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?
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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