This article is about how to read the Bible and practice personal Bible study.

2014. 14 pages. Transcribed by Jeanette de Vente. Transcription started at 1:40 and stopped at 1:04:40.

How to Read the Bible School of Theology Series: Lecture 6

Tonight I want to give a number of clues, essentially, to how it is that we ought to approach the Bible and the principles by which we should study the Bible, read the Bible personally.


First thing to say is this. By way of illustration, earlier on this morning I was in my study at home. I came downstairs, I pulled a pile of books off the kitchen table where I had been looking at them at breakfast time, and Dorothy said to me, “Are you getting rid of these books at last?” I said, “No, I really just came down to get my Bible, because” (I said naively) “since I have bought it, I might as well use it.” Since I have bought it, I might as well use it. But perhaps that is the most important thing that I can say tonight: you do not learn to read the Bible by not reading the Bible. And you don’t actually learn to read the Bible by coming to lectures on “How to Read the Bible.” It is like learning to eat. How do you learn to eat? You don’t read cookery books. You don’t ring somebody up on your cell phone and you say, “How do I get from the cookery book to the food? Because it is the food that I really want to eat.” And so tonight it is about how we get to eat the food, how we get to use the Bible. We might not immediately think about this, but it is not exactly rocket science that if we want to learn how to read the Bible, it is just possible the Bible itself might have something to teach us about how to read the Bible.

The Value of Scripture🔗

I think one of the most amazing things I find in the Christian church today is that people think the Bible is there to tell you how to get saved and then you are on your own. But the Bible is here to give us instruction about everything we do for the glory of God. It gives us principles by which to live. And so the Scriptures speak about the value of Scripture (and here I am thinking about 2 Timothy 3:16-17). We think about those words essentially as emphasizing the inspiration of Scripture (“all Scripture is God-breathed”) and therefore the authority of Scripture (if it is God-breathed, it speaks with the authority of God). But Paul’s real concern here is to teach us what Scripture is for. And this is why at the end of this little section in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 he emphasizes that it has a four-fold use, a four-fold purpose. And that teaches us right at the beginning. If we just closed with the benediction, signed the doxology and went home tonight, it would give us a very important but simple way of approaching our Bible reading. If this book is to provide teaching, if it is to reprove my conscience, if it is to transform and correct my life (which is vocabulary from the medical field in which you might correct something that was distorted in the human body), and if it is meant to equip me for Christian service, one of the things that I am going to be doing when I come to any and every passage of Scripture is to ask the question: How is this passage of Scripture useful for any, or indeed all, of those four things? And Paul is laying this out in the context in which he speaks about the value of Scripture.

The Importance of How we Study Scripture🔗

Second thing to say by way of introduction is how important it is to know how to study Scripture. Notice what Paul says here in 2 Timothy 2:15. He is speaking to Timothy about the way he handles Scripture. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.” And there are these two elements here that I think it is important for us to get hold of. He speaks about being a workman. That is a great challenge to us. Are you working at Scripture? The Scriptures do not yield their treasures to people who are not prepared to mine in the Scriptures. So getting to know the Bible, learning by practice how to read the Bible does not happen to those who are lazy. One of my favorite proverbs is the proverb about the slothful man, the sluggard who reaches his hand out into the bowl to get the food, but he so lazy he just can’t be bothered bringing the food back to his mouth. And it is a very telling proverb when it comes to the food in Scripture, isn’t it? It speaks about the importance of working at it. And that means setting time aside for it; doing it in a disciplined way.

But not only that, but handling the word of God properly. And that is what we are going to spend most of our time on this evening. Handling the word of God properly. Paul says, again to Timothy, that since Scripture is useful for these four things in our lives, one of the things we need to do (he’s writing the authoritative voice of God): “Think over what I say, and the Lord will give you understanding.” So our posture, as we learn to read the Bible and to study the Bible, is that in reading it we meditate on it. And in meditating on it, we are not only fixing our eyes on the pages of the text, but we are lifting our heart to the Holy Spirit to ask Him to help us to understand it, and especially to help us to apply it.

