How to Read the Bible Better

By Mike Johnson, Melbourne Labouring Community (First published in Compass Autumn 2024)

Have you ever thought you understood what someone was saying but, without the full picture, made a complete muddle of their meaning? I have, and it’s embarrassing.

God speaks through His Scriptures and, like any communicator, He wants his words to be respected and understood. He inspired the Biblical authors to write exactly what He purposed for the audience being written to. Now years later, we must work at ‘hearing’ these passages like the original audience, prior to doing the work of contextualising the message to our day.

This process, though mostly common sense, has distinct principles that drive it. Leading among these is ensuring we understand the context of Scripture we are reading. The meaning of any passage is the meaning that is consistent with the literary context in which it occurs.

When it comes to the Bible, there are layers of context that need to be considered. First is the immediate context, the material before and after whatever verse or paragraph we are reading. Then there is the context of the entire book/letter. Then finally, there is the context of the entire Bible. Due to its nature as the Word of God, each part supports every other part.

Taking a passage out of context violates the writer’s flow of thought. People normally communicate with related ideas linked together in a logical pattern. To jump in the middle of this or randomise it violates the intention of the author.

We also need to, as much as we are able, understand the context of history/culture in which a part of Scripture is written. A correct interpretation of a biblical passage will be consistent with the historical-cultural background of the passage. We must not read back into Scripture our modern-day emphasis be it cultural, religious or Navigator.

Similarly, we need to give thought to the literary type or form of the writing. As Leland Ryken states in his book Words of Delight, ‘The Bible gives us pictures of life and reality as well as ideas. Its truth sometimes consists of ideas and propositions, but in its literary parts truth often takes the form of truthfulness to reality and human experience. A literary approach to Scripture takes the images of the Bible seriously as something that embodies and communicates truth.’

The Bible is rich in literary forms (narrative, poetry, epistle, proverbs, history, gospel, psalm, apocalypse) and each have their rules or principles of operation. For example, when considering narratives, it is good to think of why the author told the stories that are included in their books. Are we to learn mainly about Daniel’s integrity and courage or are there some big ideas the author is wanting to communicate about God, His people, the nations?

Likewise, it’s vital to understand the nature and tools of poetry, in order to read it well and understand the message. Poetry’s distinctive language is that of images and figures of speech. To interpret the images of a poem as if they were narrative violates good practice. Poetic images are asking the reader to experience them in their imagination. We need to enter the picture and try to understand any associations the images might have (e.g. House = family, security, relationships).

Human emotions are perhaps the most common subject of poetry in the Bible and the typical strategy of the poet is to picture an emotion as a series of concrete images. Read Psalm 102 to explore images used to describe depression and loneliness. The Biblical poets use a full range of figures of speech (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, apostrophe), asking the reader to slow down and think through the contrasts.

Once we gain an understanding of the meaning intended by the Biblical author for their day, we need to consider what God is saying to us today. We are to be doers of the Word not merely hearers, yet like in interpretation, we can make mistakes in application. To apply scripture in a way that’s consistent with the original intent, these 4 steps can help us:

1. Figure out the original application intended.
2. Evaluate the level of similarity in context to our day. Would the application for them be transferrable over time and space?
3. If not, are there any cross-cultural principles that come out of the text?
4. Find applications for today that embody those principles.

You might then use the acronym SPECK to make the application roadworthy.

S Is there a sin I should avoid?
P Is there a promise from God to claim?
E Is there an example I should follow?
C Is there a command I should obey?
K What knowledge about God have I gleaned from this passage?

May the Holy Spirit illumine your reading of Scripture and give you discernment for applying it.

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