Turning the Bible into a Living Word for Us Today

Some thoughts on how we discover the Bible’s contemporary message for today.

 Note to reader: This posting continues the discussion on Bible study that I began in my previous posting How to Read the Bible for Greater Insight. I recommend you read it before you read this posting.

 In my previous posting, I mentioned the woman in my church who found Bible study utterly boring. She speaks for many, I believe.

In that same church, I also had a man who found the process of exegesis (which I described in my previous posting) tedious. He was a retired corporate CEO. In Bible study he always wanted to know what was the bottom line in the text we were studying. How does it apply to us?

Like the woman who finds Bible study boring, he also speaks for many. They have little interest in history or literary analysis. Instead they want to know immediately the text’s contemporary relevance.

To be frank, that is why most believers continue to study the Bible. We believe that in it we find a word from God that can illumine and direct our own lives individually and corporately. So for those who regard the Bible in this way, the process of Bible study is never complete until we have grasped its application.

Step 4: Reflection and Application

In my previous posting, I discussed the first three steps in my approach to Bible study. Now I want to move to Step 4. This step focuses on reflection on the text and its application to our lives today. I will offer some of the ways I do that for myself.

I assume throughout that we have moved through Steps 1-3 before we move to Step 4. I believe that how we hear the text speaking to us today should grow out of how the author intended his original audience to hear and understand the text. If we don’t keep Step 4 grounded in Steps 1-3, then we run the risk of floating off into wishful thinking or self-deception.

So here are some ways I use to discern a text’s possible application.

Chew Our Spiritual Cud

 A cow can spend a day munching its way through pasture grass. That grass gets stored in its first stomach and is later regurgitated for further chewing. This facilitates digestion. It’s called chewing the cud.

I use this metaphor to describing a process of meditating on Scripture. We read a passage and then turn it over and over in our mind. We look at it from different angles. We pay attention to details. We try to be alert to something that emerges and engages us as believers today. When it does, the text begins to speak to us as a living voice rather than as an ancient document.

This process of reflection resembles the hallowed spiritual discipline of lectio divina. We listen intently to the text until it leads us to a message for us personally. I value lectio divina as a tool for personal spiritual exploration.

Lectio divina, however, does not always keep our thoughts rooted in the text’s original meaning. It uses the written word as a launch pad for our own thoughts, thoughts the Holy Spirit may guide to address a personal issue.

Lectio divina is not then the best tool, in my opinion, when I as a pastor plan to use the Scripture passage as the base text for a sermon or for pastoral teaching. Then we are appealing to the Scripture text as a kind of authority. When we use the Scripture in that way, then I feel it is essential that we keep our meditations grounded in the text.

Otherwise we run the risk of making our own speculative thoughts the word of God. And that runs the risk of violating the third commandment that we not use the Lord’s name in vain. We most often violate that command not by profanity, but by claiming divine sanction for our viewpoints.

Search for Broad Principles

 When I read a Bible text, I also try to be alert to any principles that the author applied to his own situation that can broadly provide wisdom for today.

For example in 1 Corinthians 8-10, the apostle Paul discusses a controversy roiling the church in Corinth. Should Christians eat meat sold in the marketplace which had previously been sacrificed in the pagan temples? Some in the church see no problem with the practice; others are deeply scandalized.

Paul sees Christians as being free to eat without any moral violation. But if the practice upsets other believers, then a Christian needs to ask himself if the practice serves to build up the community of faith? If the practice is going to destroy the bonds uniting the community, then a Christian would be wise to refrain.

His advice gets summarized:

All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Here Paul articulates a broad principle of wisdom that applies to many challenges Christians face.

Notice Any Parallels

As we read a Biblical text, do we notice parallels between the ancient situation that the biblical author is addressing and our own situation today? This may alert us to how the Biblical text provides guidance and insight for today.

I provided an example of this in my previous posting Inviting in the Devil. There I talk about how the crisis that the Judean king Ahaz faced (as described in Isaiah 7-12) provides a parallel to how some American Christians are approaching the current Presidential campaign in the United States. I suggest that the Isaiah passage offers cautionary wisdom for us today.

Watch for Patterns

It is very important to watch for patterns repeated in the Biblical text, especially in the narratives. These patterns provide insight into how the Biblical writers understand the character of God, God’s purposes, and God’s way of relating to the world and humanity.

I do not believe God’s character and purposes change, but God’s ways are infinitely adaptable as God deals with the twists and turns of the human world and the human heart. Yet we can see God’s ways often falling into a pattern that seems to reveal something of his character.

For example, in the social world of the ancient Israelites and their neighbors, the eldest son is usually privileged. He is generally regarded as his father’s heir, and if he does not receive the total inheritance, he receives a far greater portion.

But God does not seem to conform to these social norms. In narrative after narrative, we find God favoring the second born son, or the last born within a family of brothers. Abel is favored over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Jospeh over all his brothers, and David as the last of Jesse’s sons.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is said to be the special protector of the widow, the orphan, and resident alien, all of whom were disadvantaged in ancient Israelite society.

