How to Read the Bible
Tim J R Trumper
Regular Bible reading is important for Christians, for in blessing our reading the Holy Spirit deepens our knowledge of God and of ourselves. This twofold knowledge is, as the Protestant reformer John Calvin famously began his Institutes of the Christian Religion, our “true and substantial wisdom.”
It is one thing, however, to heed God’s call to read His Word, it is quite another to know how to do so. This is understandable. The Bible is a veritable library of 66 books. Knowing which ones to begin with, how to relate those of the Old Testament to those of the New, and how to approach books with differing genres can be daunting. Nonetheless, the matter is important. The apostle Peter observed in his own day that, “the ignorant and unstable twist [Scripture] to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). Let’s consider then some principles whereby we can read the Holy Scriptures aright, and benefit most from what should be for the Christian an habitual spiritual exercise.
Our Approach to the Bible
We approach Scripture prayerfully. Before reading it we seek the Lord for His help. We need Him to show us what the given passage means and what is to be learned from it. By this prayer, sincerely uttered, we manifest a reliance on God for the enlightenment we need. We also evince a readiness to submit to the Bible’s teaching. This submission arises out of love for God (the Bible’s ultimate author); from realization that scriptural matters require spiritual discernment only God grants (1 Cor. 2:14); and in view of the fact that biblical truths are not naturally palatable. Left to ourselves we are likely to reject anything in Scripture we deem not to our taste. Faithful believers, however, are those who seek sincerely to discern its meaning and to embrace it in the outworking of our faith and our conduct. Thus, we neither add to Scripture, subtract from it (Rev. 22:18-19), nor twist it (see above).
Our Introduction to the Bible
The Bible is no ordinary book, and need not necessarily be read like other books (i.e., from the beginning). When sharing the gospel, for instance, we regularly point first-time readers to the Gospels. While the gospel was known of in Old Testament times (John. 5:39), the progression of its revelation reached a climax in the ministry of the Lord Jesus (John. 1:14, 17-18). Thus, new readers of Scripture are best starting with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We commend to you the practice of asking yourself as you read questions such as: Who was Jesus? Why is He good news? What has this good news to say to me? Once you are familiar with the salient features of the gospel you will find it easier to branch out into the Old Testament’s promise of the gospel and the New Testament epistles’ unpacking of it. That said, certain Old Testament books like Ecclesiastes are more accessible and immediately relevant to the unconverted, and to the non-churched in particular, for they talk more generally of the meaning of life (chiefly the futility of it outside of a relationship with God).
Our Use of the Bible
We must utilise the whole of Scripture. Writes Paul: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16 [italics inserted]). The apostle’s emphasis challenges a longstanding misconception that if a matter is not found addressed in the Gospels it is not important.
Whereas the Gospel authors narrate the work of the person of the Messiah, the apostles, as witnesses of Jesus from his baptism onwards (Acts 1:21-22), function as heralds of the Messiah. While the form of their writings differs ~ in that they wrote practical epistles rather than historical records ~ the apostles nevertheless preached the same gospel. Although Paul wasn’t called until a short time after Jesus’ death, the same is true of him. Indeed, had Paul come forth with a different proclamation of the Christ he would have got into deep water with the other apostles. Rather, we find the apostle Peter putting Paul’s writings en par with Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:16). Not only do Paul’s writings give central place to Jesus the Christ, they clearly set Christian doctrine against the backdrop of the Old Testament. We refuse the claim then, that Paul established himself as a second founder of Christianity. To pit his teaching against Jesus’ is a fallacy. All Scripture equips us!
Our Application of the Bible
To apply Scripture to our lives correctly, there are certain questions we ought to ask ourselves: (1) Have we understood the text or passage aright in its given historical and grammatical context? Bible commentaries may help us here. (2) Does the text or passage in view speak to those who are, or who are not, the people of God? For instance, Amos 4:12 and Revelation 3:20 are often used in reference to non-Christians when in their contexts it is clear that they have primary reference to the people of God. (3) Has the principle at the heart of the text or passage been repealed or modified within Scripture? Old Testament principles, for example, continue unless they’ve been repealed or revised in the New Testament. Within the New Testament there is evidence that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit had served their purpose by the end of the apostolic era (Heb. 2:3-4). In other words, our application of Scripture must correspond to what Scripture actually teaches. When it does, we may claim not only a high view of Scripture but a high use of it. Both are important.