In a previous post I discussed how we can sometimes speed through our daily lives and not focus on the important things. It’s too easy to read the Bible by “speed reading” to get to the end.
In the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, they discuss understanding the historical context of what you read. Today, I find this all so appropriate as in the social and main stream circles too much of the Bible is misunderstood. As Christians, we have failed horribly at being able to correct these misunderstandings because we do not know the history or context.
But why is this so complicated? Easy: because you have 66 books, written over thousands of years, all for different purposes. Some are a telling of history, some are poems, some are letters, and some are prophetic. There isn’t just one way to read the scriptures. Each book can require a different technique and let’s be frank: many of us can hardly get in the word daily to read our 15 verses of the Gospels.
I want to address how to properly read our Bible. I’m not an expert, and many more are so much smarter on this topic. But, I believe a laying out of the structure in the book mentioned above could benefit many people.
I’m going to jump into this minefield and focus on the Epistles as this is usually an easy place to start and get your feet wet with this style of reading or study.These letters are so important because they are each written to a different audience. They can each teach you something different and go into depth on the Christian issues of the day.
The Epistles were known as “Occasionals” and written as letters to a church. Normally, they were written out of a specific need for the church at that time. Usually, these churches had been previously visited by the writer, and someone from the church had come to visit the writer after he’d left. The Epistles were written as a way to correct behavior or doctrine that needed correcting, keep in touch, and encourage early Christian churches.
The Epistles are occasional documents of the first century, conditioned by the language and culture of the first century, which spoke to specific situations in the first-century church.
First, we need to understand the historical context. There are some key questions we need to ask:
- Who was it written by?
- Who was it written to?
- Why was it written by this author to this group?
Next we need to focus on literary context. In short, what was the point the author is trying to make? This is a little different from the third question above, but they’re in the same family. We need to understand and a macro and micro level what the writer is saying, why he is saying it, and what is he trying to address. Depending on the book the way we apply this can be different. This is very applicable to the Epistles as they were letters written at a date in history.
A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.
How to read it
There are three ways to read the Epistles: all the way through, paragraph-by-paragraph, and verse-by-verse. Each one of these ways are for a different purpose and lead to a different conclusion.
All the way through. When reading straight through a book, you are able to understand the full context of what the writer is wanting. I remember the days in high school when a boyfriend and girlfriend use to write each other notes. It seems today in the iPhone world we don’t do this much. But, when you received a “note”, you didn’t read the first paragraph and stop. You read it all the way through. These churches did the same. You read the whole thing. There is a bit of eagerness about it. How exciting would it be to receive a letter, specifically for you, from a disciple of Christ?
Paragraph-by-paragraph. This is used to break down a specific issue that the author is dealing with. Doing this helps the church understand each spiritual issue discussed. Many times, these churches were debating the issues of the faith. In many of the issues addressed in the letters, I’m sure there was division among the church members. It would only be appropriate to discuss these issues at length while referring to the letter.
Sentence-by-sentence. In the early church, this was probably not as necessary, as there wasn’t the bits lost in translation over time. But, reading these historic letters, today this is so important. For example, in Philippians 1:21 Paul says “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” In those days, they would understand how powerful these word were. Today, we often lose the depth and power behind this: Paul was in prison writing the letter and would never leave prison again. WOW! What a statement, and something truly meant.
In Philippians 3:19-20, Paul says “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,”. What does “our citizenship is in heaven” mean to us today? I doubt it means as much as it meant to them. Philippi, the city the resided in, was taken over by Rome and Roman citizenship became a point of pride. This city adopted Roman customs and very much identified as Romans. Within the church Paul telling them their citizenship was in heaven would have been a dramatic statement that would cause discussion. I think this is a good point for us as Christians today.
Next, we have to decide how we want to read it. In anything, a plan is a way to keep you accountable. The typical guideline I use is based on the number of chapters in the book, commit the same number of days to reading and researching the book. If the book is 3 chapters, I commit 3 days. The strategy I used to tackle this is the following:
Day 1: Read background information. This means getting out your research tools and finding the historical context, understand the church, understand the writer. This is many times super enlightening and it can often be shocking!
Day 2: Read through the book. Chapter 1 through the end. Since this has followed the historical background, you’ll understand it more. You can understand the tone. What is the purpose and see the purpose in action. This is really important to Day 3+: as you read through, make notes on questions you have. Be sure you understand everything. If you don’t, come back in Day 3+. Don’t get caught up on a single verse or paragraph, just notate to follow-up in the future. The point here is getting context.
Day 3+: re-read the book or investigate the issues. Here, we use the notes we created in Day 2 to come back to troublesome or important sections. I will also take the most “famous” sections of a book here and try to break them down. There will be plenty to rehash, and this also gives you the ability to read as little or as much as you want.
It’s too easy to speed through our reading, but by doing this, you force yourself to mediate on the scriptures. Again, think of how special these letters had to have been to these churches! They would have meditated and rehashed these things repeatedly. We need to bring ourselves to this same spot!
A few points to note
We need to be careful we understand the central point or message the writer is getting at. It is easy to get caught up on peripheral issues and forget what we’re reading for. Central issues would be: the fallenness of humanity, redemption from the fallenness as God’s gracious activity through Christ’s death and resurrection, and the consummation of that redemptive work by the return of Christ. Everything else is peripheral where we sometimes as Christians allow these issues to confuse us and get us lost in the weeds.
We are sometimes asking our questions of a text that were answering a completely different question from that day. This goes back to reading what the author intended!
I do not claim to be an expert, so please do not view this post as me claiming my expertise. All of these ideas are ideas of others that I felt convicted by God on. We need to reclaim the Word of God and our understanding of it. We cannot be a generation of Christians that doesn’t read or understand the depth of what Christ is trying to teach us.