What do these patterns say about where we should look for God in contemporary society? Certainly we cannot claim the Bible as an unqualified approver of any social status quo.

One of the most significant patterns in the Old Testament is the story of the Exodus. In my reading of the Bible, it is the supreme paradigm for how God works in creating a redeemed people. It is the paradigm by which the gospel writers understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Luke explicitly calls Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection his exodus (the Greek word behind the translation departure in Luke 9:31).

And I find it the Biblical paradigm for the spiritual journey for any serious spiritual seeker. As we mature in our spiritual lives we can feel as if we are reliving the Exodus. So we can find the events of the Exodus story instructive for us as we pursue our own spiritual journey with God.

A Final Word of Caution

This posting is getting long enough, even though I could say much more about how the Biblical text becomes relevant to us today. So let me end with one word of caution.

When we sit down with a Bible to read, we should not expect that in every text we open we will encounter something that will apply to us at that moment. We should never force an application. Not every passage will speak to us every time we read it. It may come vividly alive to us at another time in our life, but just not now.

There is still value, however, in engaging in a steady habit of reading and studying the Bible. As we do that, we are incorporating the Biblical mindset into our own. And that Biblical mindset with its understanding of God, its patterns and principles begins to shape the fundamental assumptions and convictions by which we come to understand God and respond to the challenges of the world in which we live as Christians.

Bible reading and study, therefore, play an important role in that transformation that comes from that renewing of the mind that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

May that be so for all of us as we chew our cud on Scripture.

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How to Read the Bible for Greater Insight

Lazy reading will yield shallow results.

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Once when I was beginning to pastor a church, I spoke about my hopes for my ministry with the church’s governing body. I mentioned that I hoped to start an adult Bible study session, as teaching the Bible is my passion.

A woman on that governing board responded, “Pastor, I can’t think of anything more boring.” I’ve learned she spoke exactly how many people, both inside and outside the church, feel about Bible study.

Why is that? I find the Bible a deeply engaging and ever fascinating book to read. Why don’t others? I have come to believe that one source of their attitude is that they have not been taught to read the Bible with skills that open up its depth. Instead they engage in light, lazy reading that yields shallow results.

As a result, I’ve made it a point to teach adult classes my four-step method for reading the Bible. I’m going to share that method in this posting and the next. Maybe this method can help some of you my readers to enrich your Bible study.

Step 1: Read the Text

I am constantly amazed at how many people authoritatively proclaim what the Bible says and yet have never opened the book to read it. So when I start a Bible study class, I always insist that we read the text out loud before we ever begin to discuss it.

This is essential. We must expose ourselves to the actual text before we start to talk about what it may mean. We need to have that actual text at the very center of our attention.

I insist we do this out loud for two reasons. One, because that is how millions of people through the centuries who did not have access to a written Bible came to hear the Bible text. It entered into their lives through their ears, not their eyes.

And two, even for us today who have access to numerous printed Bibles, when we read the text aloud, we absorb it into our bodies as well as into our minds. For Bible reading to release its power, it must become something more than just a mental exercise.

Step 2: Observe the Text

After we hear the text read aloud, I teach my students to try not to immediately make sense of the text, but rather to take time simply to observe what the text is saying. We want to note carefully what is there in the text. What is the text saying or not saying? Questions like these can help us do that:

  • Who are the characters in the story, if it is a narrative?
  • Who is speaking? Who is addressed? Who acts?
  • What happens in the text? What is said?
  • Are there any key words that get repeated?
  • Do peculiar words, phrases, actions stand out in the text?
  • How does the text unfold? Does the text make an unexpected shift in its thought or tone at one point?
  • What strange juxtapositions do we find in the text?
  • What is omitted that we would expect to be there?

In this step, as I said, we do not try to understand what we are seeing. Instead we want to just note what the text is saying.

Step 3: Interpret the Text within Its Context

After we have spent some time observing the text, then we are ready to try to understand it. The overarching question in this step is: What is the author of the text trying to say and why?

When we try to interpret the text, I consider one rule as the most important: Interpret the text within its context. The meaning of the text depends upon the context in which it is placed.

A passage, however, may belong to several different contexts, all of which may be important to its meaning.

  • The literary placement of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Where does the passage we are reading fit within the Biblical book to which it belongs? What precedes it? What follows it? What precedes or follows may affect how we read the passage we are focusing on. For example, the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus recounted in Mark 10:46-52. This can seem like a simple healing story, until we notice it follows a story of James and John asking Jesus to sit on his right and left when Jesus enters his glory. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asks James and John: What do you want me to do for you? This signals, I believe, that we are to read the two stories together. For the question the story of Bartimaeus raises is: Who is the really blind one?
  • The context of literary genre. Literary genre refers to the kind of literary work that the passage is. Is it a fictional story, a historical narrative, poetry, a sermon, a letter, a legal document, a parable, a teaching lecture, etc.? Knowing what literary genre the passage belongs to helps us determine how to read it.

