image by Debby Hudson from Unsplash
Contrary to the concerns that a lot of good Christian friends had, my experience of studying lit in uni (though admittedly atypical) reinforced and affirmed my faith in many ways, one of which was equipping me to enjoy and appreciate the Bible far more. I'll try not to get sidetracked; I wrote this post twice over because I ended up arguing my point rather than moving on to the actual topic! Another day, another post. First things first.
The Old Testament and the New Testament were just really fun storybooks to me, growing up, with their respective boring parts. I skipped deftly through the Psalms and the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament, and just as skillfully passed over the expository books in the New Testament, preferring to immerse myself in the rollicking blockbuster books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Kings, Chronicles, Nehemiah; and in the New Testament, the Gospels, the miracles of Jesus, and the surreal, fantastic visual imagery of Revelations.
And that was it! Cool stories but all pretty disjointed (no wonder, considering I just picked out the parts I liked.) Like picking out the parts of a jigsaw puzzle that have pictures on it, and ignoring all the parts that are just blank sky/grass/background (=my childhood.)
It was only in my teens when I was talking stuff with my dad and asked him why we didn't have to offer sacrifices nowadays (thankfully; anyone has any idea how to get a live sheep in Singapore?) He explained to me about the old and new covenant, how Jesus was our last and ultimate Sacrifice, the last Passover Lamb, that for the first time I glimpsed more than a mere chronological connection between the Old and New Testament, glimpsed part of the significant overarching themes that made them so perfectly complementary.
That was just the beginning. Suddenly there was a whole vista of meaning and significance to the kind-of-gross animal sacrifices, the blood, (I mean, "fatty lobe attached to the liver??" That phrase being repeated so many times in Leviticus always had a weird fascination for me) the OT prophets talking about the Messiah, the Ten Commandments and Jesus's "neo" Ten Commandment preachings in Matthew.
The Old Testament, best summarized in the Garden of Eden and the Ten Commandments, represented the story of humanity's perfect creation, the sinless, ideal state we were meant to exist in, and the ideal relationship we were meant to have with God. The fall. The impossibility of us regaining our previous state, no matter how hard we tried, or how many brownie points we tried to accumulate to offset our demerit points. The significance of the Ten Commandments, since their very existence proves the intrinsic nature of our sin, and since their simplicity and impossibility are like a death knell to any hope of us being able to redeem ourselves.
But (to use another literary term) also a foreshadowing of the solution, the first introduction of the theme of redemption and substitution, of death as a means to life. Of sacrifice.
The first deaths in the Garden of Eden and the messy sacrificial ceremonies in Leviticus, the mystic substitution and "unfairness" of the Passover Lamb, the same theme running through the Old Testament like a blood-red thread.
And then the New Testament. All Jesus's teachings about the heart, about how holiness and sin aren't limited to external actions, on trust. His death on the cross, and how it overturned all the expectations and definitions of success/failure that both His enemies and His disciples had. The ultimate example of "My strength is made perfect in weakness." The depth and scale of God's plan for salvation, not only in a historical context, but in a thematic sense as well.
Wow. Talk about epics. You know that breathless, heart-wringing feeling you get from epic sagas like Lord of the Rings, the great themes which make classics so striking and gripping? The Bible had like the origins of so many of those great themes, simultaneously; and still held them all together with a breathtaking unity. A theme which still grips our hearts today.
I changed my perspective of the Old and New Testament as merely chronologically related, realizing how they work together to explore and develop the overarching significant theme/themes of God's grace and man's redemption. The miraculous paradox of how Jesus's death enabled both God's attributes of holiness and mercy at once. The equally miraculous paradox of how we can be both condemned sinners and perfect in God's eyes, the elect. The juxtaposition of the old and the new man, the conflict within the soul, the mystical work of the Holy Spirit in "turning hearts of stone to flesh--" what a metaphor, by the way.
How to read the Old and New Testaments in a complementary approach:
1. Cross reference. I know--I used to hate being directed somewhere else, too lazy to flip through all those pages just for one verse! With technology, it might have gotten easier--or use both; leave one open where you're studying and use another Bible for your cross references, so you can see them side by side.
