By request: this is an edited transcript of a sermon at Narwee Baptist Church on Jan 25, 2015. You can listen to it here. The second half of the sermon is an expansion on a short article on this website.
A simple question: why read the Bible?
And a simple answer: God says to.
This could be a very short article, so perhaps we should fill it out a bit. For a start, where does God say to?
Apart from a whole bunch of commands to ancient Israel in the Old Testament about reciting and remembering God’s laws on a daily basis – commands not directed to us, but still instructive –, the New Testament seems to think it’s a pretty good idea, too. Just to give one example, Paul tells Timothy, as the overseer of the churches in Ephesus:1 Tim 4:13 … devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
Fair enough. God says to. But why does he say to? I mean, God normally seems to have a reason for things, right? Why does he want us to read the Bible? Is it just because he went to the trouble of writing it, and now wants the readership statistics to look good? Like local papers that get forcibly delivered onto your lawn twice a week so they can boast about their circulation numbers, ignoring the fact that at least in my case they’re just used as mushy speed bumps on my driveway? No, I’m sure God has better reasons than that.
For a start, Paul tells us that it’s useful:2 Tim 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Reading the Bible has a purpose. It teaches us what’s right, and corrects what we’ve got wrong. It trains our behaviour, our character – so that we can be the people God intends us to be.
More than that, it’s a weapon against the enemy:Eph 6:11,17 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes… Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
The Bible also teaches endurance, provides encouragement, and gives us hope.Rom 15:4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
Some pretty good reasons there, right? Having signed up to be part of the people of God, it’s kind of our instruction manual of how to go about doing that. And it’s a reminder of the great benefits of being the people of God and the great hope that we have.
But – and here’s the real issue I want to get to – if it’s so useful, if it’s so foundational, if it’s indeed our source of encouragement and hope – why do we find it so hard? And sometimes, why do we find it not all that enjoyable?
(A quick poll of my congregation showed that many people had resolved to read their Bible more this year; and a similar number also admitted to having already failed to live up to this goal, before the end of January!)
What’s going on? Why do we often find it so hard to do what’s clearly for our benefit? Laziness? Maybe. Busyness? That too. Facebook?
But maybe, sometimes, it’s because we’re reading it wrongly. Our approach and our expectations are flawed.
The Bible as story
At the risk of spoiling the punchline at the end: a lot of the problem is that we forget that the Bible is – first and foremost – a story. One big story, about God and his people, made up of a whole lot of little stories, from different eras, different authors. Each of them in some way contributes to that grand narrative that stretches from Eden to the New Jerusalem; from Genesis to Revelation.
Often, we forget to read the Bible as a big story, and in so doing, we reduce it. We chop it up into isolated pieces. We turn this story book into a book of laws and guidelines and facts and theological truths, and end up distorting the story. And then we wonder why it isn’t doing its job.
Three unhelpful ways to read the Bible
So before we look at some positive ways to read the Bible, let me take you through three less-than-helpful ways. And show how they can actually work against what the Bible is supposed to do. These three ways come from Scot McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet (which I highly recommend).
1. A rule-book
The first way stems from the popular view of the Bible as God’s rulebook. Now sure, it contains rules for living as God’s people. But it’s far more than that. In fact, we get 50 chapters of Genesis and 19 chapters of Exodus before we get a list of rules. Before that, it’s almost entirely story with only a handful of commands: get busy, don’t eat that fruit, put some clothes on and get out, get in the boat, then: pack your bags, you’re headed to Canaan. That’s pretty much it. The Bible is far more story than rules.
And most of the rules don’t even directly apply to us anymore. They were for OT Israel to live out as part of the story of being the people of God. To paraphrase Paul in Galatians, we no longer live by sets of rules – we live by the “law of Christ,” which is the Spirit living in us.
The most fundamental problem about reading the Bible primarily as God’s rule book is that we forget the context of the rules. They’re meant to be lived out as part of the big story of the God who graciously rescues his people. Not a list of seemingly arbitrary do’s and don’ts from a distant parent-figure. Like having to comply with the tax code, or building regulations, or the hundreds of pages of terms and conditions on iTunes.
