The Bible isn’t magic, but sometimes we treat it as if it is.
We see it as a horoscope, or a magic pill, that by simply popping in each morning, we will receive all we need. Like an oracle of old, we come to it with our questions, and it will spit out the answer to our queries. Each morning devotion tells us exactly how to live that day, every quiet time automatically encourages us, and with only five minutes, we understand everything we read.
But then it doesn’t, we’re not encouraged, and we don’t understand what on earth this is trying to say.
This passage is confusing. That Old Testament book is boring and long. And we’re not sure what moral or practical lessons to draw from a leftie stabbing a really fat king (Judges 3).
So we’re left confused. We’re not sure what to do with our Bibles.
But maybe, that’s because we’re looking at them all wrong.
Yes, the Bible is an inerrant, infallible, and inspired book–but it is still a book. It is spiritual–but it’s not magic. It is not a personalized pill, nor vending machine, nor something we passively ingest. It is still a piece of literature, with all the rules of sentence structure, themes, and genre that any other book has. So shouldn’t we give it the same time and effort that we gave our 8th grade literature class? I doubt our English teacher would have been happy if we told her that we closed Moby Dick after five minutes of reading because, “It didn’t speak to me.”
The Bible is God’s book, but that doesn’t make it any less of a book. The Bible is not an oracle or a life coach. If we’re going to read it, we must read it as a book. But to do that, we must use several tools that we do with any other piece of literature.
1: Know the Purpose
You have to know why something was written to read it rightly. You can’t read an instruction manual like a novel, or the other way around. You need to know the theme–the reason it was written, and the main point it is trying to get across.
After all, you wouldn’t read War and Peace to learn about military tactics (despite the misleading name). Nor would you read To Kill a Mockingbird for hunting lessons. That is not their point, and reading those books to learn those facts will give you little results.
True, a book may incidentally teach you about things other than its theme, but those are side quests, not the main story. And to make the side ones main is to miss a great adventure. Yes, you may learn a lot about the Mississippi River from reading Huckleberry Finn–but to learn only that is to miss the point.
The Bible is sufficient–a theological term meaning that it gives us all that we need for a life of godliness. It does speak to and apply to every part of our lives. But if we read it merely to know how to live, we’re missing the grand adventure. We’re interested in the foliage of the Hundred Acre Wood, and missing the main story.
Because our lives aren’t the main theme of the Bible.
The point, the theme, is God’s glory and his beautiful restoring of all things. He is at the center of the story. He is the one at the beginning, making everything; he is the one who is wronged, for rebellion against him is the story’s great problem; he is the hero who rides in to make his people right again; and he is the one who returns and restores everything, ushering in the Happily Ever After with a wedding and a feast and a new creation.Our lives aren’t the main theme of the Bible. The point, the theme, is God’s glory and his beautiful restoring of all things. Click To Tweet
The Bible is God’s story, of how he’s working and what he is going to do.
And just as a good author uses every chapter to in some way relate back to and develop his theme, so every book of the Bible shows off God and his character. Yes, Leviticus may not really apply to our daily lives–but it does reveal him as a holy God, that still wants his people to come close to him. While every book of the Bible has its own individual theme, a particular point about God and his work that it is trying to make, all of the individual notes weave together to form the grand, overarching melody of the bigger theme.
Just like with any other book, we need to know the theme of the whole Bible, the point of the story we are in, lest we get so caught up in the horses and forest that we forget that the story is about killing a dragon and crowning a king. (Revelation 20:2, 10-12)
2: Know The Individual Author and How He Speaks
There’s plenty of wonderful promises in the Bible. Take this one, “All these will I give you, if you fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). This is an encouraging, reassuring promise that we can cling to, trusting in the speaker–except the speaker is Satan, and the context is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
Who’s speaking matters. It affects how we listen to the message, what we do about it, and even how the message is presented. That’s why part of the process of any good book study–including Bible study–is learning more about the author and their background.
We probably won’t often be confused when Satan or some other character is directly speaking lies in the Bible. We know what is wrong; that’s easy to spot. But what about when two authors who are speaking rightly seem to contradict?