But since Paul speaks about rightly handling the Word of God, it carries the implication that it is possible for us wrongly to handle the Word of God. Remember how Peter speaks about this in 2 Peter 3:16-17 (a passage that appeared earlier on in a quite different context), where he refers to Paul’s letters and places them in the category of Scripture. He says, “You must know that there are people who distort the teaching of the Scriptures that God is giving to the Church through the apostle Paul.” And if ever there was a day in which we can be conscious of that, just because of the explosion of the media—whether it be radio or television or the newspapers or websites or all that you can download from the World Wide Web—it is all the more important for us to learn rightly to handle the Word of God.

The Bible can be understood. And these challenges, I think, can be fairly daunting. Perhaps as Derek Thomas has worked his way through the first part of our study of Christian doctrine you found that daunting. The important thing for us to underscore here is that God did not give the Scriptures for rocket scientists. He did not give the Scriptures for university graduates. There were very few people for whom and to whom the original Scriptures were written who had any kind of education at all. Many of those who first were given the New Testament were slaves. Some of them had very low levels of education. And the principle that is enunciated in Scripture just by the way Scripture speaks is that if we approach the Scriptures appropriately, then the Scriptures will disclose their meaning and their significance to us, in a way that (as Paul says) will really begin to transform our lives.

And this is one of the things for which Derek Thomas has referred on several occasions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and especially to the first chapter. It is wonderfully brought out there in the first chapter that everything we need in order to be able to glorify God is down in Scripture or may be deduced from Scripture, and with the help of the Holy Spirit we can come to a clear understanding of what God is saying in his Word. Notice particularly the words that we find in section seven of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession. It tells us that what we need to know or believe or observe for our salvation is clearly propounded, expounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, “that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” That is to say, you do not need to go to a theological seminary (although theological seminaries sometimes are good things) to become an expert in the teaching of Scripture and knowledgeable of what it is and how it works. Just speaking from a purely personal point of view, I went to by and large a very liberal theological seminary where by and large they had no interest in us knowing the Scriptures as the Word of God. And many gospel ministers have been in that situation. Some of the ministers you have most admired will not have gone to conservative theological seminaries (and their names are popping into some of your minds), so how did they learn how to handle Scripture the way they handle it? In exactly the same way you would do: by coming to it, seeking the help of the Holy Spirit, and using what the Westminster Confession calls the “ordinary means” of understanding the Scriptures.

Now, let me try and unpack what those ordinary means might be. Notice some of the points [in the handout] that give us a summary of what we have discussed so far, especially the fourth point: The central teaching of the Bible can be understood by a simple, disciplined, use of the means God has given us to interpret them. But just as a word of warning, notice what is said in section nine of the first chapter of the Confession: That we interpret Scripture by Scripture, and “the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” It is that point—that the meaning of Scripture is one—that I think is important for us. Because probably some of us have been brought up in a context—it may be a church context, it may be the kind of teaching that we have listened to, it may be the kind of preaching that we have heard—that by and large approaches the Bible as though its real meaning was hidden in some higher level of reality.

I have given an illustration there of a famous exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the author of the exposition (one of the most famous individuals in the early Christian church) goes down through the parable and tells you what it really means. And by the time you have worked your way down through that list, you will discover that the parable means something quite different from what apparently Jesus thought it meant. What Jesus thought it meant was: here was a man who showed mercy. Because the question he asks at the end of the parable is, “Which of these men proved to be the neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” and the answer is, “Surely the one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “The whole point of this is: you go and do the same thing.” It’s something very clever, because the man has said, “Who is my neighbor?” Can I limit them to the people who come on a Wednesday night? Are these my neighbors? And that’s not the real issue. As long as you know who is your neighbor and who is not your neighbor, you never grasp what the gospel does. So Jesus’ question is not, “Who was the neighbor of the Samaritan?” Jesus question was, “Who proved to be the neighbor?” And the man said it was the one who showed mercy. Jesus says, “The whole point of this parable—you have grasped it. So you go and do the same.”

