Following the story: God and his people, part 1

Every time it happens I get a little frustrated. You’ve probably seen this too. Someone on a TV talk show is trying to discredit a biblical teaching. So they say something like, ‘Yeah, well, David not only committed adultery but he murdered the woman’s husband to cover it up, Lot did shameful things with his own daughters, and many of the men in the Bible had slaves and multiple wives! Do you really want to live by the Bible?!’ And so they make a classic mistake that sometimes Christian believers make as well. When we begin reading the stories in the Bible we need to remember an important principle:

1. Just because somebody in the Bible does something doesn’t mean the Bible is teaching us to do the same thing.

Now this is just common sense, especially when we’re talking about biblical characters who murder and sleep around. Of course we’re not supposed to follow their example! (Actually, the fact the Bible shows its “heroes” as they really were—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is strong testimony to its truthfulness. It would have been easy to whitewash the stories of the patriarchs,  but the biblical writers didn’t do that.) But when people in the Bible do things that aren’t blatantly wrong, we sometimes fall into using them as a model.

Have you ever heard someone say they were going to ‘put a fleece before the Lord’? Do you know what this means? It means asking God to give you a sign indicating what decision you should make. ‘Lord, if you want me to take this job, then make the third car I pass be a yellow Porsche Boxter S.’ Why is this called putting a ‘fleece’ before the Lord? Because of the story of Gideon in the 6th chapter of Judges. But if you read carefully, Gideon’s ‘fleece-putting’ wasn’t to determine God’s will; it was to ask God to prove to Gideon that God would really do what he had already said he was going to do! Gideon’s behavior wasn’t a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Clearly, this is an example we don’t want to follow!

2. The main thing the biblical stories do is tell us a story.

In the letters to the churches, we found direct commands and instructions. Biblical stories don’t work this way. The story of David and Bathsheba never directly tells us that adultery and murder are sinful. But it very clearly illustrates how low even a godly man can fall into sin, and the consequences of sinning in this way and then trying to hide it from God. While the stories may illustrate important truths (and even, in a sense, teach us insights), we need to be careful to not base any specific teaching on a biblical story. The teachings we follow—and teach others to follow—should be clearly taught somewhere else in Scripture, such as in the letters to the churches.

We also need to avoid reading the stories in the Old Testament as if they’re some kind of fable with a moral at the end of each story. Now, it’s not that Old Testament stories don’t vividly illustrate important lessons for us—many do. But not all of them. And if we insist on finding a nice, neat lesson to every biblical story, we’ll end up over-simplifying what we’re reading in Scripture. In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, is the main point really about honesty and fairness? Is this the most significant thing going on in this story?

3. The stories in the Old Testament are part of a bigger story.

Hopefully, you’re still thinking about the importance of context. What is the context of the Old Testament stories? We’ve discussed this briefly before. Genesis begins with creation, quickly moves to Noah and the flood, and then narrows the story to Abraham and his family, particularly his grandson Jacob (renamed Israel) and Jacob’s sons. The books of Exodus through Joshua tell of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, establishing his covenant with them, and eventually bringing them into the land he had promised them. Judges through 2 Samuel take us from the early history of the tribes of Israel, when they were led by judges, to Samuel the last judge of Israel and Saul the first king of Israel, and finally to David the prototypical Israelite king. 1 Kings through 2 Chronicles tell of how the nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and how each nation fell into idolatry, eventually being conquered by an outside force and taken into captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the people being allowed to go back to the land, and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Esther tells of events that occur among the Jewish community who didn’t return to the land.

A good study Bible will give you more background on each of the books. But the point is that when you read the stories in the Old Testament, you need to be aware of where the story fits into the bigger story of what God is doing with his people. And, of course, the stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus in the New Testament. When we look back at the Old Testament stories, we see them through the lens of Jesus. We recognize how Jesus puts these stories into proper perspective and often makes seemingly inconsequential accounts jump out at us. So when you read stories in the Old Testament, be aware of where you are in the bigger story of the Old Testament, and where you are in the even bigger story of God’s grand plan as recorded in Scripture.

4. Don’t try to find secret or hidden meanings in the biblical stories.

Some of you may remember the controversy over supposed Satanic backward messages in rock music. Eventually most Christians realized it was much better to pay attention to what the songs were unambiguously saying when you played them forward! (The Christian rock band Petra recorded a backward message that said: “Why are you looking for the devil when you should be looking for the Lord?!”) In a similar way, the important things that Scripture has to tell us are found in the clear biblical writings and stories. In the story of Abraham seeking a wife for his son, Isaac (Genesis 24), Abraham does not equal God, Isaac does not equal Jesus, and Rebekah does not equal the church. The story is about precisely what it seems to be about—Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Don’t turn historical accounts into some secret allegory. When we try to find these kinds of hidden meanings, we invariably lose the real significance of the story.

5. Don’t just see the story, observe how the story is told.

After you read a few stories in the Bible, you may notice they’re not much like modern novels. We aren’t given elaborate descriptions of people or scenery. This isn’t the way stories are told in Scripture. So when you do see details, pay attention. They are there for a reason. Have you ever watched a movie, and a character lays an envelope on the desk, then the camera lingers on the envelope lying there? You know it’s going to be important later, don’t you? It’s the same idea with these details in the biblical accounts. When Judges 3:15 notes that Ehud was left-handed, it’s going to be important to the story. When the birth of Jacob and Esau is described, along with the physical characteristics of each infant, we can know this is significant.

Notice how the dialogue in a story develops. Much of the stories in the Old Testament are told through the dialogue. And be on the lookout for repeated themes. If you’re watching an old black and white movie on TV, and two men wearing hats, boots and gun belts walk out into the middle of a dirt street with old wooden buildings on each side,  people scrambling to get out the way, and a blinding sun glaring overhead—what’s about to happen? An Old Western gunfight, right? Watch for these kinds of motifs in the biblical stories. For instance, notice how many stories in the Old Testament have to do with barren women who eventually have children. Notice how many older brothers are passed over while the younger is chosen. These patterns give us insights into what God is doing with his people. And, as with the letters to the churches, be watchful for repeated words and phrases. These can often open up deeper layers to the story.

