What is the Best Way to Read the Bible?

Last week we looked at examples from the New Testament of people coming together in community to study the Scriptures. We also looked at the first few centuries after the New Testament to see the council at Nicea surrounding the deity of Christ. Christians came together around the Scriptures in order to clarify beliefs and put an end to false teaching. This council resulted in what we commonly call The Nicene Creed.

This community study of the Scriptures happened on many other occasions as well. As the years passed, again the Church saw need of solidifying doctrine amongst all believers. The decision was made to collect the writings held highly by the community and combine them into an authoritative collection. There was some debate concerning some of the writings we have today in our New Testament, and some differences still exist today (does your Bible contain the Apocrypha?) But when the Church came together in community, the most trusted writings were compiled to solidify the documents of our faith – the New Testament.

We are so used to having our sacred writings in one book. Can you imagine going through life and having to search from city to city to find a copy of John’s Gospel? The fact that you own a Bible, or have access to a Bible online, or in app form is because 1600 years ago the Church, the Body of Christ, came together in community in order to compile (not create) the writings we know and love.

Today, we must take the same approach toward interpreting Scripture. Renowned theologian, seminary professor, and author Scot McKnight has a suggestion for how we are to read and interpret Scripture today in his book, The Blue Parakeet. In this quote, he speaks of the “Great Tradition,” that is the understanding of the historical Christian community.

“I suggest we learn to read the Bible with the Great Tradition. We dare not ignore what God has said to the church through the ages (as the return and retrieval folks often do), nor dare we fossilize past interpretations into traditionalism. Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return problem), and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism). We want to walk between these two approaches. It’s not easy, but I contend that the best of the evangelical approaches to the Bible and the best way of living the Bible today is to walk between these approaches.”

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet

The history of the church shows that Scripture has been best interpreted in community. When believers come together and wrestle with the Scriptures to find truth, error is avoided, God is honored, and Scripture is upheld and interpreted in a relevant way. As history and the New Testament has shown us, it is the best way.

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2 Rules for Reading Scripture

Last week we looked at the human component in Scripture. All Scripture is from God, but it comes through the mind and hand of humans, sometimes humans writing in community as we noted last week in many of Paul’s writings. This makes the Bible more special in my eyes, that God was willing to partner with humans in getting his word to the world, just as he partners with us today in doing the same thing (See Matthew 28:19). Today we’ll unpack the last part of Bobby Valentine’s quote: “God’s word addressed them in that situation and may not be God’s directive for all time and all places.”

There are two rules for reading Scripture: Context, and Context. Because of the historical nature of revelation we must pay close attention to the historical occasion of the text.  Why was it said or written in the first place? For instance, Ezekiel records many times of coming calamities upon Israel and Jerusalem “from the north.” This does not mean that Americans should be arming our border with Canada and preparing for war. This is a ridiculous example, I admit, but there are some who take equally specific texts meant for a specific people group in a specific time and place and try to apply it to everyone today. We must honor the context of the statements in order to accurately derive their meaning.

Let’s take a look for a moment and look at another example.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 NKJV

I’ve seen this verse applied to people trying to make a difficult decision, athletes wanting to win a game, couch potatoes that want to work up to running a marathon, churches hoping to begin a new ministry, people hoping to buy a new car or find a new house, and the list goes on and on. This verse is poorly translated in the KJV/NKJV (the word “Christ” doesn’t even appear in the Greek text), and its meaning is poorly applied to our lives because we don’t understand the context of Paul’s statement.

