On Google’s list of most-asked questions concerning Christianity, God and the Bible, the second most-asked is “What is the Bible?”
Ask 10 people what it is, and you could get eight answers. This is not unusual. I bet if we asked most Americans to describe a much more local, simple document, like the United States Constitution, we might also get a similar mixture. The reason is obvious: only people who have read and studied the Constitution can explain it well.
In the case of the Bible, this is hardly a moral judgment. Who casually sits down to read a book compiled over a time span of 1,800 to 3,300 years; written in three languages on three continents; and with about 70 different authors contributing to its 66 books?
Before we begin to understand such a diverse collection of writings—that some have used for much good, but others have weaponized to harm—we must take stock of what we do and do not know about it. I suggest keeping your mind as open as possible, as you may find the Bible is nothing like what you expect. (It certainly wasn’t for me, shockingly and delightfully contrary to my ill-conceived notions.) After this, it is good to ask as many questions as possible.
While history has proven the Bible’s subject matter is timeless, I am not suggesting it provides an answer for everything – far from it. The Bible’s 66 books each have a purpose. However, there is no sense trying to force biblical literature to serve as a scientific or medical textbook, any more than expecting it to read like a Harlequin novel series.
When reading part of the Bible, it’s important to ask what type of literature one is reading. What is the historical context of the book? What cultural norms were different than ours? What was the author’s intent, if one is stated?
Written predominantly in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), the Bible contains a stunning array of literary types, including law, poetry, historical narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, romantic verse, songs, gospels, community letters, personal correspondences. Oh, and apocalyptic literature!
Most modern English Bible translations add to the biblical text a brief introduction to each book that provides the historical situation, an explanation of the dominant literary type, and often an outline.
As for its being “inspired” by the Holy Spirit and authoritative as the “Word of God,” no one can prove this, or should try to. While the Bible does show a beyond-remarkable cohesion given its written timespan, vast authorship, and lack of a controlling human editor, its Spirit-inspiration and authority are truths one learns by faith.
On a grand scale the Bible is the long, multi-faceted narrative of God’s creation; the rebellion and fall of humanity; and the revelation of God’s eternal plan of grace-laden redemption that He accomplished through the central person of human history, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own Son. It concludes with the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth. Along the way, there are stunning and amazing events no one could ever have dreamed up.
There are a few pits into which one can fall when reading and studying the Bible. Many of us come from a decidedly Western European worldview. This leads us to read Middle Eastern documents using our culture as a reference, not theirs. One book to note on this subject is Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, by James Sire (IVP). While often extreme in its examples, the book vividly displays common errors many believers make reading scripture. I also recommend O’Brien and Richards’s Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.
It's too easy to use the Bible to reinforce our flawed thinking by seeking out passages, wrenching them out of context, and then applying them to suit our agendas. Correct Bible reading does the reverse, reshaping and refashioning our understanding amid false cultures and false gods. God’s Word illuminates the correct path through a counter-cultural way to live.
I mentioned that this is a “Big Book” with many authors having written over a staggering amount of time. The first thing that hits the new reader (and may in some ways confound others over many years) is that it presents two “Testaments.”
There is an old saying “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” Many of the smaller aspects or questions of the Bible cannot be answered without direct relation to Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus, God in the flesh is the ultimate “context.”
Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, left no room for anything to not relate to the Living One:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation: for by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Colossians 1:15-20a. NASB)
What is the purpose of Paul showing us this grand perspective of Christ in relation to the universe, the Church, and ourselves? Why does he make this magnificent assertion that even now His living presence holds the whole Cosmos together? Reader, he is giving you the big picture of the Bible in one glorious paragraph.
The story of the Bible is the tale of this universe making and perpetuating God coming to show us Himself as the wisest, clearest thinking, most compassionate Messiah, the One who knows the hearts of men and women without their speaking, and who deals with each one individually as only He is able.
The Bible is the only “book” where you are afforded a love relationship with its central figure and author, now, today, and forever.
If you have questions - and you must - please post them in the “Comments section below and I would be happy to give you the best information I have!
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Dan Kassis says
Hey Mac, thanks for the post. Could you give us a brief explanation of what is meant when someone says to read the Bible “in context”? We hear that a lot, but we often don’t hear WHAT context exactly? Why do we need to understand where the author was “coming from” and their perspective on life to get the passage’s real meaning?
Pastor Mac says
Excellent question Dan. The original manuscripts did not have chapter and verse divisions and so did not lend themselves to the kind of over-compartmentalization we tend to do with the Scriptures. In other words, it’s easier to take a verse or small passage out of context than it used to be. This is because we see each numbered verse as its own thing, rather than part of a teaching.
The rule is simple: Read a full passage behind the text you are studying, then read the one following it. Adding this much of the surrounding text is not always sufficient, though. I have been studying the “Beatitudes” (Matt. 5:3-12). The verses immediately preceding that section are a little helpful (the calling of the disciples). But what comes directly before that really gives the setting for what will become the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This happened so that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled:
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
By the way of the sea, on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.
The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light,
And those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death,
Upon them a Light dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:-17 NASB)12
Now, in context, we see the purpose of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He has come proclaiming His “Gospel” of repentance. The Kingdom of God has come near, or is breaking into the world. Old Testament prophecies concerning Galilee receiving a “great light” have now been fulfilled. Something utterly new is happening and people are flocking to Jesus – so much so that they fill a mountainside. Then He begins to teach them, starting with the “Beatitudes” and then the rest of his sermon.
By the time Jesus finishes preaching in chapter 7, His audience is resembles the first Beatitude – “poor in spirit” – for it is impossible! No one can live up to what He has taught!
There are countless other examples, some even more simple than this one. Just remember to read what surrounds the verse you want to understand.