This new series by Bible Gateway and Mel Lawrenz is called “How to Understand the Bible.” Over 30 weeks we will cover questions about the content of the Bible and interpreting and applying the Bible. We’ll look at the way we should read everything from historical stories to Psalms to prophecy to Gospels to Revelation. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along, encourage them to learn more and sign up to receive the series via email.
If you walked into someone’s home, picked a big book off a shelf, and read a single line on a random page, one thing is certain: you would not understand it. That is because we receive meaning through words by seeing them in their context.
One of the most helpful things we can do to understand the Bible better is to gain a clear comprehension of the whole sweep of the biblical text. To see “the big picture.” Grabbing a verse here and there for life meaning is like saying to God that we will only listen to him if he uses Twitter to send us tweets.
No, the Bible is a vast, epic story. The story of God, and the story of humanity.
The Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call “The Old Testament”) are a collection of writings that dozens of authors wrote over hundreds of years. It is breathtaking. The books of the Old Testament include history, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, and law.
The Pentateuch (“five books”)—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—tell the story of beginnings. The creation of the universe, the fall of humanity into sin and corruption, the development of humanity. We learn about the character of God, a personal God who uses a particular family to show how he would work through covenant. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Out of love God delivered this people from slavery (Exodus), gave them definition for life (the commandments and laws), and brought them eventually to a land of their own.
The 12 books of history that follow (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther) continue the story of God with humanity. This is not history in the modern sense of facts and statistics. It is a true drama filled with tenderness and violence, success and failure, faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Hundreds of thousands of descendants of Abraham enter the land of promise, they struggle to live under God’s authority since the lure of sin is always so strong. So they install a king and a government like the other nations. But after merely three generations, the kingdom becomes divided and the following 200 years are full of disappointments broken up with occasional revivals. Eventually the superpowers from the regions to the northeast—Assyria and then Babylonia—sweep down on the divided kingdom. They destroy, they exile. But after five decades, small numbers of Hebrews are allowed to return to rebuild their community and their nation.
Next, we have the books of Poetry and Wisdom: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The authors of these books let loose praise, anguish, affirmation, and longing. We learn much here about what is in the human heart, and in the heart of God.
The books called the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and the 12 Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) include prophetic oracles, history, and poetry. Kings and governments are not the answer to human chaos, so God uses the prophets to confront, instruct, and guide the people of God.
Four hundred years after the last book of the Old Testament, human history is transformed with the emergence of Jesus the Messiah. The four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell the story of Jesus both as personal history and as expressions of faith. They are “gospel,” good news. Luke continues the story by telling the dramatic events in the mission of Jesus’ designated representatives in the Acts of the apostles. The promise made to Abraham 2,000 years earlier, that through his family “all the nations of the earth would be blessed” is dramatically revealed for the first time as the message about Jesus spreads across empires and continents.
The letters the apostle Paul wrote to Christian communities and individuals and the “general epistles” of the New Testament contain fresh new teachings about life, usually in response to problems. They also reveal the character of God, now viewed from the higher plane of revelation following the pouring out of the Spirit of God.
The book of Revelation both fascinates and puzzles us. Its kaleidoscope of oracles and judgments and images knocks us out of complacency. But Revelation is also a book of comfort. God sets things right. And so things come full circle. From garden to paradise.
This is “the big picture.” In it we will find harsh truths and life-giving truths, but only as we read them in the light of the great reality of God.
Next time: “What About Bible Translations?”
Care to offer feedback this week?
Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.
Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.