How to Read the Bible
The Bible is the most influential book in human history, but what is it exactly? This reading plan is designed to introduce you to the Bible and its unique design, various genres, and unified story. The plan consists of 19 lessons designed so that you can move at your own pace. Each lesson consists of a short introductory text and a corresponding video. We hope this introduction will help you to more deeply and richly encounter the Word of God in your life.
Lesson 1What is the Bible?
Lesson 2The Story of the Bible
Lesson 3Literary Styles in the Bible
Lesson 4Jewish Meditation Literature
Lesson 5Plot in Biblical Narrative
Lesson 6Character in Biblical Narrative
Lesson 7Setting in Biblical Narrative
Lesson 8Design Patterns
Lesson 9The Gospel
Lesson 11The Art of Biblical Poetry
Lesson 12Metaphor in Biblical Poetry
Lesson 13The Book of Psalms
Lesson 14The Prophets
Lesson 15The Books of Wisdom
Lesson 16Apocalyptic Literature
Lesson 17Biblical Law
Lesson 18NT Letters (Historical Context)
Lesson 19NT Letters (Literary Context)
What is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of books, all of which emerged from the history of ancient Israel. It is the most influential book in the history of Western and much of Eastern civilization. People have a lot of opinions about the Bible’s message, but let’s just start with what it is. In today’s video, you’ll get a condensed history of how the Bible came into existence and the different forms of the Bible in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christian traditions.
We’ll also look at what the Bible says about the Bible. In 2 Timothy 3:15-17, the author Paul describes the entirety of Scripture (which, at the time of writing, would have referred to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible) as being “inspired by God”:
….and that from infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17)
Other translations may say “breathed out by God.” The Greek word used here is theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed.” This is how the biblical authors viewed the Hebrew Scriptures—as God-breathed. And the apostle Paul believed that within this divinely-inspired literature, we can find the salvation that comes through Jesus (verse 15).
Though the Bible includes many different books, it is one unified story. The Hebrew Bible tells one story that leads to Jesus (Luke 24:27), and the New Testament continues that story and describes Jesus and his followers advancing his Kingdom on Earth. And this compelling story has transformed the lives of millions of people, transcending time, age, gender, and culture.
So what is this story? We’ll take a look at that in the next lesson.
The Story of the Bible
The Bible is a really large book made up of the Old and New Testaments, which themselves are made up of many books. There’s a lot of ancient history, poetry, and letters written across the span of 1,500 years. On top of that, there’s a cast of hundreds of people over this period of time. Who can keep it all straight? It can be easy to get lost, not only because it’s an ancient text but also because the book is large and complex.
Despite this variety and diversity, the Bible shows a remarkable unity. The most dominant type of literature in the Bible is narrative. The Bible opens with “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1) and in the final book of the Bible what began reaches its fulfillment:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.c He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)
Narrative makes up 502 chapters—or 43 percent of the text. That’s nearly half the Bible! On the other hand, poetry makes up 33 percent of the Bible (387 chapters). Although the Bible is diverse and may appear fragmented at first, it ultimately presents itself as a unified epic narrative that leads to Jesus. There is one main plotline weaving the different books and stories together. Once you grasp this core storyline and how all the books fit together, you can open the Bible at any point and you’ll know right where you are and what’s going on.
Literary Styles in the Bible
The Bible is a collection of many books telling one unified story from beginning to end, but all those books were written in different literary styles. First and foremost is narrative. It makes up a whopping 43 percent of the Bible! 33 percent of the Bible is poetry, and then the rest of the Bible (24 percent) is written in prose discourse. Most books have a primary literary style, like narrative for example. But then embedded within the narrative, you’ll come across poems or parables or collections of laws. Every book is a unique combination of literary styles.
Reading the Bible wisely requires us to learn about the ancient literary styles used by the biblical authors. These writers expressed their ideas and claims through a variety of different types of literature, and this video will explore why it’s important to distinguish them so we can better understand the message of each book.
The Bible as Jewish Meditation Literature
Each time period and culture produces its own unique kind of literature. In order to read the Bible well, we need to keep in mind the ancient Near Eastern context and the type of literature produced in this period of time. The Bible is written as ancient Jewish meditation literature, and it’s meant to draw readers into a lifelong journey of reading and meditation. The Bible is designed as a multi-layered work, offering new levels of insight as you reread it and allow each part to help you understand every other part.
