You’ve decided to read the Bible in a year, and you’ve just finished Genesis. The Creation was cool and all, but now you’re ready for some major Jesus stories. You’re plowing through Exodus, and it’s not that bad because Moses is busy leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Sometimes it gets frustrating because the Israelites are so dumb, and Moses needs to bail them out every time, but it's cool. Then you hit the Ten Commandments, and you’re like, “oh man, here I go again, back to Sunday School class from when I was 5,” and you start to zone out for a little bit. But then you emerge from the mires of Exodus, rejuvenated and ready for more. And then you hit…… LEVITICUS. What? No. It’s over. I’m done. I’ll read the Bible in a year. Next year.
Sounds familiar? Feels like you’ve read Genesis so many times, but you still can’t remember anything? Don’t know who Shamgar is? Don’t worry, I feel you. Sometimes, it’s difficult to read the Bible.
So how do you read probably one of the biggest books you own? How do you approach something so holy, yet so accessible? How do you apply the Word of God in ways that can shape your life into who the Lord has called you to be? How can you find these applications in even the most unrelatable passages?
Let’s go through a couple examples! This ended up being a much longer blog than I had anticipated, but I think it will be helpful! To get the most out of this, it would be good to have a Bible, pen, highlighter, and paper/journal nearby to follow along with what we are about to do.
We’ll start with an easier one. Please take out your Bible and turn to Psalm 28. Take some time to read it, and when you’re done, continue along here.
Alright, now that you’ve read the passage, take a look at the chapter again. Try to visualize everything that you just read. Imagine yourself going down to “the pit,” and imagine hearing the distant but nearing voices of enemies that want to kill you. Do you feel desperate? You call out to God, but hear nothing.
“Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy!”
And all of a sudden, in the deep darkness of the pit, you see a light, and a hand reaches down to pull you out.
“Blessed be the LORD! For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.”
Now for the text. Does anything jump out to you? Was anything confusing? Write down words or phrases that seem interesting or maybe words that relate to something on your mind. Maybe even underline or highlight them in your Bible, if you dare. I have two verses highlighted in my Bible: verse 2 and verse 7.
v.2 Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
I highlighted this because when I first read it, the urgency of the Psalmist stuck out to me. “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy” sounds pretty desperate, as if the writer is grasping for a glimpse of God. A lot of the time, I feel like that’s me. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to hear God. I know in my mind that He’s there (because of all that He’s done in my life and all that He’s revealed to me about His character through my relationships with other Christians), but sometimes it’s hard to have faith in the difficult times. And like me, the speaker here is crying out to God in the midst of a difficult time. He knows the character of God, and that God will punish those who turn away from Him by living in sin. He also knows that God will rescue and deliver those who are of His people. As a child of God, the Psalmist knows he is safe from God’s wrath, and yet he still prays with such urgency. And at this moment, I am reminded: do I pray with such urgency? Do I seek the favor of God with such desperation, even though I know I am His? And furthermore, do I seek the favor of God upon those whom I love with the same desperation? It's definitely something to think about.
v.7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
I highlighted this verse because I needed to emphasize this truth to myself. Too long had I been relying on my own strength to handle the weight the world was putting on my shoulders. Too long had I gone without giving thanks to God for both his blessing and his intervention. When I saw this, I thought about how I had been living my life, not acknowledging the one who was providing for me. I thought about what it would be like to really believe in God as an all-powerful being that I can trust everything with, from big questions about my future to daily things such as bringing me home safely from school. With this mindset, why wouldn’t I want to know God more? Why wouldn’t I want to open up my Bible every day and see what words He has in store for me? Reading this Psalm gave me confidence in knowing that the Lord is with me, even during the times when I can’t feel him there. It showed me that when I depended on Him as my source of joy, I was able to see His blessings more clearly.
Congratulations! You have completed your first “exegesis,” or at least a softer form of it. Exegesis is the act of interpreting biblical text in a critical way, trying to tease out its deeper meanings by taking into account its historical context and its modern day application. By picking verses that stood out to you and figuring how they related to your own personal situation, hopefully you were able to see how God is indeed speaking to you through the Word in ways that you weren’t able to see before. Ready for another example? Open up to Hebrews 12:3-17. You know the drill: read the passage, visualize a scene, then return for another round.
Now this passage was a little bit more tough to understand (for me at least). Again, write down or mark in your Bible words or phrases that stood out to you. I'll share below what stood out to me.
v.3-4 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
This verse jumped out at me because endurance has been on my mind lately. I wrote in a previous blog about how life just gets you down sometimes, and you don’t really seem to be going anywhere. Or maybe you feel like you’ve failed a thousand times and that you’re so far from God that you can’t possibly approach His holiness. But this passage tells us that in these moments, God is teaching us endurance. How does our struggle compare to the agonizing death of Jesus Christ on the cross as he bore the weight of the world's sin? How does our struggle compare to the merciless killing of early Christians who weren’t afraid to proclaim the Gospel? 9 times out of 10, it really doesn't (especially if we go with the Jesus example). We are fighting our own sinful nature, and yet God provides a means of grace for us through Jesus. That is certainly more than enough for us to be loved and accepted into the kingdom of heaven.
v.10b but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.
Okay, so God is teaching us endurance. But this kinda sucks, man. Why can’t everything just be rainbows and unicorns and strawberry parfaits all day errday? If anything, our hardships are a testament of God’s love for us, much like how a loving parent disciplines a child for his/her own good. Through my own struggles, God has taught me more about dependence and trust in Him. God reminds me in an attention-grabbing way that I am not God, and that I am certainly not in control. And God uses my struggles to grow me in a way that allows me to trust in Him, drawing me ever closer to being more like Him and enjoying His goodness.
v.15-16 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no roots of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
I love this because first the Bible tells us we can’t go through life alone, then that God provides a community for us to keep each other accountable. Prevent the seeds of bitterness from being sown. By actively loving and encouraging one another, we begin to overwhelm each other with displays of the grace of God so that there is simply no room for negativity. And last, it’s so tempting to stop short of God’s gift of eternal life just so that we can satisfy a short-term appetite like Esau did, but as a community, we try our best to keep each others’ eyes on the prize. And so, as we strive to work with one another and with God, through community, we draw ever closer to glimpsing the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Hopefully by now, you have a better idea of how to approach reading the Bible. I can’t claim that I’m the best at it either; sometimes, things are just so confusing, and at other times, I just don’t read at all. But in moments like these, I am still thankful that God allows access for me to reach and to know Him simply by reading His Word. I am thankful for people in my life that continue to point me in the right direction and that encourage me to press on toward the goal. I am thankful for His grace that continues to cover me even when I mess up again and again.
Summary (for noobs):
- Read the passage.
- Visualize a scene (whether it’s the events in the passage, or something in your life that relates to what it’s saying).
- Underline or highlight words, verses, or phrases that stand out to you.
- Spend some time to meditate on why you chose these words.
- Use external resources to figure out what things mean.
- Pray for God to reveal to you His purpose through what you read.
- Talk about it with other people. Ask questions!