biblical patience – quickly!

I want to get the most out of the Scriptures, don’t you?The obvious, glaring question is HOW do we do this? How might we read, understand, meditate on, grasp, learn and grow in the right way?

Ever since the Bible was completed (roughly speaking) in the turn of the 2nd century, people have employed many, many techniques and methods for engaging the text. Much of this is wonderful, I think. Unfortunately, we we humans seem to be quite prone to misusing, distorting and destroying anything good (sex, food/drink, authority, relationships, money, etc.). I wish this didn’t apply to Bible study as well, but I’m afraid that it can happen and does. Whether it’s chanting or reading portions of Scripture while ‘listening’ for special messages from God, breathing slowly, finding the right posture, or whatever, these concerns don’t have much (or anything at all) to do with rightly engaging the Scripture.

Now, I don’t have time – nor would I think it my responsibility or within my ability – to systematically identify and de-bunk every technique that you or I might think needs identifying and de-bunking. I will, however, pass on a few helpful (and I believe essential) principles I’ve picked up from others that we must keep in mind if we wish to read our Scriptures for all they’re worth – which I believe to be infinitely more than we may realise.

First Things First?
The first thing is of first importance. More and more, I hear the same question being asked over and over again. The problem isn’t this questions itself, but the importance and immediate priority it is given. It is the question of ‘what does it mean to ME?’ Given our increasingly individualised culture in western nations, I’m not surprised by this. Now, let me be clear. I believe that ‘it’ has quite a lot to say to ‘me’ and you. The problem comes when this is our first and primary question we ask of the text.

Our initial task in reading the Scriptures is to attempt to perceive what the author is saying to the audience, and how they might have received it. By this, I mean (taking the New Testament epistle of Paul to Philemon as an example) what is the Apostle Paul saying to Philemon. Sure, ‘I’ can learn a great deal from what Paul is saying to Philemon, but Paul is not writing to Dale in New Zealand in the 21st century. Our question is what did (in this case) Paul mean? Tom Wright has called this seeking to ‘think Paul’s thoughts after him.’ Paul was not thinking about me.

Our Place in The Story
With this in mind, we dig deeper. But not too deep too quickly. The Bible is full of potentially confusing commands, exhortations and instructions. This is why, secondly, we need to familiarise – and re-familiarise – ourselves with the entire unfolding narrative of Scripture. Tom Wright again has been very helpful for me in this regard. He has popularised a 5-act analogy regarding the story of God’s interaction with the world. Within this analogy, we live between the Apostles and chapters 21 & 22 of Revelation, and find ourselves with roles to play in God’s fourth act. Our task is not to repeat the first three acts, but to discover how are roles are to be ‘acted out’ so as to ‘fit’ with what has come before and to point toward what is coming – namely God’s ultimate renewal of Heaven and Earth.

If we don’t know how the story begins, develops, expands and ultimately ends, we are all the more likely to ‘act’ in a way that is inconsistent with it. Mark Strom has described this as the need to be ‘patient’ with the Scriptures, lest we distort them in our application (i.e. by taking something in the Scriptures and doing it when we ought not to, not doing it when we ought to or doing it in the wrong way than was intended). The old-new covenant distinction is perhaps one of the most common points of confusion that I know of regarding application for us today – again, another topic altogether.

Mark has articulated his ‘big-small-big’ method for reading which I find very helpful. First, we read the passage with the ‘big story’ in mind. Second, we observe details in the passage, looking for the flow and looking outward to the expanded context. Finally, we summarise the small picture and locate it’s place in the big picture, clarifying the impact of the gospel and living what we find. I think the key difference is that in this model, the personal application for ‘me’ is found only in the ‘big story’ and only after we consider the implications of the Gospel.

…’For We Know In Part’…
This ‘patience’ means that we may have to go through periods of time where we don’t have every text nailed down – as if any of us do anyway! We shouldn’t be surprised when we read a passage looking for answers and instead get more questions! This happens to me all the time. I find myself flicking all over the Scriptures and looking up various things that pertain (at least that I think pertain!) to where I’ve begun. Naturally, I’ve both learned and un-learned a few things this way!

However, if this is the only way we learn or un-learn from the Scriptures, then we are in great danger. Thirdly, and lastly, I want to share the principle of community. The Bible is a community book. Originally written in community. Originally read in community. Originally worked out in community. Studying the Bible privately is a privilege that we enjoy like few other of the many generations that have come before us (hand copies only until the printing press!). We should enjoy this privilege, but not gorge ourselves on it. We need others around us (and around the world, both living and deceased) to sharpen whatever clever ideas we think we might get from our private study. Of course, with the internet, you can always find someone to agree with you (on that note, you can also quite easily find someone who disagrees, but it’s much more comforting to only read people who agree with us!) but don’t let that stop you from benefiting from the study of others.

