How Should We Read the Bible?
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
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What is the Bible?
Does the Bible have all of the specific answers to all of life’s questions and problems? Why or why not?
Should we read all of the Bible literally and directly apply it to our lives today? Why or why not?
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The Bible is not simply as a 66 disconnected books but rather as a single story that involves four major chapters or movements.
That is, Scripture can be read as a single story of God's creating, redeeming and perfecting work in the world.
Creation - Genesis 1-2, John 1:1-3. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit create the world and humankind and give us the task to love, and steward His good creation.
Fall - Genesis 3, Genesis 6, Ephesians 2:1-3. Humanity falls into the temptation of the devil, and falls from the perfect beautiful state that they had in the Garden of Eden. This broken state influences not just humans, but all of Creation.
Redemption - Genesis 12, 2 Corinthians 5, Col. 1-2, Eph. 2-3. God sends His Son, Jesus Christ, to become a man and die on the cross for our sins. He dies in our place, for the sins that we committed at the Fall.
New Creation - 2 Cor. 5, Gal 2:20, Revelation
We live in a time of redemption, in anticipation of Jesus coming again and renewing and redeeming all of creation -- bringing it back to the perfect gardenly state.
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Defining these words is critical in order to be able to put forward a helpful dialogue around reading and understanding scripture.
Inspired - The Holy Spirit, inspired the words to be recorded throughout our Scriptures and maintained them throughout History.
Inerrancy - Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible has no error (not even in history or science), ascribed to the original documents. “There are no errors.” 1 Tim. 3:16
We have a book in front of us that claims to be the inspired Word of God. And since God doesn’t lie and doesn’t make mistakes we say the Bible doesn’t lie, doesn’t make mistakes.
Infallibility - Similar to inerrancy, instead the statement is that because it is the inspired word of God, given from the Holy Spirit “There can be no errors”.
Now if this is the grand story of God’s redemption throughout the whole of Scripture -- the main themes, the chapter headings, of God’s love, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our role to play as His people in the world today. But, what about the specifics of Scripture? Instead of taking a 10,000 foot view, what about a 1,000 foot view, or a 10 foot view of the Holy Word? How to we read it and get meaning from it?
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If the Bible is the Word of God, assembled for His people for all time, then it is not just a book to be studied like any other textbook.
Instead, instead John 1, and Hebrews 4 tells us that it is the living, moving, Spirit-filled Word of God that speaks to us today as we read it, as we learn from it, as we grow deeper in our knowledge of the Word.
“The Word of God is living and active…” Heb. 4:12
“The Word is God…” John 1:1-3
As we read these words, we acknowledge that God is speaking to us through them, to our hearts, our minds, and even convicting us personally by His Holy Spirit.
Guide of the Spirit: The Holy Spirit guides into all truth (John 16:13). The word guide means “to lead the way or guide along the way or road.”
Guidance implies obedience to the Guide and a willingness to be led. Only by the Holy Spirit can believers apply and live out the Scriptures.
But this doesn’t mean that we are not supposed to use our God given minds, and abilities to study Scripture and to learn God’s words deeply. To apply them to our lives!
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The fancy word for the study and interpretation of Scripture is hermeneutics.
The English word “hermeneutics” comes from the Greek verb hermēneuō and the noun hermēneia. These words point back to the wing-footed messenger-god Hermes in Grecian mythology. He was responsible for transmuting what is beyond human understanding into a form that human intelligence can grasp
The Bible is not one book but a whole library of books, written over a span of over 1500 years by many different writers with a variety of individual styles and immediate purposes.
Yet its own claims and its remarkable unity demonstrate to Christians that the Bible is “God’s Word in human language.”
Interpretation is the step that moves us from reading and observing the text on to applying and living it out.
As we begin to apply specific texts to our lives, we must be aware however, that there are a few gaps that exist that we must be aware of.
Understanding these gaps, not only allows us to learn deeper, but helps us not be disheartened when we read a text that doesn’t really make sense to us.
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Historical Gap - 2,000 years ago.
Geographical Gap - Geographical setting differences. Ascent Psalms - Psalm 23
Cultural Gap - Different cultural norms, ideals. Presence of house-servants, place of women in culture.
Literary Gap - Understanding what comes before and after the texts. Verses do not exist on their own in a vacuum - Phil. 3:6
Genre Gap - Different books of the Bible have different Genres. Psalms as Poetry, Revelation as Apocalyptic, John as a Narrative Gospel.
