The Unexpected Joy in Learning to Read the Bible

Isn’t there joy on the face of the child in the cover photo?  Too often, we are afraid we can’t find that joy in the pages of Scripture.  We feel bogged down, confused, and weary after attempting to read the hills and valleys of words within.  Yet, within the pages of Scripture, there lies an unexpected joy.  If these inspired words of God can make us wise for salvation (2 Tim 3:15) and are written that we may have life (John 20:31; 1 John 5:13), then they will bring us more joy than any other word on this earth.  They will truly be as honey to our lips (Psalm 119:103).  Though the joy is unexpected, it remains unmatched!

Growing up in church and going to a Christian school, I remember people always saying things like, “God showed me this verse,” and then reading it and talking about how God was so great to show them this verse right at the time they needed it.  It always baffled me.  How did they find the verse?  Do they really spend time reading the Bible?  Did God tell them where to turn in the Bible?  So I set out to do the same by turning to random pages and reading random verses.  If God did not “show me something” in Job, then I would turn to Isaiah.  If not Isaiah, then Matthew.  This process would go on and on.  Down and discouraged would describe my experience.  No one had taught me how to read the Bible.  So, I just put my Bible down, rarely to pick it up.

It was not until later, in seminary, that I learned how to read the Bible.  One of my first classes was a class by the name of Hermeneutics.  Before you think this may be the study of a man named Herman, let me tell you it is something far better.  Hermeneutics is simply how to study the Bible.

Hermeneutics goes along well with the admonition that Paul gives to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15, ESV).  Isn’t it interesting that Paul connects an unashamed worker with rightly handling God’s word?  On the flip side, one who mishandles the word of God as a worker ashamed through his corrupting of the word.  How we handle the word of God is of the utmost importance for not only our own lives before God, but also others.  How we read or handle the word will indirectly teach others how to read and handle the word.  If we handle it with carelessness, our children will learn to handle it with carelessness.  If we read it when we need it, our children will read it when we need it. But, if we handle it as the supreme word of God and come to it not as a genie when we need it, but daily for the wonderful words it provides, then our children will handle it with value and care, coming to it out of a desire and not a duty.

The Danger of Misinterpreting God’s Word

This next statement may sound a little strange to you: The first sin came from the first Bible study.  Go back and read that last sentence once more.  I say this with the assumption that Bible study is the study of God’s word.  If we turn to Genesis 3, we can see how this plays out.

As the serpent (Satan) comes on the scene, he begins to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of Eve.  Doubt always has a target.  Satan’s target for this doubt was not only God, but God’s word.  His opening line to Eve was a question, “Did God actually say?…” (Gen 3:1, ESV).

From doubt comes denial.  As the conversation between Satan and Eve continues, Satan comes to denying the word of God in his statement, “You will surely not die…” (Gen 3:4, ESV).  This is a complete denial and contradiction to God’s statement in Genesis 2:17, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”  From this mishandling of God’s word, Adam and Eve entered in to sin.

We see Jesus redeem this temptation as he rightly handles the word of truth by saying “It is written” (Matt 4:4, 7, 10; Luke 4:4, 8, 12).  He relies on the word of God to be a lamp to his feet and a light to his path (Psalm 119:105).  He has hidden God’s word in his heart that he might not sin against God (Psalm 119:11).  He has been equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16–17).  He has the living and active word within (Heb 4:12).  He is a worker unashamed (2 Tim 2:15).

Still today, we are not exempt from this terrible and dangerous error.  We can doubt God’s word, which will lead to a denial of God’s word.  I am not saying doubt is wrong, but when doubt becomes god to us, then we will deny God and his word.  We can mishandle God’s word and be a worker that is unprepared rather than unashamed.

Bad Bible study can lead to sin.

How Not to Read My Bible

How Not to Read My Bible

Tunnel Vision Method

This method lacks context.  We forget that context is key!  You may have heard of the parable of the three blind men.  The three blind men fall into a pit with an elephant.  As they stand up and get to their feet, one man touches the leg of the elephant and guesses it is a tree.  The next man touches the trunk and guesses it is a snake.  The third man touches the tusk and guesses it is a spear.  Only when each of these is put together can they figure out the figure is an elephant.  Instead of looking at an individual verse and coming to the conclusion that we are looking at a spear or a tree trunk or a snake, we must take in the context and see the big picture for what it is.

When we are looking for context, we should look for four things:

  1. Immediate context
  2. Book context
  3. Testament context
  4. Bible context

Just take a look at Habakkuk 1:5, “For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”  Sound like a good verse for your next t-shirt?  It should would be good on a coffee mug!  You may even want to get it printed on a canvas and hang it in your home.  But what if I told you what this unbelievable “work” is that God is doing?  What if I told you that it is not something that you want him to do, but that he is going to bringing judgment?  Context would reveal that God is doing an unbelievable work of judgment due to the sin of Israel.  How’s that for turning a verse to mean something it wasn’t meant to mean?  Now, should I even mention Philippians 4:13?

