Friday, August 05, 2011

On reading the Bible well

One of the things that ought to bother us (and does bother me) is the widespread ignorance of the Bible in the church today. You may have heard about the Pew Forum's 2010 “US Religious Knowledge Survey.” The average Christian respondent to the survey answered only half the questions correctly, including 6 out of 12 questions related to Christianity. A Gallup poll once found that only three out of five Christians could list the names of the four gospels, and only half knew Jesus was the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount.

So that's a problem. But I'm just as concerned about those who "know" their Bibles inside and out but fail to read it correctly.

For example, I'm preaching through the Old Testament book of Nehemiah right now. Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah's governorship in the 5th century B.C. I've read several commentaries and sermons about Nehemiah. They all point out many valuable lessons to be gleaned from Nehemiah's story - his fervent prayer for the people of God in Chapter One, his visionary leadership, his courage in the face of opposition, and so on. That's fine as far as it goes. But did God put Nehemiah in the Bible so that we could simply learn what a great man Nehemiah was and imitate his leadership style? If leadership principles are the main take-away from this book of the Old Testament, we could probably do better by picking out a few titles from the business section of the local Barnes & Noble.

No, God gave us the sixty-six books of the Bible to point us to Christ. The Bible is the unfolding story of God's plan to make all things new and redeem his wayward people. Every book in the Bible is one more piece in that story. This means that a book like Nehemiah - while it gives us much wonderful and applicable information about faith, leadership, prayer, spiritual warfare, repentance, body life, etc. - is ultimately showing us our need of a Savior and revealing that God has provided a Redeemer to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Bold Nehemiah is a type of the Christ. His efforts to revitalize Jerusalem and make it a city of holiness, safety, and justice reflect the work of Jesus who left his place in heaven, came to our ruined planet, and is serving us still as our Prophet, Priest, and King. The restoration of Jerusalem - short-lived as it was - draws our hearts to a higher and much greater and eternal restoration to come - the new heavens and new earth.

To read the Bible well means to remember that it tells one story and points to one Hero, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said that the Bible (or the Old Testament, at least) was about him. In John 5:39 he told the Pharisees, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testfy about me." So you see, it's possible to know the Bible well (like the Pharisees) and miss the point completely. I think of all those Christians who slavishly follow a Bible-reading plan, memorize gobs of Bible verses, and crush the competition at Bible sword drills but fail to see Christ on every page. I'm not knocking Bible reading and memorization plans. Would that more of us were diligent in such disciplines! What I'm urging us to do, to borrow Gordon Fee's book title, is to read the Bible for all its worth.

As many others have said, the Bible is a love story in four parts, or a symphony in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. As you read the Bible, think of those four great themes and see how one or more of them is reflected in the passage you're reading. Also, ask questions of the text like these:

  • What does this passage reveal about God's gracious provision of the work of Christ?
  • What does this passage reveal about human nature that requires the work of Christ?
  • What aspect of my brokenness do I see in this passage and what is God doing about it?

Unfortunately, the only question many Christians ask of the text is something like, "How does this passage apply to my life?" It's a well-intentioned question, and one that should be asked at some point in the study process. But if that's the only question you ask of a Bible passage, you're probably just going to make new resolutions to try harder to "be like" Nehemiah or David or Paul or Abraham or Mary or Jesus or whoever you happen to be reading about.

Charles Spurgeon once told one of his students, "Don't you know, young man, that from every town and every village and every hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London? So from every text in Scripture there is a road towards the great metropolis, Christ. And my dear brother, your business is, when you get to a text, to say, now what is the road to Christ?"

That's a good rule to follow as you read the Bible. Ask of the passage, "Now what is the road to Christ?" It takes time and effort to read the Bible this way, but it's the way that leads to gospel hope.

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