There are amazing, captivating accounts recorded in the Old Testament. It’s okay to get swept up in the story. They’re good stories! Just remember these stories aren’t there just to provide entertaining reading. They communicate something important to us about how God interacts with his people, and how the smaller stories fit into a much larger plan. And don’t forget the most important principle for reading Old Testament stories:

In every biblical story, the hero is always God.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1 [see above]

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Some Christians—driven by a zeal to be faithful to Scripture—seem like they’re trying to escape the present day and somehow return to the 1st century. This can not only be frustrating for them and off-putting to those who love them, but it doesn’t really work. Like it or not, God hasn’t put us in the 1st century, but the 21st.

On the other hand, some believers take what the Bible says and reinterpret it to fit the latest trends in psychology, politics or cultural fads. This, too, can leave observers scratching their heads. Can the New Testament letters to the churches legitimately be used to teach pop psychology, Republican or Democratic party platforms, or ‘I’m-okay-you’re-okay’ spirituality? Clearly, we need some balance in how we approach the teachings in Scripture.

Thankfully, how we handle these historical or cultural differences can often be determined with just some healthy common sense. For instance, we read these instructions in 2 Timothy 4:13:

When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers.

Is this an instruction we must obey? How can we? With a little digging, we learn this was written from Paul to Timothy. The more we think about these kinds of passages, the more we become aware of an important truth that can help us avoid error when reading the Bible:

All Scripture is written for us, but it’s not all written to us.

The above verse from 2 Timothy is a perfect example. The instruction was given to Timothy—not to us. We instinctively know this already. I’ve never heard of any Christian who sought to obey God’s Word by trying to get Paul’s books, papers and coat to him. We immediately recognize that this passage doesn’t apply to us. It’s impossible for us to apply this passage to our lives the same way Timothy did to his.

But then we read a passage such as Romans 12:2:

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

When we read this, we naturally assume it applies to us just as much as it did to those who first read these words. The behavior and customs of our 21st century world may look different than those of the 1st century, but we understand there’s a lasting principle being taught here.

For passages such as this one, the biblical principle and the way we live it out in our daily lives are essentially the same thing. When Jesus said to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” what is the biblical principle? It’s to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds, right? And how do we live out this principle? By loving God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. Many passages are very straightforward this way. But others include an element in the instruction that reveals a cultural difference between their world then and ours now. When that happens, we need to:

Learn to distinguish between the biblical principle
and the way it’s lived out in one’s cultural setting.

The biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we live out the principle often must change for the same principle to be consistently applied. Let me give you a classic example. Some of the letters to the churches include the command: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” What was Paul’s primary concern in giving these instructions? That a lot of kissing would be going on? No, there’s a deeper principle here, isn’t there? In their culture, a kiss was the common way of greeting someone with both warmth and acceptance. The principle that Paul was establishing was that fellow Christians should greet each other in a way that communicated both warmth and acceptance. A kiss was the culturally appropriate way for them to do this in the 1st century.

In some cultures today, living out this biblical principle in our churches by kissing each other still makes sense. Here in Puerto Rico, it’s common to greet each other with a kiss. (Although men usually don’t kiss each other! So this would be one difference between our culture and theirs.) But in other churches, the culturally appropriate way to greet one another is going to be with a ‘holy hug’ or a hand shake.

Of course, we could insist on not merely observing the principle but following the 1st century application as well. We could go into a gathering of relatively reserved saints in Minnesota and immediately start kissing everyone. We’d definitely be communicating something to them(!), but would they interpret us as greeting them with ‘warmth and acceptance’? By woodenly adhering to the 1st century way of living out this principle, we’d actually be violating the biblical principle. Remember, the biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we apply it to our lives will change from culture to culture. We can never just ignore the biblical principle, but we must seek to be wise in the way we live out these principles.

The more we understand what a passage meant to them,
the more we’ll understand what it means to us.

Last week, I referred to Paul confronting the Galatians. As you read through his letter to the Galatians, you’ll see there’s a repeated focus on the issue of circumcision. Some teachers were trying to convince the Galatians they needed to be circumcised, and Paul is strongly opposed to this idea. What did this exactly mean to them back then? To understand the significance of this book for us today, we need to know more about what it meant to Paul and the Galatians. (This is another time when a study Bible can be invaluable.)

If we do just a little digging, we learn that by accepting circumcision, the Galatians would be committing themselves to observing the Old Covenant Law. They were being taught they first had to become Jews before they could be disciples of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Paul vehemently opposes this teaching. He explains in his letter to them that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled in Christ; the Old Covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant in Christ; what they are being taught is such a serious departure from the truth of Christ it amounts to an entirely different gospel; and if they seek to be accepted by God through obeying the Old Covenant Law, they will be denying Christ and the grace of God!

So what does this mean to us today? Do we have teachers trying to pressure us to be circumcised and become Jews in order to be disciples of Christ? Not very often (although some groups come close to this in the way they merge the New Covenant with the Old). But do we face comparable challenges to add something to the pure gospel? Absolutely. We have people telling us we need an additional experience to enter into a relationship with Christ, whether it’s baptism, being filled with the Spirit, or receiving sacraments from a priest. We also have people insisting we must follow their list of rules and regulations to be a child of God. In Galatians, Paul has shown us that any added requirements for salvation perverts the gospel and must be vigorously opposed. The principles we learn in this letter to the Galatians equip us to handle these challenges.

So whenever you run into a passage that seems to involve a difference in culture, ask yourself these questions:

What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage?

How did they faithfully live out this principle in their cultural context?