So this parable has nothing whatsoever to do with: the man falling among thieves symbolizing Adam; Jerusalem symbolizing paradise; Jericho symbolizing the world; the Samaritan symbolizing Christ; the wounds symbolizing disobedience; the inn being the church; the two coins symbolizing the sacraments; the innkeeper as the head of the church; and the neighbour’s return being the return of Jesus Christ. You may even have heard a sermon preached like that, and you have gone out thinking, “Wow! I never saw that in the parable of the Good Samaritan!” And there is a simple reason: because it isn’t in the parable of the Good Samaritan; it is in the imagination of the preacher’s mind!

But I think in our subculture many of us have had influences on our lives where we feel like: “I can’t get to these deep truths that this man is presenting.” My favorite actually, while I am thinking about it, comes from the Old Testament Scriptures from 2 Samuel 9:13. “Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s table. He was lame in both feet.” Now, what is that about? Well according to some expositions: the fact that the text says, “He was lame” means this is about depravity; the fact that it says, “He was lame in both feet” means that the Bible teaches total depravity; the fact that he lived in Jerusalem is really a picture of justification; the fact that he had his meals at the king’s table is teaching us the doctrine of adoption; and the fact that he ate there continually teaches us the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Now, all of these doctrines are true, but none of these teachings have got anything whatsoever to do with this text of Scripture.

Which is why the Westminster divines, in concert with wise Christians in every age, are saying: just see what the text is actually saying. Don’t try to look underneath it for what is hidden or for what is above it that might knock the socks of people if you explained it to them. Just listen to what it is actually saying. Of course, that is the real challenge, isn’t it? It is the most difficult thing in the world (for most of us) just to listen to what the text is saying, because we tend to tell it what it should be saying, or we tend to read it simply in the light of what we know. And so learning to read the Bible is not a “one session on a Wednesday night” activity. Learning to read the Bible is a lifelong activity of allowing the teaching of Scripture to challenge and to reshape the way in which we think. And if we are going to do that, then I want to suggest there are a few principle things that we need to grasp. And here I have listed five of them.

Is There a Key?🔗

First question: is there a key? This is kind of obvious. When you read any book, the key thing is: what is this book about? And sometimes we can be so deficient there, can’t we? Actually, often. I find often when Bible readers read the Bible in the morning, the only thing they want to know is: what is God saying to me today? And I want very gently to suggest to you that that isn’t what the Bible is for. It is not a book of little hints as to how you get through the day. It is a book with a message that shapes and encompasses the whole of your life. And it is that that we really need to learn when we read the Scriptures.

Well, first of all, is there are key? Answer: yes. Jesus provides us with the key to understanding the Bible. John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures” (He says to the Jews) “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Now, what is the key point here? He is saying: the Scriptures are actually about me. The whole of the Scriptures are about Jesus. Miss that and actually I could gain a lot of bits of knowledge about the Scriptures, but I wouldn’t have grasped what the Scriptures are really all about.

And later on, when they ran back, the other disciples were gathered there and Jesus appeared—how marvellously Luke says that Jesus then “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” And he did exactly the same thing. He went through the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms, and showed them how they pointed to his coming and his death and his resurrection—the theme that Paul picks up when he writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14-15. “From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”

So our first principle is this: Is there a key? What is the book about? Answer: the book is about Jesus. And alongside what we have learned from 2 Timothy 3, that introduces another element, doesn’t it? That as we study the Scriptures, at the back of our minds is always going to be this question: How is this passage connected to Jesus? And how is Jesus connected to this passage of Scripture? Now, that is the key.

