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  • New Hope Church

Reading the Bible

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

One of our central focuses at New Hope Church in State College, PA, is the Bible. We seek to know and study God's word and write it on our hearts.

How should we read the Bible?

There is more than one way to read the Bible. Not every part of the Bible has the same purpose. The Bible is a collection of books that make up one, unified whole, and as such it contains a whole series of genres: history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, letters, and visions!

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV

But not all Scripture is of the same type.There is a difference between “narrative” passages and “normative” passages. A “narrative” passage describes what happened. The history books are chock full of this sort. Here you will find godly people who did godly things, evil people who did evil things, and godly people who do evil things. (Evil people doing godly things seems an exceedingly rare case.) We should try to be like those who are doing godly things, but if a generally good person does a sinful thing (e.g. Rachel deceiving Laban in Gen 31:35) that does not mean we should do likewise. This text might not speak of the wrongness of the sin, nor of the consequences, but it is a narrative text, telling us what happened, not what should happen.

A “normative” passage, on the other hand, tells what ought to happen. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is an excellent example of this. God’s speech at the end of Job is another example. Such texts tell us the ways we are supposed to act, what we are supposed to believe, and what God expects from us. Similarly, there are also differences between the different genres in the Bible.

• Writing that is presented as history is intended to be taken literally.

• Writing that is intended as poetry is inherently artistic: it is all based in truth, but various literary devices, such as personification, are used to describe that truth.

• Writing that is prophetic tends to speak of things in times to come, and often it is somewhat symbolic. Interestingly, much prophecy gets fulfilled more than once: lots of the prophecies about Jesus were also fulfilled in part by other individuals before Jesus. Some prophecies we have seen come to pass as we progress chronologically through the Bible. Some speak of historical events that are not recorded in the Bible. Other prophecies have yet to happen.

• Some writings mix genres. For example, the stories of Jesus are told historically, but within those stories we see Jesus himself telling stories (storyception!), and many of those are illustrations intended to explain a spiritual concept, not meant to have actually happened (though some, perhaps, did actually happen). Another example is John’s book Revelation: it starts with letters to particular churches, but then it changes into a prophecy/vision crossover, some of which is symbolic and some of which is not, and much of which has not yet happened.

How do we study the Bible?

There are lots of Bible study tools available for whoever wishes them. We provide some in the resources section of our website. But here is a broader overview of approaches to Bible study.

1. Read the Bible like you would a novel which happens to be non-fiction. This is the best way to get the big picture of what God is communicating through His Word. It will help you grasp the full stories presented and the characters as real people going through life. In the same way that you read and understand something like Pride & Prejudice or Lord of the Rings, so you should read and understand the Bible.

2. Pick a chapter, passage, or individual story to focus on. This is a great way to begin exploring more in depth beyond the big picture. You can compare similar stories from your own experience to the story you are reading. You can ask questions like, “How did the characters in this story act? How should they have acted? What would be the consequences if I thought like or acted like them, or like they should have?”

3. Pick a single sentence, or even part of a sentence, and truly take it to heart. Focus on one particular thought and how it applies to you, and what God is telling you through it. This is a wonderful way to explore the depths of God!

It is very important that you keep this thought in context with the chapter/book as a whole: many people have been led astray by forgetting the chapter that explains the verse.

Similarly, sometimes a verse seem like it is saying something that is, in fact, true according to other verses, but about which that particular verse isn’t actually saying anything at all. For example, John 3:5 talks of being “born of water and the Spirit”, which is often misbelieved to refer to baptism. The context shows that Jesus’ analogy has nothing to do with baptism. Baptism is definitely important and is taught elsewhere, but John 3:5 is on a completely different subject. So don’t forget the context!

Why should we read the Bible?

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV

“I have hidden Your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” – Psalm 119:11

The Bible says for itself why we should read it, but there are other reasons. The Bible is the most accurate piece of literature in the history of the world by several orders of magnitude. The number of copies and the proximity in time of these copies to the dates of original writing are astounding compared to every single other historical work. Everything that you know about ancient history is less well documented than the Bible.

The Bible is also universally viewed as the number one source of brilliant teaching whose wisdom and insight transcend time and space as no other teachers’ ever have. The Bible has continually, to this day, been THE number one worldwide bestseller. It has immense literary impact on English language and literature. It is a defining piece of the cultures of Europe and everywhere they had colonies. It accounts the history of the peoples of the Middle East who seem to have an inordinate amount of sway on global politics and international relations. Without question, there is no book that is more valuable, no book more important, no book more influential than the Bible!

Why is the Bible authoritative?