When viewed in that way, it leads to legalism, and to the dynamic of authority and submission. It’s not delight they were supposed to be – at least according to Psalm 119.Ps 119: 12-16 Praise be to you, LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.
It also gives rise to judgmentalism, and a sense of superiority. If I manage to keep the laws – or at least, the ones I pick and choose to keep; the laws as I define them – I can feel smug. And then look down on those who don’t measure up. That’s what happened with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.
But more than that, if we read the Bible as a rule book – it’s also a finite enterprise. There’s a limited number of laws, which means there’s an end to it. At some point you’ll know them all, at least. Even if you can’t keep them.
I mean, after you’ve been a Christian for a while, you’re not going to get surprised by discovering a new law. You’re not going to come home one day after an early-morning serial-killing spree, wash the blood off, sit down for your quiet time, and suddenly read, “thou shalt not…”. Oh, that’s awkward… If only I’d had my quiet time first thing…
If the only reason you read the Bible is to find out and be reminded of God’s rules for living – at some point it’ll get a bit dry. You might be convicted every so often that you’re not doing something you know you should be doing – or vice versa – but it won’t come as anything new. The sense of discovery and adventure has gone.
The Bible, although it contains rules to follow, was never intended to be read primarily as a rule book.
2. Desk-calendar quotes
The second unhelpful way of reading the Bible is to see it as great source material for desk-calendar quotes. Or greeting cards. Or framed Ken Duncan prints.
To take one verse out of its context and set it to work to inspire us, or reassure us, or produce some other kind of warm fuzzy feeling.
Perhaps we can trace the blame for this back to a guy called Stephanus, in the year 1551. He was sick of having to say, “you know that bit in Galatians where Paul says…” and instead added verse numbers every sentence or so. Handy for referencing, of course. But it also encouraged us to see the Bible as a set of isolated sayings. Where each verse started a new line, and so a new independent thought.
The whole Bible got broken up and treated like Proverbs – a collection of wisdom, rather than a story. So rather than memorising stories or longer passages, people started to memorise these isolated verses. Stripped of their context. And making it all about me.
Now what verses do we normally choose for special photo-framing treatment? Not usually the ones about judgement and warning – unless you’re planning on placard-waving at the Mardi Gras parade. No, they were all of the blessings and promises and feel-good verses. And no longer blessings and promises in a context, but blessings and promises that were seen for everyone, all the time. For me.
The classic one – sorry if I’m going to pick on your favourite verse, because statistically it will be for some – the classic is Jeremiah 29:11.Jer 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Reassuring and positive, isn’t it? Gives us hope and confidence. Who doesn’t want prosperity and security?
The problem is: it’s not written to you. Or to me. It’s not a general promise to all who hear it, like, say, John 3:16 – “that whosoever believes in me will not perish.” It’s a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. It’s a promise to the people of Israel, who’ve been exiled to Babylon, and facing the possibility of being wiped out. There’s even an internet meme for this one (see right).
To pick that out and say “that verse is for me” – or even, “that verse can be for me, too, not just exiled Israel” – is to ignore several things. Not just the original context. But also the clear message given by Jesus for his followers not to expect prosperity in this age. Indeed, we should expect to be harmed. For example:Mark 8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” John 16:2 “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.”
It also ignores the very real experience of the many Christians who’ve been imprisoned or martyred over the centuries. Why would it apply to us, but not them?
Now don’t get me wrong. That verse – that whole passage does apply to us. It applies to us because it’s part of the big story that we’re a part of. It’s part of the history of the covenant-keeping God who cares for his people – and we are now part of that people. However, the promise that they would materially “prosper” and not be physically harmed was for a specific time in Israel’s history. Even Israel couldn’t apply that to themselves at all subsequent points in their history.
Where the Jeremiah promise finds completion is in the age to come, where all God’s people will indeed find rest and freedom from harm. And it’s in that sense that it makes a great motivational poster quote!