Unlocking the Bible as a Whole🔗

Then we want to move on secondly to unlocking the Bible as a whole. That is what stands in the centre—we are looking for Jesus. In the Old Testament we are looking for the way in which it points forwards to Jesus, and it does that in many different ways. In the New Testament we are looking to see how the New Testament points backwards to Jesus and upwards to Jesus and forwards to Jesus. So that at the end of the day, we get to know the Lord Jesus better, and by getting to know Him better, become more and more like Him. Because the Bible is a book that has a specific goal; it is an instrument in God’s hands to make us more like our Lord Jesus. But where does this fit into the whole story? Well, the Bible begins with Genesis 1 and it ends with Revelation 22. It begins with God and creation and it ends with God and a new creation. And from beginning to end, there is a major character—God Himself, revealing Himself as Father and Son and Holy Spirit—and there is a plotline that runs through the whole of the Bible. And it is this plotline that I think is so important for us to grasp. Actually, within the plot there is a plot. And within the plot within the plot there are other plots. And all of them together add to our sense of the riches of the teaching of Scripture.

The Plot Line🔗

The biggest story. So actually, the first thing to grasp is what I have called the biggest story. The biggest story of all. What is the biggest story? The biggest story is that God made the cosmos for his glory, he placed man at the center of that cosmos as his image, and he placed man in a temple garden. The Garden of Eden was a temple. It was the place where God and man met with each other—Adam walking in the cool of the day with God. And one of the reasons we know it is right to call it a temple is when we read about the tabernacle and later about Solomon’s temple, in both of these constructions there are strong echoes of the Garden of Eden. They are hints to us to say there is the Jerusalem temple, there was the movable temple, but there was originally the garden temple. And the call that was given to Adam was this: “Adam, I want you to expand the walls of this temple until they fill the whole earth, so that throughout the whole earth my glory might be displayed and my name might be honored.” And presumably that meant there would be children, and they would extend the garden a little further, and so it would go until the whole earth was a garden for God’s glory. And of course, Genesis 3 tells us how Adam disastrously failed. Genesis 4, how his family was dysfunctional and in disarray, and the whole story goes on until you get to the end of the story.

And the end of the story is in Revelation 21 and 22. And what is it about? It is actually about a garden temple. The New Jerusalem comes down. And if you have read Revelation 21 and 22, the description of it is like a description of Eden. There is a river running through it. It is a beautiful garden. The trees fructify every single month of the year. The really interesting point is this: we are told quite deliberately in this new garden there is no temple. Why? Because everything is temple! That is the whole point. What Adam failed to do and lost, God has restored and finalized through our Lord Jesus Christ. That is why the book of Revelation is called the “Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, which he gave to his servant John.” And that is the great big picture. This, I believe, is why in John 20, on the morning of the resurrection when Mary meets Jesus in the garden of death, John slips this in: She thought he was what? The gardener! And she was only half wrong, because his resurrection—remember how he spoke about his body being the temple that would resurrect?—was, as it were, the very beginning of this new creation that God was bringing into being. Which the book of Revelation tells us at the end of the day will fill the cosmos with the glory of God. That is the biggest story.

The bigger story. The bigger story that fits into that big story is the story that is described after the Fall in Genesis 3:15. This, as we keep on saying, is one of the most important statements in the whole of the Bible. The rest of the Bible is actually about Genesis 3:15, when God says: I will bring a curse upon the serpent, in order to bring a blessing upon the man. And you’ll notice, if you reflect on Genesis 3:15, that there are three things here. First of all, there is the declaration of a conflict between the serpent and the woman. There is a description of its continuity—it will go on between her offspring and the serpent’s offspring. And there is a description of a climax—this conflict that will go on in continuity will come to a climax when he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. Now, what he has been speaking about is the continuity of the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. But now it comes to a climax in the personal conflict between the seed of the woman—and you just need to think about how that word flows through the Bible to realize that ultimately it comes to its consummation in the Lord Jesus—whose heel is crushed even as (Paul puts it) he overcomes Satan and makes a public show of him on the cross.

