How I Read My Bible

I asked an evangelist once how she read her Bible. I had the privilege of driving her to the airport and I wanted to know about her Bible study habits. I expected her to tell me she read so many chapters a day, or maybe that she studied the Bible for an hour a day. Her response was, “I read until it speaks to me.”

I have met Christians who have a light in their eyes and sometimes even a glow on their faces. It is as though they have a secret “source.” I’ve heard testimonies of people who could tell  before they became Christians which people were Christians. The Bible actually instructs us to identify and “mark” those who stand out as Christian leaders. I compare this to placing a bookmark in a book where there is an important passage I want to return to. I remember them because I have “marked” them.

This evangelist had that light in her eyes and I have met others like her. I think this light comes from seeing God on the page when they read the Bible. They read it in such a way that it speaks to them and feeds them and gives life to their souls.

In the Bible we read accounts of people who understood God in a unique way. I sometimes feel an intimacy with characters like Queen Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Mary, and other women. I have studied them, and I get a thrill of expectation at the thought of meeting them one day. They are almost as real to me as the evangelist whom I drove to the airport.

One of the characters that I have “bookmarked” in my Bible is Job. I sense there is so much to learn from him. In my recent study of Job certain passages leapt out at me with a compelling message. I often have this experience when I read the Bible. It is as though new sections are highlighted each time I read and they speak to me in a specific way.

Job was highly honored in his community before tragedy struck. He lived an outstanding life. People greatly revered him. We can read about his former honor in Job 29. Here Job is reflecting on a time in his past when the people “waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain.” He starts the chapter this way,

How I long for the months gone by,

for the days when God watched over me,

when his lamp shone on my head

and by his light I walked through the darkness!

Oh, for the days when I was in my prime,

when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house,

when the Almighty was still with me…

The poetry of this book is a true work of art. Job clearly had a very personal intimacy with God and now he feels he has lost this. It is heartbreaking to read.

The core issue of the book is something I have struggled to understand and accept. Why would God remove his protection from one of his favored servants and allow Satan to torment him?

The understanding in Job’s time was that tragedy was a sign of God having removed his presence from a person or a nation. Even Job has this perception. It was believed that God allowed bad things to happen to cause people to reflect on their path and change their course and then God would once again restore them to a place of favor. The only thing is, Job does not agree that he has transgressed and so he is at a loss to understand why God is punishing him. We find out later that he was right. This was not the reason for what happened to him. It wasn’t punishment.

Job’s friends, who are sincerely trying to make sense of what is happening to Job, insist his trials are a consequence of Job’s sin. This is their limited understanding of the workings of God. However, they are about to receive a broader understanding of God and his ways.

I find this is often the case when I read my Bible. It speaks to me and opens my understanding to things I have not previously seen.

Job’s friends were in the wrong and God forgave them. God actually required that Job pray for his friends so that he would pardon them, after his trials ended. It appears that God was not too pleased with them.

There is much wisdom in the words of Job’s friends but not all they say about Job applies to him. The disrespect his friends show to Job makes it apparent that he is no longer favored as in former days when “old men rose to their feet (and) the chief men refrained from speaking” in his presence. Now even “young men mock me (and) throw off restraint in my presence.”

Job is tormented by his loss of family and possessions and the afflictions in his body, but he is also tormented in his mind by the loss of his former status. We can imagine how we would feel in his place.

I have been baffled to think that God allowed Satan to torment someone, essentially to prove a point. I’ve been tempted to think this was some sort of “sport of the gods.” But I’ve been humbled by a deeper reading of the text to see that it is actually a story about God’s confidence in his servant. It also reveals the sinister intention of the enemy of our souls to “take out” God’s faithful servants and the fact that he has access to us in some cases. Although God allowed the match, he set parameters and kept a watchful eye throughout.

Satan claimed Job only served God because God blessed him. I suppose he was trying to argue that God had an unfair advantage and Job would not honor God for his goodness alone if God removed his blessings. Job proves that his commitment to God is not dependent on blessings. Job makes the striking statement, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” Job 13:5 KJV. In his heart and mind Job believes there is no better alternative than to trust and serve God.

There are many kinds of writings in the Bible and they speak to us in different ways. We find comforting passages, convicting passages, wisdom and guidance passages, inspiring stories, disturbing stories, eternal hope passages, laments, praises, histories and genealogies, laws, theology, prophesies, condemnation passages, salvation passages, and more.

The beauty of the Bible is that it communicates to us in so many different ways. If we approach the Bible with an expectation that God will guide us in our reading, he will speak to us.

The Challenge of Reading the Bible

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.

Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 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, 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.