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Blog / 8 Questions To Ask When Reading the Bible: An Interview with Matthew S. Harmon

8 Questions To Ask When Reading the Bible: An Interview with Matthew S. Harmon

Matthew S. HarmonWhat are the questions you should ask every time you read the Bible so that you can understand what you’re reading and apply the Scripture passage’s lessons to your everyday life?

Bible Gateway interviewed Matthew S. Harmon (@DocHarmon) about his book, Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible (Crossway, 2017).

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Download this free Bible study summary page of four questions for understanding the Bible and four questions for applying Bible lessons to your life. Then print and stick it in your Bible for easy reference. Also download and print this free bookmark to put in your Bible.

Why is reading the Bible—something so important to the Christian life—so hard sometimes?

Matthew S. Harmon: I think there are several reasons that reading the Bible can be so challenging. The first is that the Bible is a big book that talks about so many different things. So we can be unsure what kinds of things we should focus on. A second challenge is that the Bible has several kinds of literature (narrative, law, proverbs, poetry, prophecy, letters, etc.) that we’re not always sure how to understand. On top of that is a third challenge: the Bible is set in a very different world from today. So how do we take what the Bible says and apply it to our lives today?

How is the Bible both a divine and a human book?

Matthew S. Harmon: Every word of the Bible “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It can be hard for us to wrap our minds around how every book in the Bible was not only written by the human author, but also by God himself. Peter describes this reality when he writes that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). God spoke through the unique personalities of each human author to move them to write down what God wanted to communicate in the exact words God wanted the human author to use.

Why is it important to know that the Bible is comprised of stories and how they fit together?

Matthew S. Harmon: As Christians it’s essential that we know the main storyline of the Bible that stretches from Genesis to Revelation. Every story in the Bible fits somehow into that larger story.

I find the analogy of a TV series helpful. The main story of the Bible is like the overall plot of the TV series, and each individual story in the Bible is like an individual episode in that TV series. Sure, you can make sense of an individual episode if you haven’t seen the whole TV series. But you’ll likely miss out on the larger significance of events, characters, and themes. The same is true of the Bible.

What do you mean the Bible is not written to us but for us?

Matthew S. Harmon: None of us are ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness under Moses’s leadership. None of us are sixth-century (BC) Jews living in exile in Babylon. None of us are first-century (AD) Romans, Ephesians, or Philippians. So in that sense the Bible is not written to us as modern day believers. But, the Bible is absolutely written for us as God’s people today. Romans 15:4 states, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The words that God inspired the biblical authors to write to others were written for us to instruct us and to produce encouragement, perseverance, and hope. Recognizing this distinction can help prevent us from making serious mistakes when applying the Bible to our lives.

What’s the basic pattern of Christian living that the Bible lays out?

Matthew S. Harmon: At the center of the Christian life is a basic pattern of repentance from sin and faith in Christ and his promises. They’re not only the entry point into the Christian life, but the ongoing pattern of our experience as believers. Although repentance is something God calls people to do (Isa. 55:6–7; Joel 2:12–13), it’s also mysteriously a gift from God (Acts 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:24–26). The same is true of faith. We’re responsible to believe in Christ and his promises (Ps. 37:3–5; Prov. 3:5–6), yet faith is also described as a gift from God (Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:1). The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin (John 16:7–11), which enables us to turn away from it and instead turn towards greater faith in Christ and his promises.

Explain the four foundational questions a person should ask when reading the Bible.

Matthew S. Harmon: The four foundational questions flow out of what Jesus identified as the two greatest commandments: love God with our whole being, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). In light of these two commandments, here are four questions to ask when reading any passage of the Bible:

  1. What do we learn about God?
  2. What do we learn about people?
  3. What do we learn about relating to God?
  4. What do we learn about relating to others?

What’s the danger of taking a verse out of its context and applying it to modern life? And how should a Bible reader avoid doing that?

Matthew S. Harmon: The meaning of words and sentences depends on their context. Yet often when people read the Bible they take an individual verse out its context and as a result they either misunderstand what it means or how it applies to daily life. That’s why it’s so valuable to read larger passages of Scripture at a time. So instead of reading an individual verse, read an entire chapter, or several chapters for that matter. That way when a particular verse catches your attention, you can easily look at the surrounding context to make sure you’ve understood it correctly.

What’s a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Matthew S. Harmon: It’s so hard to pick one! Galatians 2:20 has always been dear to me: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I simply can’t get over the fact that Christ loved me enough to die for me and rise from the dead for me. And as if that weren’t enough, he now lives inside of me to empower me to live for his glory!

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Matthew S. Harmon: I love how Bible Gateway allows me to access so many different translations of the Bible. There are so many helpful resources to help people read, understand, study, and apply the Bible. I regularly recommend it to my students!

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Matthew S. Harmon: There’s no other book like the Bible. My prayer is that God will fill our churches and our communities with people who find his Word more desirable than the finest gold and sweeter than the sweetest honey (Ps 19:10). As we see Christ more clearly in the Bible, we’ll be transformed so that we more closely reflect his beauty and his glory (2 Cor. 3:18).

Bio: Matthew S. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College) is professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He was previously on staff with Cru for eight years and is the author of several books, including Jeremiah: A 12-Week Study, and Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church. Matthew and his wife, Kate, live in Warsaw, Indiana, and have two sons.

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Filed under Bible, Bible Study, Books, Interviews, Introduction to the Bible, Literacy