In Psalm 1, we read about the ideal Bible reader. It’s someone who meditates on the Scriptures day and night. In Hebrew, the word “meditate” means literally to mutter or speak quietly. The idea is that every day for the rest of your life you slowly, quietly read the Bible out loud to yourself. And then you go talk about it with your friends and family, pondering the puzzles, making connections, and discovering what it all means. And as you let the Bible interpret itself, something remarkable happens. The Bible starts to read you. Because ultimately, the writers of the Bible want you to adopt this story as your story.
Plot in Biblical Narrative
Nearly half of the Bible is written in narrative. So in order to understand the Bible more fully, it’s important that we learn how to read this style of writing. With biblical narrative, we are not watching security footage of these ancient events. We’re reading an artistic, literary representation of the story of Israel. The goal isn’t just to tell us about something that happened, it’s also to discern the meaning of these events.
A key element in biblical narrative is the plot—the arrangement of characters and events to convey a message. The Bible uses plot embedding, meaning there are multi-layered biblical storylines.
Level 1: One overall storyline of the Bible.
Level 2: The multiple movements of that overall storyline.
Level 3: The hundreds of individual narratives that make up each of these movements.
All of these individual events are framed within a larger context that exists within an even larger context. All of this context gives these events deeper meaning. A single story’s meaning is only determined by the relationship of all its elements to the whole text. How the authors frame the story and what details they choose to emphasize all help to convey what they are trying to communicate to the reader. In today’s video, we’ll explore these concepts and more.
Want a practical exercise in this multi-layered reading? Open your bibles to Judges 6 wherein begins the story of Gideon. Read through to the Judges 8:28. Pay attention to the plot of the story of Gideon. Notice how the short scenes, like Gideon and the fleece, are combined with other scenes to create a larger plotline. As you read, do your best to trace the conflict and resolution through the entire plot. How does this help you see the message the author is trying to get across?
Character in Biblical Narrative
Most of us think of characters in the Bible as either sinners or saints, good or bad. At least that’s how Bible stories are often presented to children. In today’s video, we’ll explore the ways biblical authors present characters as more complex and morally compromised than we usually imagine.
Biblical authors use characters as vehicles for their message primarily through showing rather than telling. A narrator’s comments about a character are fairly rare in biblical narrative (such as physical appearance, as in Joseph’s looks, Saul’s stature, Esau’s hair, etc.). Additionally, direct characterization is extremely rare in the Bible (such as describing someone as evil, good, righteous, wise, foolish, etc.). Biblical authors give you the outline of a character, but you have to fill in the rest based on what you read in the text. For example:
- Esau is hairy, meaning that he’s “outdoorsy,” primitive, and behaves like an animal.
- Eli is old and blind, meaning he is literally and relationally blind, since he ignores the rebellion of his sons.
- Saul is tall and David is short, emphasizing their contrasting characters. Saul imposes himself from above, and David humbly allows God to exalt him from below.
Characters’ names also often indicate their role in the story.
- Saul = “the one asked for”
- Abram/Abraham = exalted father / father of a multitude
- Israel = struggles with God
- Adam = humanity
Biblical narrators prefer to show people’s character rather than tell you an evaluation. Instead of moralizing about characters’ decisions, biblical narrators simply show you the decisions and consequences of characters’ decisions and allow you to ponder the significance.
God is the only character who continues through every movement of the biblical narrative from beginning to end, and this tells us something about the purpose of these stories. The fundamental purpose is to reveal God’s character, identity, and purposes in history.
Setting in Biblical Narrative
Every story has to take place somewhere, and very often, locations have a special meaning or significance evoked by events that already took place there. Biblical setting utilizes both place and time. As the biblical story develops, places begin to take on a symbolic/meaningful significance based on what has happened there.
Example: Garden of Eden > the east > Babylon: The human spiral of sin and selfishness moves from the garden to Babylon, as we see in Genesis 1-11.
- Adam and Eve are banished “to the east” (Genesis 3).
- Cain is banished “to the east” (Genesis 4).
- People move “to the east” to build Babylon (Genesis 11:1-2).
