– Johnny Cash, The Man in White (xvi)
Last time, I shared the first four of my 11 Tips for Better Bible Reading. This post I want to share part two of that list. (I was originally going to make this a two-part article, but due to my verbose wordiness I now realize that it needs to be at least three. Besides, it’s my article…I can write as many parts as I want. Ha, ha!)
While you may not need all of these tips, hopefully, you can pluck one or two of these suggestions out and use them in your own time with God. A few small changes can make a very big difference.
For starters, let’s review the first four tips:
1. Pray before you read.
2. Read your Bible out loud.
3. Stop reading Bible verses. Start reading Bible paragraphs.
4. Read the same book/section every day for 30 days.
Here are the next few tips.
5. Consider what is happening before and after the passage.
We call this context. Context is essential for reading any book. I suppose the only exception to that would be the phonebook. If you ripped a sheet out of the Yellow Pages, it would still make sense by itself.
But you could not rip a page out of Pride and Prejudice or The Scarlet Letter and expect that small portion to be understandable. That little piece needs the surrounding material to give its setting and appropriate background. (I’ll spend a little more time on this tip because of how important it is.)
For instance, if I simply said, “The lamb was sure to go.” That statement, without the rest of the nursery rhyme, makes very little sense. Without its essential, preceding context, I could conclude, “That statement means that this lamb was constantly in need of the bathroom.” No! The lamb was not “sure to go” to the bathroom. He was “sure to go” wherever Mary went.
See how important context is, even in little things? How much more do we need to know the context, then, when reading something as long and as dense as Scripture? Context is like a set of guardrails that keeps you from drifting too far off the road of interpretation.
When it comes to reading the Bible my motto is simple: “Context is king!!” Trust me, you do not need to know Greek and Hebrew to understand the Bible. But you MUST know the context. Without context, I could preach a sermon that said, “and [Judas] went away and hanged himself” and the Lord Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
It sounds preposterous, but this is how some preachers write their sermons. Like a patchwork quilt, verses of the Bible are sewn together in a way that is unnatural and odd. Verses are ripped away from their original surroundings and pieced together to make a point. We preachers, along with all Bible students, need to be very careful about this.
How do we determine context? It’s easy. Pay attention to what you are reading. Familiarize yourself with the “Big Picture.” Before you read a passage ask yourself a few basic questions: “Who wrote it? Who did they originally write it to? Why did they write it? What is the book’s major theme?” Nowadays, virtually all of these questions are answered on the heading or title page of each book in your Bible. Look at page 1 of any book in your Bible and you will likely find this information. If you must, review it each time you read. Then, as you are reading, keep in mind what just happened in the chapters or verses before. Also, watch closely for what happens after it. When you do this, you are absorbing the context.
For instance, Matthew 18:18 has been used to justify all kinds of notions. In this verse, Jesus said,
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven…”
I’ve heard preachers apply this verse to prayer, spiritual warfare, and even prosperity theology. However, the previous verses are not talking about any of these topics. That verse appears in a section about church discipline. I’ll leave that subject alone for now, but I think it’s clear in the context that this is not teaching a “name it and claim it” theology.
If King Context is not on his throne, then the Kingdom of Bible Truth will soon be overrun with anarchy and dissorder. Long live the King!!!
6. Bombard the text with questions.
Children ask a lot of questions. “Mommy, where does the sun go at night?” “Daddy, where do babies come from?” These are just a sampling of the daily inquiries that young children often make. One reason for this is that children learn this way. In fact, let’s be honest, adults do as well. Asking a question of a passage of Scripture is the way that you begin to chip away at the familiar and uncover the often overlooked golden nuggets.
When you read the Bible, ask questions. In fact, ask a lot of them. “What questions should I ask?” (See…you’re already doing it. I’m proud of you!) Rudyard Kipling has some good advice about this. He once said,
“I keep six honest serving-men;
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who.”
Ask these simple questions as you read.
Then, try to track down the answers. Read the notes in a good study Bible (like the MacArthur Study Bible).
For those who want to get even more serious, invest in a complete commentary set on the Bible like The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged = $50, Unabridged for the computer = $80, Unabridged book form = $200). It will be money well spent!
Understand, though, this does not mean that every question has an answer (or even needs one). More than anything this exercise will at least get your mental juices flowing so that you think more deeply about the text at hand.
Ok, six tips down, five to go. Next post, we’ll explore the final few suggestions for how you can get the most out of God’s Word.