We have what the authors wrote. As I mentioned above, the Bible sets the standard for historical accuracy. Given the sheer number of copies and the earliness of those copies, there is more secular historical reason to believe that we have what the original authors wrote than any other piece of pre-modern literature, ever.

The canon of Scripture has existed all along. The Bible is a collection of literary pieces. As such, the later pieces make claims about the earlier pieces, declaring them to be authoritative. By the time of the New Testament, the Old Testament was already formed and in use. The other writings of the Jews were excluded by the Jews before Jesus’ day: the books of the Apocrypha were not considered as Scripture by the people who wrote them. Valuable, yes. Scripture, no.

The New Testament was formed as early as the 2nd century AD. Actively used lists of the books we now use were already circulating by that time. The books were chosen as Scripture based on who wrote them. The four gospels were written by authors with direct experience of Jesus and the Apostles. Many of the books are written by such writers as the Apostles John, Peter, James, and Matthew. Peter speaks on Paul’s behalf, calling his writings equivalent with Scripture. Luke and Mark were devoted companions of Paul and the other apostles. Jude was the brother of Jesus. Only Hebrews remains, and there is much speculation on the author (it was likely not written by Paul), but from the earliest times it was accepted as Scripture because its content so perfectly matches all the rest of the teachings of Jesus.

Are the stories made up? Remember that the Old Testament is an account of the history of the Jewish people. It was written by people who experienced that history, the first several chapters of Genesis excluded. It was (and is) universally believed by all Jews and now Christians and Muslims, that everything written about Abraham was true. The big stories of the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) were recorded by Moses: if he had made it up, the people who were present for it would have known and not founded their culture on it. So it is with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Moses was obviously not present for Creation and the Flood. It is worth noting, however, that these stories are recorded exactly the same as all the others: as genuine historical events. Accordingly, the Jews have always believed that they happened as they were written.

The New Testament is so well attested historically that it is highly unlikely it was made up, especially once you factor in the devotion of its writers to its truth, to the point of severe persecution, torture, and murder.

The Bible is unparalleled in its impact. It is impossible to deny the impact the Bible has had on history. Billions of people have claimed that their lives were completely transformed by the teachings of the Bible. Billions of people have experienced all the promises of the Bible in their personal lives. No attempt to write any work of literature on the state of humanity nor on personal improvement nor on how to live a successful, healthy, moral life has ever come close to the Bible in its clarity, simplicity, accuracy, and completeness. The Bible cannot be improved upon: it is impossible. Without fail, the manner of life proposed by the Bible has always proven to be the best, in every life that has tested it.

The Bible is absolutely correct about everything that it says. There is no truth that contradicts the Bible. Anything that contradicts the Bible is not truth. Thus, on every matter that the Bible addresses, it is always right. Since it is always right, it is the authority, the standard of truth on those topics. The Bible is not authoritative regarding any subject that it doesn’t talk about. It doesn’t talk about chemistry and how mixing acids and bases produces water and salt: it has nothing to say on the matter, and thus no authority. It doesn’t talk about the dating process in American culture: it is not an authority on the matter (though it does give helpful principles on marriage and relationships generally, on which it is authoritative).

But whatever the Bible speaks of, whether spiritual or historical or observational, it is the authority and it is always correct.

However, it is important to note, as mentioned under “How should we read the Bible?”, that not all of the Bible is intended to be taken as historical observation in a literal scientific sense, e.g. poetic psalms. Also, not everything is infinitely precise in the Bible: there are numbers that are rounded, to the nearest hundred for example. There are other numbers that are intended to be somewhat symbolic, intended to present a concept like completeness rather than exact count. It it similarly worth noting, in the case of the Gospels, that some stories about Jesus aren’t presented identically between them. Not all of the Gospels were intended to be written perfectly chronologically. Also, Jesus likely told the same stories many times, again and again, as is the habit of every single person on earth: a story can change from telling to telling as the storyteller sees fit. If one writer picks up one instance of a story, and another hears the same story from a different telling, it is likely, even expected, that they won’t write exactly the same thing. Even many of his miracles were repeated (e.g. feeding the five thousand and the four thousand; many of his healings). Even time of day may change: the Jews and the Romans, living together, had different ways of telling time.

All this is to say that the Bible is authoritative, reliable, and true, but it is also very complex, and in some cases our modern way of understanding things is somewhat misled relative to the way the authors understood it thousands of years ago. But, they were still reasonable people, living lives just like us, intending to write clearly just like you and me. And as the Bible says,

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteous, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17

by Robbie Parks

Read the Bible with New Hope Church in State College

#reading the bible

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