How do you read the bible? When you open your bible on your phone or the one that sits on your shelf, what runs through your mind? Are you captivated? Bored? Confused? Excited? Do you continue to live the story it invites us to? I find a lot of people just have never been taught how to read the bible. It was just kind of assumed you figure it out. That doesn’t work for most people and so they end up not reading or only reading with some kind of devotional aid without an ability to open up the bible and enjoy the presence of Jesus for themselves or the joy of learning through rigorous, joyful study.
How do we read and interpret the Bible today? My four tips are four letters from a common acrostic that a church in Hawaii popularized. A variation of this is what I use when I have a few moments or when I am spending hours preparing for a sermon.
S. O. A. P.
Download an app or pick up a bible. Here are some tips on translations. Then, open with humility knowing that you bring a lot of baggage, assumptions, and biases before you even read. Acknowledging you bring a filter should keep us humble to listen and learn from others and not become overly dogmatic. Our hearts posture should be humility to learn, be challenged, and grow. Certainly, read alone, but whenever you get the chance bible reading with others out loud and following this process together brings a lot of depth we can miss if we only read alone.
This is where the heavy lifting of biblical interpretation takes place. Remember all the language skills you learned in school? No? Well, the bible is an amazing piece of literature with poetry, history, humor, letters, hyperbole, typology, songs, narrative, and all kinds of literary devices throughout that we should be looking for as cues to help us know how to interpret. Possibly the most important interpretive principle to remember at this point is “context.” When you are confused, zoom out. When a section doesn’t seem to fit, read all around it and back up whole chapters or even whole books to see what is meant.
I have come to prefer the term “implications”, but it doesn’t fit the acronym. The reason is that we shouldn’t be reading and observing things and then choosing what suits us to apply. Nope. We read, do deep observational study and then find ourselves in a place the Holy Spirit impresses upon us ways to live this out. Our job of interpretation is not done until there is action as a result. Anything less is nearly a waste. Reading the bible is not a theoretical exercise; it is a deeply transformational act of relationship.
This is where we now come before Jesus and say something like, “thank you for speaking to me through your Word. Help me in my desire to follow you by living this out. Thank you for your grace in my failure, your cheering on my success, and constant empowerment by the Spirit.” We take the practical applications from our observations of the scripture read and then pray they become a reality in our lives. Even better, we do this with a group and together we grow as disciples. This is discipleship. Learning the way of Jesus.
My hope is that we never overcomplicate bible study.
It is also my conviction that we can never truly master it since it is a lifelong pursuit. Here are a few varied resources that I have found helpful as I continue to grow. If you are just getting started I would recommend the following in order:
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: Fourth Edition by Gordon D. Fee
Grasping God's Word by J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays
Scripture as Communication, 2nd Edition: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics by Jeannie Brown
Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible by Michael F. Bird
Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost by Craig S. Keener