How can we most faithfully live out this same biblical principle in our cultural context?

Exploring these questions can help us sort out many seemingly difficult issues. Should Christian women today cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in the church as it describes in 1 Corinthians 11? First we ask: What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage? We find it in 1 Corinthians 11:10 “. . . a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.” The principle Paul is teaching in this passage is that when women speak publicly in the church, they should show they are under authority.

How did they live out this principle? By women wearing a head covering, which communicated to people in their culture that they were under authority. Does this application communicate the same thing today? No, it doesn’t. Head coverings for Christian women don’t have any specific significance in our culture. In one class, I asked the students what they would think if they went into a Christian church and the women were wearing head coverings. One student replied, “I’d think it was some kind of cult!”

So, to rigidly use the same method of application today that they used then (head coverings) won’t fulfill the unchanging biblical principle (which is Christian women clearly showing everyone they are under authority when they speak publicly in the church). How can we accomplish this today? There’s currently no form of dress that communicates this idea. The best way to live out this principle now is probably in the attitude one demonstrates when speaking in the church.

God has sovereignly placed his people in different times and cultural contexts. And—regardless of our contexts—we seek to faithfully live out the truth revealed in his Word. But Scripture gives us both the core principles and also ways his people were to live out these principles in their 1st century context. So how do we most faithfully live out these unchanging biblical principles in our current context? The questions above give us a way of determining which methods of application are most faithful to the scriptural intent. They help us go beyond a mere religious, woodenly literal obsession with the letter of the law, and instead help us truly honor God by faithfully living out the actual principles he has given us.

 

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches [see above]

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

There’s one mistake even long-time Christians sometimes make when reading the Bible. We often assume that we just open the Bible and—no matter where in the Bible we’re reading—we read it exactly the same way. We read Psalms the same way we do Philippians, and Leviticus just as we would Matthew. The problem is this doesn’t work, and many believers end up frustrated. They struggle with their Bible reading, but they’re not sure why.

The Bible is one cohesive, interwoven whole, and it’s all the Word of God. But the Bible is also a collection of very different kinds of writings. In our everyday reading, we read from many different genres. We’re used to this, and we routinely adjust our expectations accordingly. Do you read a cookbook the same way you read a spy novel? Of course not. Do you pick up a tax guide with the same sense of anticipation you’d feel opening a love letter? No way (unless you’re really into tax guides). Usually, we don’t even have to think of these differences in our reading material, but many of us have never realized the same thing is true of our reading of Scripture. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the different kinds of writing we find in the Bible, and why it’s important that we approach these scriptural genres with different expectations and methods.

We’re going to begin with the letters to the churches. In many ways, these are the biblical books that most directly apply to us. These letters were written to New Covenant believers; we’re New Covenant believers. They were written to, and about, local churches; we’re part of a local church. Many of the same issues that challenged them then also challenge us today. So it makes perfect sense for us to spend time studying these letters.

If you’ve been reading the past few Taking Root studies, you’ll remember the importance of context. You’ll know we need to be aware of who wrote the letter, to whom they were writing, and what the circumstances were. Here’s another fun tip: many times the authors themselves tell us why they’re writing. This gives us a very clear perspective of the rest of the letter. Here’s a classic example. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he explicitly states the purpose of the letter:

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God.

1 Timothy 3:14-15

Sure enough, when we look through the rest of this letter, we find it packed with instructions on how the local church is to be organized and maintained to ensure its health and vitality.

Another thing to be aware of is noticeable patterns. For example, the more you read Paul’s letters, the more you’ll notice that he tends to focus on big, overarching spiritual principles in the first part of his letters, then in the second half he shows how these principles relate to our everyday lives. You may also notice he almost always begins his letters by giving thanks for the church to whom he’s writing, and praising them for things they’re doing well. This is why the opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians quickly arrests our attention. Paul doesn’t give thanks for them or praise them, instead he immediately confronts them:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Galatians 1:6-7

Not only does this dramatically reveal the extreme importance of this issue for Paul, but it also gives us a great insight into the theme of the rest of the letter. These Galatians were being swayed by false teachers who sought to add to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ wasn’t enough for these people; they had a list of things one must also do to become a Christian. Paul devotes this entire letter to confronting those who would allow legalistic rules and regulations to be added to the gospel. Is this still an issue for believers today? Absolutely.

It’s also helpful to watch for patterns within a particular letter. If you carefully read
1 Corinthians, you’ll begin to notice how Paul repeats certain phrases:

Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter [7:1].

Now regarding the question about . . . [7:25].

Now regarding your question about . . . [8:1].

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about
. . . [12:1].

Now regarding your question about . . . [16:1].

It’s clear that Paul is responding to a list of questions the people had, and he’s working through these topics one by one. As you study this letter, you’ll also begin to see there’s a serious problem with disunity in the church in Corinth, and that the people seem to be divided over these issues. They weren’t just asking these questions out of some theological curiosity. They were looking for Paul to settle their doctrinal squabbles. For each subject Paul addresses, he interacts with two opposing views—often giving needed correction to both sides!

Along with these clear parallel references, there are other places in this letter where we see Paul introducing subjects. These are either additional issues that the Corinthians had asked about, or simply topics that Paul felt it crucial to further explore:

But there is one thing I want you to know: . . . [11:2-3].

But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you . . . [11:17].

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of . . . [15:1].

The way the author structures the letter isn’t an accident. For instance, 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 are all about spiritual gifts. But right in the middle of this section of the book—in chapter 13—we find a change of topic. Why did Paul (and the Holy Spirit) “interrupt” this discussion of spiritual gifts with a whole chapter on love? I can guarantee you one thing: It’s no coincidence.

