The Bible is a window. Have you opened it lately?
Almost all American households have one or more Bibles. Yet more than half of the adults in these households do not read their Bibles during an average week, and only 10 or 15 percent do so daily.
“Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,” pollster George Gallup Jr. once observed. This seems to be borne out by what Americans know about the Bible. In one survey, only 42 percent of those interviewed could name five of the Ten Commandments. Only 46 percent correctly named the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is likely that the statistics have gone down since those surveys were taken.
Much more important is how the Bible speaks to our lives. “Until people see the Bible as a practical guidebook for their everyday existence, it will probably continue to remain on the shelf,” says Christian pollster George Barna.
So why should we read and study an ancient and (in the minds of many) hard-to-understand book? What could the Bible say that is essential to daily life in the modern world?
For our time
Jack Kuhatschek, in his book Taking the Guesswork out of Applying the Bible, openly admits the Bible’s bad image—referring to its “age problem.” He writes: “People wonder what benefit we can possibly derive from a two-thousand-year-old book written in an obscure corner of the Middle East. In a sense I can’t blame them. After all, much of the Bible does seem irrelevant today.”
Chapter after chapter, the Bible can seem outdated and irrelevant to our needs. It tells the experiences of people like Noah, Moses and Paul, who lived many centuries ago. They faced problems and questions that don’t seem related to our own.
Not only are the human experiences discussed in the Bible ancient, but the cultures, vocabulary and thought patterns are also dated. For example, the book of Revelation is written in what is called “apocalyptic” style. That is not a literary genre familiar to us modern folks, and it seems strange and confusing. This makes it difficult to understand the message of the book—and easy to misinterpret it. But during the first century, apocalyptic writing was a well-known literary genre. The original Christian readers knew this style of writing and how to understand the message Revelation wanted to convey.
What’s our view?
We need to see the Bible’s books and literary styles on their terms. If we are to grasp the message of any biblical book, we need to hear the word of God coming from its pages in the same way the first readers heard it. We also need to understand the meaning of the story of the lives of Noah, Moses or Paul, even as the first Christians did. Although our culture may be different, we have the same concerns, needs and problems as they did.
God showed his nearness, his saving grace, and his purpose by involving himself in the lives of these individuals. Their past encounters with God help us understand how God deals with us now.
This is the key to becoming motivated to study the Bible. We need to understand it as the book that reveals God and his way. So we should honestly and frankly ask ourselves about our view of the Bible. Do we see it as an oppressive rule book? An out-of-date and irrelevant ancient writing? Impossible to understand? Filled with boring history in the Old Testament and imponderable theology in the New?
Or do we see the Bible as a book that puts us in touch with God on a personal level? As a book that reveals God’s loving and gracious purpose for us?
Our view of the Bible depends on how we perceive our relationship with God. Do we see him as a distant God uninvolved with human affairs? Or do we see him as a living Being who has something important to tell us about himself and his purpose for us—and our future with him? Here are three questions to ponder in our relationship to God and to the Bible:
- Do we believe God is interested in communicating himself and his message to human beings?
- Do we believe God revealed his purpose through prophets (Old Testament) and apostles (New Testament)?
- Do we believe that they faithfully wrote down their revelations from God—and that their writings have been preserved in the book we call the Bible?
God’s word to us
In his book Understanding the Bible, John Stott asks us: “Do we really believe that God has spoken, that God’s words are recorded in Scripture, and that as we read it we may hear God’s voice addressing us?” The apostle Paul, speaking of those books that form the Christian Old Testament, said they could make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
He told his young associate Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (verses 16-17).
Peter insisted he had not followed “cleverly devised stories” when he told the church about God’s plan of salvation (2 Peter 1:16). He had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ work and had seen and talked with the resurrected Christ. Peter promised he would make every effort to provide for the preservation of those truths after his death. These would keep the church within the realm of faith and God’s grace (verse 15). Peter also spoke of Paul’s letters as Scripture. He said they were authoritative writings that conveyed the words of God about things vital to our salvation (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Do we agree that the Bible contains God’s word to us? If so, the Bible must matter a great deal as a book that can help us come to know God more intimately. How, then, could the Bible not be a book we would want to read and study on a regular basis? Have you read the Good Book lately?
More than reading required
You’ve probably heard statements like the following: “Simply read the Bible for yourself and do what it says,” or “Just read, believe, and obey the Bible.” While this approach to Bible reading sounds simple, it’s not quite the way that effective study of the Bible proceeds. We need to learn how to correctly interpret what the Bible says on a particular matter before we apply it to our lives. That’s because we don’t come to the Bible with a clean slate, free of previous opinions. We are not only readers of Scripture, we are, for better or worse, also interpreters.
Our view of what the Bible says on a given matter may be distorted by what we think it says. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing in the Bible something we already believe, but it doesn’t teach. “We invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas,” write biblical scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
That can be dangerous. The authors explain, “Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.” To rightly understand the Bible, we also need to understand the kind of book it is. It was written by and for people who lived centuries ago in cultures far different from our own.
The Bible is relevant to all ages. But we must first understand the context or original situation in which a particular portion of Scripture was written. Then comes the need for right interpretation, understanding how a particular passage of Scripture reflects a broad principle applicable to life situations we face. This requires more than a casual reading of the Scriptures.
After rightly interpreting the original intent of the biblical writings, we need to apply them intelligently to our contemporary situation. When we read the Bible, we need to listen to the voice of God coming through his Word, not our own. We should avoid reading into the Bible ideas it doesn’t teach.
Help is available to us as we move along our journey of study. Here are two useful books that tell us how to study the Bible:
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
- Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study the Bible, by A. Berkeley Mickelson and Alvera M. Mickelson.