How should we read the Bible?
Everyone who is just introduced to the Bible and tries to read it will have to consider this question at some point. When she opens to the table of contents and sees a whole lot of names, it can be quite puzzling to figure out exactly where to start or how to go about reading it. I must add that this applies also to that person who has perhaps been familiar with the Bible being preached. Until now, he has not tried to read it for himself. When he eventually does, he must ask that same question.
In the words of a song from the classic musical, The Sound of Music, my advice is to ‘start at the very beginning’. Read it the way it presents itself to you. And when you do begin with the very first book (Genesis), what do you see? You observe these words:
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
Then it continues with the account of Creation. This signifies that you are reading a record of history. Follow the narrative onwards. Along the way, you’ll come across some books which are clearly not history: a collection of poems and songs, a group of proverbs, series of pronouncements and predictions, etc. You may leave these portions until a later time so as to continue with the flow. As you move on to the section commonly called ‘The New Testament’, you encounter a group of 4 basically historical writings which centre on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are the Gospels. Following these is another historical book (Acts of the Apostles), then a series of letters of varying length. Finally, you have another book full of strange images, mysterious creatures, and enigmatic visions.
When you follow this narrative I have advised, you’ll find a basic storyline emerging: God created the universe over a period of six days. During this period, he creates humans and assigns them the task of overseeing all he has made. Everything was good – really good. These first humans – Adam and his wife, Eve – were placed in a garden where they not only enjoyed a good relationship with God but were also required to demonstrate their reliance on Him by observing a simple command. They failed in this and chose to be autonomous. As a consequence of their rebellion, God cast them out of the garden. God had threatened death for disobedience, and this began to come into effect. As humanity further drifted from God, human society broke down, resulting in violence, murder, and all kinds of wickedness. Eventually, God decided to destroy the human population and begin a new era through Noah and his family.
Later, God selects Abraham and begins to form a new nation through his descendants. He allows his descendants to go into Egyptian society, where they were turned into slaves and remained so for four centuries. God eventually delivers them from their oppressors and brought them back into their own country. He confirms his relationship with them through a system of laws, rituals, and institutions. He established a token of his presence with them through the temple. Yet they would persistently repeat the sin of their ancestor, Adam. They disobeyed God again and again, until he brought foreign nations to harass them and ultimately displace them from their land. At the same time, God kept reassuring them of his love through several prophets. In different ways, these prophets spoke of the coming of a great King who would unite the people and restore God’s rule among them. He would be the One to settle all scores and fulfill God’s expectations for the nation.
The narrative leads on to the emergence of the Jewish prophet, Jesus Christ, who, as would appear, fulfills the earlier attributes of the expected King. Through his preaching, he announced the arrival of God’s kingdom. Through faith in Jesus, everyone who believes becomes a part of this kingdom. After a short ministry of about 3 years, he was accused of blasphemy by the authorities and handed over to the Roman government. He was punished and eventually killed via the cruel practice of crucifixion. On the third day, however, he rose physically from the dead and later ascended to heaven.
The message and mission of God’s kingdom which Jesus launched was continued by the community he had established, most notably by the apostles Peter and Paul. The community expanded as the apostles took the news beyond Jerusalem into the surrounding Greek cities.
This is the story in very broad outline. But I believe you get the picture. All other writings – the songs, the sayings, the predictions – they all find their place within this narrative. We understand each one within this grand outline of salvation history.
This does not end at being just a mere story, however. Let me restate: this general story was intended to become the story of each person on earth. As the message of God’s kingdom is spread, along goes the call for each one – Greek or Jew, male or female, rich or poor – to be reconciled to God and become a member of this community. When each person believes in Jesus Christ as the Saviour and Lord, they becomes a part of that community which extends from Abraham all the way to every believer today. When this happens, the story of the Bible, the story of redemption, becomes your own story.