- Babylon becomes a superpower in the story, eventually exiling the family of Abraham.
Egypt, Moab, the wilderness, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem all become loaded with more and more meaning as the biblical story develops.
You can tell which events are most meaningful to the author’s message by what gets the most “air time.” For example, in the Gospel of Mark chapters 1-10 cover around three years, while chapters 11-16 cover seven days in Jerusalem—30 percent of the story for just seven days! Additionally, there are other meaningful periods of time in the Bible. For example:
- Increments of 40 represent periods of waiting and testing (e.g. Noah in the boat, Moses’ time on top of the mountain, the spies’ time scouting the promised land, years wandering in the desert,
- Elijah’s journey in the desert, and Jesus’ journey in the desert).
- Three days and nights
- 70 days/years
In this lesson’s video, we’ll explore how biblical authors use setting in the narrative to either meet the reader’s expectations or mess with them. Paying attention to location and time in biblical stories can unlock deeper layers of meaning.
Design Patterns in Biblical Narrative
Design patterns are one of the key ways the biblical authors have unified the storyline of the Bible. Individual stories across the Old and New Testaments have been coordinated through repeated words and parallel themes.
One of the most important design features of biblical narrative is repetition. This technique creates patterns that guide the reader’s focus and help them know where to look for meaning. By following a word or phrase that is repeated significantly in a story or section of text, we can better decipher or grasp the main message of the text – for example, notice how the word “good” is used in Genesis 1 as a final divine commentary of each day’s work of creation.
Repeated words can unite a whole string of stories, but this kind of unifying technique can work in different ways too. Sometimes entire stories or scenes are designed to repeat elements of other stories. This involves not only repeated words but also parallel narrative patterns, themes, and sequences. For example, the “see and take” pattern shows up with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16), and David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). The “salvation through waters” pattern appears in creation (Genesis 1), the flood narrative (Genesis 7-8), and the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14).
In this lesson’s video, we’ll take a look at these patterns and more to see how they highlight core themes of the biblical story.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—known as the Gospel accounts—contain some of the most familiar stories in the Bible. The Gospel narratives are carefully designed theological biographies of Jesus that focus on his announcement of the Gospel, that is, the “good news” of his royal arrival. They are based on the eyewitness testimonies of the apostles. However, they are not merely historical records. These accounts are designed to advance a claim that will challenge the reader’s thinking and behavior.
The Gospel narratives have two main goals:
- To faithfully represent the story of Jesus—that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel and the true King of the world.
- To persuade the reader to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and become his disciple.
The four authors frame Jesus’ story in a unique way for distinct purposes. Each author has carefully edited, arranged, and designed the core stories about Jesus to emphasize unique facets of Jesus’ character. So what do each of the accounts emphasize?
Matthew portrays Jesus as a greater-than-Moses figure who fulfills the promises of the ancient Scriptures and whose resurrection has enthroned him as the King of Heaven and Earth.
Mark emphasizes the mystery and misunderstanding caused by Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God. He shows Jesus as the unexpected Messiah and highlights the paradox of how the exalted Messiah can only be recognized in the humbled, crucified Jesus.
Luke highlights how Jesus brings the Gospel to the nations. He shows that Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the Old Testament promise that God’s salvation would reach beyond Israel to include all nations.
John introduces Jesus as Israel’s God become human, presenting signs that demonstrate the truth of his messianic claim and his offer of eternal life for any that will trust in him.
The Gospel authors deeply believed that Jesus rose after death and fulfilled the ancient story told in the Hebrew Scriptures. And they proclaimed that joining in this belief and following his teachings would change our lives forever! The Gospel accounts are persuasive texts that invite the reader to consider their own relationship to Jesus the Messiah.
The Gospel narratives offer the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, but how often do we really take in their literary artistry from beginning to end? How can we reconcile the fact that there are four accounts with differing stories? Today’s video is all about learning to understand and respond to these unique books!
Jesus was a master teacher. Some of his most well-known teachings are told in short stories called parables. The four Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell the “good news” that God’s Kingdom has arrived on Earth through Jesus. Jesus himself announced the Kingdom of God through his famous teaching called the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This same sermon is preached “on the plain” in Luke chapter 6. Jesus also brought God’s Kingdom into reality through his healings, miracles, and the creation of a renewed family of Israel.