Also be aware of repeated words and phrases right in the immediate section you’re reading. This can help you see what the author is emphasizing. For example, read through 1 Corinthians chapter 12-14 and see how many times Paul uses words like edify, build up, help, bless, strengthen, etc. (The words may vary depending on the translation you’re using.) Some of us even like to mark these repeated words and phrases right in our Bibles. What do these repeated words tell us about Paul’s focus in this section of the letter? What does this have to do with spiritual gifts?

The more our radar is sensitive to these kinds of patterns, the more we’ll understand what we’re reading. The more familiar you become with these letters, the more you’ll see they each have a definite outline and flow of thought. It’s often helpful to first read through an entire letter in one sitting without trying to resolve any of the details. This will give you a feel for how the whole letter fits together. Then, when you more carefully study each section and paragraph, you’ll have a better idea of how it fits into the theme of the whole letter. As with anything, the more you practice this, the more skilled you’ll become.

This post will give you a taste of reading and studying the letters to the churches. But what about the parts of these letters that aren’t so easy to figure out? What about the places where there are significant cultural differences between the 1st century and today? Are we to woodenly apply everything to our lives today in exactly the same manner they did then? Or can we just shrug off these passages as “for them then,” but no longer applicable for us? How can we know what applies to us now, what doesn’t, and why? We’ll look at these questions next week.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches [see above]

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

I have a friend who’s seen the movie Raising Arizona at least twenty times. If he walks into a room and someone’s watching this film, he can not only pick out the exact point of the movie they’re watching, he can start reciting the dialogue word-for-word! Now maybe you’re not that obsessive, but I’m sure there are movies or books you know almost that well. Even if you don’t start right at the beginning, it doesn’t take you long to figure out where you are in the story.

One of the problems with reading the Bible is that most of us aren’t that familiar with it when we begin. We start to get a sense it’s not just a collection of random stories, but we’re not sure where everything fits. Did David fight Goliath before Christ, or after? Did Peter and Paul hang out with Elijah and Abraham? And how many animals did Moses take on the ark? (Okay, that last one’s a trick question!)

If you don’t quite know how to sort all this out, don’t feel bad. I’ve known people who grew up in the church who weren’t sure if the story of Moses was in the Old Testament or the New. We all have to start somewhere. Some would simply say the more you read the Bible, the more familiar with it you’ll become. This is true, but a few tips can give you a head start so you don’t have to feel as if you’re beginning at square one.

Imagine this: you’re sitting in church and the pastor says, “Let’s all turn to the book of Habakkuk.” You look around and see people opening their Bibles and turning to the right book. So you start randomly flipping through your Bible—trying to look as if you know what you’re doing—hoping that somehow, miraculously you’ll happen to run across ‘Habakkuk.’ What you don’t know is that many of the people around you are doing the same thing!

Did you know that one of the most helpful pages in the Bible is one few people ever look at? It’s the Table of Contents. Located conveniently at the front of your Bible, it not only tells you what page a particular book is on, it can provide a lot more insights than you might expect.

Humor me. Open up your Bible and take a look at the table of contents. What do you notice? One of the first things you might see is that the Bible is divided into two sections: Old Testament and New Testament. Remember the first three rules of Bible study? Context, context, context, right? Well, part of reading in context is knowing where in the Bible you’re reading. It makes a big difference whether you’re reading in the Old or New Testament. What’s the difference?

Old Testament
As anyone knows who’s ever attempted to read the Bible from the beginning, the Old Testament begins with God creating the universe. Right away, the focus is on the earth. Fairly soon, we zoom into the story of one man, Abraham, and his family. The text keeps our attention on one group of his descendants, who become the nation of Israel. All the rest of the Old Testament tells the story of God’s interaction with this chosen nation of Israel.

The table of contents tells you if you’re reading in the Old Testament, so you can know that what you’re reading has to do specifically with God’s interaction with the nation of Israel. But beyond this, the books in the Old Testament are also grouped together in such a way that you can immediately know even more about what you’re reading.

—Historical books
All the books from Genesis through Esther deal with the history of the people of Israel. That doesn’t mean it’s nothing but one story after another; you’ll find quite a few laws and lists in these books too. But it all has to do with how the story of Israel develops: how they become a nation; how God establishes them as his people; how they repeatedly betray God and worship other gods; how God allows them to suffer the consequences; how they repent and turn to him; and how he restores them.

(This is a summary, of course. None of these descriptions are complete enough to give you the whole story. That’s why you have to read it for yourself!)

—Poetic books
From Job through Song of Songs we find poetic writings of God’s people praising him through music, pouring out their needs and anguish to him, reminding each other of God’s wisdom for everyday life, and celebrating the beauty of the life God had given them.

—Prophetic books
The rest of the Old Testament, Isaiah through Malachi, contains the writings of God’s prophets. The prophets were God’s messengers to his people. They reminded the people of their commitment to God, they confronted the people with their betrayal of God, and they warned them of the impending consequences of their rebellion. They also looked forward to a time when God would deliver and restore his people, and interact with them in an intimate way unlike anything they had ever experienced before.

New Testament
So how is the New Testament different from the Old? The New Testament begins with Jesus’ life on earth; it explains how Jesus provided, through his death and resurrection, the way for people to not only submit to God but to actually enter into relationship with him; and it describes the new community of God’s people that Christ established, no longer limited to the people of Israel but open to anyone who would trust in him. The Old Testament looks forward to the New Testament, and the New Testament explains, fulfills and supersedes the Old Testament.

—Gospels
These four books (Matthew through John) tell the story of Jesus’ life on earth: his teachings, his miracles, his followers, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.

—Historical book
The book of Acts gives us a slice of the early history of the church. The first part describes the birth and development of the church in Jerusalem and focuses mostly on the ministry of Peter. The second part tells of the expansion of the church, using the ministry of Paul and his team as a representative example of the explosive growth of the Christian faith in all directions.

—Letters to the churches
From Romans through Jude, we have letters written to churches (and a few letters written to people about the churches). Most of these were written by the apostle Paul, and the others were written by various other church leaders. These letters cover a wide range of issues that are relevant not only to the churches then, but to us today.

