Do you know the "whole story" of the Bible? It's easy to get lost in just a verse or two and lose sight of the big picture. Dr. Sandra Glahn helps us gain perspective on how to read the Bible for more.
Reading the "Whole Story" in the Bible
By Dr. Sandra Glahn
I was teaching an introduction to the Book of Philippians one morning at a women's Bible study. And as I did so, I provided an overview of the Bible's entire redemption story before showing where Paul's epistles to the Philippians fit. A visitor raised her hand and told me, "I have been in church all my life, and I just now realized the Bible is not just a book of unrelated quotes."
It's easy to get that idea about the Bible, isn't it? Especially if our only interaction with it is a verse of the day on a calendar, topical-only sermon series (as opposed to studying entire books or sections of the Bible), or devotional guides that provide super short comments.
Even if you have a deeper familiarity with the Bible, do you tend to let others interpret it for you, rather than studying it yourself? How can we become familiar with the whole story? Just as we would with any other book. We read it like a book. Here are some suggestions for doing so:
The Bible's writers wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Pray for the Spirit's help before you read.
Bear in mind that the Spirit used a human author to craft every word, sentence, and book-within-a-book in a written language that follows normal grammar and meanings, including figures of speech. Let the Bible speak to you from the unique human author God used to write it.
Know that each author's cultural environment influenced the writing, but that does not mean the background information represents God's ideal. So, for example, even though Solomon had many wives, people in North America today do not. God inspired the Bible, but every culture which it describes has flaws. Its characters do, too. Read the Bible with an eye to the original culture as well as your culture today.
Each biblical writer used a literary form (such as Gospel, poetry, letter, prophetic word, historical book). To understand meaning, we need to also understand forms. But that's not as complicated as we might think. If a Disney movie begins with "once upon a time," we expect a fantasy. If we hear, "In the year Michael Jackson died, it happened that ..." we expect to hear something grounded in history. If we read, "Dear Angela," we know there's probably a letter involved. The same is true of the Bible. Its poetry is laid out like ... well ... poetry. History has names of kings and queens and troop movements. Letters begin with the name of the person writing. Pay attention to the genre of the book you are reading.
We should keep context in mind or we can come away with outlandish ideas. For example, in 1 John we read that believers in Christ "will be like him, for we will see him as he is." The surrounding context is talking about being pure. If we were to read the verse in isolation and proceed to make a list of what God is like, we might envision that someday we will be omnipresent and omniscient (present everywhere and all-knowing). But John is actually saying that one day we will be fully pure. Be sure to orient yourself to the context of each reading.
Ask yourself some questions as you read: What human wrote the part I'm reading? Who was the original audience for this book? What does the author seem to be saying to that audience? Do I find any timeless truths in the passage that would apply to believers in every generation?
Notice details: Does the author refer to earlier Bible stories or concepts to help shed light on the point? Do I see any words or concepts emphasized or repeated? What, if any, commands, does God give? What encouragement do I find?
Once you've decided to read the Bible in larger sections rather than just short chunks, where do you start? If you need words to help you express your emotions to God, head for the Book of Psalms. If you need wisdom for each day, consider that Proverbs has 31 days - one for every day of the month. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, so perhaps start there reading about the life of Jesus. For some fascinating Jewish history full of "God stories," start with Exodus, then move to Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. Consider getting an app that helps you read through the Bible in a year, or read through the Bible chronologically. Instead of reading about the Bible or hearing select quotes from the Bible, get to know the Bible itself.
Dr. Sandra Glahn teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary. She is the author of more than 20 books, including the Coffee Cup Bible Study series. Her latest book is Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible. Connect with her at http://aspire2.com/ or on twitter @sandraglahn.