Some of you will remember a sermon I preached on May 19 in which we looked at Jeremiah 29:1-14. In that sermon I had two projects, one was to open more fully the meaning of Jeremiah 29:11 and the other was to give my basic approach to the Bible. In this article I would like to write through some of those basics once again. I think those of you who were there on May 19 will have now had time to mull over what you saw unfold in front of you, and those of you who were not there will now get a basic introduction to how I approach the Bible.
What is the passage we are studying? What does the passage say? What is God saying to us? These are good and valid questions to ask of the Bible, and particular passages within the Bible.
I find that most people fit into one of two broad categories when they come to the text. The first type is typically “churched” (or feels more comfortable with the Bible for whatever reason) and tends to read the Bible as if they themselves were the original audience being addressed by God through God’s Word. The second type is typically foreign to church (or feels less comfortable with the Bible for whatever reason) and tends to read the (English) Bible almost is if it were written in a foreign language. Both of these broad types of people are addressed by the CONTEXT phase.
One of the key challenges we face as we read the Bible is to read what God is saying to us from the text, instead of reading ourselves into the text and then reflecting ourselves back onto ourselves. The latter process is nothing other than blindness, self-absorption, and (to use a biblical word) idolatry.
How do we take precautions against reading ourselves into the text and ensure that we are hearing what God is saying to us? We need more than a tidbit or a verse. Verses need to be put into the context of paragraphs, paragraphs need to be put in the context of chapters, chapters need to be put in the context of books, books need to be put in the context of the Bible as a whole, and the Bible as a whole needs to be put in the context of the Church.
Context has a way of reducing our tendency to assume everything in the Bible is God speaking directly to us, as if there was not even an original context or audience or purpose for the passage. Context creates distance between us and the text by helping us realize it was written in a place long ago and far away. Then context also enables us to close the distance between us and the text, but to close that distance in more accurate ways. Rather than read ourselves into a verse, we can look at a passage in context and more accurately see commonalities and distinctions between the original setting and our situation. Both text and context take on flesh as we move into the RE-TEXT phase.
Yep, this is a word I invented (or someone else invented it and I’m redefining it). What I’m trying to get at is that our hope as we come to the Bible is that God’s words will take on flesh in our lives. In some cases we hope, in some cases we are confident, that God will have something to say to us through the Bible.
So for us to really read the text well, we need to put it into context. Instead of hearing our own voice echoing in the Bible, we begin to hear God speaking. God’s Word becomes more clear in terms of a place long ago and far away. We start to see what is actually being said, by whom, to whom, for what purpose. Through context we let the Bible be the Bible, instead of an inspirational book written by us for us.
There is at least one more crucial piece for the Bible to incarnate (or take on flesh) in our situation. And we want to hear from God through the Bible, right? We need more than just context. We need to read the Bible with Jesus Christ in mind. Much, I dare say most, Bible reading in conservative circles is done in such a way that it is almost possible to entirely exclude Jesus without the interpretation changing. In other words, we read the Bible as if Jesus did not die on a cross and raise again on the third day.
What this means in the most practical of terms is that when I read the Bible, when I seek to hear God’s voice, when I then try to see what the Bible means for me and my situation, it all has to be through the grid of Jesus Christ. It is poor interpretation to read Genesis and try to apply Genesis to my life in such a way as if Genesis did not eventually lead to Jesus, and that I then come onto the scene through Jesus.
I’ve tried to lay out a basic methodology in simple terms, and hope you find it helpful in some way. Would love to hear how you have put this and other helpful interpretive practices to use.