Sometimes, it feels like the people in biblical times had an inside scoop on faith and spirituality. We imagine that walking with Jesus and witnessing the events of his life, firsthand, would make us feel closer to Him. Yet often those people we envy are anything but models of faith. The disciples, for instance, astound us with their confusion, resistance, and lack of trust. There’s an important reason why. We need revelation more than we need experience. Take the episode of Jesus walking on the water. If we were there, it would have been memorable. But we may not have heard everything. We may not have understood everything. And even if we saw and heard everything, we may not have known what to make of it. We have something better than a view of this event, sitting by the 1st c. Sea of Galilee. We have revelation. God has given us in the gospels perfect accounts, not only recording the necessary historical details but giving us an authoritative interpretation of what we’re supposed to learn from them. Understanding this helps us to know how to read them.
In Luke 24:27, Jesus appeared to his disciples after His resurrection, and it says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” For years, I struggled to understand verses like this. Jesus spoke these words to Jewish followers who only had the Old Testament. Jesus was saying that the Old Testament Scriptures bore witness to Him, somehow, but I wasn’t sure how. There were some obvious prophecies, but it seemed as if the Bible mostly told stories about people like Adam, Noah, Moses, David and in today’s e100 reading, Daniel. How could they also be speaking of Jesus? I came to learn that one of the ways that the Old Testament points to Jesus is by laying down patterns and categories that foreshadow Jesus in a way that could hardly be coincidental. Reading the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, for instance, whets people’s appetite for someone greater than Daniel.
Many people love to read the psalms. They say that the psalms are their favourite part of the Bible. I couldn’t relate. I was someone who avoided the psalms. I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. They don’t contain great stories like the narrative parts of the Bible. They don’t contain many commands, principles or warnings like Paul’s letters, for example. And there’s lots of repetition and emotion that feels like it gets in the way while you’re reading. Because of that, I was intrigued when I first read an old Christianity Today article entitled, “How I Learned to Stop Hating and Start Loving the Psalms.” It got me started on that journey but it would take several more books to actually get me there. Now I can say that I love the psalms. Let me share three things that helped me along the way.
Reading about the temple in the Bible often causes one of two problems. Either people assume it’s just a church in the Old Testament and essentially the same as the building that we go to on Sunday or they think it’s so foreign to their experience that they can’t relate to it at all. The temple is the focus of today’s e100 reading, but it’s such a prominent theme, having a sense of what it means and why it’s so significant helps in understanding the Bible's message.
Almost everybody has heard of the story of David and Goliath. It’s so well-known that it’s become part of the English vocabulary and a sophisticated way of referring to any showdown involving an underdog facing insurmountable odds. But what is the story about? What does it mean? And how are we to apply its message? Getting these questions right can help open up our understanding of many other parts of Scripture. Let’s consider the message as it’s told in 1 Samuel 17.
One of the challenges in reading narrative portions of the Bible is that we have a habit of looking for heroes. We love biographies of successful business people, great inventors and glamorous celebrities. When we read stories about people in the Bible, our tendency is to read them in the same way. We assume that the central figure must be a hero and we look for ways to imitate them. But that usually isn’t a great strategy. In reading the book of Judges, for instance, it would be wrong to assume that every leader God raises up is an example for us to follow. The fact that God uses someone isn’t proof that He approves of them. While the people in biblical stories sometimes have positive qualities to inspire us, or negative qualities to warn us, the key to reading any biblical narrative is to remember that God is the hero of every story. The story is His story and the various people in the account help to reveal how God relates to us in various situations. Consider today’s e100 reading of Gideon as an example.
When we read the Bible, we can sometimes forget what an ancient book it is. We have modern translations that help us to understand the language, but we’re still reading things written thousands of years ago. Because of that, understanding a little bit of the historical period can help in understanding all that’s being said in a passage. Today’s e100 reading, for example, describes the plagues that were brought upon Egypt to secure Israel’s release. Some basic background adds depth to our sense of what God is saying.
There are some great stories in the Bible. And there are some important life lessons. For many people, the life of Joseph is one of their favourite portions of Scripture. We learn about God’s presence in conflict, how He shapes us through adversity, and the power of forgiveness. The biblical account seems ready-made for a biography. And it can be profitably enjoyed at this level. But if that’s our grid for reading all of Scripture, there will be many things that don’t make sense and we can miss some important truths that God is trying to communicate to us. As you grow in your reading of Scripture, it’s helpful to look for the ‘big story’ even as you’re enjoying the ‘little stories.’ The big story is the overarching story that often can be traced through a book of the Bible as well as the entirety of the Scriptures. Let me explain how this works with the story of Joseph.
One of the challenges of reading the Bible, is trying to discern what the point of a passage is. You can read a narrative section and understand what’s happening without really being clear on what it’s there for. What is God trying to say? One of the keys to understanding this is context. What comes before? What comes after? Is there anything tying things together? This week’s e100 reading introduces the life of Abraham, who was initially called Abram. The entire history of the world until his birth is summarized in just eleven chapters, but Genesis devotes fourteen chapters to the events of this man’s life. Why is he so important? What’s the significance of his life? Consider how the clues in the context make God’s intention clear.
As you read through the Bible, there are extremes to which people can turn. Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We get so caught up in the details that we miss the sweep of Scripture and the broad teachings that God is trying to express. Other times, we skip over details that can add colour and depth to God’s message. One of the details I’ve not thought deeply about until recently is the location of the garden of Eden. In one sense, it doesn’t matter. The garden was ruined through Adam’s sin. Paradise is no longer paradise and so there’s no sense in looking for it. But reading a commentary by John Sailhamer last month showed me that, in another sense, an awareness of the geography of Eden can help in shedding light on some of the symbolism of the Bible. Let me explain how.