A Brief Word…
Before we dive in, I wanted to make it clear that this post isn’t meant to read like a ‘Bible Study Tools’ class. It’s meant to be read, and put into practice tonight for ages 8-80. It’s easy, and it’s the single biggest method that helped my students and parents understand the bible more fully when I was a youth pastor. I still use it as an adult today. Now…lets do this!
When I was an atheist I actually read my Bible a lot. I read the gospels, lots of the Old Testament and generally stayed away from Revelation. However, I wouldn’t say I knew the Bible well. I read it a lot, but had trouble connecting things. What usually stuck out to me were the apparent ‘inconsistencies’- passages that seemed to say different things about the same subject.
Then I went to Bible college, where I learned quite a few techniques to understand the bible better: finding the context, reading it in the ancient languages, using commentaries, asking professors. Odds are though, most of us aren’t going to do those things or don’t have the resources to. It’s too bad because I’ve learned a lot with those methods. However, I do believe that asking some simple questions when we read will improve our understanding drastically.
Here are the 5 questions I ask myself and teach others to ask whenever they read the Bible. They may seem obvious and simple, but often the best tools are the easy ones.
1) Who’s there? This is the first question I ask myself. Honestly it’s a pretty powerful question if you think about. In Genesis, only God is there in the beginning. The fact that He’s there, and there isn’t a ‘there’ before God is immensely powerful in itself. Another reason it’s powerful is that practically speaking, it gives you some context for the what and why of things. Presence is a big thing in the Bible, especially for God.
God and people in the Bible aren’t speaking to rocks (most of the time at least!) they’re speaking to others, and it’s important to not only understand who they are talking to, but who is listening. When Jesus addresses the Pharisees for stuff that they aren’t doing right, He’s also addressing His disciples and the people who are standing there listening. If we don’t ask ourselves who’s there we may just think he’s having a private conversation with a few people, when in reality, thousands of people are there!
2) Who’s doing the talking? I own more than my fare share of Bibles. Some are in multiple languages, others are plain text, and still others have the ‘red letters’ of Jesus words in them so it’s easy to see when He’s speaking. Sometimes however, it’s not so obvious. Even when when you know the person’s name, it can be important to clarify which person it is.
Take ‘John’ for example. John is a very common NT name, and if we don’t pay attention, we may think one John is doing the talking, when it’s really another. John (the Baptist) is beheaded late into Jesus ministry, so he can’t be the same John who is the Apostle that we think of as the author of the Gospel of John or Revelation – he’s dead by that time! Likewise, these two Johns are different from Simon Peter’s father John, and John Mark who is mentioned as a traveling companion of Barnabas and eventually the Apostle Paul. Knowing which when of these John’s (and other people) is talking makes a big difference indeed!
3) What’s going on? I like to think of this question as the ‘tension platform’. It’s the place where something dramatic is about to happen, an uncomfortable situation is taking place, a teachable moment is unfolding, or a historic event is about to be realized. What’s important however, is that we think of ‘what’s going on?’ as incomplete. To put it another way, it’s the problem or issue that needs to get solved. It’s not the end result (that’s question #4), but the problem, the tension that God allows or places in order for His glory to be seen.
This ‘tension platform’ can be found everywhere in the Bible. Think of Adam and Eve talking with the serpent and eating the apple; or the Promise of God to Abram that he’ll bear many children when his wife is barren; or the burning bush where Moses meets God for the first time and is given outlandish instructions. It’s the place where we go ‘whoa…’ (Tell the truth, did you read that and do a Keanu Reeves accent?) This question sets the stage for a dramatic climb in the story, and prompts us to continue on.
4) What happened? We have reached the summit!…kinda. Almost there. ‘What happened?’ is the tension-resolving answer we’re looking for. The interesting thing about this question is that no matter what the answer in the story is, there are only two possibilities – our way or God’s way. Think about it, no matter what the actual outcome is – blessings, shame, death, resurrection, generosity, cruelty, victory, defeat – they all are a product of God’s will or ours.
Even when it’s a good outcome that is thought up and enacted by a person, it’s still only possible because of that person’s attachment and orientation to God. He’s the inspiration, and when He’s not, we do our own thing. In fact the two possibilities are often intertwined in scripture: Humanity does their own thing until they can’t take it anymore and then they ask God for help, the kind of help they can’t do themselves. Sounds suspiciously like the Gospel message…
5) What’s the point? I used to have only four questions with the process stopping at question #4 above, but then I realized that sometimes the point isn’t always easy to discern. During Jesus’ ministry, He encouraged his disciples to come ask Him the answers to His parables and teachings. He wanted them to get the point of what he was saying. Every talking point, sermon, book, or conversation should have at least one point. If they don’t, they are literally point-less.
God doesn’t waste any time or space in His scriptures. Everything is there for a purpose. When we think about scripture in this way we begin to look for the point instead of just reading. It’s at this point (see what I did there) that we are on the lookout for God’s truths that He’s trying to convey. A good example of this is the parable about the lost son, better known as The Prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. We may be able to identify with all of the characters in this story at various times, but I believe that the real point of the story is the Father’s love for us. It’s inexhaustible. Even when we wish God was dead and we could be free to do our own things at our own leisure, God is patiently waiting by the side of the road for us to come back to Him.
Do you ask yourself any questions when you read the Bible?