Take that extra bit of effort. You might find yourself seeing that passage in a whole different light, seeing a new perspective, seeing another of those thematic thread that run through both Testaments.
2. Read with an awareness of the overarching themes. As discussed above--but not exhaustively--having this deductive approach rather than a linear one when it comes to reading the Bible enables you to see the big picture. For example, study with a focus on how both Testaments reveal God's person, how they develop different attributes, or the same one. What hasn't changed, what has?
3. When studying the Bible--especially if it's a complete Bible study plan--don't, whatever you do, do it chronologically. From personal experience, I find this a sure way to kill your enjoyment and motivation. Just imagine facing the long plod ahead through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Or resigning yourself to a string of nondescript Minor Prophets. Or one epistle after another. It's just setting yourself up for task-oriented, get-it-off-the-list, I-feel-like-dying frustration. What's more, there's a high chance that you end up more and more myopic, seeing each incident in isolation, failing to grasp the context and greater picture. I appreciate how Search the Scriptures jumbles the Old and New Testament books, encouraging you to dabble equally in both, and how I have the freedom to pick what book--Old or New--appeals to me at the time, while still pursuing a systematic whole-Bible study program.
4. When you hit something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or weirded out--"Ehh. Er why did God put this in, what's the point of this?" don't pass it over. Chances are these are some significant spiritual growth opportunities, as they were in my own experience; the sacrifices, the whole concept of the Holy Spirit, King David's less-than-perfect track record that jarred with his title as "the man after God's own heart."
5. And lastly, go. Do it. Don't be intimidated by the theology, or parts you think you can't understand, or simply the mental effort it requires to really think through and study the Word. Don't wait till you're retired, have more time, have enrolled in a theology course, going to be a full-time church worker or church leader, have a nice quiet rainy morning with a cup of your favourite tea and no background noises or commitments on your schedule to hurry you....
...ooh now we're getting a bit personal!
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What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
(cf Acts 17:11)
The Bereans are often held up to us an examples of how we should receive the Word, of how we should thoughtfully respond to preaching and teaching.
This is a difficult challenge, especially nowadays when there is so much information available--we've become desensitized, complacent, jaded.
From a Christian angle--how many Bible devotional apps, lists of "must-read important Christian books," theology courses, and catechisms are out there making you feel guilty? How many books are sitting on your shelf waiting to be read some day, some forcefully lent to you by a zealous friend? (please don't force books on people, no matter how excited you are and how convinced you are that it will change your life. Rave about it but do not hand the book to them unless you're prepared to never get it back, and make them permanently awkward and uncomfortable around you. Nothing sets the irrational side of human nature more stubbornly than being forced to do something "good for you.")
By far the most natural reaction is that of jaded complacency, passive acceptance. We absorb, we don't consider and question. Just coming up with the energy to absorb is enough for us, since there's so (overwhelmingly) much more to absorb.
We read books, take note of one or two phrases, and move on.
We listen to sermons, dutifully make notes, and go back to everyday life.
We read an online article and nod assent, then click back to Facebook.
I don't know about you, but whenever I read "spiritual books" my guard actually tends to be down. I'm complacent in the fact that I'm actually reading a spiritual book, making the effort to do so, so that's pretty good already! I just need to absorb the wisdom laid out here for me, as trustingly as if it's from the Bible. We get uncomfortable when we're challenged to meditate on, to think over, to break down what we're passively absorbing (not actually processing;) we feel that it's vaguely unfair to expect us to do more than make the effort to read/listen.
We need to realize that pastors, book writers, theologians, are human. Just because one book you read was helpful doesn't mean you might agree with everything that author says, with every other book he or she writes. We tend to think, "everything by this author should be ok"--or "everything on this website should be fine", not realizing that the Bereans questioned what Paul the apostle himself preached, using only the Bible as their benchmark.
Not Calvin, or John Piper, or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, or your favourite Christian writer, or that devotional app or that Christian classic that everyone seems to agree is blessing incarnate.
Are we hiding behind labels, complacent readers with lazy minds who want to passively absorb truth, who assume that we can get it in pure unadulterated form with the minimum effort on our own part?
