Internet dating is weird. I’ve done my share, and oddly enough have had the most success connecting the right sort of men on okCupid. Of course, there are creepers and weirdos and all kinds of not-the-right-sort-of-men, but it’s been easier for me to identify those guys there than anywhere else – and to find likely candidates who ARE of the right sort.
If you have ever read this blog before, it will not surprise you to learn that my profile includes a “not interested in premarital sex” statement as well as a declaration of my love for Jesus, the Church, and Reformed theology. I get all kinds of responses in my inbox. Sometimes I get “What kind of freak are you?” emails (I kind of think I already told you exactly what kind of freak I am, actually). Sometimes I get pretty hilarious pick up lines. (“You are the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen. Are you domestic or wild?”) Sometimes I get guys trying to pick fights. (“What problem do you have with free will?”) Sometimes I get middle school yearbook messages. (“You seem awesome don’t ever change!”) And sometimes I get theology questions.
Yesterday I got a message from a fellow who has recently bought a Bible and is about to start reading it for the first time. He said he’d grown up in the Catholic Church, but had not ever really done the work of reading and interpreting the Bible himself. (I know that he’s not the only one – many people who grew up in all kinds of denominations have that same story.) He wanted my advice, especially on what helps are out there to aid interpretation.
So I wrote him this.
This is a fantastic question. I am really glad you asked. Reading the Bible yourself is a really transformative thing. I am excited for you!
There are thousands upon thousands of books out there that intend to help readers interpret Scripture. Some of them are total garbage. Some of them are fantastic. Most of them are in the middle somewhere. I can point you in some good directions, but first let me give you some more general basics for first-time Bible reading and study.
1. Don’t start at Genesis and try to plow all the way through to Revelation. I recommended you start with the Gospel of John, and then hit up some Pauline Epistles like Ephesians and Philippians and Romans. Read these books before you open any commentary or book on biblical theology – get a feel for what they have to say before you start asking for other people’s opinions. From there, you can jump into most biblical books and have some idea of what is going on.
2. Find a legit Bible-preaching church and start going. If I were a single dude in Dallas, I would most likely go to The Village – their preaching pastor is probably the best exegetical (Bible text-based) preacher in the metroplex. But there are heaps of options, GOOD options: Park Cities Pres, Watermark, New St Peter’s, All Saints, Providence Pres, Northwest Bible, and Highland Park Pres are all solid choices, and I’m could list more. Here’s why I recommend this: 1) you’ll get a good sense of how the whole bible fits and works together, which will improve your understanding; 2) you’ll get to see how the Bible and its teachings are changing people, especially in the context of the church community (One thing you’ll notice big-time in John and the Pauline Epistles is how much the church community is a big friggin’ deal.); 3) you’ll be hearing Scripture interpreted regularly by a pastor who’s been doing this for years, wants his people to be reading and interpreting Scripture and so is intending through his sermons (in part) to equip them to do so well.
3. Pay attention to genre. Ok, so one thing that a lot of people suck at when it comes to reading the Bible is appropriately accounting for – or even paying any attention at all to – the genre of the part they’re reading. There’s not just one kind of writing in the Bible; there are bunch, and some of them overlap (for example, Revelation is prophecy, but it’s also an epistle). Here they are, in no particular order:
- Gospels – These are historical narratives pieced together from either the author’s experience or the eyewitness accounts of people who were close to Jesus.
- Prayerful Poetry/Songs – The book of Psalms is all this. It’s essentially a hymnal for Israel. There are other works in this genre, though, scattered throughout the Old Testament (and in fragments in the New) – for example, Mary sings a song of praise to God after the annunciation in Luke 1. That bit of Luke fits in this genre.
- Erotic Poetry – Song of Songs. In case we couldn’t figure it out from the rest of Scripture, this book makes it abundantly clear that God is a fan of married sex.
- Epistles – A good chunk of the New Testament is made up of these sorts of books, which are really letters. Personally, my favorite book of the Bible to read over and over and over again is Hebrews, which is an epistle. Its theme is Jesus > EVERYTHING, and it draws heavily on the Old Testament, quoting chunks of it and showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of every promise God makes, every accommodation He orchestrates so that He can have a relationship with His people. It’s so awesome.
- Prophecy – There are some books that are straight-up prophecy, like Micah, but there are also a good number of books that are mostly this, but also other stuff. For example, the book of Daniel is about half straight-up prophecy, half narrative. The key to telling when you’re dealing with prophecy is when something “The Lord said to Moses” or “Thus says the Lord” pops up.