One of the most common ways that Jesus communicated was through stories, or in Greek, parabole. Parables can often be seen as illustrations or explanations relating to morality or religious truth. This assumes that there is a basic abstract idea that the parables help to illuminate, but this doesn’t capture how and why Jesus used parables. Parables are more than short stories.
The parables are beautiful and entertaining, but they are often cryptic. How can we read parables in a way that leads to understanding? That’s what this lesson’s video is all about. You’ll be introduced to key concepts and passages that will guide your own exploration of the parables of Jesus.
The Art of Biblical Poetry
Thirty percent of the Bible is made up of ancient poetry. That’s a lot! Poetry is everywhere in the Bible, and some biblical books are entirely poetry. Most of the Hebrew prophets wrote masterful poems, and the majority of God’s speech in the Bible is represented as poetry. It’s also very common in biblical narrative for the story to pause while a character breaks out in poetic song.
Nearly all human cultures with a common literature have ways of separating functional, utilitarian language from intentional, expressive, and artistic language, namely, poetry. And all cultures develop unique patterns of poetic speech or conventions for how poetic speech works. For example, metered rhyme is a feature of classic Western poetry:
Roses are red, violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet, and so are you.
And a haiku, a traditional Japanese style of poetry, uses specific line length and syllable structure—three poetic lines and the numbered syllable pattern: 5-7-5.
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again. (Matsuo Bashō)
The Ancient Israelite poetry found in the Bible doesn’t fit any kind of master system like meter (though some think so). However, the Israelites were aware of a certain kind of speech that was poetic, dense, and distinct from normal speech. They even have vocabulary for it.
“Song” (Hebrew, shir / shirah): “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song…” (Exodus 15:1)
“Psalm” (Hebrew, mizmor): “A mizmor of David.” (Psalm 3)
“Lament” (Hebrew, qinah): “David chanted this qinah over Saul and Jonathan.” (2 Sam 1:17)
These compositions show a unique, cultural form of Hebrew poetry, not a formal system but a series of characteristics.
- Rhythm: Hebrew poetry is shaped into a line-rhythm or verse. It is not metrical (based on syllable counts); rather, it’s a form of free verse poetry.
- Terseness: Hebrew poetry is concise, using as few words as possible to communicate as much as possible.
- Parallelism: This refers to the correspondence and relationship of one verse or line to another.
Poetry is a rich and artistic form of human communication, but it is often the most difficult to read. In today’s video, we’ll explore the unique characteristics of biblical poetry, so you can discover its beauty and power for yourself!
Metaphor in Biblical Poetry
Metaphor is our fundamental way of thinking and perceiving the world. We use conceptual categories based on familiar experience to describe unfamiliar and complex realities. They provide the framework for how our minds make sense of the world around us, and they govern all of our thinking and language.
Every culture has its own way of developing metaphors and imagery unique to their history and experience. Similarly, biblical poetry draws on a core cultural understanding of the world from which the poets develop images and metaphors.
Basic conceptual metaphors are not the unique possession of a poet, but rather of the poet’s culture. And the creative poet will adapt these basic metaphors in unexpected directions, creating new ways of conceiving reality.
The rich metaphors in biblical poetry are rooted in images from earlier biblical narratives. That’s how metaphors work in the Bible. You need the narratives to understand the poetic images, and the images reveal deeper meaning in those narratives.
The best way to become familiar with the basic conceptual metaphors used in the Bible is to meditate on the Torah (i.e. the first five books of the Bible). The Torah provides the basic conceptual world in which biblical imagery makes sense, especially Genesis 1-11.
- The ideal state is a mountain, garden temple (Genesis 1:8-10; Exodus 15:13, 17; Joel 2:1-3; Psalm 48:1-3).
- Danger and death are found in the chaotic waters, but safety and life are found in the river of Eden (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 18; Psalm 69; Isaiah 17:12-15).
- The ideal state of shalom, or peace, is humanity living among the animals (Genesis 1:28-30; Deuteronomy 32:20-24; Hosea 2:18-19; Isaiah 11:6-9).
- God’s ideal for creation is found in the garden of Eden (Psalm 1:1-3; Psalm 92:11-15; Jeremiah 17:5-8; John 4:13-14).
