Reading well

A simple tip, so you don’t make the Bible say what it never said.

What an amazing book! You want to explore it well so you can live well, but you’re not sure if you’re on the right track? This post is for you.

The Bible isn’t hard to follow. It’s about God. It’s the revelation of who God is and what he does. God is king, ruler of heaven and earth. God is love, unfailingly committed to the people in his care. The Bible is the story of the God who saves, rescuing the earth and all who call on him.

Some context for the story

At the centre of God’s sovereign care for the earth is the moment when God comes to us in the person of Jesus. If you’re just starting to read the Bible, start with Jesus. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are biographies of Jesus, and they’ll reshape how you understand God. I mean, what kind of God has all the power in the world and uses it to restore sick and demonized people, but won’t use it to destroy those who do evil? What kind of God dies at the hands of sinners? What kind of ruler regains his kingship over a rebellious realm by giving himself for his people?

As you become familiar with Jesus, you realize he’s at the centre of God’s acts in history. For thousands of years, God had already been working through the Jewish people to establish his rescue project. Humans had tried to oust God and take over his world, but God committed to never give up on us. He established Israel as a representative nation under his covenant rule. They disobeyed and struggled, but God kept leading them through it all. Finally he sent them his Son to restore his people … and the rest of the world. Three quarters of the Bible is this story — the Old Testament background for the coming of God’s anointed to save the world.

But God’s appointed ruler was viewed as a threat to the leaders of God’s nation and to their oppressors. The Jewish leaders and the Roman rulers joined forces to kill God’s Son. Jesus’ resurrection out of death signalled the end of evil’s oppressive dominion, the restoration of God’s caring kingship over the world in Christ. Through the Spirit, Christ’s life now reigns in his restored people, those who acknowledge his kingship over us. We who recognize Jesus Christ as Lord now assemble as agents of his leadership. That’s what church means: the global assembly around Christ’s kingship.

So, the New Testament consists of:

  • accounts of King Jesus (Gospels),
  • how his kingship spread across the known world (Acts),
  • letters to his agencies on how to represent his reign in their setting (Epistles),
  • visions of God setting everything right for everyone through the King of Kings (Revelation).

It’s been 2,000 years since the last book of the New Testament was written. Christ’s kingship is still being established across the world through the Spirit in his people. Our calling is to be the kingdom of Jesus Christ our Lord.

A mistake to avoid

Reading with a responsive heart meant you want to know what the Bible means for you. But I’m so used to being the centre of my own life that there’s a danger of twisting the Bible around me. But the Bible is so much bigger. It centres around the God who was working long before I was born, and will be long after I die.

By all means, travel back in your imagination and relive these stories with the heroes. But don’t make yourself the centre of the story. You are not King David or Queen Esther or Daniel in the lion’s den. You can’t put God into a straightjacket and demand he do the same for you as he did for them. A popular Facebook meme promises, “God delivered Daniel from the lions, and he will do the same for you and your family.” That illusion will lead you to disillusionment. God’s miraculous interventions are exceptions, not paradigms. Faith is not a formula for manipulating God. Faithful servants of God were also “put to death by stoning, sawed in two, killed by the sword” (Hebrews 11:37). So, do call on the Lord in your time of need, but don’t tell him what to do. He is with you as he was with Daniel or Joseph, but don’t spiritualize the stories as if they were all about you.

To avoid this mistake requires an extra step in your Bible study. Consider the text in its original context before you apply it to your own. Two steps:

  1. What would this have meant for them?
    Once you’ve understood the text in content, you can then ask:
  2. What could this mean for me?

Why? In the words of Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), 30: A text cannot mean what it never meant.

An example

Fear has been prominent this year. Some who peddle fear have been selling the idea that “the mark of the beast” is an RF ID chip to be given only to those who have receive the corona virus vaccine.

Now, there’s value in having public discussion about whether chipping people the way we chip cats is a good idea, or if it serves the interests of those in power. That’s a valid issue. But it makes no sense to suggest that this is the “mark of the beast.”

Consider how the believers in Ephesus and the other cities of Asia Minor would have heard John’s message. How many of them thought, “Ah, that will be about Bill Gates’ suggestion of giving everybody an RF ID chip to track who’s been vaccinated for corona virus?”

Seriously? That’s what John’s message meant to them? Start by asking what it meant to them. It cannot mean what it never meant.


This isn’t difficult. If you like simple steps for Bible study, consider the SOAP method (used in Bibleview). Four steps:

  1. Scripture: read the text.
  2. Observation: observe what the message would have meant to them in their setting.
  3. Application: consider how that message could apply to us in our setting.
  4. Prayer: respond to what God has said.

Don’t skip step 2. Make the effort to understand the Scripture in its context. Observe what it meant to the people God was speaking to in their context.You’ll be equipped to understand and respond to the God revealed in Scripture.

Related posts

Footnote: How not to use the Bible:
Malcolm Corden Teaches Donald Trump How To Hold the Bible

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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