—Apocalyptic book
The book of Revelation (the last book in the Bible) is also known as the Apocalypse. Apocalypse means something that is revealed, hence the name “Revelation.” Apocalyptic writings always used very figurative or symbolic language, and they described a time in the future when God would dramatically intervene in his creation, usually in the last days of history. This closing book brings the big story around full circle from creation and fall in Genesis to judgment and restoration in Revelation.

The more you have a sense of the bigger story, where the story is going, and what part of the story you’re reading, the more you’ll understand the Bible. And the more you understand what you’re reading in the Bible, the more you’ll actually enjoy studying it, and really get something out of your reading!

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story [see above]

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Sometimes I’m asked, “Why do I have to study the Bible? Why can’t I just open it, read it and do it what it says?” This is a good question. To help us see the need for studying the Bible, I’d like you to read the following and see if you can explain what it means:

It is now my dear Friend a long time since I had a line from you. The Fate of Gibraltar leads me to fear that a peace is far distant, and that I shall not see you — God only knows when; I shall say little about my former request, not that my desire is less, but before this can reach you ’tis probable I may receive your opinion. If in favour of my comeing to you; I shall have no occasion to urge it further, if against it, I would not embarrass you; by again requesting it. I will endeavour to set down and consider it as the portion alloted me. My dear sons are well their application and improvements go hand in hand. Our friends all desire to be rememberd. The Fleet of our allies expect to sail daily but where destined we know not; a great harmony has subsisted between them and the Americans ever since their residence here. I wish to write to Mr. Thaxter but fear I shall not have time. Mrs. Dana and the children are well. The judge has been very sick of a fever but I believe is better. This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety. If it should fall into the hands of an Enemy, I hope they will be kind enough to distroy it; as I would not wish to see such a family picture in print; adieu my dear Friend. Why is it that I hear so seldom from my dear John; but one Letter have I ever received from him since he arrived in Petersburgh? I wrote him by the last oppertunity. Ever remember me as I do you; with all the tenderness which it is possible for one object to feel for an other; which no time can obliterate no distance alter, but which is always the same in the bosom of

Portia

In classes, I’ve had students attempt to make observations regarding this text. What is the author’s “former request”? What is the nature of the relationship between the author and the letter’s recipient? It’s surprising the range of guesses that come from such a discussion—many of them conflicting with one another!

So what would we need to know about this letter to make sense of it? Well, it would help to know who’s writing it, wouldn’t it? (I’ll give you a clue: the author’s name is not Portia.) We also need to know to whom it’s written, and what exactly this person means to the author. We have a few clues as to the timing (the mention of America, the odd spelling and grammar, etc.), but it would really help us to have a little bit more information about the historical context. (“Ah,” I hope you’re thinking, “context.”) Who is the enemy to whom the author refers? What is the “fate of Gibraltar”? Who are the allies? Is there any significance to Mr. Thaxter and to Mrs. Dana and the children? And just where is this letter being sent from and written to?

As you can see, interpreting what we read is not always a simple, cut-and-dried process. The technical term for figuring out what a text means is hermeneutics, and it’s something we do all the time. Every time we read a news article or a spy novel, we’re doing ‘hermeneutics’—we’re interpreting what we read. The more distant the text is from us historically and culturally, the more challenging the task of interpreting what it means. The Bible was written in different languages, over a wide period of time, from different human authors (all writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and in very different cultural settings.

Is this background information really all that important? Only if we want to genuinely understand what we’re reading in Scripture! Here’s a principle worth remembering:

The Bible can never mean what it never meant.

Scripture can’t have some unique, esoteric meaning to me personally that is completely divorced from its historical and cultural setting. It can’t mean something to us now that it never meant to them then. To understand what the Bible means to us today, we first need a sense of what these letters and books meant to the people to whom they were originally written. If we don’t know any of this background information for the Scriptures we’re reading, then we’re as in the dark reading the Bible as we are deciphering the mysterious letter above. And I know that’s just how many of you often feel.

Does this mean we all have to become seminary students just to understand our Bibles? Not at all! Thankfully, we can benefit from the work of dedicated biblical scholars every day. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I recommended using a good study Bible? This is a handy, convenient way of carrying around a handbook on the historical context of Scripture—right in your personal Bible. A study Bible gives you an introduction to each book of the Bible, telling you who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, and a little about why it was written. By simply reading a brief intro, you’re now miles ahead of where you were before in your ability to truly understand the text.

A study Bible will tell us that Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (and that he was a Gentile). This gives us much better insight into both books. A study Bible can explain what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah have to do with each other, helping us to better understand both. A study Bible will help us sort out just who the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) were writing to and what they were writing about.

Who were the Galatians, and why did Paul so quickly get on their case in his letter to them? A study Bible will help you understand what’s going on in their letter. Why was Paul wanting so badly to get back to the Thessalonians? (Who were they anyway? Where did they come from?) Who was Timothy and why did Paul feel such a close, fatherly bond with him? Why in his first letter to Timothy does Paul speak of coming soon to where Timothy was (Ephesus), but in his second letter to him Paul speaks of his own impending death? What happened between these letters?

One of the most important things we can do while studying the Bible is to ask these kinds of questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? A study Bible is like a gifted scholar sitting down beside us explaining how everything fits together. If you’re reading the book of 1 Corinthians, it will help you understand the situation in Corinth, why Paul wrote to the Corinthians rather than go immediately to them, why he wrote to them the way he did, and how 2 Corinthians relates to 1 Corinthians. In a few brief paragraphs, it gives you the lay of the land and helps you see everything in perspective. As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about study Bibles!