- Covenant and marriage are ways that God talks about his relationship to his people (Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 2:2-5, 8; Hosea 3:1-5; Revelation 21:1-3).
Understanding how metaphors are used in the Bible is an essential tool for reading biblical poetry. Any time someone references one thing to describe another thing, they are using metaphorical thinking whether they realize it or not. Metaphors are everywhere in the Bible and in our everyday speech. In this lesson’s video, we’ll explore this crucial aspect of biblical language.
The Book of Psalms
The book of Psalms is the largest collection of poetry in the Bible. There are 150 poems broken up into five sections. The first two sections explore the complicated story of David and his royal family. The third section focuses on the tragedy of Israel’s exile and the downfall of David’s royal line. And the fourth and fifth sections rekindle the hope for the Messiah, a new temple, and God’s Kingdom on the other side of exile. Then the book ends with a five-part conclusion, praising God for his faithfulness.
Each poem has been expertly crafted and intentionally placed within the book to create a storyline from the book’s beginning to its end. At the beginning of Psalms, there’s a short introduction, Psalms 1 and 2, which lays out the main themes of the entire book by reviewing the biblical storyline—God’s original intent for humanity, humanity’s disobedience, and God’s promise of a future human, the seed of the woman, who will come and defeat evil and restore the world.
Psalms is an invitation to a literary temple where you can meet with God and hear the entire biblical storyline retold in poetic form. The poems have been designed for a lifetime of slow rereading and reflection—these prayers and laments and songs of praise are meant to become ours. They’re poems for exiles who are learning to live by God’s wisdom and seek God’s justice in the world as they hope for the coming Messiah and the Kingdom of God.
In this lesson’s video, we’ll explore the design, shape, and main themes of this marvelous book, which was crafted to be read from beginning to end.
The books of the Hebrew prophets are some of the most challenging books of the Bible to read and comprehend, but they are also some of the most beautiful books! Learning to read them takes some effort, but it is totally worth it.
The fifteen prophetic books are a mosaic collection of narratives, poems, and essays that represent the message of the Israelite prophets. These collections have been expertly crafted over a long period of time, and they were eventually integrated into the larger collection of the Hebrew Bible.
Here are some fun facts about the prophetic books:
- The prophetic books take up as much page space in the Bible as the entire New Testament (27 percent).
- Jesus and the apostles constantly quoted from the prophets to explain how Jesus was bringing Israel’s story to its fulfillment (77 times in the Gospels and 98 times in the rest of the New Testament).
The prophets are the bridge between the past story of Israel and the covenant and the future story of God’s rescue plan for the world through Jesus.
Each prophetic book has a unique design and organized flow of thought, but it’s rarely chronological. Reading the prophets is a lot like listening to a symphony. There’s an opening introduction to all the main themes, but then the work is broken up into multiple movements or sections. But if you pay attention, you’ll hear the key themes being repeated and developed throughout the book, and then you’ll begin to see how all the parts fit together.
Key insights from the prophets:
- God loves justice: Israel had been called to a higher level of justice than the surrounding nations, especially in the treatment of their land and the poor (See Isaiah 1:10-20).
- God gets angry at evil: The prophets give a lot of space to God’s exposure of evil among Israel and the nations. It can be intense, but it reveals how much God cares about the goodness of his world (see Hosea 13).
- God has hope for our world: God refuses to let Israel’s sin get the last word, so all the prophetic books contain profound images of future hope and restoration for God’s people and for the entire world (see Isaiah 11:1-9).
In this lesson’s video, we’ll learn how these prophetic books contribute to the storyline of the Bible and why it’s worth learning how to read them more attentively. Let’s take a look!
The Books of Wisdom
What is biblical wisdom literature? Technically, this term can describe the entire Hebrew Bible (see Psalm 119:98-99; 2 Timothy 3:15), but wisdom literature also refers to a specific group of books connected to two things: King Solomon or the themes of wisdom, the “good life,” and the fear of the Lord.
The Books specifically considered in the “Wisdom” tradition are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach. The last two on the list are, in the Catholic tradition, part of the Deutro-canonical books, not considered part of the Canon of Scripture in Reformed and Protestant traditions, although considered of great value.
