Why do we have to think about how to read the Bible? Shouldn’t it be obvious? After all, if a person knows how to read a newspaper or a novel, shouldn’t he be able to read the Bible? In a sense, the answer to that question is ‘yes.’ The Bible is, after all, a book; therefore, in many ways it needs to be read like any other written document. Unfortunately, we don’t always apply some of the common sense, usually unspoken rules of reading to the Bible.
If you were to read the sentence, “The old man shoved the boy through the door,” you might picture a grisly old man rudely and violently forcing a kid out of his house. On the other hand, you might imagine a boy’s grandfather heroically pushing him through a doorway away from a rabid dog. The point is, without reading what comes before the sentence or what comes after the sentence, you don’t really know what it’s communicating. We call the sentences (or paragraphs or pages) before and after the text we are reading ‘context.’ It’s the text that surrounds our text and helps us to make sense out what we’re reading.
Normally, paying attention to context is something that we do without even noticing. It’s just common sense reading. But suppose you confronted your best friend about cheating on his wife, and he told you, “Jesus says, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.’ Just leave me alone and let me live my life.” Well, Jesus did say “Judge not.” But he didn’t mean that we can never call another person out for his or her sin. When you read his words in context, this point becomes obvious: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye." (Matthew 7:1–5)
Jesus is warning us against judging others before first examining our own lives. But if we’ve repented of our sin, and we’re aware of our own shortcomings, we will then be able to “see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” It is actually loving and kind (and therefore a sign of true friendship!) for a man to confront his friend when he sees him plunging headlong toward personal destruction. To “Judge not” is in this case unloving, unkind, and therefore sinful. And we know that because of the context in which Jesus originally gave the command.
But despite the fact that we know that we should pay attention to context when we read, we regularly yank Bible verses out of their context and misuse them. I can remember being a teenager and learning to ski for the first time. Somehow I’d gone the wrong way or gotten on the wrong lift and found myself at the top of a double black diamond slope. As I slowly inched my way down the mountain I kept telling myself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But surely that’s not what Paul had in mind when wrote these words to the Philippians! Instead, the previous sentence tells us that Paul had “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” In the broader context of the whole chapter, we see that he is engaged in the task of preaching the Gospel in hard places. Paul is saying that he can do everything God has called him to do, even in the midst of hunger and pain, because Christ continually supplies him with strength to carry out his mission. I certainly wasn’t suffering for the spread of the Gospel on the mountainside that afternoon! I got down the mountain, but not because Philippians 4:13 says that God will give me the ability to ski down (or scoot down) the side of a mountain successfully.
So yes, if you know how to read a book or a newspaper, you know how to read your Bible (to a certain degree). You know how to apply common sense reading skills to God’s Word. There is, of course, another sense in which the Bible is not like any other book or piece of literature, and therefore it should not be read like anything else. The Bible is made up of 66 books, written over a period of about 1500 years by several authors in varying places and circumstances, in three different languages. And yet, because “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and because the individual writers of Scripture “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21) we must acknowledge that the Bible is God’s Word. He is the ultimate Author of the Bible. Therefore, the Bible, with all of its diversity, is a unified whole. It never contradicts itself. It never leads us astray. And the Bible is never wrong. It is the infallible and inerrant Word of God. And therefore, in many ways, faithful Christians must not read the Bible in the same way in which we read a novel or a newspaper. This is God’s story, God’s good news, spoken by him, and it must be read as such.
So, in order to become people “rightly handling the word of truth,” (2 Timothy 2:15) we need to acknowledge some basic rules for reading that apply to all texts (including the Bible) and we need to recognize that because the Bible is God’s Word, it demands that it be treated (and therefore read) in a different manner than all other books. The purpose of this series of articles is to describe some of the basic reading rules as they are applied to the Bible and to show how reading the Bible as God’s Word will require us to read it in specific ways with clear goals in mind.