Consider those ever-sticky passages of Paul and James. “For by grace you have been saved through faith…not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8,9) declares Paul, but James then says that “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). One says faith needs no works, and the other that faith must have works. Are they then contradictory?
No, because it is simply different authors emphasizing different things.
Paul’s recurring theme throughout his writings is justification by faith alone–because he was writing to Gentiles who were being attacked by Judiazers trying to put them back under the law. In contrast, James, as one of the earliest New Testament authors, was wanting to ensure that the church was still actively loving each other. James and Paul are not contradicting each other theologically (to steal the phrase from those wiser, “faith alone is what saves, but saving faith is never alone”)–but they are approaching the topic from different angles, because God used each author’s background and viewpoint to show the church something different, but both still true, about faith.
That is the miraculous part of the Bible, that even with 44 different authors, in no part do they truly contradict. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter who the author is. Just as a sci-fi novel written by Jules Verne will have a much different feel from Orwell’s, so Matthew’s Gospel feels different from Luke’s.
Understanding different authors and their perspectives helps us see why things were included, and why some were left out. That is why Luke (the doctor) is very methodical and precise as he describes the many Jesus healed, while Matthew (the Jewish former-government-worker) emphasizes how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the coming Messiah-King.
3: Read Everything Within the Context of the Whole Story
If we started in the middle of a novel, we’d have no idea what was going on. But so often we do that with the Bible. We have piece-meal devotions, with a couple verse from this chapter, then another few from over there, then a random Psalm. We jump about from place to place, with no idea how the roads between them connect, nor of the lands we’re sailing over.We have piece-meal devotions, with a couple verse from this chapter, then another few from over there, then a random Psalm. We jump about from place to place, with no idea how the roads between them connect, nor of the lands we’re… Click To Tweet
But we need to know the whole story to study one part well. You can do this with the help of Bible study tools, and Bible-in-a-year plans, as well as simply the accumulated knowledge over time. The Bible is still a book as well–and as a book, it is a whole story that you can allow yourself to get lost in. I used to stay up until 2 AM to finish that novel beneath my covers (don’t tell my mom!)–but when’s the last time I let myself get caught up in the Gospels or David’s whole life story? You’re allowed to be swept away by your Bible study.
But more than simply knowing the whole story, we have to remember the whole story whenever we come across something new.
When a character in a story suddenly does something that doesn’t match the other things we know of him, we pause. We assume that he must be lying or pretending or that something else is going on than what appear at the surface. But when we find a verse that we like, even if it doesn’t quite match up with the rest, we wave it proudly above our heads as something that we hold to without any thought of the rest. That’s not right.
Scripture interprets Scripture, so when we come across something that seems a little out of place, we should stop and look a little harder. After all, we only know that the detective is merely joining in with the gang’s planing to keep his cover because we have read the other chapters of the story, and compare his present actions against those.
The Bible is still a book. But it is also still more. It is the revelation of the incomprehensible one, the word of the one who’s speaking made reality. Yes, we need to take time to study the theme, the authors, and the bigger story. We need to dig into the genre, the figures of speech, and other literary tools. We need to use the method of observation, investigation, and application that authors such as Kat Forster have taught us. It is a book, as worthy of our effort as any other great piece of literature.
But it is also more, and it takes more than simply our own efforts to know it.
We can only really understand the Bible through the Holy Spirit–and the Spirit can always work through the Word, even without us using those literary methods. The Holy Spirit can and will work in lightning bolt ways--but He also works through the everyday methods and everyday graces, rain drop by rain drop bringing forth fruit. Click To Tweet
God is a God who loves the normal work–caring for gardens and tending for sheep and carpenters and fishermen–so it’s not surprising that He would bless the everyday work of knowing his word. He speaks in words, not merely emotional feelings, so we can use study, not magic.
Yet our study does not contain Him. His word is greater, and more. So let’s dig into it , understanding it in every way we can. The Bible is not about our lives–but it will transform them. Let’s give his Word the time to truly know it, to truly know Him, for that is what life truly is.
“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)