Though biblical wisdom literature is connected to these specific themes and the work of King Solomon, the main ideas are rooted in the narratives of Genesis and, specifically, in the garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3 and the story of Abraham. These stories introduce and unpack the core concepts of good and bad, blessing and curse, death and life, and the fear of Yahweh.
The wisest king of Israel, King Solomon (at least in the beginning of his reign), is associated with three books of the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Each book offers a unique perspective on how humans can rule with wisdom and the fear of the Lord. Each of these books takes Solomon’s story as a universal paradigm, an Adam and Eve story, so that his failure reenacts all humanity’s experience. These books focus on universal questions like:
- How can humans access the good life of Eden that comes as a gift from God?
- How can humans learn to live by the wisdom and the fear of Yahweh in all of life’s diverse seasons and circumstances?
- How can we process the failure of wisdom, the limits of mortality, and God’s inscrutability in our search for wisdom and life?
- Is there any hope for humanity to truly embrace God’s wisdom and live by it?
In this lesson’s video, we’ll briefly explore how the message of each book fits into the overall story of the Bible.
Entire sections of the Bible are devoted to describing strange dreams or visions that reveal something vital to humans in the story. These visions uncover God’s realm and change how the visionary sees their earthly circumstances. The biblical word used to describe these is translated as “apocalypse.” But these passages often get misunderstood because of our current understanding of what an apocalypse is.
In contemporary culture, the words “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” refer to the catastrophic end of the world. The dictionary definition of the English word describes it as, “the complete and final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation,” or “an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary).
This is not what these words mean in the Bible, and this popular definition leads us to drastically misunderstand and misread apocalyptic literature. In the biblical definition, the word literally means “to uncover,” or to “reveal.” It’s what happens when someone on Earth is exposed to the heavenly, transcendent reality of God’s realm, transforming their view of everything. We see these apocalypses all throughout the Bible, like the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room (Isaiah 6) or Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
A biblical apocalypse is a moment when God reveals himself in such a way that the observer is overtaken by a divine vantage point on a person’s life or human history. These moments almost always involve altered states of consciousness (dreams, visions) as a result of ascetic practices (fasting, meditating, prayer, isolation). In these moments of heightened awareness, the person comes to realize that their current situation or environment is actually permeated with divine presence and power. In an apocalyptic moment, Heaven joins Earth in the mind and heart of the visionary, and they are able to see reality in a way that others do not or cannot.
Reading apocalyptic literature can be difficult. These passages are filled with strange images, poetic language, and symbolism. The key to understanding biblical apocalyptic literature is to look at the literary design that’s introduced in the book of Genesis and developed throughout the rest of Scripture. We’ll explore this and more in this lesson’s video!
If you have ever tried to read the Bible from the beginning, you may have noticed that at 69 chapters into the story (at Exodus 19 to be exact), the story slows way down to make room for the laws given to ancient Israel. And there are over six hundred of them! Why are they in the story? Are Bible readers supposed to follow them or respond to them in some way? And how do they relate the New Testament part of the story when Jesus shows up?
These are huge questions that we will explore in this lesson’s video, but here are some helpful starting points:
- The Old Testament is not a law book. Rather, these laws given to Israel constitute the terms of their covenant relationship with the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The covenant ceremony is found in Exodus 19-24, where we find the 10 commandments, plus 42 other commands that illustrate the principles of worship, justice, and community life that Israel was to follow.
- These laws were given to appoint Israel as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:4-6), a contrasting community that would represent God’s presence and character to the surrounding nations.
- The covenant was consummated as God prepared a miniature Eden to inhabit when he took up residence among his people (i.e. the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, 35-40).
- As the story picks up again, we find a pattern of narratives alternating with sections of more covenant laws. And these narratives usually involve the Israelites breaking the covenant laws they just received! This begins with the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32-34), then the rebellion of the sons of Aaron (Leviticus 9), the worship of the goat idols (Leviticus 17), and then the constant rebellion of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 11-21).
