HOW NOT TO READ THE BIBLE
Written by Doug Ponder on May 8, 2013
We’ve seen that the Bible didn’t fall from heaven, yet it can still be trusted because it is genuinely God’s word. We’ve also seen that although the Bible is written for us, it’s not about us. (It’s about Jesus.) Finally, let’s consider how not to read the Bible.
Don’t read the Bible like a textbook.
The Bible was written to soften our hearts, not just fill our minds (Ps. 19:7-8, 14). In fact, the Scriptures tell us that head knowledge only “puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). People who read the Bible like a textbook study it for tidbits of wisdom and new insights about religious information, they are “always learning yet never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7).
Signs you may be guilty of reading the Bible like a textbook: You love reading about the Bible’s ancient history and customs, or about Greek and Hebrew lexicography, or about systematic theology, but you are no more like Jesus today than you were a few years ago. Your head is full of knowledge about Jesus instead of actually knowing him at a personal or relational level. For you, Jesus is an object to be studied, not a Savior to be worshipped.
Don’t read the Bible like a magic book.
The Bible was meant to be read like any other book: start to finish, beginning to end, each part building on what you’ve already read before it. That’s because the Bible is a story. It’s a story about who God is and what he is doing in the world through Jesus. It’s not a mystical reference book, like something that you open up to at random “looking for a sign from God.” Nobody in the entire Bible is ever shown to read Scripture in that way. Jesus certainly didn’t. In addition to a lot confusion surrounding the basic message of the Bible, you’ll also badly misunderstand what God actually wants you to do.
Signs you may be guilty of reading the Bible like a magic book: You don’t read the books of the Bible from start to finish. Instead, you just flip around at will, reading a little bit here and a little bit there. You think that God wants you to open your Bible to a random to “give you a word for today,” but you fail to realize that Jesus himself is the Word of God (John 1:1, 14), and that you ought to be reading the Bible like it’s a story about him (because it is).
Don’t read the Bible like a rulebook.
The Bible isn’t a rulebook, though it does contain a few rules here and there. The Bible is not a do-it-yourself manual from God. You are not supposed to read the Bible, follow the rules, and clean up your life—because you can’t. No one can “clean up their life” by following the rules. Jesus taught this over and over again (Luke 11:39). Instead, the “rules” (a.k.a., laws and commands) in the Bible were given for a different reason. They show us what is good and right (Rom. 7:16), they show us our sin (1 Tim. 1:8-9), and they show us our need for Jesus (Gal. 3:21-26).
Signs you may be guilty of reading the Bible like a rulebook: You think of the Bible as ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth’ (B.I.B.L.E.), or you think of the Bible as a “guide to living life,” instead a story about how to find life in Jesus. You believe that God accepts you and loves you because your obedience to him, instead of realizing that God accepts you and loves you because of what Jesus has done for you.
Don’t read the Bible like a Chicken Soup for the Soul book.
Over one hundred million copies of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” have been sold to date. These books are collections of true stories meant to be “uplifting and inspirational.” Don’t read the Bible like that. It isn’t a book of cute or sentimental stories meant to inspire you and fill you with warmth. Instead, it offers real hope, real beauty, real power in Jesus, who has conquered sin and death on your behalf. It doesn’t stop with cheap inspiration; it’s meant to convict you, correct you, encourage you, and spur you on to good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Signs you may be guilty of reading the Bible like a Chicken Soup for the Soul book: You think of the Bible as a collection of inspiring vignettes, like the story of Adam and Eve, Joseph, Ruth, David, Jonah, and so on, instead of seeing the Bible as one story about Jesus. All the other “stories” are part of his story. Also, when you read the Bible you hope for warm fuzzies instead of praying for conviction and correction or encourage and exhortation.
Don’t read the Bible like a goldmine of random sayings.
Some people go mining for quotes, commands, and promises they like, ripping these things out of their original context—discarding their purpose and role in redemptive history like useless dirt. The problem is that many of God’s promises and commands were given to specific people, in specific places, at specific times, for specific reasons. For example, when God told Israel, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11), he was talking about his plans for Israel when they return from exile, as the previous verse makes clear (Jer. 29:10). To take those promises out of their context and to apply them directly to your life is to overlook how God says they will be fulfilled, substituting a different meaning for what God actually meant.