I once heard of a competition between two woodcutters. A young woodcutter had been boasting he could out-cut the older pro. So they had a competition. The morning of the contest, they were given identical axes. It didn’t take them long to discover they both had the same problem—the axes were dull. The young kid just worked harder, thinking he could muscle his way to victory. But the veteran woodcutter stopped and took the time to sharpen his axe. When he finally got to actually using the axe, he was far behind his young opponent. But as the day went on, he caught up with and surpassed the challenger. When the competition was finished, the young upstart was so exhausted he could barely lift his arms, but what he had produced paled in comparison to the older, more experienced woodcutter.

I think the lesson is clear. We can’t simply muscle our way through the biblical text and expect to get much out of it. We need to take the time to sharpen our axe. A crucial part of any job is making sure we’re using the right tool, isn’t it? And we need to know the tool is in proper working order, and that we know how to operate the tool correctly, don’t we? One of the best tools we have in understanding God’s Word is a study Bible. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the study Bible I recommend to most believers who are just beginning to dig into the Bible is the Life Application Study Bible. If you’re a little more experienced at studying Scripture or if you’re going to be teaching others, I love the NLT Study Bible. I don’t have any connection to the publishers; I just love all the helpful features these study Bibles have, and I’m excited about getting them into the hands of Christians who can then use them to better understand the Bible.

If you choose a different study Bible—great! Just use it! Take the time to sharpen your axe. To mix our metaphors, don’t be satisfied with me or anyone else giving you fish—learn to fish for yourself. Sharpen your skill in studying the Bible for yourself and being able to understand it. My responsibility as a pastor isn’t just to feed you; it’s to teach you to feed yourself. That’s the whole point of our current series. Once you get a taste of digging into God’s Word for yourself, it will just make you hungry for more!

(PS: For those who are still wondering, the letter I quoted at the top is from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams [who would later become the second president of the U.S.], and it was dated December 23, 1782.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible? [see above]

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The first three rules of Bible study

You may have heard the story about the guy who wanted to hear from God. So he opened his Bible at random, put his finger down on the page and looked to see what it said. He was surprised to read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thought maybe he had done something wrong, so he tried again. This time he saw, “You go and do the same thing”! Alright, the third time must be the charm so he made one more attempt. But now the verse next to his finger read, “What you’re going to do, do quickly.”

Do you know what the first three rules of real estate are? Location, location, location, right? Well, there are some necessary do’s and don’ts for studying the Bible too. What are the first three rules of Bible study? Context, context, context. The most common mistake people make in using the Bible is taking a statement out of context.

We all understand the concept of taking something out of context, don’t we? Imagine if you were looking at a DVD cover at the video store (if you still go to the video store), and on the cover you saw: “. . . this film is a colossal success, more effective than any other this year. Words cannot express how I feel about this latest effort . . .” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But what if we replace the context they left out: “If this director was attempting to make the most immature, gross-out movie imaginable, then this film is a colossal success, more effective than any other this year. Words cannot express how I feel about this latest effort. It’s really that bad!” Kind of changes the meaning, doesn’t it?

Can people do this with the Bible? Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and came upon Frederick K. Price. I’d always thought it a shame he had fallen for the prosperity gospel because he’s quite gifted as a preacher. This particular day I enjoyed listening to him for awhile, and then I heard him say: “The Word says that Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps. That’s why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following in Jesus’ steps!”

Now setting aside the silly and baseless claim that Jesus was wealthy during his life on earth, something still nagged at me about the passage to which Price was referring. I finally had to go look it up for myself. It’s from 1 Peter 2:21 (emphasis added):

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

Not only did the passage Price referred to not teach that Christ had left us an example of material wealth that we should follow, it was specifically speaking of suffering for doing good as Christ had! (This was a great reminder to me to always check people’s sources.)

You may have heard people say, ‘you can make the Bible say anything you want.’ This is true, you can make the Bible say anything you want if you take it out of context. Of course, you can twist any book to mean anything, not just the Bible. But if you interpret Scripture according to the accepted standards of biblical interpretation, you’re stuck with what the biblical writers actually wrote. This is why context is so essential.

Part of the problem is that we’re used to quoting verses, little snippets of the text. While memorizing verses can be a wonderful way to retain Scripture, it can also enable us to emphasize one brief statement but be completely ignorant of the surrounding context. This is actually a lot more common than people realize. Let me show you some examples:

  • When you hear, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” what do you think of? Many Christians think of heaven or eternity because that’s how we’re used to this reference being used. But is this what the passage is talking about? Read the next words (1 Corinthians 2:10): “But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit.” While it is true that we can’t imagine everything God has in store for us in eternity, that’s not what this passage is speaking of. It’s referring to things that God has already revealed to us. (What is the passage talking about? Check it out in context for yourself.)
  • How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Well, we’re having church right now because the Bible says wherever two or three are gathered together, Christ is right there with them’? But is this verse (Matthew 18:20) an encouragement that even two or three can ‘have church’ because Jesus is with them? No, the context of this statement is Jesus’ teaching on church discipline. He’s letting the disciples know that if the whole church has to confront a sinning member, that he is right there with them as they do what’s necessary for the church and for the individual.
  • What about this one: “It’s like the Bible says, ‘God owns the cattle on a thousand hills'”? Does this mean that we as Christians will never go hungry, never be in want? Is this what the passage quoted is referring to? Read some of the surrounding context (Psalm 50:9-12):

But I do not need the bulls from your barns
or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are mine,
and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird on the mountains,
and all the animals of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for all the world is mine and everything in it.

Is the main point here to encourage us that God will always provide for us? No, it’s to put sacrifice to God back into right perspective for the people of Israel. They had to realize that God didn’t need their sacrifices. Everything belongs to him already. Of course, it’s true that if everything belongs to God, then he has no lack of resources to draw from when he does provide for us. But we must be careful not to misuse the Scriptures and take them out of context. Sometimes we’ll just be using the wrong text to support a belief that is still true and biblical (as with the three examples immediately above). This is like using the wrong tool for a job when the right tool is back in the tool chest.