This pattern is part of the Torah’s communication strategy, which is to show that these laws offered ancient Israel a way to live by God’s will, but they consistently failed. This is why Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30-32 predict their ultimate failure and exile from the promised land. Moses also says that God would have to recreate their hearts if they were to ever be God’s faithful covenant partners. There’s a lot to unpack here, but these hundreds of laws are part of the way that the Torah’s storyline points forward to the same future that Israel’s prophets announced (see Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 36-37). It’s only when humanity is renewed by God’s creative Spirit that we are able to truly love God and trust his wisdom.
This is the story that Jesus was stepping into when he said that he came to bring the Torah to its fulfillment (see Matthew 5:17-48), and that loving God and one’s neighbor fulfills the Torah (see Matthew 22:34-40). And this is the same story carried forward in the work of the Spirit among Jesus’ followers (see Galatians 5:13-23). So the laws actually play a crucially important role in the biblical story, but it requires a macro view to see how it all fits together and leads us to Jesus.
New Testament Letters (Historical Context)
The New Testament letters are some of the most accessible parts of the Bible. They were written by early Christian apostles who were appointed to spread the good news about him to the ancient world. And they are addressed to a “you,” which makes any reader feel like they are being directly spoken to by the people who were closest to Jesus. What could be better?
But if you read these letters at any length, you know that they are full of sections we may experience as inspiring (Paul’s bit about the foolish wisdom of the cross in 1 Corinthians 2), puzzling (Paul’s discussion of hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11), or off-putting (Peter’s depiction of obedient slaves and wives in 1 Peter 2-3). Passages like these remind modern readers that these letters are ancient texts written in a language and culture vastly different from our own.
However, it’s precisely by honoring the historical context of the New Testament letters that we can learn how to wisely read them and see how they can speak a powerful message to our own time and place. The apostles were heralds of the good news of Jesus as the risen King of the world, and they believed this message had the power to transform people and whole communities (see Paul’s exposition of this theme in Colossians 1-3 and Ephesians 2-4). But because they lived in the first-century Roman world, the specific cultural issues and challenges they wrote about are not identical to our own.
This means we need to learn about life in the ancient Roman empire to gain a deeper understanding of why the apostles said what they said. We also need to search each letter to understand what circumstances in each church community prompted the writing of the letter in the first place. Once we see that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to a church divided along cultural and racial lines, or that Peter’s letter was sent to churches facing shame and persecution for following Jesus, we can better interpret these letters.
In these letters, we get to watch the apostles navigate the challenges of their day with the good news that the risen Jesus is the King of the world. And if Jesus is still King of the nations, we must address the unique issues of our own time and culture with the same message. And who better to guide us than the people who surrounded Jesus himself? The ancient words of the apostles, when they’re read in historical context, are full of divine wisdom to guide followers of Jesus in every generation.
New Testament Letters (Literary Context)
Have you ever tried reading the letters in the New Testament and found yourself lost or asking, “What on earth is Paul talking about?” You’re not alone! Even the apostle Peter found Paul’s letters difficult to read (see his comments in 2 Peter 3:15-16). But with an understanding of the literary context, you can learn to read these letters with more wisdom and insight.
It’s important to remember that in the first-century world, most people did not read, so the apostles designed these letters to be read aloud (see Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27). The letters would have been read by the people who delivered them, like Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2 or Tychicus in Colossians 4:7 and Ephesians 6:21. They read more like written speeches, which actually gives us a helpful angle on how to read them.
The apostles adopted and adapted the common first-century letter format by beginning their letters with a greeting, a prayer of thanksgiving, or a blessing. They usually packed this introduction with the key words, ideas, and themes that they planned to develop throughout the letter.
Once you get into the main part of the letter, there are a few skills that you can hone to help you make sense of the meaning:
- Learn to break the letter down into smaller sections and paragraphs. Think of these as the basic building blocks, each with its own main idea.
- Start tracking with repeated words and ideas within each paragraph. You can then trace those words that link the many paragraphs together.
- Take notice of the key transition words that link all the paragraphs together, words like “therefore,” “because of this,” or “however.”
Before you know it, you’ll find yourself tracing the thread of the main idea throughout the letter from beginning to end. These letters are not a random collection of theological ideas. They are carefully crafted speeches, written in letter form, that develop a coherent set of ideas from beginning to end. It takes effort, but if you’re diligent, you’ll find yourself reading the New Testament letters with more insight than ever before.
Congratulations on completing this introductory, self-guided course of “How to Read the Bible”!!