How to Read the Bible with Purpose
I think one of the reasons why Christians find Bible reading and Bible study so challenging and hard work sometimes is because we come to it with the wrong purpose in mind.
Many people intend to come to the scriptures to find some magical and mysterious principle they never saw before, like panning for a gold nugget in the boring and muddy biblical narrative. Let’s face it, this if often the example we are given and are told to do by many preachers (and I for one have made this mistake in the past!)
So in this post I’m going to describe 3 things which the Bible IS NOT and 3 things which the Bible IS, to give you a greater sense of purpose when reading the Bible.
The Bible is not…a map for life.
You may have heard this being said before, and to be honest in all these things there is an element of truth. The Bible does give general direction, but not in such a personal and specific way as we often hope. The Bible will not tell you who to marry, or which house to buy or which job to apply for…and if someone gives you a scripture influencing you to do anything like that then you should test and examine it strongly!
The Bible is simply not there to give us specific direction in every moment of life, even though we may want it to. You cannot simply turn to a random page in scripture and expect it to speak personally into your life and tell you which direction to take.
The Bible is not…our dose of daily encouragement.
Whilst a lot of the Bible is really encouraging and uplifting, it is not simply there just to top you up with spiritual encouragement day by day. It’s not sat there on your coffee table eagerly waiting to shower you with positivity!
When you read the Bible you may find it confusing, shocking, sobering, sad, challenging and even offensive…and all of that is good as that is you being shaped and molded by the Word. When you read the book of Lamentations (which is a lament by Jeremiah, if you didn’t get that in the title), you won’t find it very uplifting! You will feel pretty sad and depressed by the end of it, but that’s good, because it’s a lament. Our task is to feel the emotion of the Biblical narrative, as that is part of it’s purpose.
The Bible is not…all personal application.
Now I love personal application as much as the next guy, but when we expect the Bible just to be continually telling us what to do then we are simplifying it down to less than what it is. Personal application is the low hanging fruit we easily grasp, and we simply can’t be bothered to climb any higher to get to the meatier stuff!
Take the book of Ephesians for example. There isn’t a single instruction until the 4th chapter! Why? Because the first 3 chapters are packed full of pure awesome theology. Paul’s intention in his letter to the Ephesians is that having fully saturated ourselves in the awesome truths in the first 3 chapters, we might be empowered to live up the calling in the latter 3 chapters.
Where have we gone wrong?
The reason why we make these misguided assumptions about the Bible, is that we fundamentally think the Bible is about us, right? We think the Bible is God’s gracious effort to help us in life, and the biblical narrative is simply an illustration for our life:
- I am Abraham trusting in God
- I am Moses crossing my Red Sea
- I am David fighting my giants
- I am Joshua journeying into my new land
This is where we have fundamentally gone wrong, because the Bible is not about us. The Bible is about God. The purpose of these stories in the biblical narrative are not to give us some helpful life principles, but to reveal to us something about God.
A Better Way
So here are the three things which the Bible is:
1. The Bible is God’s Revelation of Himself
The primary purpose of scripture is God revealing himself to humanity. That’s it. Through the pages and narrative of the Bible we get to see the awesome splendor, character and nature of God. We get to see how God is powerful, holy, loving, kind compassionate, jealous and just.
The perfect example of this is in Exodus 34:6-7. Moses requests that he might see the glory of God, so God hides him in the cleft of a rock and passes by. But most importantly, as he passes by, God speaks out:
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.Exodus 34:6-7
What is God doing in that very moment? He is describing the kind of God that he is, and this is a snapshot of what all of scripture is about. What is God’s glory?…his glorious nature and character, as revealed in scripture.
2. The Bible is God’s Revelation of his Plans and Purposes
Secondly, through the Bible God is revealing his plans and purposes with…well….everything! The Bible tells us what God is doing and why is he doing it. Why he created mankind, why we are sinful, what is God doing about it and why he allowed and wanted it all to happen like this in the first place!
The Bible describes Christ as a mystery kept hidden for generations then revealed at the proper time (Eph 3). So by keeping this in mind it means we can fit the Old Testament stories into the greater biblical narrative of what God is doing through the gospel, instead of reading them as random accounts for personal application.
3. The Bible is God’s Revelation of his Desires & Instructions for his People
Finally, the Bible reveals God’s heartbeat for humanity and how he wants us to live and be in relationship with him. This is the personal application bit, all the pragmatists shout yay!
These desires and instructions are specifically for the Israelites (which also reveal his Plans and Purposes), the Church or humanity as a whole. The key to obeying these is simply not just doing it verbatim as read, but doing our best to grasp God’s heart behind the commands. As otherwise, when we get to certain bits we don’t like or don’t initially agree with, our motivation for obedience suddenly drops!
Now go read your Bible with purpose!
So when reading your Bible, rather than read it in a self-orientated manner, read it in a God-orientated manner, and ask of the passage you are reading:
- What does this reveal about God?
- What does this reveal about his plans and purposes?
- What does this reveal about his desires and instructions for his people?
Framing your Bible reading with these questions will give you a greater sense of purpose when reading it, as these are the true purposes of scripture. The Bible simply answers the questions of ‘Who is God?’, ‘What is he doing?’ and ‘What does he want?’.
- God wants you to learn about him that you might be in relationship with him
- God wants you to learn about his plans and purposes that you might live in the light of them
- God wants to you learn about his desires and instructions that you might walk in them