The Bible means many things to many people. Some read it daily to receive encouragement and guidance. Some read it occasionally, perhaps when crisis occurs, like the loss of a family member, a job, or a close relationship. And some have not read the Bible at all, or at least they have not read it in years. It remains an unused treasure, collecting layers of dust on a shelf somewhere at home.
If we wish to become devoted disciples of Jesus, however, we must learn to know the Bible intimately. In our Essential Truths course, we describe the Bible as “God’s Story that has the power to shape our story.” In that course, we argued that the Scriptures are God’s inspired word for us, given to make a difference in our lives, reshaping us into the image of Christ. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12
1. A Story of Many Stories
God has chosen to speak this Word to us in a long history of interactions with His people. Because He deals with real people in this history, His Word becomes the story of these interactions. The central plot of this story centers on Jesus.
God takes thousands of years to build this story, preparing us for the arrival of His Son in the humble town of Bethlehem. Jesus is born and raised as a young Jewish man, lives a short thirty-something life, dies an unjust death on a cross, and then rises again to launch a new phase in the revelation of God’s eternal kingdom. Then for another 60 years or so, selected, inspired disciples of Jesus tell His story and draw out the implications of His story for all of us, for all time, in all cultures.
This grand and glorious story permeates the scriptures. It is told through countless smaller stories, stories that overlap, intersect, and color one another. The story of Abraham winds into the story of Moses, which gradually leads into the story of King David, whose descendants rebel. This rebellion in turn causes God to call several great prophets who warn of judgments that pour out over the next several centuries, until at last David’s Kingdom almost seems to disappear. Then, however, we hear about a Son of David who will one day restore that kingdom, a Son later revealed to be Jesus of Nazareth, who is crucified, risen and coming again as King of Kings.
Like multicolored threads woven through a beautiful, intricate tapestry, each episode in this broad, sweeping story has its own set of stories that shape and inform the larger picture. Here, in the weave and turn of all these stories, we discover the sheer joy of Bible study.
You may remember the popular PBS mini-series called Downton Abbey. Each episode details the complex lives of an upper-class English family and their servants, as traditional cultures clash with modern change. The casual observer could enjoy something of the story by watching a single episode. But the real fun began when you stuck with the story over many episodes, where each character’s story develops from week to week, informing the larger story of joy, crisis, and change.
This example gives us just a small glimmer of the joy that awaits the student of the Bible, as he or she follows the rich textures of countless stories through centuries of change as the narrative builds to a glorious finale in the person of Jesus.
2. Two Big Questions
So how do we jump into all these stories and begin to sort out what they mean for us today? We are ultimately looking for Timeless Truths, truths that can cross from these ancient stories into our own stories, truths that apply to all people, in all times, in all cultures. How do these truths emerge from the Biblical stories? What process can we use to discern these truths?
We recommend that you begin with two basic questions:
- What Did God Say?
- What Does It Mean for Us Today?
2.1. What Did God Say?
First, we begin with a simple question: What did God say? Or, to be more precise, what did God say to the original hearers and readers of His word?
2.1.1. The Original Setting of the Story
To answer this question well, we must get a sense of the original setting in which the Biblical stories were first told. What were the cultural, religious, economic, and political questions of the day? What do we know about the time and place where the events took place? How did people speak, work, struggle and enjoy life with one another? Since God revealed Himself within this ancient context, through stories told to ancient people, we must know something about this context to fully understand the original meaning of the story. Scholars therefore refer to the historical and cultural context of a biblical passage.
Look, for example, at this text written by the Apostle Paul to a church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. He says that:
“…[E]very woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head….” 1 Corinthians 11:5
To understand this text, we must enter this ancient Greek world. What sort of head covering did women wear in those days? Why were they worn? What does it mean that women were praying or prophesying in early public worship services? All these questions help us to discover what God originally says to these early readers of Paul’s letter.
Then, and only then, can we begin to understand what God is saying to us today. If we skip this first step, and rush to apply the text too quickly in our time, we may impose arbitrary, unnecessary restrictions on a woman’s participation worship. Head coverings in our contemporary cultures, for example, may not mean the same thing that they meant in ancient cultures, so why would we “force fit” this ancient cultural custom in our modern world?
At first glance, this need to understand the ancient historical and cultural context of the Bible can be discouraging, but the challenge is not as daunting as we might imagine. Thankfully, many wise scholars have provided tools to help us sort all of this out. Fortunately, we do not all have to become seminary-trained scholars to understand what the Bible truly says.