But OK, what’s the harm in taking these verses if they inspire us? If they make us feel better, or remember God? What’s wrong with that?
The problem comes when bad stuff happens. When I “claim” a specific promise that wasn’t meant for me. What happens when I don’t prosper, or when I am harmed? Do I get disillusioned, and start to give up on God? Or do I go into denial – try to justify why God hasn’t yet come good on that promise? (I’ve heard one preacher say: “maybe God’s on his way, but he’s just been held up helping someone else.”) Either way, we can get disappointed with God.
And – more generally – it’s like feeding on sugar. On milk, rather than solid food. Sure it might taste good at the time, but if that’s all you eat, you’re going to end up with Type II Spiritual Diabetes. And, like its physical counterpart, it’s an epidemic among our generation.
c. A puzzle to be solved
As well as reading the Bible as a rule book, or as a collection of inspiring quotes, a third unhelpful way is this one: reading the Bible as a puzzle to be solved.
It’s like we think God has hidden a theology among the stories and poems and prophecies and letters in the Bible – and it’s our job to figure “it” out. So we empty all of the old and new testament pieces onto the ground, and start to construct this theology.
And to some extent, this is a good thing. There is a consistent rationale behind how God acts, and if we look, we’ll start to see that. So we come up with doctrines or formulas to explain the rationale of what we find in the Bible. Whether it be two ways to live, four spiritual laws, the five points of Calvinism, or the 39 articles, or whatever. Some of these formulations can be quite useful in helping us understand how the Bible fits together, and how to read some of the more difficult bits.
The problem is when the “solved puzzle” stops being an aid to reading and applying Scripture, and starts to replace it. When our theology framework becomes primary, and Scripture has to fit into it. A friend of mine basically admits this is what he does, and seems to think it’s a good thing. (He even wears a t-shirt with “1689” on it, which if I’d paid attention in Church History I’d know what particular church confession he was referring to.)
But when the “solved puzzle” replaces Scripture, there are problems:
Firstly, it makes us more inclined to ignore or redefine the bits that don’t fit our system, or that make us feel uncomfortable. Everything is read to fit our map. So the Bible ceases to surprise us, ceases to challenge us, and make us uncomfortable. We already know what it’s going to say – even if it might not actually be saying that!
It also makes the Bible seem annoyingly obscure. Why didn’t God just give us a systematic theology textbook – take us through doctrine, point-by-point – if that’s what we need to come up with when we read it?
And of course, once we’ve completed the puzzle, we don’t really need to pay attention to the individual pieces. The job’s done. We have our theology. Scripture is just how we got there. So no wonder Bible reading can become a bit boring!
But the Bible isn’t a theology textbook. It might sometimes be puzzling, but it isn’t just a puzzle to be solved. God gave much of his word through story because story is often far more powerful and engaging than dry theology. He could have just said: “I’m not like the other so-called gods around, who require child sacrifice.” But instead, we get the dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac, a raised knife… and a last-minute substitution.
And it’s not just story. God did it through poetry and through letters. He did it through crazy Jewish symbolism with numbers and dragons and beasts. He spoke to us through the outlandish actions of prophets like Hosea, who was told to forgive and reconcile with his prostitute wife. He spoke to us through the earthy parables of Jesus that announced the coming rule of God using farming stories. He spoke to us not just by telling us – point one, subsection a – “I love you,” but through the story of his becoming one of us, and dying in our place.
You can’t reduce that to a solved puzzle. Or a set of doctrinal statements however delicately crafted. You can’t ever say “I’ve got all that worked out.”
Theology is good. It’s necessary. But it’s never more important than encountering the very word of God in all its richness and particularity.
Four helpful ways to read the Bible (plus one)
Enough with the negative stuff: don’t treat the Bible as just a rule book to follow, or a collection of inspiring quotes, or a theological puzzle to be solved.
But how should we read it then? Let me give you four helpful ways – these are from a book by Daniel Doriani called Putting the truth to work. And I’ll add a fifth of my own at the end.
