How To Read The Bible
Being that the Bible is the central, foundational document of our faith, there is no question that it is vital to know how to read it.
When it comes to reading the inspired Word of God, we cannot treat it like just any other book we might read. The reasoning for this is that it is not just one book; it is a collection of inspired texts, written by multiple authors of multiple genres, over the course of many years. With that, it is easy to read the Bible wrongly.
That being said, how should we read the Bible? The most common mistake people make when reading the Bible is to take individual verses out of context.
Context is key! -Kay Arthur
We would not start reading a newspaper, online article, or novel halfway through, and expect to understand the whole story. Likewise, when approaching the Bible, we should avoid doing the same thing. Too many times, we take a verse of Scripture, isolated from the rest of the passage as a whole, and try to induce a meaning based on the one verse. This is problematic, because it can easily result in us taking the verse out of its proper context, and thus getting a false understanding of the message as a whole.
I know, it is tempting to read Bible verses by themselves. And verse/chapter divisions exist for our benefit! However, it is important to remember that these divisions were not added to the text until around the 16th century (the Hebrew Old Testament by Jewish Rabbi Nathan in 1448, and the New Testament by Robert Stephanus in 1555). Before then, the books of the Bible existed only as long, blocks of text. So, the chapters and verses certainly make it easier for us to navigate the text, but therein lies the tendency to isolate single verses.
So, the first principle when reading God’s Word is to never read a verse by itself; always read the passage/chapter in its entirety, in order to get the full understanding.
The next thing to remember when reading the Bible is to look for the AIM of the story. That is, the Author’s Intended Message.
AIM = Author’s Intended Message
The Bible is a conceited text. The author’s knew what they meant when they wrote it. They were divinely inspired, after all. That being said, it is not up for loose interpretation. I have been in many Bible study groups in which people in the group have said things like “what this verse means to me is…” It does not matter what the Bible means to me. What matters is what the authors meant when they wrote it.
So, to find the AIM of the story, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves. To do this, simply remember the acronym STOP.
First, we need to ask ourselves, what is the SITUATION? In other words, what is going on in this story? Where does it take place? When was this written? These questions will help us discover the historical context of the document. This question alone will clear up most of the contextual mistakes we tend to make when reading the Bible.
Secondly, we ask ourselves what Type of literature we are reading. Is this historical narrative (such as Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Gospel accounts)? Poetry (such as Psalms)? Wisdom literature (such as Proverbs)? Epistle (open letter such as Romans, Corinthians)? The type of literature will have a lot to say about the way we interpret the meaning of the text.
The third question we should ask is who is the Object of the text? That is, to whom is the author writing? Remember, the Bible was not written to us about us; rather, it was written for us about God. The authors certainly had us in mind when reading, which is why the Bible applies to our lives. However, there are portions of the Bible that are written to specific audiences in specific contexts, and therefore do not apply in the same way that we may think.
For example, one of the most famous verses in all of Scripture is also one of the most abused contextually. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11 is written on t-shirts, coffee mugs, Instagram bios and captions, stenciled on walls in homes, etc. However, this verse actually has nothing to do with you and me. Rather, the author, Jeremiah, was an Old Testament prophet who was tasked with speaking to Israel. Specifically, this verse is written to exiles in Babylon.
Apologist Frank Turek humorously asks why this verse is so popular, while Jeremiah 44:11 speaks about bringing disaster and destruction. The reason, of course, is that this portion of the book is written to another group of exiles of Israel. What do either of these verses have to do with us? They help us learn about God’s faithfulness to His people, Israel, in bringing about the bloodline of the Messiah, Jesus. The rest of the Bible, as with the book of Jeremiah, cannot be taken out of its context.
Lastly, the final question we must ask is whether the particular passage in question is Prescription or Description?
There are things that the Bible describes, and also things that the Bible prescribes. A description, such as Old Testament historical narrative, applied to a specific group of people in a specific context. Therefore, we cannot try to apply them to our lives in the same way. The book of Genesis, for example, is a description of the creation of the world and the people of Israel. On the other hand, the book of Romans, for example, is a prescription for how the church should understand systematic theology.
As a general rule of thumb, the Old Testament describes, whereas the New Testament prescribes. The reason for this is that the Old Testament is an account of an old covenant with God and His people. That being said, there are certain cultural and sacrificial laws which applied to Israel, under the theocracy at the time, which no longer apply to the Church today. As the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 8, the old covenant is obsolete.
When the Messiah, Jesus, came, he established the New Covenant. So, the temporary laws which applied in the Old Testament (such as some of the strangely specific ones like not eating shellfish and not wearing clothes with multiple fabrics) no longer apply. They were temporary, to set Israel apart as pure from other nations. Whatever does not show up again in the New Testament from the Old Testament no longer applies to the Church.
Now that we know more about how to read God’s Word rightly, we are better equipped to understand it fully. And with a proper understanding of God’s Word comes a deeper respect and admiration for its eternal truth.
The STOP acronym was adapted from Dr. Frank Turek's teaching titled "How to Interpret Your Bible" - Crossexamied.org