SCRIPTURE – 2 Timothy 3:14 -17 – But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancyyou have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
How to Read the Bible Today
November 15, 2015
At first glance, the Bible looks a lot like a book, doesn’t it? It has a cover, a spine, a table of contents. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were supposed to read it like you read any other book. Start at the beginning, read through the middle, if it gets boring, skip to the end. The only problem with the Bible is that if you skip to the end, you’ll be smack dab in the middle of Revelation, which is at times scarier than a Stephen King novel. No, the Bible is not just any old book. So how do we read it?
Today we finish our sermon series on the Bible. We’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the Good Book. We’ve looked at what’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as who wrote it and how it got into our hands today. We’ve asked tough questions like, “Is the Bible true?” and “What authority should it have?” We’ve looked at the various ways God is portrayed in the Bible and talked about how the Bible is relevant for our lives today. All of those sermons, which you can find on our website, aren’t worth a hill of beans if we’re not willing to actually open the book and read it for ourselves, so that’s what we’ll talk about today.
As I said, the Bible isn’t meant be read from front to back. It’s not just one book; it’s a collection of books, with diverse material ranging from history to poetry and from biography to prophecy. So where do you even start? I’ll give you some suggestions later, but before we talk about how to read it, we need to talk about why to read it. We all know we’re supposed to, but most of us probably don’t as often as we should, if at all. It’s an intimidating book, and if you don’t know where to start, it’s easy to get lost in a whirlpool of begats and Jehosephats. And to be honest, it’s not always a page-turner. So before we read it, we have to be motivated by something other than our grandma’s voice in our heads cajoling us to do it. Why read it?
One reason people read it is for information. After all, the Bible contains the history of the Jewish people, which sets the stage for the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know about who Jesus was, what he taught, how he died, the Bible is a storehouse of great information. The Bible tells us what God wants us to know. But that’s not the only reason to read it.
Some people read the Bible for formation. They want to know what they need to do in order to obtain their “Get into Heaven Free” card or to figure out how to make up for their mistakes. I visited an elderly lady once in the hospital, and when I walked into the room she had the Bible open in front of her. I remarked that scripture must be important to her, and she said, “Not really. I haven’t read it very much.” I asked her why she was reading it now, and she said, “I’m cramming for my final exam!” That’s reading the Bible for formation. It tells us what God wants us to do. But that’s also not the only reason we should read it.
We don’t read it only for information, and we don’t read it only for formation. We read it for transformation. We read it to learn what we should know; we read it to learn what we should do; and, I would say most importantly, we read it to learn who we should be. That’s what I love about the passage we read from I Timothy today. Paul says all these great things about scripture and how we’re supposed to use it, and then he adds a “so that.” It’s as if someone said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Paul, I get it, reading the Bible is important. So what?” And Paul answers, “So that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
The Bible has the power to fundamentally change the orientation of our lives away from ourselves and toward God. The story it tells has the power to reorder our priorities and question our assumptions. The words on its pages has the power, as Paul writes, to make us “new creations.” We read the Bible to figure out how to be more like Jesus today than we were yesterday, how to reflect the image of God inside us rather than distort it, how to do the “good work” we’ve been called to do. That, in short, is why we read the Bible.
But the problem is not all of the Bible is transformative in that way. We’ve talked in this series about how the Bible is rooted in a context much different than our own, and not all of what the Bible says applies to us today. We talked about how we pick and choose what we give authority in the Bible, and what we give authority determines how we are transformed. So when we read a passage, we have to discern within it if there’s a message for us about God and about who God is calling us to be. And if there’s not, we don’t give that passage any authority. We choose not to follow it.
Pastor Adam Hamilton offers an instructive metaphor here. He says we all have three buckets we use when it comes to reading scripture, and every passage goes into one of these buckets. In the first bucket are passages that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, like the command to love God and love our neighbor. The truth in this passage never changes. In the second bucket are passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, like some of the laws in the Old Testament. Those were God’s will for that time and place, but are no longer God’s will for us today. And in the third bucket are passages that reflect the cultural and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like Paul’s command for slaves to obey their masters. So a passage is either a timeless truth, a “that was then, this is now” truth, or a statement written by the author that never reflected God’s will. So when we read a passage, we choose which bucket they go in, and which bucket they go in determine what kind of authority those passages have for us.