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Original writer, original audience – knowing the Story and our place in it – and engaging the Scriptures while being guided by communitiy. I think these principles will serve us well as we attempt to read Scripture for all it’s worth – at its worth is great! It will take patience, but like a slow-cooked meal is much more satisfying than fast food – in more ways than one – so is reading the Scriptures as they were intended.

the bible, the whole bible and nothing but the bible

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s absolutely no book in the world like the Bible.The Bible reveals the great story of God’s creation and how He interacts with it. The Bible showcases an incredibly diverse number or groups and individuals, and shows how they responded to the interaction of God. Most importantly, however, the Bible tells us about the Word – that is, the Word made flesh – Jesus. We get to see Him in full flavour, in surround sound, in real history and in unmatched splendor.

Unfortunately, the Bible is also incredibly misunderstood. All one has to do is briefly explore the massive number of Bible-related internet websites (which all claim to be ‘biblical’ in their own unique, special ways) to see just how radically different people take various passages and themes from the same book. They can’t all be right can they? I mean, at least not when they say contradicting things about the exact same topic, right?

Before I say any more, let me say that I am becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that I’m on a journey in my understanding of the Bible. Realise it or not, we all are. This makes some people uncomfortable. Some grow nervous with such talk, because they feel it is leaning towards uncertainty and instability concerning the the Bible. I understand why they might feel this way, but it seems to me that while the Bible will no doubt remain intact itself, our understanding of it’s content and message is quite another thing and will always (I might even say must always) be flexible. Do we really believe that the message is living? I do, and while I don’t think for a minute that God changes, I still insist that the idea that we simply don’t understand Him or His ways is a thoroughly ‘biblical’ one (1 Corinthians 1 & 13 and Isaiah 40 & 64 are good chapters to read if you ever think you’ve got God cornered.)

Now that I’ve said that, I want to pass along some advice that I’ve taken on board regarding reading the Bible.

First, let me introduce you to a term. It’s a term called pre-texting (of course, some of you will be quite familiar with both the term and examples of it’s use). In a basic sense, pre-texting happens when someone quotes a verse (or part of a verse) to support a point or belief they are trying to explain. The problem isn’t quoting the verses themselves, it’s when the verses are used in a way other than they were intended to be. Here’s a common example of a mis-use of a verse (text). I once talked to a street ‘preacher’ who was telling anyone who would listen that true Christians don’t sin. He was quoting from 1 John 3:6, which says, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” Seems pretty open and shut, doesn’t it? Well, a verse that comes before that one (1 John 1:8) seems to cloud the issue – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So if I admit that I sin, I don’t know Him, and if I say I have no sin, then I’m a liar? Well, it’s a good thing there are more verses in 1 John than these two.

1 John is widely believed to be written in response to an early (late 1st or early 2nd century) group of false teachers (in this case, Gnostics) that believed that Jesus didn’t have a real flesh and blood body, and that He wasn’t eternal or ‘from the beginning.’ They basically ignored physical sin, because to them all that really ‘mattered’ was not the realm of matter, but the realm of ideas, or the spiritual realm (look up ‘dualism‘ and then thank Plato for many such misunderstandings of our universe – many of which still cloud our thinking, and yes can distort our interpretations of Scripture). It seems that 1 John seems to be strongly warning against taking seriously the idea that sin wasn’t serious. See how the text comes alive when you read chapter 1 (especially the first 3 verses) with this understanding!

As you can see, the problem is not quoting the Bible, but quoting it out of it’s proper context. First, we must know the immediate context (surrounding verses), then the context of the section of the book (If you didn’t notice, I intentionally referred to entire chapters above – not just to verses. In a sense, that is still pre-texting, but in a safer way.), then the book itself, etc. Even this is not enough. We need to be mindful of both the textual context and the historical context. That means sometimes we have to study history to better understand the Bible. That also means that we don’t always have the right interpretation of the Bible even when it may feel like we do. This is not bad news, or an attempt to scare or discourage you from studying the Bible, but rather quite the opposite. Join with us on the journey! It’s exciting! Grow! Think! Learn! Ask questions! Dig for the answers! Own your beliefs! Don’t just recite what you learn from others!

At last, here’s the simple advice I’ll pass on. Read the Bible in large chunks. As respected biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said, “Get a sense of the sweep of the narrative. God gave us this book not as bite-sized little chunks, but as a large thing to open and broaden and develop our minds.” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps embracing this ethic of reading larger portions can help us to quote the Bible more faithfully, and not with cheap pre-texting games, where ‘my verse is better than your verse’. I also think we possibly underestimate the value of reading the Bible in community, where our interpretations don’t go recklessly unchecked, but are able to be sharpened and strengthened by those around us. This, in essence, was what happened (and still happens) when Jews gathered in Synogogues to study. May we in the Church develop and embrace a similar ethic?

