant God made. Through Christ, when the time was right, God made a new covenant that is for everybody. This new covenant is governed by the law of Christ which He gave to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion. Much simpler than the law given to Moses, the law of Christ consists of just eight words: Love one another as I have loved you.
Here’s why that matters: If you start reading the covenant made with the descendants of Abraham as if it were intended for you, you’re going to get yourself into trouble. Perhaps the best illustration of the kind of trouble you can get into if you’re not careful here comes from a scene from the great political drama, West Wing. In the scene, President Bartlett, wonderfully played by Martin Sheen, dresses down one of his conservative Christian opponents by challenging her with a series of questions about how she would apply various old covenant laws in their modern context. It was the kind of political mic drop moment the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, was known for. More than that, though, as theologically wrongheaded as the whole scene is, it is a perfect example of the kind of quagmire believers can find themselves in both personally and culturally if we don’t understand what we’re dealing with when we get into the Scriptures. The old covenant and its law are wonderful and important sources of information, inspiration, and education, but not application on their own. The new covenant in Christ fulfilled and replaced all of that. As the writer of Hebrews put it, the old covenant is obsolete because of Jesus. Now, we should absolutely read it and study it because it reveals important things about God for us (Paul wasn’t wrong in what he wrote to Timothy), and it gives us important context for understanding Jesus better. The apostles all proved Jesus was the Messiah with nothing but the Old Testament (and the resurrection). But in terms of our life application, the new covenant is where we need to look.
If you are going to read the Bible, you have to know both where to start and what it is you are reading. If you try to read one part of the Bible like you would read another, you’re going to get into trouble. If you try to read one type of literature in the Bible as if it were a different type of literature, you’re going to get in trouble with that too. Another potential challenge is this: The Scriptures convey a lot of information without explicit condemnation, but which we should never interpret as commendation. That is, there are all kinds of stories—especially in the Old Testament—in which someone does something obviously wrong, but the behavior is not explicitly condemned anywhere. This does not mean it is being commended to us, but rather merely described. If you don’t realize that, you’re going to get in trouble.
When it comes to actually reading the Bible, don’t start at the beginning unless you know in advance what you are doing. The normal pattern for folks who attempt that is that Genesis mostly blows their mind. There’s some weird stuff toward the back of Genesis, but they’re still rolling pretty well, so they let that slide. They charge into Exodus with lots of excitement, get the people of Israel out of Egypt, make it to the Ten Commandments, and then the wheels start to fall off. If they manage to make it through the exceedingly detailed description of the tabernacle, they make it about one section into Leviticus and give up because it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense and it is really boring to boot. Now, none of this means reading the whole story isn’t still a very good thing to do. In our journey through the Scriptures on Wednesday nights, we’ve been doing just that. But if you are new to the Bible and you treat it like a book, you’re going to run into trouble.
So, where do you start? Start with getting Jesus and the new covenant down. Read John and Romans. Then read them again because you probably didn’t understand them the first time. After that, pick up another one of the Gospels—Mark is a good choice—and Galatians. Then another Gospel and Ephesians. By the time you do that, you’ll be pretty safe to read 1 and 2 Corinthians. By now, you’ve seen enough references to the Old Testament you haven’t understood that you’re probably ready to go back to start picking up the context to fill in your gaps. Ask for help in hitting the story highlights in Genesis through Deuteronomy so you don’t get bogged down in the boring stuff (which really isn’t boring at all once you start to understand it better). If you get through all of that, and if you’ve been doing it in the context of a community in which you can ask questions safely and get solid answers, you’re probably ready to read whatever you want, including doing a straight run through if you’d like.
However you go forward at that point, though, make sure you are reading the Scriptures regularly, reading them carefully, and reading them in community. Too often folks have engaged with the Scriptures on their own, come up with a bizarre interpretation of one part or another, didn’t have a community to help them check their ideas, and ran off the theological rails because of it. Whole cult movements have been started that way. While you should absolutely read the Bible in your own, personal study time, you should always read it with at least a few folks along for the ride with you so that you can encourage one another, hold one another accountable, and check each other so you don’t get off track theologically. That’s one reason the church matters so much.
Now, this is a lot of information, I know. And if you’re sitting feeling a bit like you’re drinking from a firehose, that’s okay. Come and talk with me and we can go back over it and make sure you’re on the right track. One thing I promise you as your pastor is that you can always ask me anything about the Bible. There are no questions too small or too dumb to be worth asking. I will always get you an answer to your question. If I can’t answer it directly, I have a whole library to draw from to help us learn more together.
The bottom line here, though, is that I want you to be reading the Bible, and I want you to be doing it well. The reason for this is simple: The Scriptures are how we get to know God. They aren’t necessarily easy, and there are plenty of mistakes you can make when reading them, but in terms of seeing your faith grow and develop into something a whole lot more reflective of what God has in mind for you than where you are right now, there is quite literally not a more important thing you can be doing. The Scriptures are how we get to know God. In a culture in which our faith is being challenged more and more all the time, the Scriptures are the single best way to stay grounded in Him and on track with the path of Jesus.
As a matter of fact, that incredible statement from Paul we looked at just a little while ago comes in a context of encouraging that very thing. Come back to 2 Timothy 3:10 with me. This is near the end of the last letter Paul wrote to Timothy when he was near the end of his life. Paul says to him, “But you have followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, and endurance [and, by the way, we should all be able to say that to another person at some point in our lives because we have intentionally poured the Gospel into them], along with the persecutions and sufferings that came to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra [read Acts 16-19 to learn more about those]. What persecutions I endured—and yet the Lord rescued me from them all. In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Evil people and imposters will become worse, deceiving and being deceived [to which we can all give an enthusiastic Yup!].”
In other words, the life spent following Jesus is going to get tough. It’s going to get really tough. You are going to be persecuted. You are going to have to deal with evil people. There are folks who will try their hardest to deceive you away from the truth. Friends of yours are probably going to be deceived away from the truth. Imposters will infiltrate your ministries whose goal is their destruction. There are times it will seem awful. “But as for you…” That is, here’s what you should do instead. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The Scriptures are how we get to know God. Because, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the [person] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The Scriptures are how we get to know God.
We don’t often think in these terms, but the Scriptures are a miracle. The fact that something like this could have come into existence at all, much less over the time and process it took to produce them doesn’t make any sense. There is no other collection of documents like them in all of human history. The fact that they have been preserved as fully and as accurately as they have been is a miracle. The fact that they have been translated into as many languages as they have been is a miraculous testament to the incredibly hard work of a whole lot of folks who were inspired by this belief that this was something God wanted them to do. Well, He did. Because He wanted us to get to know Him. The Scriptures are how we get to know God. They are simple enough for children to understand their basic message, and deep enough that a lifetime of diligent study isn’t sufficient to fully plumb their depths. You can go in blind, and God can still work through them, but as you come to know even just a little bit more about them, the possibilities quickly number to the stars. The Scriptures are how we get to know God. If you aren’t engaging with them regularly, it’s time to start. The Scriptures are how you get to know God. They are how He will reveal Himself to you and shape you to become fully who He made you to be. The Scriptures are how we get to know God. Let’s get started.