“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (nehemiah 8:8)
Summarizing the story of the Bible is time well spent. Why? The answer to that is the most important thing to remember in reading the Bible. Lesson #1: keep your eye on the ball—the big picture. Don’t so fixate on the trees (particular people, things, or events) that you lose your way in the forest (the whole story).
The golden rule of reading, like real estate, is location, location, location—which is to say: context, context, context.It’s often helpful to learn about the historical and cultural background of a particular biblical author. Determining a text’s historical context is often difficult. Not to worry. The canonical context—the place of a particular text in the bigger story—is always available.
Literacy means knowing how to read and write. Reading involves more than deciphering individual words, however. Biblical literacy means understanding not only the individual words but the flow of the overarching story.Each part of the Bible makes sense only in light of the whole. Understanding means being able to fit the parts into the larger whole to which they belong. As we have seen, the “whole” is the story of how God is forming a holy nation.
Biblical literacy requires canon sense. Canon sense means, first, knowing how the different parts of the Bible interconnect. Certain biblical books, like Hebrews, are particularly helpful because they provide a key to unlocking the whole. For example, Hebrews explains that all the priests, sacrifices, and kings of the Old Testament were simply placeholders pointing to the real thing: Jesus Christ.
Canon sense also means knowing where we, the readers, fit into the story: “You are here.” The church at Thessalonica got ahead of itself; they thought they were already living in the last times. Paul had to write them a couple letters (1 and 2 thessalonians) explaining they were only at the beginning of the end. The end—Jesus’s second coming; the return of the king—was still to come.
Biblical literacy also means knowing how to read different kinds of literature. And this is the second most important thing to remember. Lesson #2: identify, and then respect, what kind of text you’re reading. There are many kinds of maps in the biblical atlas. Each map has its own key and legend. So, read history as history, poetry as poetry, law as law, and so forth.
Some readers try to make the text do something for which it’s not equipped. Such readers should listen to C. S. Lewis: “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is to be used.”
Take the story of Jesus. It is neither myth nor fable (2 peter 1:16). A myth conveys a timeless truth, whether the events reported happened or not. A fable conveys a moral truth. To read the Gospels as if they were myths or fables would be to assign them the wrong kind of truth. What matters in the story of Jesus, and the history of Israel, is what happened. God has spoken; God has acted. He has made himself known; he has set the captives free. The Bible is about what God has done, is doing, and will do to make a people his covenant partner.
Not everything in the Bible is straightforward history. Jesus taught by telling parables, and these are not to be read historically. The point of these short stories is to challenge their listeners’ conventional pictures of the kingdom of God. The way Jesus prefaces the story provides the clue to right reading. In Mark 4:26 Jesus lets us know what the kingdom of God is like by using a series of comparisons. He says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.” Jesus uses the language of analogy to teach his larger point.
The Gospels themselves, though historical, function like the parables in challenging the readers’ prevailing assumptions about God. No one in the first century was expecting God to fulfill his promise to establish an everlasting kingdom through the crucifixion of an innocent man. And this brings us to the third thing to remember.
Lesson #3: every portion of the Bible is directly or indirectly about Jesus. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (luke 24:27).
What frames each biblical book is the overarching story of God’s words and deeds. And everything—beginning, middle, and end—comes together in the Word made flesh. Jesus is the Word who was with God and was God, the one “for whom and by whom all things exist” (hebrews 2:10). Jesus is the hub around which the various textual spokes of the Bible turn. If the Bible is a set of maps leading to the city of God, then Jesus is the orienting North Star.
Lesson #4: you and I are not the first people to read the Bible. Jesus promised his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit: “he will guide you into all the truth” (john 16:13). We believe he has done just that over the centuries and across cultures.
Illumined by the Spirit, the early church formulated a “Rule of Faith” summarizing what every Christian should know: core knowledge of the gospel. The Rule states what virtually all Christians say they have heard in Scripture. Though the Rule does not have an independent authority, readers today do well to consult it. If nothing else, it serves as a precious guardrail against stubborn heretics who insist on reading the Bible in their own idiosyncratic ways.
There is one last thing to remember without which the other four lessons will prove worthless. Lesson #5: reading rightly requires us to be hearers and doers of God’s word. “Doing” involves more than obeying commandments. There is more in God’s word than law. God’s word is primarily God’s story. It is therefore God’s story that we must do.
Doing God’s story means accepting it as the true story of the world, and of our lives. The apostle Paul provides a great example: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (galatians 2:20). Paul here reads the truth of his own life in light of the story of Jesus. The good news is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 corinthians 5:19).
Doing God’s story means participating in it. The Bible’s story is a play, and readers must play their parts. Paul accepted the gospel as true, and sought to live it out: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 corinthians 5:17). We join God’s story when God’s Spirit unites us to God’s Son, enabling us to walk according to the Spirit, as “children of light” (ephesians 5:8)—and thus to become what C. S. Lewis calls “little Christs.”
To read the Bible rightly ultimately requires that we read our lives in its light, for it is the one true story of God, the world, and ourselves. Just as we are to have no other gods, and no other gospels, so we are to have no other stories before Scripture. As the Protestant Reformers insisted, “Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura) means that the Bible is the Christians’ singular and supreme authority for faith and life. Seek ye first the story of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Biblical authority means being “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (james 1:22). To read the Bible rightly—to hear and do God’s word—means continuing its story.