Now, if we are to understand how the Bible works when we read it, we have to have these three elements in place. There is a conflict, and it runs through the Bible. It is continuous. And this conflict is moving towards a climax that we find in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so every time you see a conflict in which a child of God or the people of God are involved in the Scriptures, at first you are likely to say, “Well, that must have been sore.” But if you are going to read the Bible well, what you have to see and say is, “Oh! That is part of the conflict! That is one of the principles that holds the Bible together!” And when you see what happens to this promise that God has given of the seed, and that it’s a notion that keeps on recurring, you begin to realize, “What is happening here isn’t just an isolated instance; it is connected to what I read about earlier on in the Scriptures.” When God says to Abraham, for example, in Genesis 12, “In your seed the nations of the earth are going to be blessed,” that is not just an isolated promise. That is profoundly connected to the original promise about the seed. As we grasp some of these principles, it is a bit like a kaleidoscope. Or maybe it is more like a Rubik’s Cube. The pieces are all over the place, but once you begin to see the key to bringing them into place, the whole thing that was such a jumble actually begins to make sense.

The big story. So there is the biggest story, there is this bigger story, and then there is the big story. Which is: how is God going to bring this promise to pass? And the answer to that is (and here are two big Bible words): he plans to establish the kingdom of his grace and glory, and he means to do that by way of covenant with his people. He plans to establish his kingdom of grace and glory. That was what Adam had lost. He was given kingdom, he was given dominion (Genesis 1:26, 28), but he lost it. So God is establishing his royal dominion. What were the first words out of Jesus’ mouth when he began to preach? “The kingdom has come.” So you see the connection. And then you see how there is a kingdom built among God’s people in the Old Testament that serves as a kind of pointer to and a securing of the people for this final kingdom that God will bring in. And the way in which he does that is by making covenant pledges to his people that he will fulfill his promise to bring them salvation and restoration.

So when we read the story as a whole, in these shorter stories that we find in the Scriptures here are three things to do. One, keep your eye on the plot line. Two, ask what is happening to the (covenant) promise—because so often when you read the Scriptures, you realize the issue in a story is that the covenant promise of God has fallen to the ground. So keep your eye on the covenant promise. And then thirdly, read the narrative in the light of the ongoing conflict that has been promised here in Genesis 3:15. And if you know the book of Revelation, the book of Revelation is really the movie version of how that comes to a glorious climax in the most appalling battle, in which Jesus Christ is victorious.

Two simple examples. Now, I have given on the outline two simple illustrations of that. Let me just refer you to the first of these, and you can look at the second of them at home—although the second if them is good, isn’t it? What do we teach the children in Sunday school when we read about David and Goliath? We tend to teach them this is a story that means you little guys can beat up the big guys. It has nothing to do with little guys beating up big guys! It has to do with the conflict. It has to do with the fact that this big guy is bent on destroying the kingdom of God and God’s people. That is what it is all about! It is massively bigger than the little guy with the sling and the stones out of the river. It is about God’s kingdom and how the serpent’s seed is seeking to destroy it, but how God is keeping his covenant promise.

And the other illustration from the life of Joseph in some ways is just the same. I used to love this story when I was a kid and wasn’t a Christian, because it was one of the greatest boys’ adventure stories in the world. But you see what it is all about? It is actually about how God in his providence is going to fulfill the promise that was given in Genesis 3:15 and has narrowed down in Abraham. Abraham has been told as part of God’s covenant promise, “By the way, just by the way, you lot are going to end down in slavery. But after several generations I am going to bring you back up again.” So you see Joseph going down into Egypt and it looks like a personal disaster. And you see all the sin that is involved in that, and yet in the mystery of God’s providence it is his way of getting them down to Egypt in order that he can bring them up again at the right time for the right place. And so the experiences that Joseph personally has (and this is a very helpful thing to grasp when you read the Bible), the way Joseph is constantly being dragged down, humiliated, demeaned, virtually dead, and then is marvelously raised up—why does that happen? Because this man is holding on to the promise that is set within a conflict that will ultimately be resolved in the death and resurrection of Christ. And it is not possible to hold onto the wire without experiencing, as it were, the current running through your body. And that is why this pattern recurs again and again in the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures among believers. That the promise looks as though it is being abandoned, but it’s not! That the conflict looks as though it is being lost, but God intervenes. And the individuals we are involved look as though they are going down into the pit, but God marvelously brings them up. So that is the plot line.

