How to Read the Bible: Part II

What is the Bible about?

What is the Bible? Who wrote it? Why? What is its purpose?

Church signs like to tell us that the Bible is a handbook, a guidebook for your life, the map for how to make you a good, upright, moral, faithful individual. “If you just do what the Bible says,” people say, “then you’ll be all set.”

If only it were that simple!!

If you open your Bible, for the most part, you don’t find simple instructions on how to live your life. You find old stories, complicated rituals, and difficult instructions that tend to make life more complicated.

The Bible, is not, in fact, a handbook or a guidebook or life’s instruction manual. It’s actually something far, far better. It’s a story.

The Bible is the story of God. Despite what we might want to think, God is the main character—not Israel, not you, not me—God. The Bible is the story of how God created a world and then ministered to that world over and over and over again.

While the Bible is a long story, it’s probably not accurate to call the Bible a book. It’s really a library. The Bible was not written by one person. God did not magically hand it down from heaven, fully written. Rather faithful people, inspired by God, wrote the books of the Bible across centuries. They didn’t know the things they were writing would end up in something called the Bible (the Bible as we know it wouldn’t come around until close to the third century). They were simply writing down their stories of God for the sake of their communities. Each of the writers testifies to a small section of the life of God, but altogether their stories produce a long and unfolding story of God.

So to say that the Bible is a handbook for life is to make the mistake of thinking that we are somehow the main characters in this story. It is to say that the Bible is about us and how God ministered to us. But that’s backwards. Yes, we are major characters in the story of the Bible, but we are not the main character. The story that unfolds across this magnificent library is the story of a creative, loving, compassionate, just, merciful, gracious, triune, relational God.

Often, when we read our Bibles, the first question we ask is “What does this passage say about me?” or “What does this passage want me to do?” Those aren’t necessarily bad questions; they are worth asking. But only after we have asked: “What is God up to?” or “What does this say about God?” or “How is God the main character in this story?” First we need to figure out what the main character is up to. Then, and only then, can we figure out what we, if anything, are meant to do.

When we ask the question “What am I supposed to do?” we can lose sight of what God has already done. Plenty of books and passages in the bible call us to action: certainly the law and the prophets and books like proverbs have plenty of instruction for how to live. But those instructions are a response to who God is and what God has done. Those calls to action are secondary to the person and story of God.

When we read the Bible, maybe sometimes we can choose not to ask questions about ourselves or what is required of us. Maybe sometimes we simply marvel and wonder about this loving and compassionate and just God simply for the sake of adoring God. Maybe we revel in the story of God and give thanks for this beautiful God. Maybe we don’t always need to make it about us—after all, we’re not even the main character!