- Wisdom Literature – Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are the biggies here. Wisdom literature is not full of promises so much as it is full of descriptions of how things tend to work in the world. God, as its Maker, has arranged this so that if you pull a Proverbs 22:6 and “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” your kids will likely grow up to be responsible adults who love Jesus. Now, there are plenty of times that doesn’t happen. But the norm is that it does. You tracking with me? Another thing to keep in mind with wisdom literature is that it is philosophical. So even though Job is also a Narrative, it fits in the wisdom literature category as well because of all the deep issues explored in it like theodicy, why bad things happen to good people, and how to cope with deeply painful suffering. It’s interesting to note that in Job, it is incredibly obvious that these intense philosophical questions are 1) not divorced from Job’s personal experience OR his feelings and 2) not divorced from, but rather riddled with, theology. Also cool: God shows up and unloads some heavy direct revelation. So while it’s not predictive of the future, that portion of the book could fit into the genre of prophecy.
- Narrative – The Gospels are a specialized sub-genre of this category, but the most common (percentage-wise) sort of narrative in the Bible is found in the Old Testament. (The book of Acts is another good example.) These books describe historical facts, and often do not directly offer commentary on whether or not what they are describing is good or bad. Just because David had lots of wives doesn’t mean God thinks that’s ok – in fact, in Deuteronomy 17:17, this is prohibited explicitly for future kings of Israel. So don’t think that just because some detail made it into the Bible and is not explicitly condemned immediately by God, God must approve.
- Law – There are three kinds of law given in the Old Testament – moral law, ceremonial law, and civil law. The most famous, obviously, would be the ten commandments, but what most people don’t realize is that there is a lot of case law included in the rest of Exodus, Leviticus Numbers, and Deuteronomy. You wanna know about not committing adultery? There’s tons of stuff about not sleeping with your stepmom or a half-sibling or a random chick you think is hot, and recommended punishments. Part of the deal here is to help Israel figure out how to interpret and enforce the law in their civil government, but part of it helps US to learn better what God thinks about such things. The ceremonial law includes LOADS about the building of the tabernacle and the temple, which point forward to Jesus, Who came and lived skin to skin with us. Way better access than the Shekinah Glory hanging out in the Holy of Holies in the temple, where only the high priest could access just one time a year…
- Genealogy/Census Data – Ok, so these can be tres boring. But there are certain things to remember about them and why they are cool: 1) after Genesis 3, those who believe in the promise of God to provide a “seed” of Adam and Eve Who would crush their serpentine enemy are looking for Him. Where is He? That’s one reason genealogies are important; 2) sometimes, they tell you how flippin’ enormous Israel has gotten (see: Numbers); 3) sometimes, they record who trusted God and was faithful and obedient to Him (see: Nehemiah); 4) sometimes, they just remind you that God cares about every single one of His children. So you don’t have a clue who Matthan was? Neither does anyone else in 2014. But God knows. God cares. Matthan was precious to God. (In case you’re curious, he can be found in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. He was Joseph’s grandfather, Jesus’s adoptive great-grandfather.)
- Diary – I’m not making this up: Nehemiah is mostly the guy’s DIARY about rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. You can totally tell, too, because he says all kinds of weirdly personal stuff.
**Hopefully this is helpful and not overwhelming.**
4. This is going to sound weird, but… get your hands on a Jesus Storybook Bible and read the whole thing, preferably in one day. I did that, when I was in seminary actually, and it was so GOOD. It gives a big-picture view of the whole story of the Bible – indeed, of human history – which helps you see Jesus everywhere. And believe me, He’s EVERYWHERE.
5. Let the Bible tell you what it’s all about. One thing you may notice as you read John and some of those epistles is how much cross-referencing there with other parts of Scripture. Where the Bible tells us what some other passage means, we should take advantage of that interpretive help.
Ok, so once you are ready to start checking out commentaries and books on biblical theology, where do you go?
- This article by Tim Challies (whose blog I love to follow) is very helpful.
- Dale Ralph Davis is my guy for Old Testament narratives like Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, etc. He also has a commentary on a small chunk of the Psalms. He is so stinking helpful.
- Anything The Gospel Coalition turns out is legit.
- Find a preacher you like and go hunting in the archives of his church’s website for sermons on whatever book you’re reading. A lot of excellent pastors preach straight through biblical books most of the time, and it can be extremely helpful to listen to sermons while you’re working out or driving around town, or to read them if there are available transcripts.
The Bible is not an ordinary book. You can read all about Abraham Lincoln – read what we have of his personal papers, read his speeches, examine the testimony of people who knew him and interacted with him and worked with him, look at his administration’s actions and the way he led, read oodles of biographies, and at the end you will know a ton about Abraham Lincoln. But Abraham Lincoln won’t know jack about you. Your brain is now loaded with facts and opinions, but there is still a disconnect because there is no personal relationship there. However, when you read the Bible, you learn all kinds of facts about God (His preferences, His habits, what kind of God He is, what He’s done, what He will do) AND you actually meet Him in it. Your study of the Bible can be fruitful in a different way, a relational way. And the point of knowing more about God and what He is like is really, at the end of the day, to love Him more.
Well, hopefully your head hasn’t exploded from this long email. I’ll be praying that God reveals more and more of Himself to you as you open His Word.