Joining the Dots🔗

But in addition to the plot line, we need to learn to join the dots. And the simplest way of joining the dots is to understand that God is doing this big thing of restoring his kingdom of grace and glory by means of his covenant bond with his people. And in the outline I have listed eight or nine passages of Scripture that hold the whole of the Bible together in the way in which God enters into his covenant promise with Adam and then with Noah and then with Abraham, and what the New Testament calls the “old covenant” that was made with Moses, and then it focuses down on David and his family, and it leads to a promise of a new covenant. So that eventually, at the time of the institution of the Lord’s Supper Jesus says, “Now this blood that I am shedding is the new covenant.” This is the final covenant being fulfilled.

So grasp the big picture. Why? Because if you grasp the big picture, the little pictures begin to fit into place and they’re not just isolated stars in the sky. They are part of the whole tapestry. Have you ever been taken to an art gallery or listened to a piece of music and an expert has said, “Now, let me tell you what this whole thing is about.” And you think, “I just thought it was a man sitting at a funny box banging these black and white things. That’s all I thought it was. He’s pretty good at it. It sounded nice.” And the expert comes along and he says, “Yes, but let me put that into the picture. Let me tell you the story of that composer. Let me tell you the context in which he was composing. Let me tell you where music was before he composed. Let me tell you about the other composers he was quoting in his composition.” And then you listen to it and you think, “My, oh my! I have been listening to the Beatles, and I have been wasting my time! There is this glorious music by somebody called Bach, and I had no idea it was there!” And the Bible works the same way. Why does it work this way? Because we are human beings, and that is how we work. And so grasping the whole story is such a help to us.

Entering Each of the Rooms🔗

But then once we have grasped the whole story, there are actually books in the Bible. In our Bible there are 66 books that come at us one at a time. (Transcription of audio file from 44:14 to 44:32 omitted.) We understand that the Bible itself has a shape. The New Testament speaks about it being divided into the Law and the Prophets (remember in Luke 24) and the Psalms (which in that context probably include other books as well). That is the Jewish three-fold division essentially: the Law (the first five books of the Bible), the Prophets, and then the Writings. Now, when we come to each of these books (and we understand this well in connection with other literature), one of the helpful things for us is simply to say, “What kind of book is this?” A book that begins, “Once upon a time…” works differently from a book that begins “In 2013 the earth was covered in debris…” or one that begins “In 2012 in Colombia, South Carolina…” The first is a fairy story; the second may be a piece of science fiction; the third looks as though it might be a piece of historical reporting. These different kinds of literature work differently, and we all realize that. Your mathematics textbook works differently from the Lord of the Rings. These are two totally different kinds of literature. So one of the things we ask when we read the Bible is, “What is this I am reading?” Because although it is all bound between the same covers, they’re very different kinds of books. And I want to mention five different kinds of literature that we find in Scripture. There are more, but certainly these five give us a great start.

Narrative History🔗

First of all, there is narrative, and almost half of the Old Testament is in the form of narrative. And I think most of us think those are the books that we don’t need any help to read. And that is probably a danger signal. Because there are things that are important for us to understand about Bible narrative. One of the things we need to understand is what we have just been saying: that these are not isolated stories. They belong to the big plot. And unless we have the big plot, we might miss that as the central thing that is running through the story. Take David and Goliath again. David and Goliath is there to tell our teenage children to be big and brave. Well, I would only say that if I had actually missed the plot. But if I had grasped the plot, I would read that narrative and say: this is not just about some boy hero. This is not a superman, a super-boy story. You know, David getting his kryptonite into his little pebbles and flying around his head. There’s something more going on here. Yes, the big story is going on here!