(At least these examples are actually quoting the Bible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone exclaim: “Well, it’s like the Good Book says, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ ” [which isn’t from the Good Book—it’s from Benjamin Franklin], or “The Bible says, ‘To thine own self be true’ ” [which isn’t the Bible, it’s Shakespeare—and not even from one of his more intelligent characters!].)

Other times we can misuse a text and end up with a completely erroneous belief. Philippians 4:13 says, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” If we take this statement by itself, with no context, what does it mean? Are there no qualifications, no clarifications? Does this mean it doesn’t matter if I haven’t done any of my Physics studies and the final exam is tomorrow—I know I can get a good grade because ‘I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength’? Can it mean I don’t have to bother with studying the passage I’m supposed to teach on Sunday because ‘I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength’? (Two real examples, by the way.) Read the preceding context:

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

What is it that Paul is able to do through Christ who gives him strength? Be content with what he has, live with plenty or little, a full stomach or empty. Some translations make this even more clear by saying, “I can do all this through Christ, who gives me strength.”

How can we keep from making these kinds of mistakes with the Bible? First, if you haven’t actually read a verse in context yourself, don’t try to use it to make a point. This is known as ‘proof-texting.’ It’s using an isolated verse—or even a whole list of them—to make a claim sound biblical. Get in the habit of checking out the verses people use to support their claims. When someone says, “Well, the Bible says . . . ” Ask them: “Where?” and then look it up and see if the Bible is actually saying what they say it’s saying!

Next, get out of the habit of thinking in isolated Bible verses. Many Christians don’t realize that the chapter and verse numbers were added to the Bible centuries after it was written; they’re not part of the original text. They are very helpful in allowing us to find specific places in the Bible quickly and efficiently (this is especially nice when we’re studying with other people), but this is pretty much the extent of their purpose. What they don’t do well is divide up chunks of thought. Some of us are accustomed to Bible studies where we read one verse and discuss it, and then read another verse and discuss it. The problem with this method of Bible study is that it often dissects the flow of thought in the passage to the point where it’s indecipherable. You’re not clearly seeing the forest or the trees!

When we write, we usually don’t write individual, isolated statements. We write in paragraphs and extended sections that develop our thoughts. The biblical writers did the same thing. If we want to really grasp what the Bible is saying, we need to focus on whole paragraphs or groups of paragraphs to understand what the main points are. So when you’re reading the Bible (or quoting the Bible), don’t think in verses—think in paragraphs.

Remember this old saying: A text without a context is a pretext. What are the first three rules of studying the Bible? Context, context, context. Hopefully, I haven’t scared you too badly with any of the examples above. (We’ve all made our mistakes studying the Bible.) All I’m really urging you to do is to simply observe what the Bible is actually saying. Take the time to read the text carefully. Always remember to check the surrounding context of a passage, and you’ll be well on your way to truly understanding the Scriptures.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study [see above]

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Which Bible version should I use?

I regularly receive questions about Bible translations. ‘Why do we have so many versions of the Bible?’ ‘Why are they so different sometimes?’ ‘Which one should I use?’ Along with a vibrant prayer life, reading and studying the Scriptures are essential for our spiritual health. I want to take a few weeks to explore some simple principles for studying the Bible—principles that any believer can use. But before we discuss how to study the Bible, it’s helpful for all Christians to understand a little about the Bible itself and why we have different translations from which to choose.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek and some short sections in Aramaic. Not many of us fluently read ancient Hebrew or Greek, so we can’t simply pick up these manuscripts and read them for ourselves. We need the Scriptures to be translated for us so we can read them in our own language and clearly understand what’s being communicated.

For many years, the common translation for most English-speaking Christians was the King James Version. But we no longer speak to each other in the archaic English used in the KJV. In fact, the language has changed to the point where many words found in the KJV have completely different, even opposite, meanings from what they meant in 1611 when the KJV was first published. Because of this, most people today find the KJV to be indecipherable or even misleading. The purpose of the KJV translators was to “deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they understand.” For most of us, this means choosing a modern translation—but which one? How do the translations differ from one another?

The most significant difference between the modern translations is how they’re translated. There are three basic approaches. Let me explain the different translation styles, and then we’ll compare them.

Some people say they prefer “literal” translations. While there is no truly literal, word-for-word translation, some Bible versions strive to be as close to the original languages as possible. They focus on the meanings of individual words, and they try to retain the original word order as much as they can. This is known as a formal approach to Bible translation. Examples of formal translations would be the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Other Bibles are extremely free and dynamic in rendering the original into English. This kind of Bible is called a paraphrase. Paraphrases try to make the Bible as understandable and fresh as possible, but sometimes by going beyond the meaning of the text. The most well-known paraphrase currently is The Message.

Other translations aim for a median approach, striving for a thought-for-thought translation (which is the standard method of translating) as opposed to a word-for-word translation. Rather than focusing on individual words, these translations seek to accurately convey the meaning of whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Examples of these functional translations would be the New Living Translation (NLT), the New International Version (NIV), the New English Translation (NET), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

Which is the best kind of translation? It depends on how you intend to use it. All of these versions can be used effectively. But you’re also going to discover some limitations. For instance, anyone familiar with a foreign language will understand that a truly “literal,” word-for-word translation is seldom possible. The familiar Spanish phrase “como se llama,” would have to literally be translated as something like: “as it is called.” But anyone who knows even a little Spanish recognizes this isn’t what the phrase means. The “literal” translation doesn’t accurately convey the actual, literal meaning of the phrase. (Which is why we don’t translate that way.) To accurately translate the phrase, we have to put it into a corresponding, functional English phrase: “What is your name?”

