7 things to look for when reading through the BibleWritten by Subby Szterszky
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This is it – the year you finally read through the entire Bible. Sure, you’ve tried before and gotten bogged down by the spring thaw or the law codes in Leviticus. But this time, you’ve found the ideal Bible reading plan: well-balanced, realistic and tailored to your reading habits. You’ve prayed about it and enlisted an accountability partner to keep you on track.
All of which is fantastic. But in order to see it through to the end – and more important, to benefit from the experience – you need to read with anticipation, with your eyes, your heart and your mind attuned to what the Spirit of God is saying through his Word.
To aid in that process, here are seven things to look for as you embark (or continue) on your scriptural odyssey. There are more than seven, of course, but seven is a nice biblical number and these are a good place to start. They’ll help keep your reading plan from becoming a drudgery and ensure it remains a joyful path of discovery throughout the year.
It may appear self-evident that readers of God’s Word should first seek him within its pages. And yet, people typically approach the Bible by asking, “What does this passage say about me, and how does it apply to my life?” Those are valid questions, up to a point, but they’re not the most important ones. In fact, they can be used to distort the meaning of a passage by reading one’s own experiences into it.
That’s because from start to finish, the Bible isn’t primarily about us, but about God. To be sure, Scripture has much to say about human nature and culture and history. But it addresses all those subjects solely with respect to God.
Through human language and the written word, the Creator of the universe has chosen to reveal himself – his character, power and purposes – to his human creatures. He has told us who we are, why we’re here, and how we can be what he created us to be, in a loving relationship with him.
And so, the first questions to ask when reading anything in the Bible are: “What does this say about God? What does it reveal about who he is, what he’s done and continues to do? How does it help me know him and trust him and love him more?”
There’s a common misconception, even among professing Bible believers, that the Old Testament is all about law, whereas the New Testament is all about grace. In fact, an early heretic named Marcion went so far as to claim that the two Testaments portrayed two different gods: an inferior god of judgment in the Old and a superior god of love in the New.
The Scriptures themselves will have none of that, of course. The Old Testament echoes with a repeated description of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” And while Jesus is full of grace and truth, he also spoke at length about judgment and raised the bar of righteousness to include motives of the heart as well as outward actions.
Both Testaments portray God as eternal and unchanging, his law and grace forever intertwined, his love and judgment meeting at the Cross of Christ. To read the Bible is to discover and trace that braid of divine justice and kindness through all its turns, arriving at perfect expression in the person of Jesus.
The essence of idolatry is the desire to domesticate God, to make the Creator more like his creation, easier to comprehend and to control. But the God of the universe will not fit into our boxes, whether personal, cultural or theological. In fact, he declares that his ways and his thoughts are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth.
It’s not surprising, then, that God’s Word should contain things not only difficult but at times downright disturbing. What those things are will vary depending on the assumptions of each culture, but they’ll always be present. For people in the 21st century, the Bible’s sexual ethics, its tolerance of slavery in the ancient world, and its portrayal of genocidal warfare are especially difficult to square with the idea of a just and loving God.
In the eyes of the wider culture, such passages may be deal breakers, but for followers of Jesus, they’re challenges. Strange customs, lengthy genealogies, and even the conquest of Canaan invite readers to think deeply, pray earnestly, embrace mystery and recognize that God is bigger than us. As Tim Keller observes, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”
God is beautiful, and he has designed his cosmos to reflect his beauty. It only follows that his written Word should do likewise. Its accounts brim with grandeur and glory along with moments of quiet intimacy to melt the heart and comfort the soul. It paints word pictures of a world that’s fallen and yet enjoying the kindness and care of its Sovereign Lord.
But beyond their divinely inspired content, the Scriptures are beautiful in themselves as literature, their varied styles equally inspired by God. Contrary to common belief, the Bible isn’t a textbook on science or history or even theology. Nor is it an instruction manual on morals and ethics and successful living. To be sure, it touches on all those subjects and many more besides. But it does so in the form of artful writing.
It’s no accident that God chose to record a significant chunk of his Word as historical narrative and poetry, rather than as didactic instruction. He designed it to appeal to the whole person, the heart and the imagination as well as the mind. To read it any other way is to miss at least part of its message.
In the natural world, beauty expresses itself through diversity, and once again it’s the same with Scripture. The Bible is a library of 66 documents, written on three continents over some 1,500 years. Its human authors represent a wide range of temperaments and social classes, each writing to address the issues of their day.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, these authors wrote in an eclectic variety of genres: war stories, pastoral romances, songs of love, songs of lament, prayers, letters, biographies, travelogues, memoirs and apocalyptic visions, among others.
Such a diverse array of genres cannot be read with a one-size-fits-all approach, and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to do so. Like the many flavours at a fine feast, they’re meant to be savoured, both for their own qualities and for how they blend with one another. Each one speaks with its own voice, and yet contributes its own unique facet to the overall message of Scripture. Discovering that unity, expressed through diversity, is one of the genuine pleasures of reading through the Bible.
Every great story worth following has a central plot line, a unifying narrative that frames it and gives it structure. There may be subplots and asides, but that main storyline winds throughout, by turns hidden and exposed, and it pulls the reader toward its conclusion.
The central narrative of the Bible can be summarized as a drama in four acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. From a human perspective, it began in the Garden, reached its climax at the Cross, and will conclude in the New Jerusalem, in the New Heavens and New Earth. From a divine perspective, it was written in the mind of God before he made the cosmos, and will resonate into eternity, to his glory.
Because of the wonderful diversity in Scripture, it’s tempting to think of its many parts as vignettes in an anthology, at best only loosely related to each other. But in truth, they combine to form a unified mosaic from their various literary shades and colours. The main storyline winds through them all, at times clear and at other times subtle, but always there. And thus, when reading the Bible, it’s always crucial to ask, “What does this passage bring to the central narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration?”
It’s fitting to conclude this list where it began, by looking for God in the Scriptures. And that means looking for Christ and the Gospel. Such a search is by no means limited to the New Testament, nor is it an exercise in speculative interpretation.
There are, of course, the overt Messianic prophecies that are quoted as such in the New Testament. But it goes deeper than that. After Jesus rose from the dead, he began to teach his disciples everything that was written about him in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. For 1st-century Jews, this threefold description was shorthand for the entire scope of the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus was claiming that all of Scripture was about him, in one sense or another.
We need to be careful here. Jesus was not inviting his followers to dig for Gospel metaphors behind every horse and sword and city wall and loaf of bread in the Old Testament. But he was directing them to recognize that all the Scriptures – every narrative account, genealogy and poetic image – in some way points to him and anticipates his coming.
It could hardly be otherwise, given that Jesus is the protagonist as well as the fulfillment of the grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.
Depending on our tastes, temperament and cultural background, different parts of the Bible will strike us in different ways. Some passages will captivate and inspire, while others will perplex and challenge. But viewed through the lens of the Gospel, all of it will open new vistas on the goodness, wisdom and beauty of God. And therein lies the point – as well as the pleasure – of reading through the Bible.
Sources and further reading
Haven’t yet found that perfect Bible reading plan? Here are links to a few reading plans, devotionals and other resources to help you on your journey through the Scriptures.
Biblica: The International Bible Society
English Standard Version (ESV)
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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