Sunday, March 06, 2011

If You Wanted To Start Reading the Bible...

If you wanted to start reading the Bible, how would you get started? 

Great question. Thanks for asking!

Before I share some suggestions, here's some big-picture observations:

One way to think about the Bible is as a collection of lots of stories - all making up one big story. The first set of stories are found in what Christians call the First or Old Testament; the second set of stories are found in what we call the New Testament. Kind of like a part one and a part two. Every story you read connects to the bigger story in the First Testament and the New Testament.

Another way to think about the Bible is as a story about God's work in the world - starting with the ancient nation of Israel. The First Testament is ancient Israel's story of themselves, their origins, their early history, and their covenant relationship with YHWH.

Their account includes many historical stories, grand poetry, and lots of writings by their prophets. The New Testament begins with a lot of stories about Jesus of Nazareth, it continues with stories about the early church, and then it ends with a string of letters written by some of Jesus' disciples to churches in the Mediterranean region.

From a Christian point of view, the First Testament gives context for the life, work, and words of Jesus. The New Testament is a record of the impact Jesus had upon the leaders and peasants of Galilee and Judea. Almost all of Jesus' teachings are rooted in his understanding of the First Testament. He was considered a prophet by some, and at his death he was proclaimed a king. Jesus is also understood to be like a priest - a mediator between humanity and God. The better you understand the stories of Israel's ancient kings, servant-hearted priests and passionate prophets, the better you understand Jesus.

So, with that backstory, here's some suggestions on how to start reading the Bible:
1) Start at the beginning with Genesis (which means "beginning). The first eleven chapters are ancient Israel's stories about the beginning of the world. The rest of the chapters are stories about Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob and his son Joseph. Very fascinating stories about humanity and God: This is Israel's story of where they came from - and it also sets up the big story of the Exodus.

2) Start with Jesus and the Gospels. There are four gospels to choose from: the shortest one is Mark - he provides a quick overview of Jesus life and death and resurrection. The longest one is Matthew - he writes to his fellow Jews and records many of Jesus' parables. Luke's detailed account (which includes quite a few miracles) is part one of a two part story - Acts is the other part of the story. John's gospel comes from a different point of view, providing unique stories not found in the other three gospel accounts of Jesus.

3) Start with Psalms and Proverbs. Psalms is the ancient hymn book of the Israelites, expressing their delight and trust in God, or their frustration and bewilderment. The Proverbs are a collection of wisdom sayings - reflections on the way life works when living out Torah - God's instructions and commands. The Psalms and Proverbs can provide a helpful guide to life with God and a better life with your neighbor.

4) Start with the Letters of James or Paul. The advantage of the letters is that they are full of practical insights on how to live in the light of Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus has a potent, compact letter that highlights some crucial attitudes and actions for following Jesus. Paul has some great letters too - Colossians and 1Timothy are good one's to start with for teachings on who Jesus is and how we can now live with Him.

5) Find a reading plan that gets you reading a few chapters every day for the year, getting you from the beginning to end. There is no substitute for just reading and reading and reading (either in the morning when you first get up, or on your lunchbreak, or in the evening before bed). A lot may not make much sense the first couple times through. The more familiar you become with the stories, the more pieces you can put together. Just start reading. And asking questions.

6) When you read, have a pen and notepad next to you. Write down what you don't understand, write down your questions or insights, your reactions to the stories. It's okay to write in your Bible to! Highlight verses that make you think or convict you. Write comments in the margins. The more curious you are, the more you dig, the more you engage with the text, the more you will eventually understand.

7) Find a friend (or a pastor...) who you can ask questions, discuss, and get insights from. :)

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