Paul has been arrested for preaching about Christ, but he doesn’t view this as a bad thing. In fact, Paul believes this is good because believers now see their faith in Christ is worth even going to prison over, and therefore they are spreading the Gospel message more intensely (Phil. 1:12-18). Fast forward a few chapters. Paul exhorts the church to rejoice always, no matter your circumstances…even if you are in chains for the Gospel (4:4). They should focus on Godly ways rather than worrying about the things of this world (4:5-9). Paul acknowledges that for a while the church was unable to support him, or provide for his needs (after all, he is in prison so he doesn’t have much – 4:10) Then Paul writes:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11-13 NIV

Paul is saying he doesn’t need money or possessions in order to preach the Gospel. God gives him strength, and that is enough. Want to apply this to your life? You should go preach the Gospel and God will give you the ability in whatever situation you find yourself to do just that. And no, that doesn’t include winning your softball game.

The Human Component of Scripture

Last week we began to look at the “inspiration” of Scripture (see 2 Tim. 3:16). I mentioned the biggest problem we face when trying to understand God’s inspiration of Scripture is we try to remove the human element from Scripture. We forget that the people writing these texts had a hand in their creation as well. They were not strictly taking dictation.

Bobby Valentine puts it this way:

“The Bible is inspired of God’s Holy Spirit through the words of human beings in specific historical circumstances. Thus it is literally the word of God and the word of humans. Thus the text was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and not Spanish, English or Southern. God’s word addressed them in that situation and may not be God’s directive for all time and all places.”

I left you with three examples of differences between Scriptures that refer to the same events. All of these are narrative events (meaning a story is being told). Did you look them up? If not do so now:

Did you notice the differences? They are all human elements that have been changed. Let’s look at the first. The writings of Samuel and Kings cover the exact same time frame as Chronicles, but their intent is different. The writing of Samuel is more of a prophetic warning, or explanation of why the people wound up in exile. Chronicles attempts to reestablish the image of Israel after the exile. Two different purposes, and the writers included two different sets of details. All true, but different purposes.

Both Luke and John tell us about Peter going to the empty tomb. John includes this “other disciple” beating Peter to the tomb. That’s the way John refers to himself throughout his Gospel. Why did John include this and Luke didn’t? Because it was John himself who beat Peter in a footrace to the tomb!

Mark and Luke tell us of the bleeding condition of the woman healed by touching Jesus’ robe. Mark tells us that she had suffered greatly at the hands of physicians. Luke, who was himself a physician, apparently didn’t feel we needed that bit of the story.

Can you see the human element of these texts? Can you see how God gave latitude to the authors? This makes the Bible more special in my eyes, that God was willing to partner with humans in getting his word to the world, just as he partners with us today in doing the same thing (See Matthew 28:19).

In the meantime, look at how Paul did not write his letters alone, but in partnering with others: Rom. 16:22, 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:1-2, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1, etc.

Next week we’ll unpack the last part of Bobby’s quote, specifically how God’s word may apply to specific times and places, verses all times and all places.

Common Myths Surrounding the Inspiration of Scripture

In these articles we have been discussing the ways many read the Bible incorrectly. I’m not talking about doctrinal interpretation, I’m talking about the very way we approach the book. I would encourage you to look at these past articles if you haven’t already:

Today, we are looking at the “inspiration” of Scripture. Paul wrote a letter to one of his coworkers named Timothy in which he gives this charge:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.

2 Timothy 3:14-17 NIV

What exactly did Paul mean by “God-breathed?” I grew up thinking that this process was much like the way we use voice-to-text with our cell phones today. Ask Siri to send a text message, you speak, and the person on the other end gets your words. Siri doesn’t shape your words, Siri doesn’t give the gist of your words, it is every word exactly as you speak it. This is how I viewed the process of the Holy Spirit inspiring the words of Scripture. The Spirit whispered in the ear of Paul, Peter, Luke, Matthew, and the others, and they wrote down every word in the exact order the Spirit spoke them. I guess you could summarize this process as “strict dictation.”

If this is so, why does Paul write differently than Peter? Why does Matthew write differently than John? Why does Luke include a story that Mark does not? Isn’t the same Holy Spirit behind the writing? Isn’t the same Holy Spirit dictating word for word to each writer? Why then are they different?

And therein lies the problem. We often try to remove the human element from Scripture, forgetting that the people writing these texts had a hand in their creation as well. They were not strictly taking dictation.