We become more and more afraid of using our mind, of asking questions, of considering implications--we lapse into the comfortable, easy conformity of accepting whatever we're told to accept, whatever we're told is right, a pack mentality that is deadening EVEN IF (note!) what we are being fed is the truth. In that case, we are relying solely on our church leaders or pastors to make choices for us--a dangerously man-centric move.
We are regressing, like Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, to settle for bottle-fed milk instead of moving on to spiritual solid food.
What does it actually mean to be like the Bereans?
To recognize and apply the belief that all men are fallible, even those with great gifts, even those who have been used greatly to bless already. To realize that all books, and sermons, may be influenced by the contexts and personal experiences of the men or women who write them. To realize that having written one great Christian classic doesn't necessarily mean all the other books by the same author automatically are "good". To realize that we don't have to accept 100% of what is presented to us but can still be helped and blessed--to pick out, with discernment, since books, like people, don't fall easily into the binary of "all good" or "all bad." To realize that rather than taking a judgmental "Paul vs Apollo" stance, where we blindly follow certain names and figures that have been stamped for approval by some authority figure for us, and boycott or avoid others, we are called to use our minds. To think over and question, if necessary. To qualify. To decide whether a syntax, context, or content issue is at stake.
And ultimately, as I've realized, to better appreciate the Bible, as the one infallible word, our benchmark amid all this confusion and chaos.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and of a sound mind.
2 Timothy 1:7
Recently my church ran a short study on how to interpret the Bible, a three-session series based on the first 9 General Principles of Interpretation from Walter A. Henrichsen's book, A Layman's Guide to Interpreting the Bible.
I found these short sessions very helpful, and appreciated how they were so simply and straightforwardly laid out; it didn't make you feel like you were masquerading as a theological student! To be honest, I never gave much thought on how to interpret the Bible, preferring to focus on those more straightforward passages, so yes, it was about time.
Since we all don't have the time to read as many books as we'd like to, I thought I'd summarize those 9 principles for your benefit. You're welcome.
RULE ONE: Work from the assumption that the Bible is authoritative.
Henrichsen identifies 3 forms of authority that every Christian "consciously or unconsciously" relies on:
Tradition, Reason, and the Scriptures.
According to the Reformed belief, the Scriptures should always come first, based on its authority as the Word of God, though that doesn't exclude the validity of the other two forms of authority.
This of course raises the question: how do we know the Bible is inspired by God, is the Word of God? According to Henrichsen, inspiration must follow authority, not the other way around: "Therefore in Bible Study you begin with the issues of authority. It and the question of inspiration which naturally follows are answered when you submit to the Word of God. You may study inspiration as a separate topic, but you only know the Bible to be the inspired Word of God as you place yourself under its authority." Henrichsen uses the example of a passenger about to board a plane bound for Tokyo, even though the captain cannot guarantee a safe journey: "The demand that commitment come before knowledge is not unique to the Christian faith. It is common, everyday experience for all people."
RULE TWO: Use the Bible to interpret the Bible; Scripture best explains Scripture.
When interpreting the Bible, beware of omission and addition, as the disastrous consequences in the Garden of Eden indicate. Likewise, beware of individual verses taken in isolation, as they can often be used to support both sides of an argument and can't be considered conclusive as such. Heinrichsen gives an example of how either Galatians 5:4 ("You have fallen away from grace") might give the impression--taken in isolation--that it's possible for a Christian to lose their salvation; however, as John 10:27-29 shows, this isn't the case: "My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, Who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."
And that's why cross-referencing is important. Primary cross-referencing should be based on thought/topic rather than on specific words, which should be secondary cross-referencing.
RULE THREE: Saving faith and the Holy Spirit are necessary for us to understand and properly interpret the Scriptures.
This was an interesting thought I hadn't considered, which to me underlined the fact that studying the Bible is not like studying any other book. Don't come at it with an attitude of entitlement, expecting the formula of read-understand-benefit that might work with a Tolstoy or a Shakespeare play. When we decide we want to study the Bible it requires a humble attitude, godliness/a clean conscience before God, and prayer for the Holy Spirit's enabling. How much we understand from our study is directly related to our spiritual state.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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