Archives For Tips for Reading Bible Genres

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

Gospels & ActsAs we come to the Gospels and the book of Acts, many of the things we said about reading narrative passages will apply. These five books make very compelling reading—fascinating stories, deep theological implications, and some crucial history for the Christian faith.

As we read these books, we’ll notice that they are relaying history. But it’s not like the history books we’re used to reading (or not). The four Gospels illustrate this well. They contain the same basic historical account, but they’re not written in the same chronological order, and each presents events and teachings that the other Gospels don’t. So can we call this history? The short answer is yes, and they were intentional about this (see Luke 1:1–4).

Some have accused the Gospels and Acts of sidelining history for the sake of theology. But actually, these books are showing us the theological significance of the historical events. So each writer shows us Jesus from a certain angle, pointing us to key events that illustrate what they want us to see about Jesus. John, for example, explains that Jesus did far more than John recorded in his gospel, but he chose to include these things “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

It’s history, but it’s persuasive history. It’s history, but with a purpose. In fact, John says (with a touch of hyperbole) that the Gospel writers had so much material to draw on, that if someone tried to write down everything Jesus said and did, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). Acts works in the same way, showing us only a few of the events and teachings from the life of the early church.

So how do we read these theological history books? Here are a few tips:

 

1. Get caught up in the stories.

Each story is told for a reason. Enjoy it. Step into it. Be a part of the original audience. Strap on their sandals and experience the event, listen to the sermon. Putting yourself in the stories will make them more vivid and help you better understand what is going on.

 

2. Find the big picture.

What’s the overall point of each of these books? What kinds of things are emphasized? This will likely happen over the years as you read each book multiple times. A short book description in a Study Bible can be helpful here too. But try to identify what the book as a whole is trying to say about Jesus or the early church. This will give you a framework in which to view the individual stories.

 

3. Assess individual stories, events, and discourses.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1669)

Each story can be viewed, at least initially, as a self-contained unit. Every event, sermon, parable, conversation, and sermon is worth taking the time to analyze. Why does Jesus feed 5,000 and what is the significance of this event? What is unique about his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount? Why do the apostles establish deacons in Acts 6? When you have the time, use it to think deeply about these individual elements.

 

4. Look for relationships between stories, events, and discourses.

Very often, the events and teachings are recorded in their unique order because the author wants you to consider them in light of one another. Look for repeated phrases and concepts. Look for how one event relates to another. For example, Matthew 18 tells us how to address a “brother” caught in sin (a process we refer to as “church discipline,” though it’s really about pursuing restoration). Then Jesus goes on to teach about the importance of forgiving over and over again. These two concepts are both related: they both help us understand what we do with a Christian who sins. Or consider Luke 15. Luke gives us three consecutive parables, all dealing with something that is lost and found. So as you read each part, consider its relation to the whole, and especially to the material surrounding it.

 

5. Ask what the overall message demands of you.

As we said, these books are written to be persuasive. Ask what you are meant to be persuaded of and choose how you will respond. When you see the big picture of what Jesus did and taught, ask how your life ought to be changed in response (the command to “follow me” is a good place to start, as is the command to “make disciples”). When you work through the book of Acts, ask how the activity of the Spirit of God through the early church should shape your life today.

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

LettersAs we come now to the New Testament letters (Romans–Jude), we are stepping into familiar territory for most Christians. These letters are theologically rich, and we often find them speaking directly into our lives. But there are some important aspects of these letters that we need to consider as we seek to understand them.

Perhaps the most significant factor to keep in mind is that all of these New Testament letters are situational (commentators call them “occasional”). They’re all grounded in real life situations. They address real needs, real problems, real questions. When we read these letters, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. Perhaps that sounds a bit deflating for those who feel the letters speaking directly to them. But consider this: All of the theology in these letters is practical theology. It’s applied theology.

When we read 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul gives us some profound theology. In one instance, he explains that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit (6:19). That’s deep theology! It ought to be written about in theology textbooks and preached in sermons. But we also need to realize that Paul spoke that truth for a practical reason. The situation that led Paul to record that theological truth was the sexual immorality of the Corinthian church. They seemed to think they could be sexually promiscuous because they weren’t harming their souls: only “the body” was involved. But Paul responds by saying, “Are you kidding me? Your body matters! It’s the temple of the Spirit! Plus you don’t even own your body; it now belongs to God.”

The situational nature of these letters should always lead us to ask not just what theology is presented, but also why that particular doctrine is presented in that particular letter.

One welcome aspect of the letters is that they tend to speak directly. Whereas poetry and wisdom literature often communicates in imagery and figures of speech, the letters are filled with commands and direct teaching. The letters still use metaphors and rhetorical devices, but in general their tone is more explanatory than poetic. For most modern readers, that makes them a bit easier to follow.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at a few tips for reading the letters:

 

1. Try to reconstruct the original situation.

We’re only getting one side of a conversation when we read the letters. But in order to fully understand what’s being said, we want to grasp the original situation as well as we can. What kind of relationship does the author seem to have with his readers? What types of sins seem to characterize that church? How is the author encouraged by his readers? Does the doctrinal teaching seem to be directed toward a particular form of false teaching? Looking for answers to these types of questions will help us understand what the letter means.

