I have found one of the biggest differences between good Bible reading and Bible reading that is disjointed or otherwise skews what is being communicated, is how we understand the relationship between what is transpiring through the Bible’s narrative vs what we read as directed towards us. It is understanding what is descriptive vs what is prescriptive. In fact, I would include prophetic discourse in that as well. Our understanding of how these two are related will depend, in large part on instruction and training we receive with respect to how to understand each of the Bible’s 66 books. This instruction would include understanding that each author is communicating to a particular audience, addressing particular situations or norms, what type of book it is (narrative, wisdom, letters), and how it correlates into God’s overarching narrative in salvation history.
Through my own personal experience and observation of many, there is an inverse relationship between the level of instruction and the tendency to personalize passages as being directed towards us. What do I mean by that? I have observed that without instruction, there is a tendency to read the Bible as if everything is being communicated directly to us. I did just that for many years, especially related to the prophetic books and using that as an indicator of what God was communicating to me personally. With a personalized focus, there will also the tendency to expect what transpired through the pages of narrative to be replicated today, especially if it is believed as direct communication.
I believe it is of utmost importance for every Christian to understand how to read their bible, which starts from understanding what it is and how it was put together. As long as we use language like “manual for living”, it will be nothing more than a self-help guide so that we can stay on track with our Christian life and abide by Christian living principles. But I believe that is a misrepresentation of God’s self-revelation, which displayed throughout all 66 books. And this must be considered according to the trajectory that is being laid out through the bible’s narrative.
Don’t get me wrong, there is instruction in there for us, particularly in the New Testament letters. These were written to situations that were going on the Church, general exhortations to the Church and/or warnings and exhortations to individuals. Even with the letters, they were addressing an historical and cultural reality that must be taken into consideration. There are also general principles to glean from how God relates to his people. The wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiates, Job) provides timeless principles as well, although we must be aware of historic and cultural references.
As Christians, we want to understand what God is communicating to us through the pages of scripture. If we start with the premise that He is communicating Himself as He intersected with human history, this will temper how much we understand is being directed to us personally vs what He is doing in the course of salvation history. Thus, when an author is addressing a particular situation, or audience or providing prophetic discourse, it must be seen as what God is doing in that particular setting in relation to what he is doing overall. In that discourse, there will be language and concepts used in a way that the original audience would understand.
But specifically when it comes to bible narrative, it is important to understand that the authors are explaining what happened. And for that, I think a brief sketch is in order. As the pages of the biblical narrative unfold, we see God’s intentional actions towards his creation, His calling out of a people to Himself, His promise to them, His instruction to them and provision for their consecration to Him. This is why the first five books are classified as the Pentateuch, meaning Law.
Then the narrative continues. They enter the land that was promised but reject God’s leadership. They eventually get a king and a promise of eternal kingship. But the earthly kings, generally did not do what was right and this eventually leads to the seemingly end of God’s promises. Enter the prophets who spoke as direct communication from God to His people. It is significant to note that the prophets as God’s spokespeople (see Hebrews 1:1), were addressing the situation that was going on with Israel. That has to be at the forefront when we read the prophets. In that, there is a prophetic foretelling of God’s promises and correction, especially related to the unveiling of His Son.
Thus, there must be a Christo-centric focus to how we read narrative. The gospels are explaining of Christ’s fulfillment of the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17) and how he was establishing something new. What is explained in the narratives must be reconciled to what God had accomplished and promised throughout the Old Testament narrative. How he addresses the religious leaders and cultural norms is not necessarily a blanket prescription for us, though as Christ followers we do want to pay attention to how he deals with people and what exactly he is teaching. He is revealing God to us, and thus we see the heart of God in His actions. He is addressing cultural expectations and norms while all the while gradually unveiling how He has come with respect to God’s promises and what He has come to establish.
He calls eyewitnesses so that they can teach others what this all means for them. Thus, right before his ascension, he tells these eyewitnesses what the must do – be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). So the book of Acts is explaining what happened with the establishment of the Church, the shift from an external manifestation of God’s glory to the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit – Christ in us the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). We see the conflict between the old establishment and the new inclusion of Gentiles as the people of God, even though this had been promised through the Abrahamic covenant. Acts explains how all this unfolded, as thus the transition from a Jewish orientation towards the establishment of churches in the Gentile world, replete with the cultural conflicts that church faced.
So based on this brief sketch, I wanted to cite some examples of passages that have been used as a personally directed reference but not rightly correlated with what is going on in the biblical text. It should demonstrate the caution we should use when examining what God was doing then vs. what is directed for us now as a direct communication or prescription for our Christian life.
Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
What is going on? The Israelites have been taken into Babylonian captivity. They were removed from the land that God had promised them, the kingship was gone and all seemed lost. Jeremiah is sent to them to remind them that God was not done with them yet according to what He had promised them. Thus, in vs 14 He indicates “I will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you.” This is the plan God was referring to and if you keep reading he talks about some unfavorable plans he has for them as well. While I don’t think it is wrong to say that God has plans for us, this verse is referencing a particular promise made that have nothing to do with us.
John 14:26 – “but the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
What’s going on? Jesus has gathered the apostles one last time to give them instructions before His sacrificial death, resurrection and departure. They had learned of the Father’s plan related to the Son, from Jesus directly. Now Jesus is bringing in the force of God’s Trinitarian outworking to let them know that what they have learned from him directly, the Holy Spirit will bring that back to their attention as they go out to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and be his witnesses (Acts 1:4-8). Personalizing indicates that the Holy Spirit will make us remember things. Extreme examples including espousing a lack of preparation for a test or sermon or that we don’t need teachers because the Holy Spirit will give us the information. But that is not what this verse is referencing.
Genesis 8:22 – “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”
What is going on? God is making a promise after the flood that he will never destroy life again. He is indicating that life will continue to regenerate itself and there will always be seasons. This is not a principle to be used for our personal harvest. Unfortunately, there has been a philosophy of sowing and reaping that has been built around this one passage that I think is dishonest to what is being communicated and should probably do that in a separate post.
These are just a few examples and I could cite many more, such as 2 Chronicles 7:14. Personalizing is bound to happen when we lift a verse out of its original context. This is why it is really important to understand the situation the narrative is addressing before making applications to what it means for us personally. A couple of links that I highly recommend.
Greg Koukl’s article Never Read a Bible Verse
Michael Patton’s article Bible Interpretation in a Nutshell