It can be both startling and surprising when I meet Christians (or engage with Christians online) who, for all their talk of Christianity, can’t seem to make sense of the Bible. How could this be?
How could it be that we would become so disoriented in our own worldview that our own book wouldn’t make sense to us?
JI Packer describes one prominent reason one reason why the Bible doesn’t make sense to people: they don’t understand sin.
The subject of sin is vital knowledge. To say that our first need in life is to learn about sin may sound strange, but in the sense intended it is profoundly true. If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellowmen, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition God’s answer to the problem of human sin, and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says. Apart from the first two chapters of Genesis, which set the stage, the real subject of every chapter of the Bible is what God does about our sins. Lose sight of this theme, and you lose your way in the Bible at once. With that, the love of God, the meaning of salvation, and the message of the gospel will all become closed books to you; you may still these talk of things, but you will no longer know what you are talking about. It is clear, therefore, that we need to fix in our minds what our ancestors would have called “clear views of sin.”
‘The subject of sin is vital knowledge’ indeed. May God make us faithful to study it, know it, read the Bible, and relate to our God in light of all that he has shown us about our sin.
Horoscope vs. Bible
Have you ever wondered how it is that some people seem to be so intrigued by their horoscope? I think we all know at least a few coworkers, friends, family members, or neighbours who interpret all of life’s events through Zodiac signs. It’s weird, right?
But they get so excited to read the horoscope! They are eager to read it because they really want to find out what their future (and everyone else’s future) seems to have in store. And they really believe they’ll find out here.
The sad thing, to me, isn’t just that they’re reading these fanciful, generic, basically-could-apply-to-anyone, type predictions. What’s actually sad is that they are more excited about reading the horoscopes (and seem to benefit from reading them more) than some Christians are about reading the Bible.
But the Bible is the inspired Word of God! How could this be?
Reading with Expectation
Someone might answer that it’s hard to benefit from reading the Bible because it is harder to understand. That may be true, in part. But there are lots of easy articles and books devoted to helping you understand the Bible, and many great study Bibles that you can take advantage of as well. Understanding doesn’t have to be (and typically isn’t) the issue.
I think the difference is faith. Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. The difference between horoscope readers and Bible readers, much of the time, is that horoscope readers, sadly, often read with more faith. They genuinely believe that something in those pages will make a difference in their life.
The Bible is awesome. So Christians love it. Unfortunately, the Bible is also huge compared to blog posts, tweets, and most other things we read these days. So Christians fear it.
About a month and a half ago I decided that I wanted to start a new Bible reading plan. From the list of thousands available, one stuck out to me: The Bible in 90 Days.
Read through the Bible in 90 days? I wondered what kind of an insane idea this was, so I looked into it a little bit. Surely, it must be impossible, right?
Here’s what I found out:
- To read the whole Bible takes between 69 and 77 hours
- So, to read the whole Bible in 90 days, you need to read about 48 minutes per day.
Yeah, it’s a commitment, for sure. But really, it’s no more than watching one prime time TV show per day. Or one-third of a sporting event per day. Those are things that we do every day without blinking! So why not give it a shot?
I’ve been at it for a while now. And I can honestly tell you that I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as a Christian that has reaped more immediate benefit for my soul. I’m over halfway through the Bible now, and rather than fearing my Bible reading, I’m loving it! Spending the extra time in the word each day has hooked me and formed a solid habit; I’m honestly addicted. I’m looking instinctively now for ways to spend more time in the word — I love it!
The YouVersion app has been super-helpful for reminding me and tracking my progress. I totally recommend getting it, if you don’t have it.
So GFC people, look out! Once I’m done this time through the Bible, I’ll be looking for some of you to do it with me!
In sermon preparation this week, I’ve been struck again by the simplest of realities. (Why is it always the simplest things that I have to re-learn the most often?) As I was praying over my study for the day — with my mind wandering from sustained prayer to thoughts about the text, and then back to prayer again — I found myself burdened with this reality:
The point of the text is the God of the text; apart from knowing the God who breathes the words, the knowledge of the meaning of words means nothing.
What does it profit a church-goer to gain a whole dictionary of knowledge, but forfeit the opportunity to know God? It is God himself who is exceeding joy, and whose love is better than life (Psalm 43.4; 63.3). It is God who is our refuge and strength, and God alone who proves himself to be for us when all else seems against us (Psalm 46.1; 56.9).
Don’t get me wrong. Rigorous study is an absolute must and precise attention to grammatical and contextual and historical detail is absolutely essential, lest we misunderstand what God is actually saying. But in the midst of the grammatical trees, we must not miss the covenantal-relational forest: Our God has revealed himself to us! He gave us these words that we would know him, and love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 29.29; Mark 12.29-30).
