When my five year old first began to read aloud the results were, shall we say, clunky. Being new to it, he had no internal sense for the rhythm of a Dr. Seuss poem or how a question mark should make his whole voice raise up in tone. The books just weren’t familiar yet and it took him some practice to read them the way they’d been intended.
Something similar can happen to us as we come to the Bible; it can feel clunky. We might be new to reading Scripture on our own, or haven’t before engaged in it on a consistent basis. For all sorts of reasons, it can be hard to feel like Bible reading is helping us connect with God.
One strategy to help with this feeling is to come to the Bible ready to look back, look around, look in, and look forward. First, we’ll talk about Looking Back—understanding the basic structure and story of the Bible. If those elements are familiar to you, skip them and jump down to Looking Around, In, and Forward.
Looking Back: Understanding the Bible in Context
The Structure of Scripture
The Bible tells the story of God’s work in the world, from creation at the beginning to the redemption of all things in the end. As a book, the Bible is made up of the Old Testament (which has 39 books) and the New Testament (which has 27 books). Each book offers a unique contribution to the overall story of the Bible: some books recall events, while some are poetry, others are worship or wisdom, and still others are letters.
It can be helpful to read a passage with an awareness of these elements, so we can better connect with what the writer was thinking, feeling, and trying to say. Were they telling ancient Israel the stories of God’s faithfulness? Were they writing to a brand new church to help them know what it meant, in real life, to follow Jesus together? Is this a Gospel book, telling us about Jesus’ life and ministry? Many Bibles have this information right at the beginning of each book, and you can find helpful introductions from the International Bible Society: https://www.biblica.com/resources/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/
The Story of Scripture
There is an overall storyline to the Bible that can be helpful for us as readers today to understand. That way, when we sit down and read, we can get our bearings in the plot.
While much more could be said, here’s a brief walkthrough of the story of Scripture (with the corresponding books of the Bible in parentheses):
God created a good world with the dream of partnering with humanity to rule over it well. Human beings, doubting God’s goodness to them, chose their own way instead and sin entered the world. Sin caused broken relationships, not only between God and humanity, but also between humanity and creation, human beings with one another, and humanity’s own sense of self.
Where there was harmony, now there was discord and grief. But God, because of a deep, unending desire to be with us, began working to bring every broken relationship back together again.God would put those broken relationships back together again, which the Bible sometimes calls ‘redemption’.
To that end, God formed his own special people, the Hebrews (later called the Israelites). They were called to show the world what God was like and to bless the world. Starting with Abraham and Sarah (who we meet in Genesis 11), the Hebrews grew into a great nation, who were then enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years until God rescued them (Exodus), led them through the wilderness, and brought them to the Promised Land (now we’re in Deuteronomy and Joshua).
God hoped that in the land the people would flourish and be in a right relationship with God, but instead they often chose to worship idols, ignore God’s way of living together, and be anything but a blessing to the world (so that’s 1 Samuel through Ecclesiastes). So then God sent messengers to the people called prophets, who called them back to relationship with God and often warned against the ways they misrelated to others, especially the poor or marginalized. Usually the prophets were ignored or harmed. But the prophets also spoke of God working to restore all the relationships of the world through Israel (Isaiah through Malachi).
The Old Testament ends and there is about 400 years of silence….until one day an angel comes to a girl and says she’ll have a baby.
The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell readers about Jesus’ arrival in the world, his life, teaching, miracles, and mission. After Jesus dies and God resurrects him to life again, his followers (whom we meet in Acts) join together to spread the good news: God, in Christ, is reconciling the world to himself, forgiving sins, restoring relationships, and bringing hope, healing, and life.
These groups of Jesus-followers form communities together throughout the ancient world, and each of these churches tries to understand: what does life look like now that God has come, in Jesus? There are letters to these churches giving them advice and directions (Romans-Jude).
The Bible closes with a vision of the end of time, when God finally, ultimately restores the world. The book of Revelation would have, to its first readers, been similar to a familiar genre of literature called ‘apocalyptic’, but is often quite unfamiliar to readers today. Its main message is a vision and promise that God will undo the effects of sin, restore humanity to right relationship with God, with each other, with creation, and within themselves because of the saving work of God in Jesus.
Try ‘Looking Back’ today. As you come to Chair Time, engage with the Bible by looking back to the people and places who lived these events, wrote these poems and prayers, offered this advice. Three questions that can help you as you read are:
· What was happening at the time this was written?
· Who is involved in this passage?
· What questions do I have about the history surrounding this passage or book?
Looking Around, In, and Forward: Three Ways to Connect the Bible from Then to Now
One of the amazing things God does as we read the Bible is stir in us thoughts, ideas, prayers, or inspiration that shape our character and guide us in our lives. In short, God speaks to us through Scripture.
When we come to Chair Time, our goal is not to get through a lot of verses. Our goal is to create consistent, quiet space where God, through the Bible and prayer, can speak to us.
As we learn to approach the Bible expecting to hear from God, we can read a passage—or even just one verse—and do three things:
Ask: Does this passage seem to connect to anything happening in the world around me, both near and far? Could this connect to anything happening in my family, at work, with a friend, or a current event in the world?
Ask: Do these verses have anything to say to me about my character, my emotions, or my relationships? What would be different in my life if I listened and acted on what I’m reading right now?
Ask: Does this passage point to the work God is doing to reconcile and restore the world through Christ? Is there anything God might want me to do—bring hope, show mercy, call for justice, care for a need—that helps bring the future reality of a restored world to my situation or circumstance right now?
While looking back can help us get our bearings in Scripture, looking around, in, and forward can help us connect the passage to our world today and help us hear God speak through it.
As you read your Bible today or tomorrow, begin by asking God, “Would you speak to me through your word?” Then, as you read, use the questions—listed all together in the table below—to help you look back, around, in and forward. You may find it helpful to jot down a few simple notes as you go along. Close by thanking God for speaking through the Bible.