But in all Biblical narrative, there is a kind of pattern at work. And it is basically simple. First of all, there is the historical setting—particular time, particular place. Within that context there will be a specific situation described. Within that situation (think about the context of the big plot line) a problem is going to arise. Why? Because the promise is always under attack, and the kingdom of God is always engaged in conflict. If Jesus builds His church, then the “gates of hell will seek to prevail against it.” It is the way it is in the big picture. And so I am looking for these things. I’m looking for: so what is the problem that is arising here for the people of God, for the individual, for the kingdom of God? And then of course, because God always wins in the long term, there will be the turning point. And the turning point will lead (at least temporarily) to a resolution, and that resolution often will then become the setting in history for the next situation and the next challenge and the next turning point. And so on and so forth.

An illustration from the Old Testament book of Ruth. Now, on the handout I have used the book of Ruth, which is a short narrative and a very beautiful narrative, just to give some indication of how that works. And how it is that if you read only chapter one (which is the chapter most people know) you don’t really get how this narrative fits into the big picture. You have Naomi back in Bethlehem, and if it ended there you would think, “Well, I think I can see the conflict—how this family has been wandering from the covenant promise of God by going to Moab. And now she is back, but she is back without her husband and her two sons. So it looks as though she loses, and it looks as though God loses.” But then the story goes on, and it keeps repeating this idea: there is a setting, there is a situation, there is a problem, there is a turning point, and there is a resolution. And as goes on and on to the end of the book, it is only when you read the genealogy that actually you stand back and you say, “Oh now I see how this fits into the big picture!” (Transcription of audio file from 50:47 to 51:04 omitted.) Because the genealogy tells you that this little family are ancestors of King David. And the very last word in Hebrew text of the book of Ruth is “David.” And that is actually what the book is about. Yes, it was about Ruth. Yes, it was about Naomi. Yes, it was about Elimelech. Yes, it was about the boys. But actually this is part of the big picture. This is part of the picture of David the great king. Is David the great king? And then you see, because we have the whole plot line, we know more. The author of the book of Ruth must have been living at the time of David at the earliest, because he knows this is David’s family tree. But funnily enough, we have this little white page in the middle of our Bibles, and we turn it over to the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. What do we discover? We discover this family tree at the end of the book of Ruth is Jesus’ family tree! You see? The big picture is actually essential to understanding the little pictures.

Gospels. I don’t think I will say anything in this context about Gospels, except to emphasize (since they are also narratives), almost to beg you on my hands and knees (this must seem so dumb), but when you read the Gospels, look for Jesus. Now, why do I say that? Because in my experience, when people are reading the Gospels they are looking for themselves! And if you are, I have heartbreaking news for you: you are nowhere to be found in the Gospels. You may have the same name as some people in the Gospel, but you are not in any of the Gospels. Why not? Because they are not about you! They are about Him. So when you read the Gospels, especially if you have been taught or (dare I say it?) if you have sat under a public preaching that has constantly said, “Now where are you in this Gospel story?” you have to get that baggage of your head, because the Gospel stories are not about you. If that is what you are looking for, what you will find in the Gospel stories is you. And if you have not learned from the Gospel stories, no you can save you! So look for Jesus.

Now, here is the kicker: that is actually a lot more difficult for most of us than to look for ourselves, because we are so self-obsessed. And that is what we have been taught in our sub-culture—the really important thing when you read the Gospels is how they apply to you. That would have boggled the mind of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. What they wanted us to do was to find Jesus in the Gospels. Incidentally, this is the reason why, I think, most Christians could talk much longer about themselves than they could about Jesus. And you know the sad thing? We do. Don’t we? And we are able so easily to think longer about ourselves than we are about Jesus. And part of the reason for that is that we are not listening to what the Gospels are saying. Which is like the Father saying on the Mount of Transfiguration, “This is my Son; listen to Him.”


Look at the notes on prophesy.


Look at the notes on Psalms. And especially because we all love the Psalms, it may be helpful for us to understand how so many of the Psalms work in what I have called here a “parabola shape.” And I have given an illustration there from the 102nd Psalm.