We have the opportunity of a lifetime, and it will take a lifetime. We have the thrilling task and calling to join God in His story. We need to know our place in it. As we familiarise ourselves with history and His-story within it, we link arms with each other as we grow in understanding and we also link arms with the long line of Saints before us who thought, prayed, studied, served, taught, sacrificed and struggled to live their part in the Story. It’s our turn.

trust God – trust me…

“Hither Thee unto my hearkening toward Thee, Oh Heavenly Blessed One of Old. Thou hads’t bountifully lavished Thy unmerited favour upon me!” “Yo God! What’s up mate? You are so cool! You totally rule, Dude, and that is just sweet like candy Bro!”
I used to think of these examples as the extremes of how a person might approach God in prayer. Sure, they are perhaps extremes with regard to word choice and levels of formality, but more and more, I’m seeing that these two styles of prayer have more in common than I thought.Before I go there, let me just affirm where both of these types of prayer come from. The formal type often comes from individuals with a strong (and quite proper) conviction to address God with reverence. They may perhaps (again – rightly and biblically) have images of God as King on His throne, and therefore take on the posture of ‘kneeling’ not only in physical posture, but in their word choice as well. Rather than making the mistake (sin?) of praying something that is ‘un’-humble or ‘un’-biblical, they aim for ultra-humility and ultra-biblical-ness.

The casual type perhaps comes from individuals who desire to break free from what they feel to be impersonal and overly eloquent methods of prayer. Their convictions take different form in that they, perhaps, feel quite strongly (and not without biblical support) that we are invited to a personal, fatherly way. (the word ‘Abba’ in Scripture would quite literally mean something like ‘Daddy’) Rather than make the mistake of not meaning what they say, they opt for a more personal expression of their heart to God.

I think both types have strengths and potential dangers. While I think reverence for God in prayer is deeply important and more and more overlooked, I find it hard to imagine how some of the lofty sermon-esque prayers can be totally free of at least a hint of spiritual pride – having prayed all too often this way myself. There seems to be a subtle arrogance in the ‘Amen’ to these prayers, as though we might feel quite pleased with ourselves with the eloquent prayer we have just offered. Conversely, while I appreciate the personal and relational informality some bring to their prayers, I am deeply concerned that we may risk losing the vital essence of God’s majesty and sheer holiness.

But none of this is my point, really…

There is another dimension that I wonder if we often forget altogether…

“Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
– Abraham in Genesis 18:25 (check out the whole story)


“O God, why have You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture? …O God, how long will the adversary reproach? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever? …Do not forget the life of Your poor forever. Have respect to the covenant;”
– Psalm 74:1,2,10,19,20


“Do not keep silent, O God! Do not hold Your peace, and do not be still, O God!”
– Psalm 83:1
Are we afraid to question God? Do we (for some reason) think that God doesn’t want to be questioned? Make no mistake; we are not to ever take God’s place, but does this mean that doubts and questions are unhealthy?Perhaps our desire to maintain a healthy respect and reverence for God may be part of the reason we are slow to embrace our doubts and/or questions, but I wonder if there is another underlying reason. Though it may sound weird to say it, might it be that we don’t trust God enough? When was the last time you ‘respectfully vented’ to God like the Psalmists did? If you can’t remember, then I recommend reconsidering your understanding of God. Is your God unable to handle your ‘big’ problems, doubts or concerns?

I don’t think God is in the slightest way afraid of these. Why should we hide them from Him? (as if we really can anyway!) In the same way that God knows our needs before we ask for them in prayer, He also knows how we feel – whether we tell Him or not. But He still wants us to ask for things and to be real with Him about how we feel! We don’t need to ‘protect’ God from who we are. He wants you. He doesn’t want ‘not’ you. We must be honest with Him. Don’t trust me, trust Him – He can handle it.

To take things a little further, I wonder if this shows up in our relationships with those around us? If we can’t be honest to God, then might we also struggle to be completely honest and real with others? Maybe the reasons we struggle to be honest with each other are the same reasons we avoid honesty with God. We may be trying so hard to respect each other, we may forget to trust each other.

My best friends in life have been the ones who have trusted me enough to do at least these two things: 1.) admit who they really are (how they’re really doing, etc.) to me; and 2.) challenge me when they think I need it. To me, it shows that our relationship is not so fragile that they feel the need to walk on egg-shells around me. If someone has a problem with me, I’d rather know it than wonder if they do or what it is, etc. I think that God feels the same way with us – except He doesn’t have to wonder – he already knows!

I’ve heard someone say that by not telling someone when you have a problem with them, you are actually disrespecting them. If effect, you are saying that they can’t handle it. True, some people deal with conflict better than others, but dishonesty is not an option if we are to develop better relationships with each other. I’m convinced that the same goes for our relationship with God.

Perhaps no verse summarizes this better than Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.” (I think the idea of the words ‘boldly’ and ‘throne’ being in the same sentence should be more striking than we often appreciate.)

I believe I can approach God with such ‘boldness’ and honesty precisely because I believe He is who He says He is! Let us be people characterised by trust. So much that our trust is evidenced in our honesty toward God and each other.