The Bible is useful in our everyday lives. However, if we come to the Bible with a utilitarian “the Bible is an instruction manual for life” approach, we’ll find ourselves frustrated.
Those wise men shouldn't be in your nativity scene. The reason why reveals three common problems with how we approach Scripture.
I still remember my first hermeneutics class, where I learned how to interpret the Bible. We were required to take one through my university. I was not excited to spend a semester learning what I assumed I already knew. I recall being stunned as I learned that I was far from reading my Bible correctly! I quickly found that I knew nothing of the context from which any of the biblical stories came from, nor had I ever even taken the time to look for contextual clues through careful study. Questions like, “Where does this passage occur in the book?” or “Who is the author speaking to?” had never crossed my mind. But once I learned some basic Bible study tools, everything seemed new and no text felt off-limits or unapproachable.
Recently, Crossway released new research and infographics that revealed people’s bible study habits. As a Bible teacher, I was shocked to see how many books of the scriptures go completely unread because they're hard to understand.
With countless Bible studies are available for churchgoers, this shouldn’t be something we have to grapple with. Yet biblical illiteracy remains pervasive among us.
Perhaps that's because we teachers too often assume people understand the importance of Bible study. Why should people learn to study the Bible? After all, it's difficult to understand ancient cultures and multiple genres.
WHY WE SHOULD STUDY THE BIBLE
Why do we want our people to study the Bible? Because the Bible yields its treasure to those who dig for it. Too often we take a shallow approach to reading Scripture: we want the application without the work, the easy-to-grasp imperatives without the hearty parables, the cozy promises without the uncomfortable truths. Christians should study the Bible to know God deeply. It is a book filled with the glories that teach, reproof, correct, and train us (1 Tim. 3:16), but it is ultimately a book about God and what he is like (Luke 24:27).
As G. K. Beale’s popular work states, “We become what we behold, we become what we worship.” We are formed by the things we do, by the liturgies we participate in, and one of these things that can form us into disciples of his words is the careful study of Scripture. This is why love must be what drives us to the text. Then our study will formational instead of just educational. Disciples are, by definition, learners, and that learning should change transfer across creed and into conduct. Doctrine must motivate practice. Truth has to move from our head to our hearts and actions.
As we seek to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27), our answer is to submit to be shaped by the author of life abundant. His words and his Spirit given to us are what guide us, as they point us consistently back to be like Christ.
A CALL TO BIBLICAL LITERACY
I shouldn’t have had to wait until a hermeneutics course to have at least some tools to study Scripture. Christian universities don’t bear the weight of training church members in biblical literacy—churches do. My local church should have equipped me with the basic tools for reading, understanding, and applying the foundational text of our faith.
Biblical literacy helps us more clearly recognize the gospel as it is reflected across all of Scripture. Even in portions of the Old Testament where it seems the difference between their culture and ours is too foreign and unfamiliar; Jesus, covenantal love and grace have abounded since the beginning. And that affects how we read scripture as a whole.
WRONGLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH
Many of us could tell horror stories of passages being skewed, and the marks the false interpretations leave on the lives they touched. Books like Finding the Love of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin unpack the many ways we have tried and failed to read God’s Word. You will no doubt find your reading habits implicated in some way, just like mine were.
But we can’t press on in learning to study if we don’t first know what we’re doing wrong. If being told that your way of studying and understanding has been wrong causes you a twinge of pain, this may be because it has become an idol in your own way of making Jesus out to be who you’d prefer him to be, rather than who he actually is presented to be in Scripture.
Hold fast, friends. Don’t let this warning deter you from stepping foot into what he has to offer you in his Word.
So many resources are readily available to understand the context and background from where the words of Scripture were written as well as resources on how to see meaning and application from them. Books like the aforementioned Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin, Asking the Right Questions by Matthew Harmon, and One-to-One by David Helm all outline helpful ways to approach the text. Online resources like stepbible.org, blueletterbible.com, and luminabible.org aid with things like cross-references and comparing translations of the Bible. Websites like bibleodyssey.org and thebibleproject.com can give you a feel for the history of the people and the literary structures within the book you may be reading.
TAKE UP YOUR SWORD
Teaching your people that these resources are easily accessible to them is a comfort, and helping them to test and discern these resources is so fruitful. A Sunday morning understanding of the Bible is simply not enough for the battle that wages from Monday to Saturday. We need to be able to readily approach scripture each day of the week.
There are a lot of voices out in our world, and we desperately need a whole body fighting together—and that means each of us must know how to fight. You wouldn’t send soldiers into combat without them knowing how to use their weapons; likewise, we shouldn’t send believers into the world ill-equipped to wield the double-edged sword of the word they have been handed (Heb. 4:12). Together, rightly handling the truth, we can be church bodies filled with the true and good news of the gospel, as seen page after page in God’s Word, and this should make a difference not only within our churches but in the world around us.
When we know how to read and reflect on Scripture, the Bible studies we lead and the discussions we have gain greater depth. We begin to see how a devotional that shies away from hard texts limits and stifles our spiritual growth. We see how shallow study gives a limited view of the magnificent depths of our great God!
Most importantly, though, Scripture provides us with hope. Scripture shows us the gospel. The Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, Revelation all point to knowing and treasuring the triune God. To know that God has spoken to our hearts and minds through his inspired Word ought to be a comfort to us. Knowing how to approach passages in their context and apply them faithfully to our lives shows us how to really recognize the hope we have in Christ. The more clearly we can read and glean truth from God’s Word, the more hope can take root in our hearts.