Proverbs. One of the most important things for some of us to learn about the book of Proverbs is: the book of Proverbs is not a book of promises. It is a book of proverbs. It is not giving you cast-iron guarantees. It is saying to you, “This is a really crazy and stupid world, and this is the way it works. And so you need to be prepared for things that go ‘bump in the night’, and learn how to handle an imperfect world.” So the Proverbs contain statements like, “Answer a fool according to his folly,” and then in the next breath, “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly.” Answer a fool according to his folly; don’t answer a fool according to his folly. And if you have imbibed the book of Proverbs up until that point, you say, “That is exactly what I have been doing.” That is wisdom. And that is what the book of Proverbs is for.


Two things about the Epistles. One is again the importance, as one of my friends puts it, if you are reading the letter to the Corinthians, you can’t go directly from Paul to Colombia. If you are reading Corinthians, you need first of all to go to Corinth and listen to what Paul was saying to the Corinthians before you are able to apply that to yourself.

What is the Point, and How Can I Find it?🔗

Now, I have mentioned this four-fold grid that is enlarged on page ten of the outline that is so practically helpful to us once we have begun to read the Bible in this way and are asking the question, “What is the teaching here?” And what is there in this passage that reproves me? How does it transform my thinking and my feeling? How does it train me in righteousness? How are we going to do this? Well, let me end with these three points that I think are true to Scripture.

Expository Biblical Ministry🔗

The first thing is: we are not left on our own to understand the Bible. But sometimes, I think, we might misunderstand what Paul means when he says that we “grasp the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of Christ” with all the saints. Now, you might think I am saying this just because I am a minister, but this has been said in the church for its first 1900 years. The single most important thing I need to do, if I am going to learn to read the Bible for myself, is place my life under an expository biblical ministry. Now, why do I say that? Because I am an arrogant Scottish minister? No, that is not why I say it. I say it partly from my own experience, but I say it largely because this is how most of us learn most things. If someone were to come along and give us twenty hours on the detailed principles of the exegesis of Scripture, it would go over our heads. So how do we learn most things in the Christian life? We learn most things in the Christian life by absorbing them. By someone doing it. And we begin to pick up how they are doing it and how they are studying the Bible themselves. So this is hugely important.

Personal Bible Study🔗

The second thing—and I put this second deliberately. There is a third thing, but the thing of next importance is personal Bible study. The third thing is group Bible study, but personal Bible study is second to public exposition and way before group Bible study. We are living in a time, I notice some people going to three or four group Bible studies in a week, and I am too polite to say, “How much time are you actually spending studying the Bible for yourself?” Studying the Bible for yourself. Because sitting around in a circle listening to other people pitching in may be helpful, if it is brilliantly led and the people themselves have done their Bible study. But it can very easily become a very strange substitute for work. Now, most of us can fill our lives with all kinds of things to keep us busy to avoid working. I am a past master of that, and I can justify it to myself. But serious personal Bible study is on the decline. And we need help. Help is at hand! Here are two books that should be in every single Christian home in our congregation: The New Bible Commentary published by Intervarsity Press, and the New Bible Dictionary. And with these two books you will be able to go a long way as a personal student of the Bible and as a father who is leading the family.

Group Bible Study🔗

That is actually the best place for group Bible study, incidentally—in the home and family.

(Transcription of audio file from 01:01:24 to 01:02:01:03:18 omitted.)

The Absolute Essential🔗

And there is a final point. In the old days, sometimes some great Christian would die in the Middle Ages and they would take off his clothes, and they would find he had a hairshirt underneath. Do you know where I am going? Do you know what is underneath this shirt [that I’m wearing]? It’s a Nike t-shirt! And emblazoned on the front are the words: Just do it. And honestly, dear friends, as I know Christians, as I know myself, that may actually be the most important thing I have said in the last hour. Because that is the thing that you are maybe not doing. So use the Nike method. Just do it.

(Transcription of audio file from 01:03:42 to 01:03:48, and from 01:04:02 to 01:04:15 omitted.)

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