Bobby Valentine puts it this way:

“The Bible is inspired of God’s Holy Spirit through the words of human beings in specific historical circumstances. Thus it is literally the word of God and the word of humans. Thus the text was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and not Spanish, English or Southern. God’s word addressed them in that situation and may not be God’s directive for all time and all places.”

Bobby Valentine

We’ll unpack the last part of Bobby’s quote next week, and explore the context of these inspired writings next week. But if you want to see examples of this, look at the following passages…all true, but you can see the human element of the author at play:

Ask yourself: What are the differences in these passages, and why?

How To Know You’re Interpreting The Bible Correctly.

For the last five weeks we’ve been discussing reading the Bible as story. We’ve discussed Scot McKnight’s description of Scripture where he suggests that there are three “chapters,” or clearly defined sections to the Bible’s overarching story: theocracy (Gen. 1-1 Sam. 8), monarchy (1 Sam. 8 – Mal. 4), and Christocracy (Matthew 1-Rev. 20). It’s important to realize that God’s ultimate goal is to return us back to a theocracy through the redemptive work of Christ, and the final judgement of all people. Seriously, go read the last two chapters of Revelation and you’ll see an image of how God intended our existence to be in the beginning in the Garden.

Today we talk about the concept of Biblical interpretation. In my church heritage there has been a very big emphasis placed on the “plain reading of the Bible.” In other words, “…we don’t interpret the Bible, we simply do what it plainly says.” Lovely idea, but terribly inaccurate. Whether you like it or not, and whether you realize it or not, the Bible is interpreted by everyone.

Don’t believe me? When was the last time your church put an adulterer to death? (Lev. 20:10) Is your clothing made out of a blend of different materials? (Lev. 19:19) Did you greet everyone at worship with a holy kiss? (commanded 4 times in the NT, Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26) Did all the men in your assembly lift their hands during every prayer? (1 Tim. 2:8)

If you didn’t do these things, even though a “plain reading” of Scripture clearly shows you should, then you are interpreting Scripture. And you should interpret Scripture! The only question is, “Am I interpreting Scripture properly?”

Bobby Valentine gives us the following suggestions for doing just that:

“Christian hermeneutics will always begin as a response to the God of all grace who has done great things. Christian interpretation will be rooted in the soul that is seeking to reflect God’s glorious image back into the created world around us. Christian biblical interpretation will begin in prayer and will be understood as ‘an act of worship.’ Thus, interpretation that does not begin in prayer and worship and result in the Spirit flowing through us to a vandalized world means we have a right to question if it is a valid hermeneutic or Christian interpretation. Prayer, Worship and reflecting God’s image: these are the beginning points and the ends/goals of interpretation.”

Bobby Valentine

Again the question isn’t if we interpret the Bible. The question is how we interpret. McKnight put sit this way:

“God speaks to us for a reason – I call this ‘missional’ listening. In brief, God tells his story so we can enter into a relationship with him, listen to him, and live out his Word in our day and in our way.”

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, 2nd Ed., pg. 113

If our interpretation of Scripture doesn’t affect our daily lives, it’s worthless. If our interpretation brings us into a place where we better reflect the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29 – remember we’re living in a Christocracy), then we can be confident in our approach to the Scriptures.

So, how is your interpretation of Scripture reflecting the image of Christ to others in your life?

You’re Probably Reading the Bible the Wrong Way (Part 5)

For the last four weeks we’ve been discussing reading the Bible as story. 70% of the Bible’s text is narrative (story) and the other 30% is communication between the characters in that story. We looked at Scot McKnight’s description of Scripture where he suggests that there are three “chapters,” or clearly defined sections to the Bible’s overarching story. Week have explored theocracy, which is found from Genesis 1 through 1 Samuel 8, and last week we looked at the monarchy, Israel’s rule by earthly kings. This section begins in 1 Samuel 8 and continues through the end of the Old Testament. Simply put, rejecting God never turns out well.

