“How to Read the Bible”

October 26, 2014 Psalm 33:1-11; II Timothy 3:14-17
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

In the living room of the home where I grew up, my mother had a small round corner table most people would use for a potted plant or a lamp. But on the top shelf of this particular table was a fancy crocheted doily given to her by her own mother, and on top of that doily lay the family Bible. It wasn’t huge, like a pulpit Bible, but it was imposing enough for a child to admire and wonder about. Most of the time it was opened to one of the Psalms, not because that was a favorite book, but probably because that way roughly half the book’s pages fell on either side of the opening. (My mother was often a stickler for details.) I didn’t actually see my parents read from the book often, but its open presence in the busiest room of the house was a regular reminder that in my folks’ opinion, no good home would be without God’s Word as an influence and guide.

Something must have rubbed off from that steady presence onto me, because here I am five decades later still studying scripture every week for a sermon and including it in my devotional time nearly every morning. Yet the journey to understand and appreciate the Bible has been long and at times frustrating. If that is so for me, with excellent seminary and university training and years of practice, I can only imagine how hard it is for you all to understand this book that has carried the Christian church on its back for about 1700 years. That is one reason, therefore, that I am preaching a sermon today called “How to Read the Bible.” I want to give you one more set of guidelines about this important topic before I leave you.

The other reason for this topic is to introduce you to an opportunity for personal study of scripture in the coming months. In response to your stated desire for a variety of ways and times and places to learn about our faith, the Christian Ed committee and I have found this little book called The Year of the Bible. It will enable you – whenever and wherever you want – to read all the key passages of scripture in one year if you dedicate yourself to 15 or 20 minutes a day. 365 days are divided into months, with some Old Testament and some New Testament passages each day. Preceding each month’s schedule is a 3 page summary of the themes you will encounter in the passages ahead. It begins January 1, so the committee and I originally decided I would preach this particular sermon the first Sunday in January. However, obviously plans have changed, but so you will be interested and aided in the reading project, I still want to preach that message. Many of you have commented that you have tried in the past to read all through the Bible and failed. Well, here’s another chance, and here is my chance to get you excited about it! As you can tell by the title in the bulletin, I’m going to explain three ways to read the Bible, and three key questions to ask about its meaning.
Most of you are already familiar with reading the Bible devotionally. We supply copies of The Upper Room magazine to assist you in a daily time of prayer and reflection. Every denomination and practically every TV evangelism ministry has its own little magazine like this. Each day of the month is covered with a Bible passage, a short story illustrating the passage, and a brief prayer. You can finish the page in five minutes, tops, and carry with you a reminder of God’s word and how it changed someone’s life. If you are going to read the Bible devotionally, I recommend you go to the same quiet place each day, settle in for a few minutes, and let the devotional message wash over you. You can choose first thing in the morning, last thing before you go to bed at night, while you are eating lunch at work, or even while stuck in the afternoon traffic (a little riskier, of course, but not impossible). Do this regularly and try not to rush through it. The key here is to open up your heart and mind to what we might call an “alien message”, a little moment of revelation from outside your normal routine, a breaking through of God’s voice on a written page. After you read what is on the page, close your eyes for just a moment and add a prayer of your own, including what you may be rejoicing in or worried about that day. So that is devotional reading.

It is a good place to start. I hope everyone in the church does at least this much. It keeps you in touch with God and reminds you to listen for the divine voice daily. But devotional reading of scripture, especially if it is confined to the 5-10 minute ritual encouraged by the magazines, doesn’t penetrate very deeply into your soul, doesn’t allow the full power of the scripture passage to work on you for very long or very effectively, so I hope there will be other times when you move on to a more in-depth acquaintance with the Bible, to where you read it not just devotionally but also Reflectively. Reflective reading of scripture may happen only one day a week, or maybe even less. Go off by yourself to a corner of your garden or turn off all the phones and close the door to your bedroom and light a candle to set the mood. You will need a half-hour for this at least, probably more.

