In my previous post, I shared about the importance of reading the Bible as one, interconnected story. Even though the Bible is actually a collection of books, those books all function together to present a unified narrative. It’s like a mosaic – distinct pieces, each with their own unique contribution, brought together as a single, beautiful (though, at times, complex) picture. And it’s a picture that has God and his kingdom at the center. Each piece, each passage of Scripture ultimately points to Jesus as the one who fulfills God’s purpose to overcome evil and dwell with his people forever.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of the Bible’s central plotline, we’re ready to consider some practical ways to read Scripture without losing sight of that big picture:
1) Every time you read the Bible, consider what it reveals about God.
If the true story of reality is really all about God, then we do the Bible (and ourselves) a great disservice when we read it as if it were all about us. When you read a passage of Scripture, you should first pay attention to what it reveals about God before you jump to how it applies to you. Especially in passages where God himself is speaking, take note of what is revealed about him and how he communicates.
Even all those tedious laws and genealogies in the Old Testament have something significant to say about God. They teach us about what he values. They illustrate how he works out his plans through actual people in actual historical circumstances. (That’s encouraging because it means he can also use us.) They remind us that he has a purpose for all the seemingly random details of our lives.
They also should remind us that God works through imperfect people, and he reveals things one step at a time. He meets people where they’re at, and progressively leads them to where they need to be. The next time you encounter a passage that seems foreign or even harsh, remember that God was pursuing his purposes in specific historic and cultural contexts. Especially in the Old Testament, many of the laws and commands were intended to jolt God’s people at that time out of the worldview and practices of their non-believing neighbors and gradually work out his redemptive purposes through them. Remember, context is key.
2) Keep track of every time God makes promises and keeps them.
You could say that the Bible is one big record of God’s promises to people. And that’s pretty fair – much of the plot of the Bible can be discovered by tracing God’s promises (also called covenants).
For example, most of the Old Testament traces God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to provide a “seed” (or offspring/descendant) to Eve who will crush the evil serpent. Reading this, we should ask, “Who will this “seed”/descendant be?” The Bible starts following this lineage of Adam down to Abraham, then Isaac, then Israel, then Judah, then King David, and so on . . . Who will this special heir be? Suddenly all those stories become interconnected, because they’re all about this special lineage. It all points forward to the Savior.
Another important example is God’s covenant with Abraham (see Genesis 12:1-3). It sets the foundation for how God will pursue his plan of blessing the whole world through the nation of Israel. The rest of the story then becomes about how God carries out this plan, despite opposition and despite even Israel’s own failures.
3) Look for the big themes of Scripture.
Thinking about the themes of the Bible helps us put each smaller part into perspective. Ask, “What does this passage say about . . .” :
– Fall / Sin
– God’s Kingdom
– Relationship with God
– God dwelling with people
Every piece of the biblical mosaic will reflect one of these key themes. We can read the sagas of Israel’s kings, for example, as illustrations of the tragic effects of human sin. Or of how the quality of one’s relationship with God affects one’s entire life and legacy. Or (especially) of God’s promise to bring about a greater kingdom through a future, perfect Israelite King (Spoiler alert: It’s Jesus!).
4) Always, always, ALWAYS pay attention to the context!
Words get their meaning from context. This is the golden rule for understanding anything. Don’t know what a verse means? Look at the surrounding context! What’s going on in the flow of the paragraph, of the section, and of the book as a whole?
Don’t just stop when you read something confusing; keep going and see if the context explains it. This is the key to understanding any book, not just the Bible. Oftentimes you’ll uncover the meaning more once you’ve gotten further in the plot.
Get Caught Up in the Drama of God’s Story
Hopefully this way of approaching Scripture as one big story helps you appreciate parts of the Bible that were confusing before. The more we seek to understand God’s word as one coherent whole, the less likely we’ll be to yank verses out of their context and force them to mean something they were never intended for.
What’s more, reading the Bible as God’s story will humble us and help us to see that we are not the stars of our own lives. Instead, we are each invited to play our own small part in God’s ongoing drama of redemption.
See you down the path.
(Want to go deeper? Check out my earlier post, “Best Books to Help You Understand the Bible.”)