Monday, August 21, 2006

How to Read Your Bible

Let’s say you have a neighbor who knows nothing about Jesus. Nothing about God. Nothing about the Christian faith.

And you get into a conversation with this person. Maybe lots of conversations. And you’re telling them about your faith. And you’ve quoted a lot of Bible verses to them, and your neighbor tells you, “You know, I’ve never read the Bible. I don’t know anything about it, but I’d like to read some of it. Where should I start?”

This is the hard part. It’s good that your neighbor asked, because some people just pick up a Bible, and start reading at the beginning.

And that’s good. They’ve made a start. But the Bible is not just one book -- it’s a lot of books. Actually, it’s a library of 66 books. And while all of the Bible is given by inspiration to us (II Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God”) some parts are just easier to read than others. For example, it’s OK when people start with Genesis. Genesis tells us how the world began, about the fall into sin, about the promise of a coming Savior (Genesis 3:15), about Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Exodus is good, too, telling us about the people of God in Egypt, and about God’s deliverance from their bondage.

But most people who’ve gone this far run into problems when they hit Leviticus. Because Leviticus is important, but most people who are new to the Bible find it hard going. And often they stop right there. And stopping there, they miss out on all the wonderful stuff that follows -- especially the story in the gospels of the Savior who died to take away their sins.

So here’s a plan. If your neighbor, or a friend, or your nephew -- or whoever -- wants to start reading the Bible, here’s a study guide that will help them through the incredible story of God’s word, of God’s deliverance, of God’s love for us.

First, start with the story of Jesus. The rest is important, but the gospels are the crucial part of the Bible. The gospel of Mark is a good place to start. It’s only 16 chapters, and it’s a fast-paced, action read. After reading that, read the other gospels: Matthew, Luke, and John. Encourage them to read carefully, but not get bogged down. Reading a chapter a day isn’t too much, and reading enough keeps the story flowing.

After the gospels, go to Genesis. Then back to the New Testament: this time to the book of Acts, which is the exciting story of how God’s church grew after Christ rose from the dead.

By now, our reader should be getting a feel for God’s word, and it’s time to hit some of the heavier stuff: Paul’s letters. Start with Romans, read 1st and 2nd Corinthians, and then Galatians, and the short letters to churches that Paul wrote from prison: Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Continue on with the other New Testament letters.

Now that our reader has gotten this far, he’s well into understanding the Bible, and can go on ahead with what happens to interest him -- perhaps the Psalms (although it’s important to remember that the Psalms are primarily written to be prayed, rather than simply to be read), the Old Testament history books (such as Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel) or some of the books of prophecy (such as Daniel, Isaiah, or Revelation).

And what’s the most important thing to remember when reading the Bible? Well, the most important thing is to remember that this is the word of God, and not the words of men, and as such, it’s different from any other book we will read. (Perhaps praying from Psalm 119: 18 would be good: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”) But the best bit of advice for your friend?

It’s the same advice I’d give to someone who’s eating fish. Eat the meat, spit out the bones. In other words, enjoy what you can understand, and keep going when you get to passages that don’t make sense. Don’t stop, just because something doesn’t make sense. Keep going. And that’s good advice for us all. We can spend a lifetime reading and understanding God’s word. Every time we read it, we’ll find new treasures there. Just keep reading. And thank God for the gift of his word to us all.

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