Personal Shopper Method

This method asks, “What does it mean to me?”  My hermeneutics professor in seminary constantly repeated, “Each passage of Scripture has one interpretation and many applications.”  What was he saying?  He meant that each passage of Scripture has only one meaning: the meaning that the author put in place.  Yet, the way that I may apply the passage as a 10-year-old may be different than as a 26-year-old.  The way that I apply the passage may be different than the way you apply the passage.  I once read a story,

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson go on a camping trip.  After sharing a meal, they retire to their tent for the night.  About 3:00 am, Holmes nudges Watson and asks, “Watson, look up into the night sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson says, “I see millions of stars.”
Holmes asks, “And, what does that tell you?”
Watson replies, “Astronomically, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.  Horologically, it tells me that it’s about 3:00 am.  Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.  Theologically, it tells me that God is great and we are small and insignificant.  What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes retorts, “Somebody stole our tent!”

Holmes’s question was getting at one main point, which Dr. Watson apparently missed.  He was looking at everything he wanted to see, but missed the main thing that Holmes wanted him to see.

Instead of asking “What does it mean to me?”, I would suggest we eliminate the last two words of the question and ask, “What does it mean?”  Otherwise, we are looking for Scripture to mean something “to me” that is never meant to the original audience.

Checklist Method

This method looks for morals but not a Messiah.  It makes Scripture to be about something to do rather than about something that has been done.

With this method, a person may cling to passages with “dos” and “don’ts.”  He may look to Exodus 20 for the 10 Commandments or Galatians 5 for the Fruit of the Spirit.  Yet, he misses the main point of all of Scripture: Jesus.  He may hear the words of Jesus, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” but may miss the words of Jesus, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17, ESV).

Though Scripture does guide and direct us on what to do, it is ultimately about what has been done.

OPRA Method

Don’t confuse this with Oprah from TV.  As an acronym, this method follows the simple process:

  1. Open the Bible
  2. Point to a passage
  3. Read the verse
  4. Apply it

What is the danger in this approach?  Allow me to share a fictional story.  Imagine a man was needing some inspiration, so he decided he was going to read his Bible.  Not knowing where to begin, he opens to a random page.  He lands at Matthew 27:5, “And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.”  You could imagine that he is a little confused in the moment.  He may be asking himself, “How is this supposed to inspire me?  How is this supposed to help me?  What am I supposed to do with this?”  A little discouraged, but wanting to keep going, he tries again.  This time, he lands at Luke 10:37, “You go and do likewise.”  Okay, now things are getting weird.  He is now thinking, “Is this the providence of God?  Surely not!  Let me try one more time.”  As he opens his Bible one last time, he lands at John 13:27, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”

What danger there is in mishandling the word of truth!

How to Read My Bible

Each of these previous methods falls short of understanding Scripture on Scripture’s terms.  One of the most important mentalities that we can carry into reading Scripture is this: Meaning is determined by the author and discovered by the reader.  We are not meant to put the meaning into the text, but rather to pull the meaning out of the text.  When we read Harry Potter or the Hunger Games or any other fiction book, or even non-fiction, we don’t place the meaning within, we excavate the meaning out.  Otherwise, as we read an algebra textbook, we would redefine math.  We are not to give math meaning, but to discover how to do math.

I will suggest a simple three-step method to rightly handling the word of truth, reading our Bibles.

  1. Read
  2. Reflect
  3. Respond

If you have heard of the method, Observation, Interpretation, Application, then this is the same thing.  Alliteration helps to remember!

How to Read My Bible

1) Read: What does it say?

The goal in this step is simple, to get the fact down.  Though this goal is simple, it will take time.  It may take multiple times of reading the passage.  Some things to look for may be:

  • Story/main point/argument
  • Characters
  • Place
  • Event
  • Words
  • Phrases
  • Repetition

In the end, you would want to be able to pass a pop quiz over the fact in the passage.

2) Reflect: What does it mean?

It is worth reiterating here that meaning is determined by the author and discovered by the reader.  Things to do/look at:

  • Cross-references (let Scripture interpret Scripture)
  • Genre
  • Context
  • Ask questions

Keep in mind that it cannot mean something to us that it never could have meant to its original audience.

3) Respond: How should it change me?

Some men that teach the Bible very well have said, “The Bible was not written to satisfy your curiosity; it was written to transform your life.”  Though there is not doubt that Scripture transforms lives, we can be guilty of approaching it as a Magic 8 ball and searching for the answer that we want until we find it, while ignoring all of the other answers.

Application should not always be about being a better person, but rather grounded in the nature and character of God.  By asking, “How should it change me?”, we are seeking not only to learn something, but to be transformed by that which we learn!  His word is alive and active, piercing into our very souls (Heb 4:12).  If it is not changing us, then we are reading it wrong.

Christ as the Center

We cannot forget that all Scripture points to Jesus (Luke 4:21; 24:27, 44; John 5:39; 2 Cor 1:20).  We want to be careful not to force Jesus into a text in a way that he is not meant to be there, but to pull him out of the text as he is organically placed within.  He is there, we might just have to do some excavating to find him!

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