At the most basic level, we do read the Bible so we know what to do. How to act and behave as the people of God in a fallen world. But not as a rule book. Not as a list of things to do if we want to stay in God’s good books. Or feel superior to the rest of the world. Or to other Christians.
In fact, most of the genuine rules we see in the OT are for the nation of Israel, not us. Which is why we can wear poly-cotton shirts and not stone people for adultery, in case you were wondering. But for us, they’re there as part of the story – the story of what it meant to be God’s people back then. They’re a revelation of God’s character: the ten commandments reveal just as much about who God is as they tell us what to do.
Now as part of the New Testament people of God – with the Holy Spirit living in us to guide us – we’re motivated to live rightly. So the Bible – with its stories and laws and proverbs and letters –shows us what it means to live rightly. Sometimes it does so by direct commandments. But mostly by principles and examples. Leaving us to work out how to live it out in our own time and culture.
Now as we saw earlier, if you’ve been a Christian for more than a little while, when it comes to situations where there’s a right way and a wrong way, you probably know what God wants you to do 99% of the time. Mostly it’s not that hard to know what to do. (Let’s ignore the small number of situations in which there are competing ethical principles involved.) The difficult bit is actually doing it. Or remembering to do it.
So in terms of behaviour most of our Bible reading won’t be finding out new principles for how we should live. It will be about being reminded of principles we already know, and challenged as to whether we’re actually living by them or not.
Whenever we read our Bibles, read with an eye not merely to knowledge, but to behaviour. Am I doing what it says? As Jesus’ brother, James, says:Jas 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
Closely linked with behaviour is the second reason we read the Bible: character. We read in order to align our character with God’s.
And character rubs off. You begin to act like the people you spend time with. Or read about. Or watch on TV. I know that when I watch lots of snarky, cynical stand-up comedians, I become more snarky and cynical. But if I watch inspiring biographies or feel-good dramas, then… for all I know, something different might happen… I haven’t really given it a go. My point is, character is contagious.
If you hang out with Jesus – by reading stories about him – then his character will start to rub off on you.
The classic What Would Jesus Do slogan (and accompanying merchandise) is all about that. Ask yourself: in this situation, what would Jesus do? Now from what we read in the Gospels, the answer would usually be – cure a spot of leprosy, teach some crowds, walk on a lake, and then go on to die for the sins of the world – so you’ve got to make some allowances for his being the unique Son of God.
This is why, I think, we’ve also been given a whole bunch of non-divine examples to follow, too. Like Paul, who famously says:1 Cor 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
Or the great “cloud of witnesses” in Scripture, referred to in Hebrews chapter 11. The heroes of faithfulness we read of in the Old Testament. If you spend time reading about these great examples – examples of flawed human beings, just like us, whom God transformed and used to do extraordinary things –it will inspire you to emulate their character.
And that’s probably more fundamental than behaviour. Because character influences behaviour. Who you are determines what you do.
So instead of just reading your Bible and asking, what should I do in response to what I’ve just read. Also ask: who should I be?
Leading on from this is the third reason we read our Bibles: to know what goals to set. To decide what to pursue in life. That’s different from behaviour, as we defined it earlier. Behaviour was about right and wrong. Goals are about OK and better. Out of all the things I can do, what will I choose to do more of? And this will be different for each of us, because God’s made each of us differently and called us to different tasks.
Now some of the big picture goals are common to us all. Collectively, as the people of God, we’ve been given an overarching goal of going among all the nations to make disciples. And to do that by becoming, like Paul, “all things to all people.” But of course, each of us is going to work towards that in a different way.
The Bible challenges us to ask these kinds of life-directing questions:
- How will I spend my time?
- How will I spend my money?
- How will I spend my retirement?
- Which people group or subculture will I become all things to?
The resources God’s given me – where should I direct them, so that I can bring him glory? When you read your Bible, dare to ask of yourself those kinds of questions in response to the text. And beware, some texts can be particularly challenging if you do.