Christian, learning to read the Bible is ultimately up to you since each one of us will one day give an account to God of how we spent our days. I implore you: learn to rightly handle the Word of truth. Learn to study the good book for yourself. Don’t give up when there are so many tools to help you learn. Don’t give up when there are pearls on every page.
Alexiana Fry (M. Div.) is a wife and associate Women’s Director at Crossroads Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her passion and call are to see the church make whole disciples, pursuing the Gospel in the everyday mundane of life. She also finds herself to be highly caffeinated and blogging regularly at mygivingofthanks.com.
In a well-intentioned effort to motivate daily Bible reading, the church has attempted to make the Bible more accessible. Apps and devotionals aim to make the Bible easier to consume and digest. Sermons are preached at the microscope level. Bible reading plans help us achieve a reading goal in desirable time frames. “Verse of the Day” notifications push morsels of the Word our way. While there is certainly value in these efforts, we cannot deny the problem they also create, namely, that our Bibles have become bite-sized. I’m afraid we have grown content with that measly portion and have lost our wonder at the whole feast. We’re so caught up in the paragraphs that we are falling out of love with the Story.
Has your bite-sized Bible grown your love for God’s Word? Has it led to more consistent and meaningful Bible reading? Maybe it has for you. But what I’ve found in my own life and in conversations with many of my Christian friends is that it has hardly improved anything. The attainability of only having one chapter to read tomorrow morning isn’t motivating us to feast on the Word.
There has to be another approach that makes for a more worthwhile time in the Word and makes us want to get out of bed to read about it. I believe the Story, treated as a story, is the key. Reading large portions of Scripture in one sitting is right and necessary and will increase the breadth and depth of our knowledge of God.
THE LIMIT OF BUSY-NESS
The notion of reading large swaths of Scripture as opposed to more “bite-sized” pieces may scare you. After all, there are only twenty-four hours in our days; eight of those are spent asleep; another eight or more are spent at work. Most of us probably already feel the lack of margin in our lives—it’s all we can do to fit in a five-minute devotional.
Please understand, I am not oblivious to your busy-ness. I am learning what it means to be busy as each week passes. In the past few months, I have watched both my family and my job expand. Adding a baby and new pastoral responsibilities to my plate have me wondering if they make bigger plates! When the baby will not stop crying and the meetings and deadlines begin to pile up, Scripture reading is not naturally at the forefront of my mind. I sympathize with you feeling like you’re trying to manage life with whatever Bible you can fit in whenever it seems to happen.
With that said, I do believe it would be wise to get a little more honest about how busy we are—and perhaps even better, if busy is best. Our Ace of Spades for getting out of anything is that we’re too busy. But the fascinating truth about time is that everyone has the same amount of it—24 hours—each day. There are solutions to recover healthy time in God’s Word in the face of our busy-ness problem if we are willing to face them.
TAKING THE LIMITS OFF OF SCRIPTURE
The fewer constraints and limitations we place on the Word, the better we will understand because we begin to read it the way it was intended to be read. How, in a practical sense, can we begin to reduce the limits we impose on Scripture?
First, at a macro level, we need to know the Story of Scripture as opposed to a few plot points. We must feast continually, not snack here and there. When we begin to see Scripture less as a hodgepodge of spiritual insights and more as an ordered revelation from God, we’ll realize that we need to know the Story.
We should then think about how exactly we read the Word. We are tempted, from the get-go, to start with one verse, one paragraph, one chapter. Why not read, however, until we feel there is a natural literary break? Why not, for example, read the whole book of Hebrews? It only takes about 45 minutes.1 Go even further: What if you read the entire book of Hebrews 45 minutes each day, five times in one week? Don’t you believe your understanding of the whole book of Hebrews would be much improved? But if you committed to a chapter a day, it would take you two full weeks to get through it just once.
A special note for those that preach: we should help our congregation approach the Bible with this emphasis on widening our reading. Expository preaching is wonderful and important. The “microscopic” view of the text is necessary. But microscopes don’t help us see in the same way telescopes do. We need both views of Scripture; one that examines and investigates and determines, and another that searches and finds and marvels. Preach large portions of Scripture. Better yet, let Scripture preach in your stead. Help your congregation see how a passage connects the dots somewhere. Help them see that this small passage fits into a much larger Story.
Finally, we must confront our busy-ness. The first step forward here is to realize that we are not as busy as we think. Many of us can fix our “too busy” problem immediately if, for example, we would simply wake up thirty minutes earlier, spend thirty fewer minutes on social media, or listen to Scripture for thirty minutes of our commute to or from work. The second nudge would be to consider if we are indeed too busy, and what needs to be removed from our plate in order to make room for meaningful time spent in the Word. This may require small, subtle changes, like better time management or better planning. It also may require radical changes, like finding a job that better serves your spiritual disciplines. After all, what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?
INEFFICIENT TO GOD’S GLORY
Overall, our Bible reading habits are most in need of the freedom to be inefficient, untidy, drawn out, even wasteful. In a culture that demands we treat everything as Martha would, Jesus asks us to have the heart of Mary, choosing “the good portion” for our day (Lk. 10:38-42).
We truly cannot live this Christian life with any zeal, any hope, or any confidence if we will not feast at Christ’s table. It may mean we don’t get as much checked off of our to-do list as we had hoped. It may mean the Bible reading plan needs to be put on pause. But no matter the cost, we know it’s worth it because the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
May you break free from your snackable Bible and gorge yourself on God’s Word. And may Christ dwell in us richly, freely, and without limitation.
1 - Check out Andy Naselli’s blog post, “Three Tips for Better Bible Reading,” which includes a helpful chart of Bible Reading Times for each book of the Bible: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/three-tips-for-better-bible-reading
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.