For example, the book of Jonah. Is it a historical narrative or a didactic short story? For various reasons, I believe it is the latter. If we read it as historical narrative, we will miss the important spiritual insight the author is trying to convey.

  • The literary context formed by the whole canon of the Bible. When we read a passage in one book of the Bible, we need to pay attention to what other books in the Bible may say about the same theme. Individual books may be in dialogue with one another.

For example, the books of Ezra/Nehemiah tell us of the rigorous requirement the scribe Ezra lays down that Jewish men who have married non-Jewish wives must divorce and dismiss them. This is necessary for maintain the integrity of the fragile community in Jerusalem. Yet the book of Ruth tells the striking story of a foreign woman married to a Jewish man who ultimately proves the spiritual equal of Leah and Rachel, the revered wives of Jacob. Both books are in the canon. The canon forces us to hear the two books in dialogue with each other.

  • The context of the Hebrew and Greek languages that the books of the Bible were written in. How does the vocabulary or grammar of the passage in English translation reflect something peculiar to the Hebrew or Greek language?

As an example, let’s take an important Bible word: peace. In John 20:19 the risen Jesus greets his disciples with Peace be with you. To fully appreciate what Jesus is saying, it is important to recognize that Jesus uses the word peace in its Hebrew meaning that we find in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word is shalom.

In English peace means primarily a calmness or lack of conflict. But in Hebrew shalom is much richer in meaning. It can mean calmness or lack of conflict, but also well being, wholeness, prosperity, social harmony, prosperity, and a healthy relationship with God. In many ways, the word shalom is a synonym for salvation in all of its many dimensions. When you read Jesus’ blessing in this context, it becomes a rich blessing indeed.

Now obviously if one is not fluent in ancient Hebrew or Greek, one will not capture these subtleties in English. One may find it necessary then to rely on commentaries from Bible scholars to help illumine some of these dimensions of the text.

  • The cultural context of ancient Israel and the early church. How does the history and culture of the period when the text was written affect its meaning?

For example, in John 15:14-15 Jesus at the Last Supper calls his disciples his friends. This remark takes on far deeper significance when we realize that in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate relationship among human beings. In fact, a higher and more intimate relationship than marriage.

Once again, it requires some additional background reading to familiarize ourselves with ancient Israelite and Greco-Roman culture. But the more we do, the more elements of the Bible’s text will begin to take on richer meaning.

What we strive for in Step 3 is to understand the text as the author spoke to his original, intended audience. This is important grounding for our next step, which explores how the text may speak to us today. Any application to today should grow out of what the text actually says, not what we want it to say.

Two Words of Caution

I have two final comments. One is that I believe no individual person alone can ever come to a fully unbiased, objective understanding of the Biblical text. Every one of us approaches our reading of the Bible with conscious, and more often unconscious, assumptions and biases that affect what we see in the text and more importantly, what we do not see. We all have blind spots when we come to reading the Bible. So no one can aspire to an infallible interpretation of the Biblical text.

We correct against our assumptions and biases by reading the Bible in dialogue with other people. As we listen to other interpretations, we as a community of believers stand a better chance of perceiving the Bible’s meaning. So there are times when liberal Protestants need to pay attention to what their fundamentalist brothers are saying, and vice versa. Catholics must listen to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostals, and so must each of the others as well.

This is what can make Bible study so exciting. It can be an energizing group activity. But it is what makes Bible study sometimes frustrating as well. If we are looking for certitude in interpreting the Bible, we are not going to find it. But if we take joy in the journey of debate, we are more likely to find something deeply satisfying.

And second, what I am advocating means that we must put some serious work into our reading of the Bible. As I said earlier, lazy reading will yield shallow insight. If we want to tap into the riches of the Bible, we must be prepared to dig deep into the text to find the insights we seek.

And Now on to Step Four: Applying the Text to Our Lives

 The last step in my method for reading the Bible is one that only believers, whether they are Jewish or Christian, will take. That is because we seek from the Biblical text words that may speak to us today, in our life challenges. This is what we mean when as believers we talk about the Bible as the Word of God. We believe that through the Bible, God continues to speak to humanity.

This is the step I call reflection and application. In this step the ancient text ceases to be ancient and becomes contemporary in speaking to us today. It is why most people continue to read the Bible as a religious discipline. I will talk about how we can exercise this step in my next posting. Stay tuned.

Note to Readers:

The steps I describe in this posting are what Biblical scholars call the process of exegesis. Exegesis is a Greek-derived word that implies that what we are doing is trying to extract the meaning that lies embedded in the text. This contrasts with eisegesis, in which we read our own meaning back into the text. In eisegesis we make the author say what we want him to say; in exegesis we strive to listen to the author as accurately as we can.

Exegesis is a tool not only for reading the Bible, but any work of literature. I first learned the principles of this tool in a college class in poetry writing.