By Matt Sapp
This is the second post in a series designed to encourage more of us to read the Bible more often.
In part one, we talked about developing a basic understanding of what the Bible is and where the Bible comes from. When was it written? Who are the authors? Why were they writing and to whom? Most of these questions can be answered by reading the introductions and text notes in a good study Bible.
Today we’re going to try to understand how to engage the actual words of scripture on the page in front of us. We’re going to try to figure out how to read the Bible successfully and most profitably.
WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I BRING TO SCRIPTURE?
As you read scripture, you should start by asking three questions:
-What does the text say? (a comprehension question)
-What does the text mean? (an interpretation question)
-What questions does the text raise? (an engagement question)
1.What does the text say? The Bible is an old and varied collection of books. Sometimes it takes work just to understand what’s going on in a Bible passage, but basic comprehension is the first step toward successful Bible reading. One way to do this is to use “who, what, when, where, why” questions. Each passage may not answer all five questions, but if you try to answer as many as you can, you’ll start to get a good sense of what’s happening in the passage.
2.What does the text mean? What can I learn from the text? What questions might the text be trying to answer? What is this text teaching about God, the human condition, or the world? This is an interpretive question and is the most important question to answer as you seek to understand how to apply the Bible to your life today.
3.What questions does the text raise in my mind? Where do I want to know more? What should I look up when I’m finished reading? This is an engagement question that encourages you to learn more about what you’ve read. Over time, following up on this question will help you get better at answering question two—the interpretive question.
So, first try to understand what the text is saying. Then try to understand what larger truths the text might be trying to communicate. Finally, identify areas for further study.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
If you want to get a good overview of the Bible in an attempt to understand the whole story, what parts of the Bible should you read first? Here are my suggestions. Admittedly, these selections leave out large and important swaths of scripture, but it’s a place to start.
These are twelve relatively short selections that could easily be studied and absorbed over the next twelve weeks.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-11—The opening narratives of the Bible represent the first efforts of our religious ancestors to answer the biggest, most fundamental questions about human existence. They explore questions about human purpose, human relationships and our relationship with our creator. These ancient myths answer age-old questions about how and why we got here with profound insight and intuitive knowledge. The depth of understanding and the enduring truths revealed in these stories leave no doubt about God’s presence in their formation and preservation.
Genesis 37-50—The Joseph saga presents one of the most well-developed characters in one of the most well-developed plot narratives in all of ancient literature. Joseph represents an indispensable link in the story of Israel. Without Joseph, we cannot get from Abraham to Moses. And, as a character, Joseph has much to teach us about faithfulness, humility, judiciousness, wisdom and forgiveness.
Exodus 1-3 – This records an introduction to Moses and the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt. These chapters include Moses’ birth and call to leadership at the burning bush. This is a necessary text to understand what comes later.
Exodus 11-14—These chapters recount the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt. This is the story that birthed the nation of Israel. The people who marched with Moses through the Red Sea developed the laws, customs and worship traditions of the Jewish faith. These are the people who received the 10 Commandments and developed the rituals of temple sacrifice and worship.
Job 1-3, 38-42—Job is the oldest book in the Bible, but its insight into the human condition and God’s relationship with humanity continues to amaze. The first three chapters are Job’s complaint to God about the unusual trials he’s facing. In the last four chapters, God responds. You’ll notice this selection skips over most of the book. The middle of the book contains the responses of Job’s friends to Job’s plight. If you have the time, the whole book is worth studying.
Psalms 1, 8, 23, 46, 51, 103— The Psalms include a blueprint to the worship and prayer practices of the nation of Israel. There’s nothing particularly special about this selection of Psalms. They’re just my favorites.
Isaiah 1-9, 40, 60-61—How do we act in accordance with the will of God? The prophets challenge us to live in accordance with God’s will and teach us how to do so even in challenging circumstances. Isaiah is one the Old Testament’s most important prophets. The language and imagery in Isaiah are exquisite. These chapters should give you a good idea of Isaiah’s message, and they include some of Isaiah’s most familiar and soaring passages.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
Matthew 5-7—The Sermon on the Mount—the most important body of teaching in the history of the world. Read it. Then read it again.
Luke 2, 12-18, 22-24—Luke is perhaps the most recognizable gospel. Even non-Christians will find Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ parables, and Jesus’ death and resurrection familiar.
John 1:1-18 and John 13-17— Johannine Christology and Farewell Discourses—The first chapter of John develops a philosophical underpinning for the identity of Jesus and the nature of God. In chapters 13-17 Jesus takes a private moment with his disciples during Holy Week to deliver his final instructions to them. At the end of his teaching Jesus prays for his disciples, and not just for the ones in the room, but for all who will come after them. When you realize that you’re reading a prayer that Jesus personally prayed for you, it’ll give you goosebumps.
Romans 3-8—The letter to the Romans is the most complete presentation of the theology of the Apostle Paul. This selection is the meat of the argument.
1 John—one early Christian community’s beautiful understanding of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. All you need is love.
WHAT TRANSLATIONS WORK BEST?
The Bible exists in all kinds of translations for all kinds of reasons. It’s best to use a modern translation that is the result of the best scholars using all of the available textual resources and manuscripts to achieve a translation that is both readable and faithful to the meaning of the original languages.
Four translations to try:
New International Version (NIV),
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV),
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase),
Common English Bible (CEB).
You can use a Bible app to read scripture, like YouVersion on your phone. You can read the Bible online with biblegateway.com–a wonderful tool for searching scripture. But the BEST thing you can do as you start to re-engage scripture is to get a good, printed study Bible. The introductions to each book, the summary tables and timelines, the in-text notes, and the cross references will be invaluable as you seek to better understand scripture. You’ll discover that the extra notes in your study Bible are often able to answer questions you have as you read the text, and the background and insight they provide will make your scriptural explorations more meaningful.
A NOTE ABOUT INTERPRETATION
If reading and understanding scripture continues to be hard for you—if you still don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it—you’re not alone. That’s why so many people study the Bible together in groups. Join a Sunday School class or find a weekday home group.
In groups, we can lead each other to deeper biblical insights and steer each other back on course if we start to veer off track.
Also, scripture reading ALWAYS raises questions. If you’re part of a study group, you’ll start to discover that others in your group have the same questions you do—and some may even have answers to your questions.
If you’re hesitant to interpret the Bible for yourself, that’s natural. But you have everything you need to read and understand scripture for yourself. Remember these things, though.
The criterion by which we interpret scripture is Jesus Christ. As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. If a particular passage of scripture seems to conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus, see if there’s a faithful way to reconcile the two. If there’s not, give priority to the teaching of Jesus.
Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your interpretation of scripture leads you toward a more committed and complete love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40), you’re most likely on the right track. If it doesn’t, you may need to look at how you arrived at your understanding again.
A FINAL WORD
I hope you’ll take the challenge and join me in re-engaging scripture for yourself. Biblical literacy is a foundational requirement for a healthy church. Our neighborhoods and communities NEED healthy churches led by healthy, biblically informed Christians.
The future of the church in America—and its ability to impact our world—depends on individuals just like you making the commitment to read and understand the Bible for yourselves.