 

2. Trace the flow of thought.

Always remember that these are more than collections of verses. The authors wrote these letters to make points, to present arguments, to challenge their readers over the course of the letter. So try to trace the way the argument unfolds. When you find a practical exhortation, ask if the author is grounding that exhortation in some theological truth he presented earlier. You don’t understand an individual verse until you understand how it fits within the overall flow of the letter.

 

3. Ask how the original readers would have understood the message of the letter.

Before you can determine how the letter speaks to you today, you have to ask how the letter spoke to the original audience. Always try to put yourself in their sandals. How would Paul’s rebukes have felt to you if you were a member of the church in Corinth? How would Paul’s encouragement have given you hope if you were a member of the church in Thessalonica? What cultural factors would have shaped their understanding of a particular teaching, such as Paul explaining how to relate to meat that has been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8?

 

4. Explore the theology in the letter.

What does the letter teach us about God? What does it teach us about humanity, or sin, or salvation, or the end times? We always have to keep in mind that these doctrines were presented in practical situations, but they still have much to teach us about theology.

 

5. Ask how the letter should be practically applied today.

We’re never done reading the Bible until we respond to its truth appropriately. (Even then we’re not done.) So once we’ve tried to understand how the original audience would have understood the letter, we need to ask what implications it holds for how we live our lives today. Sometimes this is easy to figure out (though not necessarily easy to follow through on), like when Paul tells us to rejoice always. Other times it can be difficult and even controversial to figure out how the letters apply today (think of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 or speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14). But the point is, we need to examine these letters carefully and apply them appropriately.

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

RevelationFinally we come to the most daunting literary genre in the Bible: Revelation. Of course, the book of Revelation is not a genre in itself, but it makes use of three genres, and how exactly Revelation is to be read and interpreted is one of the most debated issues in Christian theology.

Revelation lets us know that it is made of up three literary genres: letter (1:4–5), prophecy (1:3, 22:6–7), and apocalyptic (this genre stems from the Greek word for “revelation” in 1:1).

  • As a letter, we need to see the “situational” nature of Revelation, keeping in mind those factors we mentioned in discussing the New Testament letters.
  • As prophecy, we will be finding predictions of the future and/or messages from God about how we are to live. This will correspond to what we said about reading Old Testament prophecy. In fact, from a genre perspective, Revelation wouldn’t seem quite so odd if it were placed in the Old Testament rather than the New.
  • As apocalyptic, we will find God communicating to his people, often through sweeping visions and a heavy reliance on imagery. Some modern Christians are suspicious when the term “apocalyptic” gets brought up, thinking that Revelation is about to be explained away. But this genre is used in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, so we needn’t be afraid. Plus John begins the book by saying that this is the “revelation” (Greek: apocalyptic) of Jesus. It simply alerts us to the fact that much of what we’ll see in the book will feature images, and much will be symbolic. Every interpreter agrees that Revelation makes use of symbolism.

Ultimately, what Revelation does for us is pull back the curtain of perception and show us reality. As we look at our world (and this would have been particularly true for John’s original readers), it seems that the dominant forces in this world are winning. It looks as though the wicked are triumphing and God’s kingdom is being halted. But Revelation gives us a peek behind the curtain. It shows us the throne room of God (chapters 4–5); the battle between good and evil, including God’s judgment on the wicked (chapters 6–19); and the glorious end of the world (chapters 20–22). There we see the evil of this world exposed, judged, and destroyed. And we see the triumph of God and his kingdom.

Whatever we decide about the timeline of Revelation, the book is meant to challenge our allegiance. It calls us to come out of the wicked city of this world (18:4–5) and to enter God’s glorious city instead (22:14). As we read, we must choose a city, choose an allegiance, choose a king. And it’s clear which one will be victorious.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read this fascinating book:

 

1. Live within the imagery.

Revelation includes fairly straightforward letters to real churches in chapters 2 and 3. But the main way in which Revelation communicates is by creating a symbolic world into which the reader is invited. Very often, readers of Revelation find a vision or symbol and then immediately try to figure out who or what that symbol represents. I believe this is a mistake.

Remember that these are visions that John is watching. We should step into the visions with John, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears. Because Revelation is so saturated with imagery, we need to enter the symbolic world and appreciate how the symbols and visions work together. Then we can step back into our modern world and ask what these symbols are referring to. Revelation works extremely well as a literary unit—our disagreement comes when we begin laying the visions out onto our timelines.

 

2. Look for interpretive clues left by the author or characters.

Much of Revelation is left to the reader for interpretation. But there are times when we are told what the symbols refer to—Revelation 1:20, for example. So when we are handed the interpretation, we should latch on to that and use it in helping us interpret whatever we can.

 

3. Consider the relation of these images to the events of history.

We have to start by living within the world of Revelation before we try to decide when these things will be and what precisely they will look like. But at some point, we have to ask those questions. This is where we find the most debate, of course. Some think these events all took place within the first century AD, others say these things are happening spiritually all the time, and still others see these as future events. I know it’s a copout, but there is likely some truth in each of these views (here’s a helpful resource to help you sort out the different views). But even though it’s difficult, we need to ask when and how this will play out.

 

4. Let you life be shaped by the overall picture of Revelation.

As important as the timing of these events is, I would argue that the most important feature of this book is its call to wholehearted allegiance to Christ. He calls us out of the corruption in the world (18:4–5) and calls us to “wash our robes” in the blood of the Lamb and “enter [God’s] city by the gates” (22:14). Ultimately, we have to see these visions as a challenge to the way we see the world and a call to see our world as God sees it.

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