How to read your least favourite Bible passagesWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“All Scripture is breathed out by God,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
As followers of Jesus with a high regard for his Word, we affirm that truth wholeheartedly – at least in principle. But if we’re honest about it, there are portions of Scripture we’re less than enthusiastic to see showing up in our daily readings.
It’s different for everyone, of course, but there are some usual suspects: the genealogies; the census records; the painstaking instructions for building the tabernacle; the equally painstaking measurements of the temple in Ezekiel’s vision; Joshua’s geographical survey for parcelling out the land to the Israelites; the entire book of Leviticus, which more than one wit has described as the graveyard of Bible reading plans.
When faced with passages like these, we may feel tempted to either skip over them, or else to slog through them joylessly and check them off our list, like we’re downing a spoonful of spiritual Buckley’s – it may taste bad, but it must be good for us, somehow.
Neither approach is ideal, to say the least. But what then? How might we engage such texts in a way that honours their divine author, and that will also edify and yes, even delight us? Here is a handful of principles that may help.
Approach with prayer and humility
This starting point may appear self-evident, but it’s worth reminding ourselves regularly. Whenever we approach Scripture – any part of Scripture – we are engaging with the words of Almighty God, with his revelation of who he is, who we are, what his plans are for us as well as for his entire creation.
And he’s not a verbose God, who’s stretched out his Word by adding sections of filler. He’s our good and wise Sovereign Lord, who has spoken with focused intent and divine authority.
It only makes sense, then, that we should approach God’s Word – especially the parts that perplex or fail to move us – with prayer. We need to acknowledge our limitations, our blind spots, our personal and cultural biases. We need to ask our Heavenly Father for grace to overcome them, to open our hearts and our minds and reveal himself to us in ways we might never have expected.
Be sensitive to context and genre
While all of Scripture is inspired by God, it’s not all equally clear. Scripture itself admits as much. Regarding Paul’s letters, the Apostle Peter wrote, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
More than that, the Scriptures contain a diversity of genres speaking in a variety of voices, with different concentrations of spiritual truth. No one would suggest, for example, that Obadiah contains the same depth and scope of Messianic teaching as his fellow prophet, Isaiah, much less the Gospel of John.
The Scriptures are a rich banquet of distinct yet complementary flavours, not a blended smoothie. Each of those flavours has to be experienced on its own terms. Poetry, historical narrative, law codes, letters, genealogies, prophetic oracles, wisdom literature – each has its own rules of engagement.
God could have chosen to reveal himself to humanity via any means, at any point in history. He chose to do it through a series of human authors in the ancient Mediterranean world whose cultural assumptions and literary styles are often alien to modern readers.
In turn, it’s incumbent on modern readers to know something of the historical, cultural, literary and canonical context of these ancient writings. Why, for instance, is there so much repetition and use of formulaic phrases in parts of the Old Testament? It’s because these texts were written for public rather than private reading – most people couldn’t read and didn’t have access to books – and the repetition helped to fix the ideas in their memories.
Read holistically and incarnationally
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” wrote the Apostle John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14).
It’s one of the great mysteries of creation. God himself, the second person of the Trinity, became a human being and entered our reality, taking on our nature and our limitations, becoming fully human and yet remaining fully God.
We should think of the Scriptures in no less incarnational terms. God spoke the very words he intended, but he spoke them through a diversity of human authors, who wrote with their own voices, from their own perspectives, each to a specific audience addressing a particular situation. Like the Word himself, the words of Scripture are fully divine and also fully human.
The Incarnation demonstrates that God cares about the whole human person, body, soul and spirit. He created us in his image as holistic beings and is redeeming us as holistic beings. To that end, his Word in all its variety is designed to speak holistically, to every facet of our nature and experience: our intellect, emotions and imagination, our sense of order and our sense of wonder.
Expect mystery and wonder
Although God made us in his own image, he is also vastly different from us and beyond us. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,” he declared through the prophet Isaiah, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
That would’ve been a mind-boggling image in Isaiah’s day, some 2,700 years ago. In light of how much more we’ve discovered about the vastness of the heavens since that time, the prophet’s metaphor of God’s transcendence is off the scale.
Given the fact that God’s ways and thoughts are so far above and beyond ours, we should expect his Word to reflect that reality. We should anticipate portions of Scripture that confuse us, alarm us, or go right over our heads. Such passages serve to remind us of our dependence on God and drive us to cry out for his Spirit to enlighten us.
Indeed, if we were able to wrap our minds around everything about God and place him into neat human categories, then we’d be dealing with an idol of our own making and not the transcendent, Sovereign Lord. To paraphrase Tim Keller, “If your god never challenges you or disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”
Even so, these considerations don’t have to leave us exasperated or dejected. Instead, we can approach these challenging parts of Scripture with an expectation of encountering something of God’s mystery and wonder. We can pray along with the Psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
Look for God and the Gospel
“‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24;44,45).
Jesus made this astounding claim to his disciples shortly after his Resurrection. For the Jews, the phrase “Law, Prophets and Psalms (or Writings)” represented the three sections in their arrangement of the Scriptures. It was shorthand for the whole Old Testament. In other words, Jesus was claiming that the entire scope of the Bible is about him.
This doesn’t mean every single passage and word of Scripture is directly and explicitly about Jesus. There are clear Messianic prophecies in Isaiah, the Psalms and elsewhere throughout the Old Testament. But Jesus wasn’t inviting readers to dig for hidden spiritual allegories behind every genealogy, census record and narrative detail in the historical accounts.
Rather, Jesus was instructing and empowering his followers to read his Word through the lens of the Gospel. The Scriptures aren’t about us, but about God. They reveal his power, character and purposes – in a word, his glory. Through many voices and many acts, they trace his grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. To that end they all point, if only implicitly, to the focus and culmination of that narrative – Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and reigning.
The first questions to ask, then, when approaching any portion of Scripture – even our least favourite ones – are these: What does this passage reveal about God? How does it point to his Son? Where does it fit in the overarching narrative of Scripture? How does it speak to me of these things, not just to my intellect, but to all my God-given faculties – my emotions, affections and imagination, my sense of beauty and order and wonder?
Armed with these questions and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we may expect God to meet us, even in the most challenging parts of Scripture, and reveal himself in delightful ways that we might never have anticipated.
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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