A very happy new year to all my readers, may 2017 bring peace and purpose. Hardly seems 5 minutes since I was wishing you a very happy 2016! Ah well, the price of old age, I suppose....
Now back from a short holiday in Pemba, I was posting on Facebook during that time so if you didn't see the photos and would like to, please send me a friend request. In advance of going back to work tomorrow, I'm wanting to share some thoughts on reading the Bible. Trust you find them interesting, as always, interested to know what you think, and particularly interested to know how you go about studying the Bible.
Your word is a lamp unto my feet
And a light unto my path.
Along with John 3:16 (see this blog post) this is my favourite verse in the Bible. I really like also the Amy Grant song built around this verse, see this YouTube video. In looking to live for Jesus, reading, understanding and applying the Bible is crucial. I leave questions regards inerrancy and other such matters to others better able to engage with these debate than me, but do want to look at a number of areas which I consider to be important. In getting to know our Bibles better, what are the key themes? What about the cultural context of Biblical times? And how can we ourselves go about reading the Bible in a meaningful, sustainable way?
The historical sweep
As we get to know the Bible better there are various things which we need to take into account. Starting from Abraham the Old Testament covers a period of just less than 2000 years, then, after about a gap of just over 400 years, the New Testament goes over about 70 years (depending who you believe!) from the birth of Christ to the last of the epistles. Having a sense as to what happened particularly in Old Testament times - from the original habitation of Israel, exodus to Egypt, return to Israel initially under Judges then under Kings, the split of the Kingdom into two and then the exile and final return to Israel - is really important, I think, in understanding the context in which the Bible was written in order that we can understand the Bible as it was originally written. Whilst the New Testament is over a much shorter historical period, knowing something about the Roman occupation again helps to understand the false expectations on the Messiah and what was going on.
Themes across the Old and New Testaments
A number of other points also come out, I think, as we get to know our Bibles well. At first sight there is a big divide between the themes in the Old and New Testament, the latter being to do with God's law, judgement and punishment, the latter God's grace, forgiveness and redemption. But actually things are much more nuanced than this. Often in the Old Testament we are reminded that it is what goes on in our hearts rather than our rituals which is important:
Rend your hearts and not your garments
And we see also God's forgiveness and love:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
Psalm 103:8, 9
Meanwhile in the New Testament we see the God of righteous anger, eg. in Acts 5 when Ananias and Saphhira claimed to have given all they had to the church but had in fact held some of their possession back.
The Bible acting as a commentary on itself
As noted below considering how to go about reading the Bible, commentaries and other Bible study aids are hugely important as we get to know it better.
But in an important sense, the Bible acts as its own commentary, what gets said in one place is further explained in another. So, for example, when Jesus said:
"Ask and it shall be given you"
He was making an important point about prayer and the need to come before God with our requests. But taken in isolation it can be taken to imply that if we pray and believe God will do as we ask - and, if He doesn't (I find myself shuddering even as I'm typing this) then that must be because of our lack of faith.
But if we cross-reference this verse with others about prayer, including:
You do not have, because you do not ask. And when you do ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may squander it on your own pleasures
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [my thorn in my flesh] away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:8-9
We get a more rounded view as to the Christian view on prayer, that it is not an automatic slot machine but communication with our Almighty God.
Many other examples can be given as to the importance of knowing the Bible well to avoid over-emphasising one particular truth. One more for the time being: being married and having children is a blessing from God (eg. Psalm 127:3-5) but being single is also a calling from Him (eg. 1 Corinthians 7:7). This is a strong example where we need to make sure, as Christians, that our views come from a full understanding of the Bible, not a few isolated quotations backing up what we would believe anyway given our cultural backgrounds.
Let's grapple with the difficult bits!
There is no getting round the fact that bits of the Bible are difficult to read. One example here is the instruction, as the Israelites were reoccupying the promised land, to kill all previous inhabitants (see, for example, Numbers 33;50-56). There is nothing I - or, as far as I am aware, anybody else - can say that will make you think, "Oh, that's OK then," these are difficult passages indeed. But I would like to make a couple of comments.
In so far as these are difficult passages to read in the 21st century, one issue to engage with is our own sensibilities - which is to say, maybe the problem here, at least in part, is 21st century western thought. Key messages which come out are the holiness of God, the consequences of sin and the call to live singlemindedly for God. As noted above, these are not just Old Testament themes, far from it. Let us not fall into the trap of creating God in our own image.
Understanding the cultural context
If English was good enough for Jesus when he wrote the Bible
it should be good enough for Coke.
Alas, it appears that Michele Bachman, former US presidential candidate, did not say the above in response to an advertisment by Coke in 7 different languages - but hey, why allow the truth to spoil a good story?
I've previously noted in this blog post that 'In the bleak midwinter' is hardly appropriate right across the world as a Christmas carol. And it's very easy to forget that cultures vary considerably. So, for example, we can easily lose sight of the significance of the first witness of Jesus' resurrection being women at a time when women were not regarded as reliable witnesses. Jesus' statement (John 4:14) that, "Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst" has hugely more resonance where water is scarce rather than when it is constantly available on tap. And, a point I made in this blog post, reference in Matthew 25:33 to separating sheep and goats makes rather more sense in a Middle Eastern and African context where they look pretty similar rather than a British context where they look quite different. Understanding something about what was going on at the time is enormously valuable as we look to make sense of the Bible.
So, how do we go about reading the Bible?
It's really good to read the Bible together in church, and I for one particularly appreciate sermons which look firstly to understand what the Bible was saying in its immediate context before then considering what applications there may be for us.
It's good also to read the Bible privately on a daily basis. How? Well that, I think, is a very individual question, which may change for any individual over time. I have established my own pattern fairly recently, and it's this: first thing in the morning I read a section from the New International Version Application Commentary (NIVAC), I"m currently in Deuteronomy, heading to the New Testament (Philippians and Colossians) fairly soon. I discovered the NIVAC series a couple of years ago, and for me at this time, I find it enormously helpful in maintaining a regular Bible reading pattern which combines scholarship and academic rigour on the one hand with clear application and devotion on the other. When I get home from work I read sections from the Bible, adding up to just less than 4 chapters, so that I get through the Bible in a year. I do all this on my Kindle, but a quick Google search reveals online help, eg at this website.
There are many other aids available for different ages and different stages of the Christian life, I'd be really interested to hear from you what it is that works for you. But, as we start the new year, let's make it one of our resolutions to get to know the Bible better, establishing a clear pattern for doing so. Bwana Yesu asifiwe! - may Jesus Christ be praised!