The Bible is feared reading for some. If you were raised in the Stanton sect, it may seem to you like a mass of confusing cross references, chain references, commands, and vague inferences. Remember the trusty Thompson Chain Reference Bible? Yeah, I thought so.
Understanding how to read the Bible is critical to developing a love for the Word. It’s not as confusing as Stanton would make it seem. It’s actually exciting, if you take the clean Bible challenge. But it’s important not to read it like a novel. It’s not one. And it’s also not a law book to be dissected and argued like in the Pharisaic courtroom of May Week deliberations, either.
Here’s the simple truth: The Bible is basically a collection of short, real-life stories, along with some poetry, books of wisdom, prophecy, and even personal letters. All of these different pieces of literature are about 2000 years old or more, but have been preserved for us to read today. There is no other single book in the entire world that is anything like the Bible.
The Bible was written by the hands of many different human authors under the supervision of God Himself over the course of thousands of years. What is fascinating about the Bible is that in spite of its many different authors, there are no factual errors of history or science, and there is a clear theme that holds it all together. From the opening words of Genesis to the end of Revelation, that theme is Jesus Christ.
Here’s a quick synopsis that will make your reading of the Bible much more meaningful.
The old testament scriptures
The Old Testament tells the story of the beginning of the world and of human history through the eyes of God’s people, called the Children of Israel. It is through this civilization that Jesus Christ would eventually come. The word “testament” means “agreement” or “covenant;” the “old covenant” was a kind of contractual agreement between Abraham and God that the world would be blessed with the coming king (Jesus) through Abraham’s descendants. In the old covenant scriptures (what people call the Old Testament) we see the rise and fall of the ancient nation of Israel, with many prophecies (predictions) about a future Messiah (anointed king) who would rescue the people of Israel from the troubles they were having.
The Old Testament is composed of ancient writings from thousands of years ago, and includes the following writings:
1. The books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
These books tell the story of Creation, the flood of Noah’s time, the beginnings of the Israelite nation, and it’s period of slavery in ancient Egypt. They also tell about the Israelites’ miraculous escape from Egypt, and about the laws God gave to Moses for the Children of Israel to obey. Sometimes these five books are referred to as “the Law” or the “Pentateuch.”
2. The books of history (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther)
These books contain true stories that are sometimes suspenseful, occasionally unsettling, but always meaningful to us today in that they show us the character of God and how He protects those who serve Him. The history of the rise and fall of the Hebrew nation is recorded faithfullyÂ—not just their triumphs, but their failures as well, which few other ancient civilizations wrote about themselves. We have the story of how they came to settle in the land of Canaan, which is now called Israel. We’re told about their periods of faithfulness to God, and the times they turned from Him. We’re also told about their “judges” (military deliverers) and kings, about the rise of their prosperous civilization under kings David and Solomon, and ultimately about their decline into captivity under Assyria (modern Iraq), Babylon (also modern Iraq) and Persia (modern Iran).
3. The books of wisdom and poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations)
The book of Job is famous for its story of a man persecuted by Satan himself and how he personally dealt with those difficult times. Most of the Psalms were written by King David; the book is actually a collection of individual songs. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were largely written by King Solomon, who recorded both witty and wise observations about human nature, moral conduct, and life itself. Lamentations was written by Jeremiah the prophet in poem form, and is about his sadness at the destruction of Jerusalem, the City of David, when it was overtaken by Babylon.
4. The prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
These books contain both predictions about Israel’s history that would come to pass many years later, and passionate instruction to the backsliding nation to turn from its errors. Israel, like mankind in general, naturally moved away from God over time, and most of the prophets wrote their books specifically to encourage the people to go back to obeying God’s laws. The prophets wrote many things about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, that happen exactly as predicted.
The new testament scriptures
The new covenant scriptures, often called the New Testament, tell us about the arrival of the Messiah. The word “Christ” simply means “the anointed one,” since kings were often anointed with oil in the old days, and Christians look to Jesus as our spiritual “king.” The “new covenant” (or contract) fulfilled the terms of the old one (the Old Testament) and put in place a new one that would be in effect until the end of time. In the New Testament we find the history and teachings of Jesus Christ and of his earliest followers, called his apostles (or messengers).
The New Testament is composed of the following writings from the 1st century AD:
1. The “gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)
These four books are called the gospels because they document the “good news” of Jesus’ life from beginning to end. The word “gospel” means “good news.” They tell the story of Jesus’ life, and eventual death on the cross, from four different perspectives; Matthew, a Jewish tax collector turned follower; Mark, a Jew with Roman training; Luke, a physician; and John, a close friend (and some people think a cousin) of Jesus.
2. True stories of the Apostles’ early evangelism (Acts)
This book is called the Acts of the Apostles because it is an historical account of what Jesus’ apostles (His hand-picked messengers) did to aid in establishing Christ’s church.
3. The Apostle Paul’s letters to various first-century churches (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians)
These letters were generally written to instruct the young churches (groups of believers) in how to behave as Christians. They cover topics like morality, faith, immersion (baptism), salvation, living a godly life of service to others, and many, many more.
4. The Apostle Paul’s letters to various individuals (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon)
These letters were written to the individuals after whom they are named, and contain valuable, God-breathed instruction directly from Paul to these men.
5. An open letter to 1st century Christians of Jewish descent (Hebrews)
Many of the Jewish people who converted to Christianity during the early years of the church had a deep understanding of the Old Testament. This open letter was written to reassure them in their faith in Christ, and remind them, based on many Old Testament references they would easily understand, how the Jewish religion fit into God’s plan for the Messiah.
6. Letters by various individuals to first-century churches (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude)
Like Paul’s letters to various churches, these letters (written by the authors after whom they are named) enjoyed wide circulation among first-century believers. Since they didn’t have the Internet or the printing press, the letters were hand copied and passed from church to church to provide centuries of encouragement and instruction for Christians.
7. Book of prophecy (Revelation)
This is often the first book people turn to when they start reading the New Testament, but the numerous conflicting opinions on its interpretation can make it the most confusing. It contains a prophetic revelation to seven churches of the first century, with many appropriate lessons for our churches today. The book goes on to give us a great picture of the place He has prepared for the righteous after judgment, and develops the theme of how God’s forces will be victorious over evil in the end.
For the rest of your life, remember that men and women have added “helpful comments” to just about every edition of the Bible that has been printed. All of them, including the words in this introduction to the Bible, are written by fallible people! Never assume to be true what a church, book, preacher, pastor, friend, or teacher tells you about the Bible without finding out for yourself if it’s true. This rule should keep you searching the Bible for the rest of your life, because there is no end of people willing to tell you what they THINK about it. Instead, find out what it really says!
Enjoy the journey of discovering God and the true story of Jesus Christ. Remember, it’s not so much about the Bible itself—that can become an idol, just as any church can become an idol when it stands in the place of God. No, it’s about the Jesus the Bible tells us about.
This is what Jesus told the Pharisees:
John 5: 39 – You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. “I do not accept glory from human beings, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.”