When people becomes members of our congregation, one of the commitments they make is to "diligently read the Bible." (While daily Bible reading is never commanded in Scripture, love and devotion for God's Word is.) But just because someone is reading the Bible doesn't mean they're reading it well. So while the church labors to get the Bible into peoples homes, hands and heads, we also need to labor to teach them how to read it well. As any survey of church history will reveal, incredible damage can be done by preachers misusing God's Word. And if that's true at a group level, it must also be true on an individual level .
Thus the goal of this short post: to remind us of one the most basic rules of reading our Bible well.
First, the complicated version. Good teachers have taught us that we need to read the Bible while paying attention to both the grammar and the history involved. They even have a fancy word for it: the grammatico-historical method. The grammar part of this makes sense to most people: we need to pay attention to words, sentences, and paragraphs and how they work together. When we see the word "love," we need to see if it's a noun or verb, we need to see what part that word is playing in the sentence, and what role that sentence has in the argument being made by the author. It's easier said than done, but most students of the Bible at least agree that we need to pay attention to the words of the text.
For many, the harder work is in paying attention to the history involved. It's harder because paying attention to the history of the Bible doesn't mean simply understanding the historical stories the Bible tells, but understanding something of the history behind the text. Who wrote this book? To whom did they write it? What were the significant events influencing what's written? And the biggest question: What did the author intend to communicate to his original audience?
Now, the short version: God's Word was written for you, but it was not written to you. While the Bible is perfectly designed to be our guide for faith and life, we were not the original audience. And reading it as if we were is simplistic and dangerous.
Learning this one, simple truth will both unlock the depths of God's Word while also guarding us from bad interpretation. Our natural tendency when reading the Bible is to ask ourselves, "What does this mean for me?" But if we don't learn to start with "What did this mean to the first audience?", our reading of the Bible will almost certainly be self-centered and shallow, if not totally wrong.
We need to read Genesis by first remembering the author and audience: it was written by Moses for the blessing and benefit of the Israelites who were wandering in the wilderness under his leadership. So we should read while often asking ourselves, "What did Moses want to communicate to those wandering Israelites?" and only then, "How does that lesson apply to me?"
We need to read the prophets by understanding as best we can the historical and cultural context of each prophet. Lots of decent Bible dictionaries online will give you this information.
We need to read the Psalms, thinking often about a king writing praise songs for his nation to sing with him. (This is the best path to seeing Jesus in the Psalms!)
Learning (or re-learning) this simple rule will keep us from treating Genesis as a science textbook or the Psalms like lyrics to radio songs or the great stories of redemptive history as mere moral examples. Taking the extra few minutes to consider the first audience is how we begin to see how everything is about Jesus (not us!), which will only make our Bible reading ever more joyful.