I've gotten a few emails about the Bible in the past few weeks, so before we press on with the series, "If Christianity Really Is True, Then Why...?" I want to discuss why the Bible can be confusing at times.
It's true the Bible is a book. But it's actually a book of books, or a book of letters. These books are a compilation of 66 different writings and everyone of them have a unique purpose. It has stories about the lives of good (but mostly bad) people, about journeys, battles, the lives of kings and prophets, Jesus and the early church. But you probably knew all of that. Here are a few things you may not have thought of.
1. The Bible's Primary Job Is Not to Give you Answers
All of us are tempted to approach the Bible to either learn some new ideas, or justify what we already believe. But the Bible exists to transform you! N.T. Wright put's it this way; "We read scripture in order to refresh our understanding of the story within which we are mere supporting actors. God is the central character not us." Why is that important? Because as sinful humans we all are tempted to take the center stage and fixate on how the Bible affects me.
The books of the Old Testament are primarily about God and the people of Israel, not Christians today. That's exactly why we call the two halves of the Bible the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament." The word "covenant," means agreement. The bulk of the Old Testament is the story of God's agreement with Abraham and his descendents. The New Testament is God's agreement with all those who are followers of Jesus. Obviously there's overlap. Christians need to read the Old Testament. In it God lays the foundation for His "New Testament."
It introduces us to God and helps us understand God's intentions for his people. It's why Americans should know their history so we understand the ideas and forces that shaped our nation that still impact us today. But it's primarily in the four gospels and in Paul's letters that the Bible turns to us, individual followers of Jesus and specifically informs us how we are to live out our days on earth and why.
2. Consider the Genre
Genre matters. If you picked up a book about World War II you would expect the accounts to be factually true, not a book of poetry, or predictions about the future. Each book of the Bible is there for a unique purpose and it contains figures of speech, dialogue, poetry, etc. Theologians have divided the Bible up into genres. All the books of the Bible fall into these seven genres: Narritive, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospels, Epistles and Apocalypse. (For a more full explanation of which books fit in each, just google "Genres of the Bible.")
So, what difference does knowing the genre and the audience make you may ask? Proverbs is a book in the "Wisdom literature," genre. In it we read this verse, "Train up a child is the way they should go and they will not depart from it". Proverbs 22:6. We all know all kinds of kids raises as Christian who walk away from faith, or do terribly sinful things. Did God get this wrong? Did he make a promise to faithful parents and then break it? No. Proverbs are not promises, but wise sayings that are generally true but not outright promises God makes. So we can't read them in the same way we read so many promises God makes to us that we can take to the bank.
Likewise the Psalms are poetry which means while we can learn much about God, graditude and thanksgiving from them, Christians should not give them the same weight for how we are to live as the gospels which are the Christian's marching orders.
3. Consider the Context
Whenever you read a book, an article, or listening to a podcaster or radio program, context is everything! Here's an example of a common misunderstanding of a Bible verse meant for Israel that Christians often claim for themselves."If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land". -2 Chronicles 7:14.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard that verse is quoted at Christian political rallies or church services as a promise God makes to all Christians or our nation. But read the whole chapter and you'll see God made that promise to the people of Israel, not to Christian Americans. Does God want all believers to humble themselves, pray and seek his face? And if they did, would we all be much better off for it? Yes, of course. However, if a majority of Americans did, does that bind God to make America a great nation? No.
4. Ask Questions
What does the passage teach me about God?
What does the passage teach me about Humans?
In light of what this passage teachers what do I need to do?
What does this passage teach me about how I am to relate to others?
What keeps me from being obedient to what God is clearly telling me to do?
5. Reflect & Meditate
When you read the Bible don't let the words you just read fade in your memory. Think about them, pray about them, write a verse out, write down questions you have about what you learned. Remember the Bible is there to transform you, not, just to read for information. "Let the Word of God dwell in you richly," Colossians 3:16.