1. Read the Bible with an eye for genre.
Some biblical critics (meaning people who examine the actual literature of the Bible) look at the text as nothing more than ancient literature. This causes some Christians to react with statements like, “I take the Bible literally.” This statement sounds devout, but it is quite absurd.
Psalm 36:7 says “People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” Jesus follows this same metaphor in Matthew 23:37 saying, “I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” No one actually suggests that the Bible is saying God is actually a bird. The text is using a picturesque metaphor.
The Bible is quite robust as literature. It contains narrative (Genesis, Matthew, et al.), prophetic literature (Daniel, Revelation), Poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon), epistles (instructional books like Ephesians), personal letters (to an individual like Philemon), and others. A person wouldn’t read a love letter the same way that they would read an instruction manual. In the same way, they shouldn’t read Psalms the same way that they read Galatians.
A lot of problems in understanding the Bible come from not considering the intended purpose of the book they are reading. For instance, the purpose of Psalms is to glorify God and remember His goodness, not to teach doctrine. This is not saying that Psalms cannot teach doctrinal truth, or even that it is not the inspired word of God, just that doctrine is not the point of the book.
2. Get yourself into the heads of the original readers.
Many Bible experts will make the statement, “something in the Bible can never mean to us what it didn’t mean to its original hearers.” This doesn’t quite make sense, as original readers of prophetic books like Daniel couldn’t quite have understood the completeness of the prophecy. But this is a generally good guideline to follow in most cases.
For instance, Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:10 both state provisions against eating blood. Some religious people use this as reason for God to be against blood transfusions. While the Bible neither speaks supportively nor prohibitively specifically about blood transfusions, an original hearer of God’s message in these passages would have not thought about a medical procedure to save someone’s life. They would have connected it to pagan idol worship that required drinking blood. Therefore, it is doctrinally quite dangerous to make a leap in applying these passages to a life-saving medical procedure.
3. Practice Exegesis not Eisegesis
No, this isn’t misspelling Jesus. These two words refer to interpreting scripture. Gesis refers to the text of the Bible. Ex (ek) means out of and eis means into. For any student of God’s truth, the goal should be to find out what the Bible means, and then apply that meaning to life, even if that isn’t quite what a person really wants the Bible to say. The opposite of this, eisegesis, is to twist the scripture (or cherry-pick verses out of context) in order to get the Bible to say what a person wants it to say.
A good way to remember the difference is that exegesis is to find out where Jesus is, and place an X in that spot (x-a-Jesus) as the marker for where God wants people to be. Eisegesis is like putting Jesus on an ice rink, where a person could push him to wherever he’d like Jesus to be (ice-a-Jesus).
4. Allow the Bible be a little bit mean.
Actually, the Bible isn’t really mean. It is the loving word of God. But unless a person is perfect, the Bible is going to point out a lot of ways in which humans cannot meet God’s standards. It has been reported that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, said that if we always find the Bible to be our friend, perhaps we haven’t read it.
The Bible was clearly not written as a self-image booster for humanity. Whenever a person comes face to face with the presence of God, the first realization is always how unworthy, frail, and weak humanity is when measured by God’s standard. The second understanding is that God forgives and loves us anyway. Before a garment can be cleaned, a person must admit that it is dirty. The same is true with a person’s soul, and the Bible is one of the major ways that God teaches this lesson to humanity.
5. Let the Bible change you.
The Bible is not meant to be merely literature. The serious student of Jesus should read the Bible asking 3 basic questions:
- What did God mean by this (especially to the original readers)?
- How does this meaning apply to me today?
- What should I do about this?
God never intended people to read His word, smile to themselves, and then go about their daily lives. He meant it to be poignant, “sharper than any two-edged sword,” and potent for changing lives. Swords were not meant to be decorative wall ornaments. They were meant for stronger stuff, as is the Bible.