I still remember my first hermeneutics class, where I learned how to interpret the Bible. We were required to take one through my university. I was not excited to spend a semester learning what I assumed I already knew.
I recall being stunned as I learned that I was far from reading my Bible correctly! I quickly found that I knew nothing of the context from which any of the biblical stories came from, nor had I ever even taken the time to look for contextual clues through careful study. Questions like, “Where does this passage occur in the book?” or “Who is the author speaking to?” had never crossed my mind. But once I learned some basic Bible study tools, everything seemed new and no text felt off-limits or unapproachable.
Recently, Crossway released new research and infographics that revealed people’s bible study habits. As a Bible teacher, I was shocked to see how many books of the scriptures go completely unread because they’re hard to understand.
With countless Bible studies are available for churchgoers, this shouldn’t be something we have to grapple with. Yet biblical illiteracy remains pervasive among us.
Perhaps that’s because we teachers too often assume people understand the importance of Bible study. Why should people learn to study the Bible? After all, it’s difficult to understand ancient cultures and multiple genres.
WHY WE SHOULD STUDY THE BIBLE
Why do we want our people to study the Bible? Because the Bible yields its treasure to those who dig for it. Too often we take a shallow approach to reading Scripture: we want the application without the work, the easy-to-grasp imperatives without the hearty parables, the cozy promises without the uncomfortable truths. Christians should study the Bible to know God deeply. It is a book filled with the glories that teach, reproof, correct, and train us (1 Tim. 3:16), but it is ultimately a book about God and what he is like (Luke 24:27).
As G. K. Beale’s popular work states, “We become what we behold, we become what we worship.” We are formed by the things we do, by the liturgies we participate in, and one of these things that can form us into disciples of his words is the careful study of Scripture. This is why love must be what drives us to the text. Then our study will formational instead of just educational. Disciples are, by definition, learners, and that learning should change transfer across creed and into conduct. Doctrine must motivate practice. Truth has to move from our head to our hearts and actions.
As we seek to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27), our answer is to submit to be shaped by the author of life abundant. His words and his Spirit given to us are what guide us, as they point us consistently back to be like Christ.
A CALL TO BIBLICAL LITERACY
I shouldn’t have had to wait until a hermeneutics course to have at least some tools to study Scripture. Christian universities don’t bear the weight of training church members in biblical literacy—churches do. My local church should have equipped me with the basic tools for reading, understanding, and applying the foundational text of our faith.
Biblical literacy helps us more clearly recognize the gospel as it is reflected across all of Scripture. Even in portions of the Old Testament where it seems the difference between their culture and ours is too foreign and unfamiliar; Jesus, covenantal love and grace have abounded since the beginning. And that affects how we read scripture as a whole.
WRONGLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH
Many of us could tell horror stories of passages being skewed, and the marks the false interpretations leave on the lives they touched. Books like Finding the Love of Jesus from Genesis to Revelation by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin unpack the many ways we have tried and failed to read God’s Word. You will no doubt find your reading habits implicated in some way, just like mine were.
But we can’t press on in learning to study if we don’t first know what we’re doing wrong. If being told that your way of studying and understanding has been wrong causes you a twinge of pain, this may be because it has become an idol in your own way of making Jesus out to be who you’d prefer him to be, rather than who he actually is presented to be in Scripture.
Hold fast, friends. Don’t let this warning deter you from stepping foot into what he has to offer you in his Word.
So many resources are readily available to understand the context and background from where the words of Scripture were written as well as resources on how to see meaning and application from them. Books like the aforementioned Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin, Asking the Right Questions by Matthew Harmon, and One-to-One by David Helm all outline helpful ways to approach the text. Online resources like stepbible.org, blueletterbible.com, and luminabible.org aid with things like cross-references and comparing translations of the Bible. Websites like bibleodyssey.org and thebibleproject.com can give you a feel for the history of the people and the literary structures within the book you may be reading.
TAKE UP YOUR SWORD
Teaching your people that these resources are easily accessible to them is a comfort, and helping them to test and discern these resources is so fruitful. A Sunday morning understanding of the Bible is simply not enough for the battle that wages from Monday to Saturday. We need to be able to readily approach scripture each day of the week.
There are a lot of voices out in our world, and we desperately need a whole body fighting together—and that means each of us must know how to fight. You wouldn’t send soldiers into combat without them knowing how to use their weapons; likewise, we shouldn’t send believers into the world ill-equipped to wield the double-edged sword of the word they have been handed (Heb. 4:12). Together, rightly handling the truth, we can be church bodies filled with the true and good news of the gospel, as seen page after page in God’s Word, and this should make a difference not only within our churches but in the world around us.
When we know how to read and reflect on Scripture, the Bible studies we lead and the discussions we have gain greater depth. We begin to see how a devotional that shies away from hard texts limits and stifles our spiritual growth. We see how shallow study gives a limited view of the magnificent depths of our great God!
Most importantly, though, Scripture provides us with hope. Scripture shows us the gospel. The Torah, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles, Revelation all point to knowing and treasuring the triune God. To know that God has spoken to our hearts and minds through his inspired Word ought to be a comfort to us. Knowing how to approach passages in their context and apply them faithfully to our lives shows us how to really recognize the hope we have in Christ. The more clearly we can read and glean truth from God’s Word, the more hope can take root in our hearts.
Christian, learning to read the Bible is ultimately up to you since each one of us will one day give an account to God of how we spent our days. I implore you: learn to rightly handle the Word of truth. Learn to study the good book for yourself. Don’t give up when there are so many tools to help you learn. Don’t give up when there are pearls on every page.