This is where the Bible-as-motivational-quote approach can actually work against our spiritual growth. If we focus on reading and “claiming” some isolated promises and blessings, how does that inform our goals? We chase these promises and blessings, right? And out of context, we often do so in terms of this world, and this age.
But the big story of the Bible leads us in just the opposite direction. The big story is all about denial of personal satisfaction in this age – in light of what God is doing in this age to bring about the age-to-come. The big story is of a God who gave up status and power and comfort – to suffer along with us and to die for us.
We’re called to set life goals that make sense against that story.
But more fundamental than goals, or character, or behaviour – is this fourth reason we read the Bible. We read to inform our worldview. We read so that we can see the world the way God sees it.
Because once you see the world how God sees it, the other things follow – how we behave, who we are, and where we’re heading. Worldview, I think, is the primary driver in how God transforms us.
- Which is why Elisha prayed for God to open his servant’s eyes to see God’s heavenly army on the hills in 2 Kings chapter 6.
- It’s why Paul prays that “eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:18-19).
- And it’s why God invites John to come through a door in the heavens in Revelation chapter 4, to see the world how he sees it.
It’s fundamental to what we do in church each week and in small bible study groups. The writer to the Hebrews says:Heb 10:24-25 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Paul says:Col 3:16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Why? Because it’s how we reinforce our worldview. It’s how we continue to remind ourselves of how God sees things, when for the rest of the week the world is the major voice we hear.
It’s how we remind ourselves that we’re part of a story. A story that began with a hairy desert-dweller named Abram, and continues, by way of Jesus, into the story of the new creation God has begun in us – and one day will carry on to completion in the whole world.
Incidentally, this is why some people think they can be solo Christians, outside of the church. It’s cause they’ve missed the big story of the bible. It’s not about individuals being saved – and that’s it. It’s about individuals being saved so that they can be part of the people of God, from now, and into the age to come.
We read the Bible primarily to be reminded – time and time again – of how God sees us. Of how God sees the world.
And yet, I think there’s one more reason. Possibly even more basic, more primal than worldview.
Think way back to the beginning of your life. How far can you remember? Most people don’t remember anything that happened to them before the age of two. Which, as a parent, makes you wonder why you bother. Feeding, changing, bathing, going to the park, pretending you can’t see them when they put their hands over their eyes, and reading the same story over and over again – none of it gets remembered. So why do it? Why not take it easy for a couple of years, then start to be nice just when you think they’re ready to remember? You know, like politicians do in an election year.
We don’t do that, of course, because we know that our relationship with our kids is built on more than just the things they can remember. While the memory of the events may vanish, the bonds of trust that are built endure. They might not remember precisely what we’ve done with and for them, but they remember that they can trust us to be kind to them. They remember that they like us, even if they can’t tell you why. They remember the connection made, even if the content has faded.
Each week, we come to church to hear God’s story. Each day, we open our Bibles to read some small part of it. We’re reminded of who he is. Of what he’s done for us in Christ. And how this means that our story can now find its place within his big story. It anchors our existence and gives our life meaning within a much bigger framework. It reminds us of who we are in light of who he is. Just like Israel regularly gathered to recite God’s story.
Now, over time we might forget the content of each sermon. We might not remember what we read last night as our eyes were getting heavy and we drifted off to sleep. Our attitudes and behaviour might be transformed only incrementally. But each day, each week, we build the connection as we hang out with God and his story. Even though we might not be fully conscious of what’s going on, we’re enjoying the feeling of sitting on our heavenly Father’s knee and having the same story read to us over and over again. And it’s that feeling of connection that builds the bonds of trust and affection and love.
Does it mean that behaviour isn’t important? Or character, or goals, or even worldview? Not at all! But when we trust and love God as our Father, we’re more likely to want to do what pleases him, to be more like him, to pursue his purposes in our lives, and to see the world around us through our Father’s eyes.
That’s why we read our Bibles. It’s story time with God.Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me… 3 [But] It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them… 7 My people are determined to turn from me… 8 “[Yet] How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. 9 I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again… 10 They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves. I will settle them in their homes,” declares the LORD.