A great way to illustrate how the different approaches work is to translate the French expression: J’ai le cafard. [I’m borrowing this illustration from James R. White’s book The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?] If we were to translate this as literally as possible, we would end up with: I have the cockroach. So now would you understand what your French friend is talking about? Not unless they were speaking of a literal cockroach (which they wouldn’t be). We haven’t really gotten that far, have we? We’ve translated the individual words into English, but we haven’t conveyed the idea the person is expressing. We’re as much in the dark as we were before. We’re still stuck with a sentence we don’t understand.

But what if we were to translate the whole phrase instead of just the individual words? What if we took what the entire expression means in French and conveyed it in clear English? Then we would have something like: I am depressed. Or—since this is a colorful French idiom—we could even try to find a similar English expression, such as: I have the blues. This is the functional approach. Since this method of translation conveys to us what the phrase really meant to the original speaker, it’s actually much more accurate in translating the meaning of the original than a strictly “literal” translation would be.

On the other hand, a very dynamic paraphrase will go to great lengths to make sure the phrase is understandable. A paraphrase of this French saying could be something like: I’m having a lousy day! This is definitely more expressive, but we have to be careful. The more freedom that’s taken in the paraphrase, the more the chance that accuracy will be sacrificed.

How does this actually work with Scripture? Let’s look at an example from Luke 9:44.

NASB
Let these words sink down into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.

NLT
Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

The Message
Treasure and ponder each of these next words: The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands.

Which of these most accurately communicates the original meaning to us? Have you ever tried to get someone’s attention by telling them: “Hey, let these words sink down into your ears”? We just don’t speak that way, do we? The literal translation may tell us something about Greek colloquialisms, but it doesn’t communicate the actual meaning as clearly as the other two. But then, was Jesus telling the disciples to treasure and ponder each of his words? You can see how the paraphrase embellishes the actual meaning of the text. The NLT, though, gives us a very clear reading of the passage and one which is easily understood in our common language. So, in this example, the NLT most accurately translates the meaning of the text.

But some protest that they like the more formal translations because they “sound like the Bible” to them. For these people, when the Bible reads a little awkwardly or uses language that sounds holy or spiritual, it feels like the Word of God. (One example is what some of us call ‘Yoda translations.’ They’re called this because you can almost hear the familiar voice of the Star Wars character as you read the strange, backward sentence structure: “Fear not,” “Fret not yourself,” “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” etc. [examples from the ESV].)

Now, in one way, I wouldn’t want to argue with this perception because the best Bible for you is the one you’ll love and use. If this is merely a personal preference, that’s fine. But I also want us all to understand that this isn’t really a good way to evaluate a Bible version. You see, when the Bible was first written it didn’t sound like a religious text. To those who love the familiar cadence of traditional readings and word orders, the original Bible wouldn’t sound like the Bible! It was written in normal, everyday Hebrew and Greek, using common words and expressions. So if we want the Bible we’re reading to be as similar as possible to how the original Scriptures were read, they should be translated into common, everyday English.

Sometimes the literal translation may be a little cumbersome, but still understandable (as with “let these words sink down into your ears”). Sometimes the wording may just sound so odd that it inspires giggling, like calling Jesus a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19 in the NKJV) or claiming that “the ants are a people not strong” (Proverbs 30:25 in the ESV, and notice again the strange, Yoda-like syntax).

Other times though, the “literal” wording actually obscures the true meaning. Continuing in Matthew 11:19, the NKJV tells us “wisdom is justified by her children.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? I’ve asked this many times of students, and I haven’t had one guess correctly (and they all had to guess). Compare that with the NLT reading: “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” Isn’t this much more clear? Or what of the NASB’s statement from the Lord in Amos 4:6: “I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” Is the meaning clear in English? (Does it have something to do with oral hygiene?) Because the meaning is perfectly clear in it’s original Hebrew context. Is this more understandable (again from the NLT): “I brought hunger to every city”? We shouldn’t need someone to translate the translation for us!

So am I suggesting that formal, “literal” translations serve no purpose? Not at all! They can be very helpful, particularly for those who teach and need to do word studies or get the feel of the original structure of the text. But for general reading, the formal translations are usually too wooden and frequently obscure the flow of the passage. Paraphrases also can be useful by expressing the text in a completely new way that can be fresh and thought-provoking. But we shouldn’t rely on paraphrases to determine the precise meaning of a certain passage. It’s best—especially for teachers—to compare different kinds of translations when studying the Bible. But for general reading and studying, I recommend choosing a functional translation.

Our church uses the New Living Translation (NLT), and I haven’t found any other translation that combines accuracy and clarity so effectively. A good test when comparing translations is to read whole chapters in a book such as Romans or 1 Corinthians, first in one translation and then the other. As you read, see which one makes it easier to follow the flow of thought in the passage. You won’t always understand the concepts that are communicated in Scripture, but if you can’t grasp even the wording in the passage, then it’s really not doing you much good to be reading it! I was delighted when I saw how refreshingly easy the NLT was to understand without sacrificing the accuracy of the text. For a teacher, this means I don’t have to waste time explaining an unclear translation; I can devote that time to actually talking about the main points of the passage.

One final tip for this week. If you don’t already have a good study Bible I encourage you to invest in one. The best introductory study Bible I’ve found is the Life Application Study Bible, and it’s available in the NLT. I’ll write more next week about why this is important, but for now, the Life Application Study Bible has generally balanced notes and tons of in-text maps and charts. It will answer a lot of your questions as you’re reading, and it makes studying the Bible more fun. (If you’d like to see some of the features of this study Bible, just click on the book cover to the right.) Next week, we’ll start looking at some tips for digging into the Bible on your own.

(For a Spanish translation, I recommend the Nueva Traducción Viviente [NTV]. And for those who will be teaching or who have moved beyond a beginner’s study Bible, my favorite study Bible is the NLT Study Bible. By the way, I should clarify that I don’t receive any form of payment for products I recommend.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use? [see above]

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

The NIV controversy, part 2