Women’s role in the church is a great case study. Paul clearly says that women are to be silent in church and not to have authority over men. There are some churches that put that in the first bucket as God’s timeless will. But there are other churches, ours included, who put that in the second or third bucket. I put it in the third. I don’t think God ever wanted women to not play a role in church leadership. Otherwise, why would God gift them with such skills? I think that passage reflects the patriarchal society of that culture, but not God’s timeless truth. When we choose to ordain women, we’re not choosing between the Bible and ordaining women. We’re choosing between a certain view of the Bible and ordaining women.
So, when you read the Bible, you need to figure out for yourself which bucket is best for you. When God calls the Israelites to kill the people in the surrounding nations, which bucket? When Jesus tells the story about the Good Samaritan helping the stranger, which bucket? When Jesus calls the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give it to the poor, which bucket? When Paul writes about issue like keeping the sabbath or slavery or same-sex behavior or the relationship between husbands and wives, which bucket? That’s part of the work we are called to do as Christians who have been given the gift of a brain. Sure, someone else can pick your buckets for you, but then you lose the power of the “so that,” the power to choose for yourself what to believe and how to live out your faith.
I think we have a great example of how to do this, and it comes from the Bible itself. In the book of Acts, Paul is out recruiting new Christians from among the Gentiles, and the Jews are getting upset because these new converts aren’t going through all the membership rituals necessary to join the Jesus as Messiah Club, like being circumcised. The leaders say, “You have to follow God’s rules,” and Paul is like, “Who cares? They believe! That’s what matters!” So the issue is taken to the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, like the Supreme Court of its day, to make a ruling.
The council listens to arguments from both sides, and then hands down a verdict on what new Christians should do to be considered a part of the body of Christ. And they start their decision this way: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond a few requirements.” Notice the amazing humility in that statement. They’re not saying, “God told us to say this.” They’re not claiming to know God’s heart or to speak in God’s voice. They’re not stating, “The Bible says it so that settles it.” They say, “It seemed good.”
It seems good to me to place some biblical passages in the first bucket and some in the second and some in the third. It seems good to me to interpret the Bible in ways that support my image of God as loving, creative, inclusive. I don’t claim to have it right. I might get to Heaven and God will say, “ Dude, totally the wrong bucket on that one.” It seems good to me to believe what I believe and live out my faith the way I choose. Doesn’t mean I’m right. Doesn’t mean someone who believes differently is wrong. I’ve studied the Bible my whole life, I take it very seriously, but I don’t have the presumption to know God’s heart. I learn something new every time I read it. That’s why I read it.
Once you get a grasp on why you read the Bible, then you can move onto the how, which is pretty simple. First, you need a Bible. There are a plethora of versions out there. Some are more readable paraphrases, like the Message. Some are more faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew, like the New King James Version. And some are a balance, like the New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version. Go to a bookstore, browse through some different ones, read the same passage in different versions, and find the one that works best.
Next, I recommend your Bible be a study bible, or that you have a commentary near you. A commentary simply provides historical background, context, and some interpretation of what you’re reading. A good study bible does the same thing. If you want to see samples of either of these, come see Trish or me. We’ve got you covered.
So, where to start? I would start with a gospel. That’s the essence of our story as Christians. I prefer Luke, so I would recommend reading Luke and then Acts, which is the history of the early church. After that, go back and read another gospel, then Paul’s letter to the Romans. And then after that? Well, after that, pick a book and dive in. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. And if you get to a section that bogs you down…skip it. You have my permission. And if that’s the wrong thing to do, then at least we’ll be in trouble with God together. And keep your buckets handy, because you’ll have some decisions to make about what you believe.
We read the Bible to know God; and we read the Bible learn what to do; and we read the Bible to learn who we are called to be. The Bible is a great conversation partner for us on this journey of faith. I believe we should converse with it, complain to it, talk back to it, interrogate it, and disagree with it, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust. And ultimately, I believe we should let it change us, because our faith is called to be in motion, not stagnant. I believe a certain faith is a rigid faith, but an unsettled faith is a growing faith. But none of that can happen if we don’t read it.