The reason any person speaks is for the purpose of being known. Our God speaks that he might be known, and that we might live in covenant with him. If my sermon — or any sermon — explains the words of the text, but doesn’t bring people face-to-face with the living God who spoke the text, it must ultimately be deemed a failure.
We must work with all diligence to discern the meaning of the words of the speaker, so that the speaker might be understood, cherished, and loved. May God make that true of me this week and every week!
Everyone loves a good story, right? And they’re always easy to understand, too… right? Or maybe not so much.
When we move into New Testament Narrative as a genre (basically consisting of the Gospels and Acts) we move into some of the most familiar and most beloved portions of Scripture.
But we must not mistake ‘familiar’ and ‘beloved’ with ‘rightly understood.’
The Gospels & Acts
New Testament Narrative may best be described as ‘Theological History’ or perhaps ‘Historical Theology.’ The term Gospel simply refers to the proclamation of good news and was typically associated with things like military conquest or the birth of a son.
While each Gospel-writer has his own purpose for writing, and therefore his own themes, we need to be familiar with big themes of the Gospels & Acts (kingdom, authority, end of the age, revelation of God, etc.). In particular, we want to see how each is deliberately trying to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of all humanity’s needs and all the OT’s expectations.
Forms of Writing in the Gospels
Parables: A parable is a short narrative that demands a response from the hearer. They are sheep-discerners (Mark 4.10-12). Some hints for parables:
- Watch for contextual indicators which teach why parables are told (Lk 18.1; Lk 15.1-3; Lk 10.26-29)
- Look for a single major point (with perhaps some secondary points), rather than allegorizing or universalizing
- In some sense, these are proverbs in narrative form, contrasting how different people live before God (wise & foolish builders, pharisees/Levites & Samaritans, rich man & Lazarus, Pharisee & tax collector).
- Parables are supposed to make you pensive; don’t press on too quickly
Back in the summer I began a series giving some ‘Guidelines for Reading the Bible.’ At that time I covered Old Testament Narrative and Wisdom Literature.
Today I’d like to move on and cover the Prophetic Literature. These books may be divided up into their three main redemptive-historical categories of pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic (all referring to the Babylonian exile of 605-536 BC).
All of the writing prophets have their ministry span falling between about 760 and 460 BC. Just like your pastor’s message to your church this coming Sunday will be different than the message preached to our people (addressing different sins and different cultural pressures, etc.), the prophets were addressing different people groups (either Israel in the north of Judah in the south). It’s important to know where and when these prophets are ministering so you can make sense of their warning / admonition / rebuke. A good study Bible will always help you here.
Prophets as Historians and Future-Tellers
Often when we conceive of prophecy and prophets we think merely of future-telling. But there is much more identity-grounding memory-jogging in the prophetic literature than anything else. As historians, they were to remind God’s people of their covenantal past and all that God had already promised & warned.
But inasmuch as they reminded people of what God had said in the past, the prophets could predict the immediate future (because they knew God would keep his word to bless & to curse appropriately). The prophets saw the future events of the ‘last days’ as a mountain range in the distance, as one singular unit. Living in the ‘last days’ now, however, we see that within the mountain range there are many peaks and valleys between individual predicted events.
Some Patterns in Prophetic Literature
- The Lawsuit: (1) Call (2)Accusation (3) Announcement, and often, (4)plea for repentance (e.g. Amos 4.1-3)
- The Woe (e.g. Isaiah 5)
- The Promise (e.g. Isaiah 40)
- The Poetry (e.g. Isaiah 52-53); also, proverbs, riddles, satire, etc.
- The Prophetic Narrative (e.g. Jeremiah 32)
- The Apocalyptic Prophecies (e.g. Daniel 7-12)
Who doesn’t want to be wise? Everyone wants to be wise! No one wants to make foolish decisions that they will later regret. And Christians especially want to know how to make decisions that are pleasing to the Lord.
That’s why we have the wisdom literature in our Bible (for my purposes here, I’m lumping in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, all in this category). These books are given specifically so that we could know how to live wisely.
But the problem is that when we pick up these books, we’re often filled with more questions than answers: How come these statements aren’t always true in my life? How come some back-to-back statements seem to contradict each other (Prov 26.4-5)? What are all these strange forms of sayings and strange images? How is someone ever supposed to live on the corner of a roof anyway (Prov 25.24)?
Here are ten hopefully helpful principles for interpreting Wisdom Literature. It’s important that we get this right, since this is God’s means of helping us to become wise.