How many of my readers have read the Bible from cover to cover? It may surprise you how few Christians have done so.
Reading the Bible can be a challenging endeavor. I have seen young Christians start at the front of the Bible, treating it like any other book. I think by the time they got into Judges they had some questions about where this was going and why. Chances are they got stuck and gave up back in the book of Leviticus.
It is not surprising to learn that church leaders in the past actually discouraged lay people from reading the Bible, believing that the average person without theological training would not properly understand or correctly interpret the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is difficult to understand, even today.
When the printing press was invented the Bible was one of the first books to be printed. Before that, we must remember, there were only a few cherished copies in the possession of church leaders. Significantly, the Protestant Reformation began as people saw discrepancies between the Bible and the teaching of the church.
It seems logical that we would want to read the Bible and study for ourselves the source of the teachings of the church, rather than rely on priests and ministers.
I didn’t read my entire Bible until I was in Bible College, at which time I had some helpful guidance. Before that I probably read most of the New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, the book of Genesis, and a few other select passages. This may actually be a good way to start reading the Bible.
The New Testament is generally easy to understand, with the exception of the prophesies in the book of Revelation. It is the Old Testament–the first half or more of the Bible–that can be difficult to grasp.
In a nutshell, the OT is the story before the story. It is the backdrop. It sets the stage for the New Testament. For this reason, it is helpful to be familiar with the NT before beginning to read the OT.
The meaning of the NT is enhanced by an understanding of the OT. The writers of the NT had a considerable grasp of the “Scriptures”–the collection books we call the OT. These books include history, law, poetry and prophesy and were written by various authors. The OT is the greatest collection of ancient books in the world, and today we have numerous actual copies and fragments dating back to before Christ.
At the centre of the OT we find the poetic books, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, followed by a collection of prophetic books. At the beginning of the Bible are the historical books and books of the law. It helps to have this understanding of the genres as you are reading.
The historical books begin with the story of God creating the earth and then relate how God chose Abraham to be the father of a nation to whom he would reveal himself and show his glory. The Bible contains not only the story of a nation but many personal stories as well. Sadly, many of the stories are about how God’s people failed to obey and serve him, and missed out on the blessings he promised. We read story after story of God “delivering” his people, only to have them turn away from him again in disobedience.
The prophets prophesied that God would send a “deliverer,” the Messiah who would save his people from their sins. There is a four hundred year break between the OT and NT writings before this story continues with Mary, a virgin, being visited by an angel who tells her she will conceive a child, Jesus, by the Holy Ghost. He will be the “Savior” of the world, the Messiah promised by the OT prophets.
The first four books of the NT are different perspectives of the life of Christ, written by different authors. They are commonly called the gospels, gospel meaning good news. In the gospels Jesus Christ prophesies his own death as a sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. The need for sacrifice is understood in the context of the teaching of the OT books of the law in which God required animals as a sacrifice for sins. Jesus also predicted his resurrection after three days, as proof that he was indeed the Son of God.
The gospels are followed by the book of Acts which is a continued history of what happened to Jesus’ followers after he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
The remaining NT books are letters, or epistles, from Christian leaders giving instruction and encouragement to churches and individuals, with the exception of the final book, Revelation, which is a book of prophesy.
The Bible contains the story of the origin of three religions–Jews, Muslims, and Christians. All three consider the Old Testament as a holy book, but only Christians are accepting of the New Testament as a continuation of the story. Muslims and Jews both trace their lineage to Abraham.
The Bible is the story of faith in one God, a righteous God who expects to be honored and obeyed. It makes the claim of literal inspiration by God. Each book is written from the perspective of faith in one God, creating a consistent narrative. Christians, as distinctive from Muslims and Jews, see God as a triune being with different expressions as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The over-arching theme of the Bible is, The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8
This message of grace, compassion and love was introduced in the book of Exodus when God revealed himself to Moses.
5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Exodus 34:5-7 NIV
Our modern cultural view of love makes it difficult for some to embrace the biblical message of a God who not only rescues the oppressed but also punishes evildoers. There are things in the Bible which we may never understand.
I hope this summary is helpful and I encourage serious readers to seek out and study other resources.