Linguistic Gap - Hebrew and Greek can have different meanings than our English translations. We should not fear or doubt.
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Heart appropriation, not merely head apprehension, is the true goal of Bible study.
We move from knowledge to loving action. We are called to be messengers of the truth from Scripture, of the Gospel, of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28).
Only in this way can believers grow spiritually.
Spiritual maturity, in which we become more like Christ, comes not just from knowing more about the Bible. It comes from knowing more about the Bible and applying it to our spiritual needs.
We read Scripture to get to know God deeper, be reminded of His promises to us throughout the Word, and grow in a deeper relationship with Christ. That we might live a life based on these truths, these commands, and these good Words from God Himself!
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The Bible was not written as a puzzle, a book of secrets and riddles given in jumbled incommunicable form.
The fact that the Bible is a book means that it is to be read and understood.
As the written account that reveals God to His people, the Bible reveals to us His character, plans, and standards.
The human authors, whose writings were given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to be understood, not to confuse.
The Gospel message is accessible, understandable, and salvific.
In the depths of scripture, we see that we can learn more about God, more about ourselves, and more about the beauty of His Word upon a closer study of the ‘gaps’.
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There are three basic steps in interpretation - the Holy Spirit is present in all of them!
Observation - Discovery, exploring. Reading and exploring the basics of what is being said. What does it mean? How is it to be explained?
Interpretation - Digesting, explaining. Bible studies, personal in depth exploration, conversations with trusted individuals on the texts and topics.
Application - Living! Understanding the scriptural intention, and living a life in response to the Biblical truths.
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And yet, even with the understanding of the Bible being the Word of God, speaking to us today, we as human beings have used the Bible to justify actions that most of us would argue have no place within Scripture or the Christian life.
The Mormon leader Brigham Young justified his having more than 30 wives by pointing to the fact that Abraham had more than 1 wife, namely, Sarah and Hagar. The Mormon practice of being baptized for dead relatives and others is based, they argue, on 1 Corinthians 15:29
Atheists seek to support their position by referring to Psalm 14:1, “There is no God.” Obviously they are overlooking how those words are introduced: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
We’ve seen the Bible used to defend slavery, or the lack of women’s rights. We’ve seen it used to argue for segregation.
Because of the Fall all of humanity has the tendency and inclination toward evil -- even in our use and abuse of the Words of God.
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Read Philippians 4:13. What do you think that Paul is saying?
Read Philippians 4:1-13. Now what do you think Paul is saying?
Read all of the headings of each chapter in Philippians, and then revisit Phil. 4:13? Now what do you think that Paul is saying?
With all of this in mind, ask a few questions about the different ‘gaps’. Now what do you think that Paul is saying?
/ I N T E R P R E T A T I O N G A P S O F P H I L 4:1-13 /
Historical Gap - 2,000 years ago. A church under persecution, in the need for greater Christian unity. Paul is in Jail, suffering himself, and is calling for this unity from experience.
Geographic Gap - Along the Egnatian Way, The Egnatian Way, the main shipping highway from Rome to the Eastern Provinces, passed right through the city centre. It was a Roman colony - Jewish identity and worship were not welcomed openly.
Genre Gap - It is a specific letter, sent to a specific church, dealing with a specific issue.
Literary Gap - Paul is taking specifically about residing in the Lord, through whom, he is able to face all kinds of suffering. Even more specifically, he is talking about contentment in the difficult times of life. So too the Philippian church can face suffering together, as they are united with Christ. He is not speaking directly about being able to do anything he wanted, or even achieve anything. Steph Curry Phil. 4:13 brand.
Language Gap - The term “content” (autarkes, v. 11) was used by Stoic philosophers of Paul’s time to mean “self-sufficient,” and in their view this characteristic was the most valuable attribute of the wise person. Indeed, like the wise Stoic, Paul does not consider physical deprivation an unmitigated disaster nor physical comfort the sign of success.
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So can we take the Bible literally? Yes, we can. But we should not always take every verse literally and directly apply it today. This can prove to be dangerous (as we saw in a few examples above).
How then do we read and engage the Word of God? Prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to help us. With wonder, coming with questions and engaging the text both in how God might be speaking to us directly through it, and how bridging the different ‘gaps’ can help us to learn the context of the Word spoken.