2.1.2. The “Flow” of the Story
But there is also another type of context. As we mentioned above, the Bible tells a story through many related stories. To successfully understand one story, therefore, we must see how it fits with these related stories. Scholars call this the literary context of a passage.
For example, when reading the story of Moses, it is helpful to know that the people of Israel found themselves in Egypt because of one of Moses’s ancestors, a man by the name of Joseph, who rose from slavery to become one of the leaders in this foreign land and who brought his relatives there to provide for them during a time of famine. (See Genesis 47-48)
This also applies to speeches, letters, and arguments in scripture. They too have a literary context. We must examine each part of the argument in relation to the bigger point being made. For example, when the Apostle Paul presents God’s wonderful promises in Romans, chapter 8, he is building on a foundation of truth that he has laid down in chapters 1-7.
2.1.3. The Language of the Story
One final note about determining what God originally said in His story. Because He chose to speak through generations of historical people, He used languages that most of us no longer understand. We must therefore consider the language of the story. Most of the Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew, and all but a few words of the New Testament were written in a common form of ancient Greek.
Thankfully, however, gifted scholars have given us a wealth of contemporary English translations to choose from, and we will recommend some good translations in Bible Reading – Part 2.
2.2. What Does It Mean for Us Today?
2.2.1. Looking for Timeless Truths
After we have done our best, then, to determine what God said to the original readers and hearers of His word, we can ask the big ‘So What’ question: What does this ancient story mean for us today? How will God’s Story shape my story?
As we stated earlier, at this point in our study, we are looking for “Timeless Truths”, truths that apply to all people, in all times, in all cultures. As we examine what God says to the original hearers and readers of scripture, we can begin to see common teachings that permeate the entire Bible. A bigger picture and a larger worldview begin to emerge. This larger view helps us see:
- God: His Nature and Work
- Humanity: Our Nature and Purpose
- Creation: Its Nature and Purpose
- Sin: Its Nature and Effect
- Jesus: The God/Man who is Lord and Savior
As these big, sweeping themes of the Bible come into focus, we can start to understand how these individual passages of scripture apply to us in our world.
2.2.2. Our Example from Paul’s Letter
What, then, can we say are the Timeless Truths that emerge from Paul’s teaching, cited above, regarding a woman wearing a head covering while praying or prophesying?
In the literary context of this passage, Paul is discussing the fact that both men and women ought to act appropriately while participating together in worship. In the ancient Jewish culture, men and women worshipped separately, but now, in a new Christian context, both genders worshipped together in the same room. This could create a bit of a scandal in a culture where not only men and women, but also Jewish and Gentile disciples now met together in a new worship setting! So, in this potentially combustible setting, Paul urges his ancient readers to conduct themselves with an appropriate degree of modesty, given the standards of the day, in this new worship context.
A Timeless Truth in this passage, therefore, deals less with head coverings and more with the larger issue of appropriate worship where both genders are attending. Both men and women must dress and behave modestly in public worship, so that they will not distract one another from focusing on God. Worship must be about Him, not about us!
2.2.3. Stating the Big Idea
So then, we would say that the Big Idea of this passage is that:
Men and women must dress and behave appropriately when they worship together.
This is our way of stating in plain language a Timeless Truth that emerges from this passage. This truth applies to all people, at all times, in all cultures.
Every time we study the Bible, then, our goal should be to walk away with a ‘Big Idea’. We define a Big Idea as:
A brief statement
that summarizes a Timeless Truth
emerging from a passage of the Bible,
expressed in plain, simple language.
The more you study the Bible, the easier these Big Ideas will jump out at you from the text. They will eventually provide a new worldview for you, providing ongoing correction, comfort, and challenge as you faithfully follow and serve Jesus.
Obviously, we have just begun to scratch the surface of Bible study in this session, but we hope we have given you a few foundational principles to get you started. In our next session, we will get more practical. What are some concrete steps we can take to grow in our discipline of reading the Bible? But, in the meantime, we pray that God will lead you even deeper in your relationship with Jesus.
- Choose a passage in scripture, and summarize in one paragraph, “What Did God Say?” Remember you should first discern what God says, before you decide how to apply it. If you need a place to start, read Mark 4:21-25.
- After completing the previous step, now write a “Big Idea” statement that expresses a Timeless Truth, a truth that applies to all people, in all times, in all cultures.
- Discuss your reflections with someone else, either in a group or one-on-one.