Take your Bible and find a key passage that seems to fit together as one extended thought or one story. Your Bible probably has broken up the pages with little headlines for individual sections (you can call them pericopes if you want to sound smart). Then follow a method for reflection that has been around for centuries, called lectio divina, or divine reading. There are four stages.
1. Read the passage slowly and gently, each sentence slightly separated from the next by a brief pause. At the end, wait for God quietly in prayer. Just sit there for a minute and think about the passage as if you have read it for the first time. Don’t try yet to make sense of it all.
2. Read it again without the pauses, and then meditate on the passage by asking what the verses say to your current situation in life. See if two or three words or compact ideas pop into your mind, stand out from the rest of the text. Repeat those few words; live with them a few moments. Repeat them again.
3. Next, respond to those words and ideas that popped out at you. Say something to God, either aloud or in your mind, about how those words have touched you, what they might be saying to you about a particular issue you’re dealing with. Are they a challenge, a comfort, a reason for praise? Say that to God.
4. Continue by contemplating what you have heard and learned. Just sit with the passage, maybe reading it again, maybe repeating a key phrase or verse again and again. Stay in this relaxed attitude for another 5-10 minutes if you can.
The purpose of reflective reading is to let the scripture enter your soul, let God take time with you through words in the Bible, and to help you articulate what the Bible is telling you through a specific passage. Try this method weekly for a few months and see if it grows on you and you become more attentive to a different dimension of the Bible.

There is also an intellectual or historical approach to reading the Bible. Here is where we remember that the Bible is indeed the eternal word of God but that it also was written by human beings in specific historical circumstances, and those specific contexts influence a text’s interpretation. If you are going to tackle reading the Bible this way, you will want a desk or a table instead of an easy chair. You will want a place to spread out books or consult the internet. Here the source of the knowledge you gain may not be God directly in prayer but indirectly through the scholarship of researchers. You need commentaries, other translations, maps, Bible dictionaries.

What are you looking for here? You are looking for how the passage is affected by its literary form, for one. If it is poetry you obviously aren’t going to read it with the same eye as if it is history or a set of laws. If the passage tells a story, you may cut it some slack about exact facts, because stories are less interested in facts than in morals and emotional impact. So first read the passage. Then read it again in a different translation to see how key words might have multiple meanings. Then check for its literary style and keep that in mind as you get a general sense of what it means.

Now consult commentaries to see what scholars say about when and where a story was written. For instance, the book of Daniel tells stories about Hebrews in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. But it wasn’t actually written until 4 centuries later when the Jews were suffering persecution under a different enemy, and that influences how we understand Daniel’s visions. Do a word-study of a key idea like “exile” or “temple” to better comprehend what it meant to the people of the Old Testament. Look at an archaeological reconstruction of a typical house in Nazareth when Jesus was there and imagine his daily life. Such historical and literary study adds a whole new layer of understanding to the Bible. It can be upsetting to think of scripture as a human document as well as a divine inspiration, but the Word of God arose in the midst of humanity, and we are better off finding out what it meant to the people of that time before we try to say what it means to us today.
So those are three ways to read the Bible – devotionally, reflectively, and historically or intellectually. Each is legitimate; each adds a layer of meaning onto the others. Now briefly, I want to give you three questions to ask of any passage you may have a hard time understanding. After all, there are difficult sayings in scripture, verses where God orders the mass slaughter of whole tribes, or where Jesus curses a fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit, even though it was not in fruit-bearing season. Those are just a couple of the dozens of passages that can trip us up and make us wonder how God could be communicating with us through the Bible. When you come across these problematic passages, ask three questions before you just accept them at face value.

First, is this literal or symbolic? So much of scriptural language is symbolic. We saw that in our study of the Book of Revelation earlier this year: the number seven, the colors of the precious jewels. Those are just two examples. There are plenty more spread through the stories of scripture. What does water symbolize, or desert, or walls? Is it always the literal meaning of those objects in a passage? Could there be a symbolic meaning that transcends the literal?

Secondly, is a verse specific to one particular historical situation, or it is a universal command? For instance, just because Abraham takes his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him in obedience, is God asking that same test of faith of everyone? Was there a specific historical reason for that kind of test at that time? When Paul is bitten by a viper but doesn’t die, does that mean God is asking us all to become snake handlers to prove our apostleship? Hardly! Don’t turn specific instances into universal principles.

Third, when you read a troublesome incident, ask: is this descriptive or prescriptive? Is the Bible just describing something that happened, or prescribing it as something people should do? David commits adultery with Bathsheba; that gets a full, lurid description, but it is hardly what God wants from his kings or from any of us. Many things are described in the Bible that aren’t prescribed as acceptable behavior.

So these are the questions to ask: literal or symbolic; particular or universal; descriptive or prescriptive?

I hope my account of these three ways of reading scripture and three questions to ask of it help you experience the full richness of this book that has sustained the Christian faith for centuries. I also hope they help you embrace this reading project that will start in January, as you enter into The Year of the Bible.