I have often heard people say, sometimes in frustration, how can we understand the Bible? Smart people throughout time all seem to study it and all seem to get different answers. How am I supposed to get the “right answer” when I read it?
This may seem like a fair question on the surface, but if you think about it a bit you will see it is not as big a barrier as it seems. I don’t think it is much better than saying that there is a whole lot of awful tasting food cooked on this planet every day. Therefore, why should I think I can do any better, so what’s the point of cooking at all? The reason we cook in spite of the risk of failure is this, we all need food to live. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD”1Deut 8:3; Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4 Therefore, in spite of the risk of failure, we must press on to understand what God has revealed to us through his word.
The good news is that, though there are many challenges to understanding the word of God, it is not impossible. The even better news is that, though there are many knotty problems in fully understanding the biblical literature, the message is generally quite easy to see. By this, I mean that while making definitive, unassailable, declarations regarding the absolute meaning of every detail of a passage may be anywhere from difficult to impossible. Understanding what God wants us to do in a passage in generally easier than we might think.
What are we looking at?
The first challenge is to identify the various books of the Bible and the types of literature used in them. Then we need to organize them in some coherent way so that as we read one of the books we know where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
History and Law
The Bible is library which contains books on many subjects. Books that cover everything from the creation of the universe, to the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come. But the way these books are arranged can be a bit confusing if you are trying read the story in its proper order and context. I would suggest a historical reading of the text if you are not very very familiar with the bible and the history it describes and critiques. So I will give the order of the historical books first these books contain the main historical narratives and the laws that were given to govern the ancient people of Israel.
- Chronicles (written later but covers the
timeeof the kings)
- Exile to Babylon
- Daniel (He is a writing prophet but gives a record of the time spent in Babylon)
- Return from Babylon
If you read the Bible in this order it will be much easier to follow the historical narratives. Since events will be placed in their proper historical order for the most part. The rest of the Old Testament books fall into two major categories. Poetic wisdom literature and prophecy. If you read two chapters a day this can easily be done in about 9 months. Do not be intimidated pick a pace you can maintain and find a regular time each day for reading. Or if you wish,
Whatever you do try to get the whole story before you try to study all the details in depth. This will require discipline and commitment but it is time well spent. If this seems like an unusually large time commitment be honest with yourself. Do a time survey and see how much time is wasted in a day or a week. Ask yourself what is more important than understanding a collection of the most important books ever written, or whatever else you may be spending your time on.
Poetic wisdom literature
- Song of Songs
These books, while firmly anchored in history, are easily read and understood in their own right for the most part. Many of these writings are rich sources of encouragement. They are character building, encouraging, inspiring, and even cathartic. And since they are understood to be wisdom literature, they, of course, teach us. These writings cover everything from day to day life to the deep inner struggles of the soul. From business to philosophy. So work poetic wisdom literature into your daily regimen as well.
Prophetic Writings (in historical order)
- Ezekiel (Before and during exile)
- Exile to Babylon
- Return from Exile
The so-called “writing prophets” began during the time of the kings and continued until well after the return from Babylon. The prophets were teachers and messengers sent by God to correct and warn His people. Their focus is generally faithfulness to God and the covenant that the people of Israel made with God. The warnings were often simply reminding them of the consequences of breaking the covenant they made with God.
As time goes on, they were in fact exiled for their unfaithfulness and returned after a time in Babylon. After Babylon we see the message of the prophets begin to shift their focus from covenant faithfulness to hope in God and His coming salvation. The message of a coming Messiah/Savior became an increasingly prominent feature of the later prophets. It is from this gathering hope in God that the New Testament begins with the coming of that Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
The New Testament
The New Testament also has more than one kind of literature in it. Again it is important to read and understand the historical material first. Since the letters and sermons should all be understood in the context of this history.
Biography and History
The Letters (epistles)
- Corinthians (I & II)
- Thessalonians (I & II)
- Timothy (I & II)
- Peter (I & II)
- John (I & II & III)
Remember as you read that God is the hero of every story. You will see as you go along that even the best people in these stories are very flawed. The stories are there to help us understand who God is, and who we are. With that knowledge the wonder of what God has done to save us begins to jump off the page at us. The Bible is unique to me in that the more I read it the deeper it goes. After a lifetime of studying it I still feel like I am just getting started.
May God bless you on your journey through His living word.