Reading the Bible
Brothers & Sisters,
Back in January a brother in the congregation texted me and asked for some advice on how to read through portions of the Bible like genealogies and geographies. Let’s be honest, the Bible is a big and daunting book as it is, and those sections can only add to the feeling of distance between those days and our days. As we sit down to read, a natural question we have is, “How does this even apply to me?” and we think to ourselves, “Maybe I should just skip ahead to Matthew.” Personally, I’ve resolved to read straight through the Bible in six months, and these questions and thoughts come up for me too as I read. I get it. I read through several geographies in Joshua on Tuesday morning. Reading this kind of stuff is not as natural as we would like it to be, but it is God’s Word.
To be frank, I don’t have an easy answer. I don’t know that these kinds of passages (genealogies and geographies) will become the passages that we will instinctively want to turn to in times of trouble. Nevertheless, they are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). If I may, I’d like to offer some brief rapid-fire thoughts on how to read these passages. I intend for these thoughts to not only orient us toward the content, but also give a little bit of practical advice as we actually read. First, though, I need to offer a necessary disclaimer.
Reading the Bible can be hard. It can take work. Not every part of the Bible is easy to read, and I think that we’ve got to be okay with this. We even need to be humble and recognize that God wants us to exercise our minds. He doesn’t want lazy thinking disciples. He wants disciples who give effort in their thinking. He may even want disciples who will out-think a thoughtful world. Bible reading takes work. Laziness is no virtue for God’s people, but we need to know that our work will be rewarded. God uses his Word, and thoughtful engagement with it to make us happy in Jesus, more like Jesus, and more useful for Jesus. This is part of what it means to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Let’s get oriented.
Preparation for Reading:
- First and foremost, pray. Pray for faith to believe this is God’s Word to you and for you. Pray, “Give me a mind ready to think, a heart ready to hear, and a response of faith ready to obey,” or some prayer like that.
- Second, we’ve got to orient ourselves to what we are reading at a number of levels.
- We need to remember that this is part of God’s grand story of redeeming and saving sinners through his Son, Jesus Christ. Let’s remember in our reading that this is leading us to Jesus.
- We also need to remember that the passage we’re reading is historical and situated in the history of redemption. Often we don’t understand a passage because we’re just reading without engaging the question, “Why this here?” This means that we need to know where “here” is in the Bible’s storyline. The Bible’s storyline is fairly easy to summarize and remember using the letter “E.” Here’s my summary:
- Eden to the Exodus
- Exodus to the Entrance (think Promised Land)
- Entrance to the Exile
- Exile to Jesus’ Entrance
- Jesus’ Entrance to his Exit
- Jesus’ Exit to the End (think New Heavens and New Earth)
When you sit down to read, ask yourself, “Where are we in the story?” Often times that will point you in the right direction of answering the question “Why this here?”
- Not only do we need to remember the historical setting, but we also need to remember that each book has a unique message. That overarching message will be helpful to know on the front end of our reading.
- Take for example the book of Numbers, why on earth do we have a census of Israel’s warriors at the beginning?
- Because we’ve just left Exodus and Leviticus. God has brought his people out of Egypt (Exodus), and prepared them for communion (think sacrifice/Leviticus) with him in the Promised Land. We’re ready to go take that land with all of these Warriors! As you read, remember that these are real people who the Lord really cared about. This should be significant to us. Have you ever felt lost among the large number of God’s people? Read these names and remember that your God knows your name!
- Numbers is the book that describes Israel’s march toward the land that God had promised to give. So why do we have a second census in Numbers 26?
- Because the first generation disobeyed (Num. 13-14) and died in the Wilderness (Num. 14-25). How should we read these two censuses? The first census we should read knowing that God has been so gracious to preserve and prepare his people for entering the land. We should read the second census understanding that God is patient with and faithful to his people – he did not totally wipe them out in the face of their disobedience.
- How does this apply to you? Hasn’t God been patient with you? Hasn’t he kept his promises to you? Isn’t he preparing you to enter the Promised Land of Heaven? Then learn from your past disobedience and learn from God’s persistent faithfulness. Heed his commands, and do what he says knowing that he goes with you each step of the way. And this, brothers and sisters, is precisely why we also have a geography (a travelogue) in Numbers 33. This geography/travelogue reminds us that God has been faithful to his people in every space and place.
- Why do we have more geography in Numbers 34-35? Well, because God is faithful and generous. We’re given more geography in Numbers 34-35 to remind us that God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give his people the land that he promised.
This is what we need to remember – these genealogies and geographies are testimonies to our God’s faithfulness and generosity. Read these passages with God’s faithfulness and generosity in mind. Take comfort knowing that if our God has been faithful before, he will be again. He has been faithful to his people in the past, and he is faithful to his people today. You see you are not going into your office, your workplace, your classroom, your laundry room, or anywhere alone. Your God is going with you, because that is who he is. He is the God who goes with his people. You need to remember that today, wherever you go.
- To sum up. Remember the whole story. Remember where you are in the story. Remember the purpose of each book. Remember where you are in the book, and why this genealogy or geography is here in the book. Then read with a view to God’s faithfulness to his promises, and his generosity to his people.
Now, it is time for some practical advice in reading.
Practical Advice in Reading:
- First, keep reading. Don’t stop, don’t slow down, and don’t go back. Keep going. It is okay if you didn’t get or understand everything. Keep going. Recognize that you’re called to read the Bible for the rest of your life. This is not just a one year project, this is a year after year after year project. Whatever you missed and you need to understand, the Lord will eventually teach you. Keep going. Keep reading. Don’t stop. Did I mention that you should keep reading? Good. Keep reading.
- Second, consider purchasing a reader’s Bible. There are all sorts of versions of readers Bibles out there. I have two and I use both for different purposes. A reader’s Bible is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I use it nearly every day, if not every day. A reader’s Bible declutters the Bible from headings and verses demarcations. It the Bible more like a book, and that is just what the Bible is! When you’re trying to read large passages of Scripture (like a genealogy or geography) having less text, which you don’t need in the course of your reading, will help you to keep going. Using a reader’s Bible has helped me to read faster, and it will help you too.
- Third, to help you stay focused, consider listening to your text as you read. I listen to the ESV at double time speed as I read. I think that I can actually read faster by not listening to the audio, but having sight and sound engages multiple senses for me and actually helps me to keep reading. That may not work for you, but it works for me. Whatever the case may be, it helps me to keep reading. Don’t stop. Don’t rewind. Don’t start the chapter over again. Just keep going.
- Fourth, before reading a book, consider checking out what the Bible Project guys have to say about the book you’re about to read. They’ve got some pretty awesome YouTube videos that help orient you to the main content of the books of the Bible. Consider watching this one on the Gospel of Mark. It is so helpful to know what you are going to read before you read it. This, of course, brings us back to one of the main “helps” with respect to our Bible reading – being properly oriented to it.
If you can believe it, this is my “rapid fire” advice for Bible reading. I hope and pray that it is a help. Read on, brothers and sisters. I have no doubt that you will be richly rewarded as God is so often pleased to grow us in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ – the renewing of our minds – through the reading of his Word.
Warmly in Christ,