So you want to read the Bible but don’t know where to begin huh? Allow me to try and help. This seems like a strange opening, but to be honest, I recall my Christian youth and no one ever “taught me” just how to approach and read the Bible. Even today, most evangelistic endeavors pass out small new testaments to those who have made some profession. These have no choice but to start with Matthew or maybe they are even instructed to begin reading with John’s Gospel, although half the story is missing. Maybe a new convert is brought to a Bible study, and although they read the passage assigned, everyone is talking about having gotten different things out of the same passage, and everyone seems to be right. We have not been taught how to read, this book.
In my youth, I thought it was valid for me to just open it and begin reading just about any place I liked. I felt that I did a good job, as long as found something that impacted my day, week, or person. I could identify with Bible characters as examples, was motivated by what I read and found plenty of moral principles. I even found spiritual principles about how to live the Christian life. But, I found myself just skipping over sections when I could not identify with subjects or persons being discussed. Even in churches that were evangelistic, there were whole sermon series that followed my method of jumping around the whole Bible to find meaning for one passage, and yet the verses surrounding the main text were ignored or obscured from the discussion. It was some time later that I learned that the Bible was not about me at all, but about Christ, and His unfolding story of redemption. This surely has an application the world needs, me included, but it opens up the Bible to be read as a linier story and not character studies and hidden principles about me. It’s not exactly the owner’s manual just about how to fit me when I feel bad or broken, there is a lot more going on.
The lesson begins with you having to open your Bible to a spot and to start reading something. It is usually good to start at the beginning. If I had you read a story from Yahoo News, you would not read the next to last paragraph and attempt to make an application to your life (at least I hope you don’t read news this way). It seems silly to think of doing this with news or other publications, but for some reason we find this acceptable for Scripture.
Next is that you have to at least know (or research) at what point your coming into the story and that there is prior material leading up to your passage and that there will be more material to follow your passage. This is the larger context. If I begin reading in the Gospel of Matthew or John I need to know something about what everyone is so excited about when John the Baptist comes baptizing. What are the leaders so upset about and why? What is a prophet, and why have things been so silent leading up to John? Why is everyone comparing John to someone named Elijah? What exactly is a Messiah, and what is everyone expecting this person to be and do? If instead, I start reading with the book of Acts, I’m confronted with the fact that this is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke written to the same man Theophilus, and maybe I should read that first. If I begin reading in Galatians I learn that this Paul person has been here already, from Acts. Not only this but there is a history of the land in which all these people and places live that has been in possession by differing peoples in a variety of times.
There is a larger context to every passage you read then just you walking into it with a 21st century understanding of the people, terms and worldviews your reading about. There is a very profound story unfolding from beginning to end that is all tied together. To dissect those connections can allow us to force just about any meaning into a text. To miss the larger story as a whole will open your mind to read into things your own story line, and so allow you to interpret the outcome of the story however you like.
I suggest the following method for approaching any passages of the Bible. Tell yourself that the language you are reading, is in the form of words, and that those words have meaning. Words grouped into sentences and paragraphs and then books carry intended thoughts and ideas, the author meant and had a purpose in communicating. Think about how your passage fits within the larger story or argument of the paragraph, letter, book of the Bible and then Bible itself. If there are parts of your passage that directly tie to something of another book of the Bible, go and read that too.
If you have a study Bible it may help to read the introduction(s) of each book of the Bible, or at least the one you’re focused on for your study to see what others view as the larger context or big picture. Make use of study tools and reference books that provide outlines so you can see that your passage does not exist by itself in a void, but within the framework of a specific message being conveyed. Your passage comes out of Scripture when you read it, teach it or preach it. Be able to show yourself and/or others why that piece of the puzzle fits exactly in that spot where you found it.
Next time, God willing, we will zoom in a bit more on the topic of background.