We ended with the question: How have I rejected God as my King, and how has it affected my life? Keep that question in mind as we discuss the final of McKnight’s “chapters”, Christocracy. If you try to look that word up in a standard dictionary you probably won’t have much luck. By Christocracy we mean a body of believers governed directly by the living, resurrected Jesus, the Christ! In the New Testament Jesus said, “…I will build my church…” (Mt. 16:18). The word we have translated as “church” in your Bible is the Greek word ekklesia, and it has absolutely nothing to do with a building. The word simply means assembly, or gathering. What Jesus intends to do is gather and create a people group who are called out of the world’s systems and governments to follow and obey a new King above all, the risen Jesus.

Following King Jesus is a difficult task that must be considered carefully. Consider the following:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

Luke 14:25-33 NIV (emphasis added)

Following King Jesus as part of his ekklesia means allegiance to him above all else. This isn’t a half hearted, fill the pew an hour a week type of relationship! Nothing else in this life matters apart from following his will. He is our King, and we die to ourselves, our desires, our choices when we decide to follow him. It’s a radical kingdom!

We see from theocracy that the people rejected God as their king. We see from monarchy that the people rejected God even with an earthly king.  And sadly in our Christocracy that we call the church, many will still reject Christ as their king. But Christocracy is designed to return us to a Theocracy once again at the end of time (read Revelation 21 & 22 for what this looks like).

But now back to our original question: How have I rejected God as my King, and how has it affected my life? If Jesus isn’t Lord of your life you are rejecting him. You are rejecting God’s will on your life. And the scary thing is he will let you do this. But as Scripture makes clear, no good comes from rejecting King Jesus!

You’re Probably Reading the Bible the Wrong Way (Part 4)

For the last three weeks we’ve been discussing reading the Bible as story. 70% of the Bible’s text is narrative (story) and the other 30% is communication between the characters in that story. We looked at Scot McKnight’s description of Scripture:

“There is not just one and only one story in the Bible. But there are two nonnegotiables (sic) in the Bible’s Story. First, there is a general plot from the creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1-2 to the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation 20-22. Second, there are redemptive benefits for those who participate in that ‘general plot’ by declaring allegiance to the God of that plot.”

The Blue Parakeet, 2nd Ed., pg 68

McKnight goes further to suggest that there are three “chapters,” or clearly defined sections to the Bible’s overarching story. Last week we explored theocracy, which is found from Genesis 1 through 1 Samuel 8. Today we look at the next section of the Bible, monarchy.

Most people are familiar with the term monarchy. It’s a form of government where one person, usually a king or queen, rules over a people.  Here’s how the text sets this up in 1 Samuel 8:

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

1 Samuel 8:6-9 NIV

God gave the people what they wanted, even though it meant rejecting him. There were good times under some of the kings, but when you have a human running things there will always be failures. Israel’s history under the kings is full of failures. And a parallel can be extended to our lives as well. When we reject God’s lead in our lives we too will fail. Perhaps not every moment of every day will be a failure, but we will suffer the effects of rejecting God.

Just browse through your Old Testament from 1 Samuel 8 to the end of Malachi. What do you see? What do the title headings (added by editors of your translation as aides for understanding) show you about the narrative of the story? I just did a quick flip through and came across the following on each page I turned to: Judgement on Jerusalem and Judah, The Covenant is Broken, The Fall of Jerusalem, Idolatry in the Temple, Judgement on the Idolaters, Israel to be Destroyed. These are the kinds of things the rejection of God brings upon people. But this is not the end of the story.

You will also find headings such as A Promised Messiah from Bethlehem, Israel will Rise, Restoration of Israel’s Remnant. Even through the people’s rejection of God as their King, he was preparing to send another King that would undo that rejection. That section begins in Matthew 1. But for now, answer this question:

How have I rejected God as my King, and how has it affected my life?