Signs you may be reading the Bible like a goldmine: You think that every promise God has made was given directly to you, for you. (Try living the story of Noah’s ark and see how well it works out for you.) Your favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11, which you think means that God is going to prosper your future. You look for comfort in random promises scattered throughout the Bible, instead of in Jesus himself.
Don’t read the Bible like a fairy tale.
The Bible is not fiction, but fact. The history it records is real history of real people from real times in real places. Their lives and ours is part of the true story of the whole world. It won’t do you any good to have inspiring stories about people and places that didn’t actually happen. If God didn’t really rescue Israel from Egypt, for example, then the basic pattern for salvation is based on a scam. If Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, then your faith is futile and you’re still dead in your sins.
Signs you may be reading the Bible like a fairy tale: You have lots and lots of doubts about the truthfulness of miraculous stories in the Bible (e.g., creation, the flood of Noah, the parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho, Jonah and the sea creature). You find yourself saying things like, “It doesn’t really matter if these things happened. All that matters is what we can learn from these stories.”
Don’t read the Bible in isolation from others.
The notion that the Bible should be studied all by ourselves is the product of Western individualism. You won’t find anything like that in the pages of Scripture. The Christian life itself is a community project, not a solo effort, and the same is true with understanding the Scriptures. When the Bible is read in isolation from the wisdom of church history, the confessions of their faith tradition, and the gifts of teachers in our churches, all sorts of errors abound. Some of these errors may be minor, but others are so major that they lead people away from the faith, destroying whoever is caught up in their wake (2 Pet. 2:1-22).
Signs you may be reading the Bible by yourself all the time: When you think of “studying the Scriptures,” you think of a “morning quiet time” or “devotional.” You are unconcerned with church history, believing that you can understand what you read in the Bible without any help from the wisdom of the past or from gifted teachers in the present (Eph. 4:11-12).
Don’t read the Bible only for other people’s sake.
There’s a huge temptation to read the Bible for information that is relevant for someone else. Say you want to find out what the Bible says about sexual immorality, because a friend is living in some sort of sexual sin and you want to challenge them on this point. Reading the Bible for the sake of someone else overlooks your own need for what it contains. This isn’t to say that you can’t speak the truth in love about some issue that needs addressing; you are commanded to do that (Eph. 4:15). But if you read the Bible only like it’s a manual for condemning others, you own flaws and faults will not be corrected. In fact, they will only intensify.
Signs you may be reading the Bible only for other people’s sake: You are always highlighting or memorizing verses which condemn sins that you never struggle with. Whenever you hear a sermon or read a passage of Scripture, you find yourself thinking, “I wish So-and-so would hear/read this!”
Don’t read the Bible with a closed mind.
Whether you’re a committed Christian or a unconvinced skeptic, it would be a serious error to read the Bile without an open mind. For Christians this can lead to pride and arrogance of the worst sort, for you will think that you already have the Scriptures figured out. Your misunderstanding will never be corrected. For skeptics this will lead you to a place of hardheartedness in which you unfairly doubt everything in the Scriptures, without also doubting your own doubts. You will walk away from the Scriptures without having given them a truly fair shot.
Signs you may be reading the Bible with a close mind: You approach the Bible without any expectation to learn something, to be challenged in your thinking, or to be confronted in your sin. You already think that every idea you hold is right and true, and you’re unwilling to rethink certain assumptions.
Don’t read the Bible occasionally.
The Bible is meant to be read frequently, not just “from time to time.” The Christian life is a daily struggle, a “fight of faith,” which takes every ounce of Spirit-enabled effort, diligence, and commitment that you can muster. Without the confrontation of the Scriptures, you have no hope for repentance, and without the comfort of the gospel, you have no hope for joy.
Signs you may be reading the Bible occasionally: You know if this is true of you or not. If you find it hard to make a habit of reading the Scriptures, try setting up a routine with a friend so that you can hold each other accountable in this way. Set an alarm on your phone or your electronic devices so that you remember to do it each day. Or get into the habit of starting every morning (and/or finishing every evening) with the discipline of reading the Scriptures.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.