I’ve been walking this thing out for a little over eight years now. In that time, I have probably read the Bible about 10-12 times, reading certain books an easy 20-30 times. When I first came into the faith, I knew nothing. I didn’t even realize that there were different authors and different books in the Bible. I thought it would be like a Harry Potter novel. So, in my not-knowing-ness, and in my zeal to learn, I started joining a lot of Bible studies. I downloaded a ton of sermons. I watched a lot of youtube videos. I subscribed to a lot of iTunesU courses. In all of that, here are three principles that I have rarely heard mentioned.
1) The Bible is one book. We already know this. Yet, in some sense, we don’t know this. For example, when we talk about such and such book, we usually refer to who is writing it. It definitely matters that we’re reading the Gospel of John as opposed to the Gospel of Matthew, because John focuses upon different aspects, and uses a different language. It becomes incredibly obvious when reading that just because Paul uses the word ‘law’, it doesn’t necessitate that the words means the same thing as in Matthew 5:17. So as important as it is to know who is writing and the language that they use, it is equally as important to know that it is all one book.
We have divided the Bible into all sorts of categories. There is the Old Testament and the New Testament. There is the Torah. There are the historical books. There are the poetic literature. There are the prophetic books. There are the synoptic Gospels. There is the Johannine books. There are the Pauline epistles. The list goes on, and even within these categories there are subcategories, and etcetera. These categories help to an extent, but they really don’t help when we lose sight that the Old Testament isn’t saying anything different than the New, and the New isn’t saying anything different than the Old. Paul isn’t saying anything different than Peter, and Peter is repeating Jesus, and Jesus non-stop quoted the Old Testament.
The cycle repeats. We find over and over agains that the same revelation is being given. The same account is being recorded. All of Scripture is speaking one message. It is all pointing to one thing: God desires to dwell on earth with His people. From Genesis 2 all the way through Revelation 22, we find that God walks upon the earth in various ways. He manifests Himself in different ways. Depending on the time in history, the context of who the manifestation comes to, and the purpose for that manifestation, it differs. The whole time, God is progressing forward. We find in Genesis 2-3 that God walked with Adam in the Garden. We find in Revelation 21-22 that God lives with humanity unadulteratedly. Between those two points is a cosmic purpose of God to be able to live with humanity without the need to cover His glory. All of Scripture fits into that progression somehow.
2) Jesus and the Twelve were Jewish. Once again, this seems rather obvious. Yet, why is it that when we read the Old Testament, we can say that they were Hebrews, and then when we come to the New Testament, suddenly our Greek mindsets and understanding are used to tell us what Jesus and the apostles said? The cultural context matters. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. When a rabbi debates, he responds with questions and quotations of the Scripture. Then, the opponent sees the verse that is being quoted or questioned about, knows the whole context of that verse or phrase, and then is able to respond with another question or quotation of Scripture in return. This goes on for hours. They knew the Tanakh (Old Testament) by heart.
So, for example, if someone asked what it means that we should not covet our neighbors house or property, we should be able to know that they are quoting Deuteronomy 5 because Exodus 20:17 does not contain that particular word (property). Because we caught the reference, we know the emphasis is upon coveting property, and can then respond accordingly. This is why Jesus quotes Scripture and answers with questions repeatedly. Similarly, we find often that the apostles did the same.
Our mindsets matter. The understanding that the apostles speak forth does not come from the Greek philosophers, but rather from the Hebrew poets and prophets. It is then our job to study those Hebrew poets and prophets to come to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew mindset – and to then interpret the New Testament according to that mindset.
3) Story over chronology. When I was first reading the Bible, I couldn’t help but notice that the chronology of the Gospels didn’t match. For example, Jesus enters Jerusalem in Matthew, Mark, and Luke at the end of His ministry and drives out the money changers. Yet, when we get to John, the same scene is in chapter 2. For a long time I actually believed that this just happened twice. I started to notice other inconsistencies. Matthew 4 says Jesus was tempted with three temptations, and in Luke 4 the same three appear, but in different order.
What is the purpose of this? The authors are focusing upon the point of the story. When they write, they have a certain point in mind. Matthew over and over again is speaking of the Kingdom of Heaven. Everything in Matthew shows the Kingdom. So, when something is placed in a different part of the story compared to Mark, Luke, or John, the reason is most likely because Matthew is making a point regarding the Kingdom. Sometimes the words or teachings of Jesus are mashed together, or separated, in order to make these kinds of points.
The book of Revelation commits this conundrum constantly. Everything in Revelation is about contrast. There is the New Jerusalem, and then there is Babylon. There is the Lamb, and then there is the Beast. There are the 144,000 sealed, and then there are the countless masses who receive the mark of the beast. There are the seven churches and the seven angels of the churches, then there are the seven heads of the Beast and the ten crowns. So, when we read the book of Revelation, we need to find the patterns and match them together. We find that Revelation 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18 all speak of the same language: flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and hail.
When we read our Bibles, these details matter. We need to pay attention to the overall story. We need to pay attention to the Hebraic mindset. We need to pay attention to the purpose of each book. Themes that repeat through the letters of Paul, or phrases that continue to come up in the book of Isaiah, or the certain kind of wording that keeps getting used in John’s writings should be paid close attention to. These three things have caused for me to better understand the Bible in the last several years – more than ever before. I hope that they will also help you as you continue to read, study, and pray.