The World's Best-Seller - 3

While the bible may be the world’s “Best Seller,” it probably also wins the “Most Seldom Read Best Seller” award.  Why might that be so?  Many reasons, perhaps.  Among them:  too many distractions; little belief in relevancy; the assumption that it is written for academics and theologians; sheer laziness, etc.  But those sound more like excuses than reasons.  Plenty of people overcome such obstacles to study biology, medicine, engineering, physics and other challenging subjects. 

It seems that a similar problem was prevalent in Jesus’ day regarding the Old Testament.  First, the Sadducees, the priestly class, rejected all of God’s revelation except the Torah (the first five books).  Second, the oral tradition of the ancient rabbis had largely gained precedence over the text of the Law and Prophets leading Jesus to level this charge against the scribes and Pharisees:  “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men – the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do” (Mk 7:8).  Third, although it was standard practice to read from the Scriptures in  synagogue worship (Ac 15:21), such occasions were hijacked by hypocrites who love to pray standing in the synagogues … that they may be seen by men” (Mt 6:5).  Likewise, “they love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues” (Mt 23:6).  It seems that reading God’s word with the express purpose of understanding and conforming to its teaching was secondary to more carnal interests.

This leads Jesus to observe of His contemporaries:  You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me … How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:39, 44). 

Thus, when Jesus read from Isa 49:8-9 in His hometown synagogue and applied it to Himself, the residents of Nazareth, instead of rejoicing that their “hometown boy” was actually the promised Messiah, attempted to dispatch Him by throwing Him off a cliff (Lk 4:16-30).  Obviously, there was a woeful lack of comprehension of the prophets in the time of Jesus.  Further, most Jews did not own their own copies of the scriptures.  The meticulously copied and expensive scrolls were scarce and mostly confined to the synagogues for public reading.    

There is no substitute for personal zeal in searching for the truth about God.  Though we don’t know the details, apparently Anna and Simeon shared Messianic expectation even while most of their countrymen were mired in apathy and traditionalism (Lk 2:25-38).  Others in our own day have found a true knowledge of God living in communist and Islamic countries, among them one of our own members.  Of His own teaching, which was sometimes obscured by His symbolic and figurative imagery, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (Jn 7:17).  Even those in Jesus’ immediate presence had to combat the pre-conceptions, distractions and outright threats from the Sanhedrin to conclude that Jesus was speaking with heavenly authority and should be listened to at all costs.  Their success in doing this began with genuine interest and zeal in the things of God.

But let’s assume such zeal exists in a person today.  What are some “helpful hints” that would assist a seeker to make sense of this ancient collection of literature?

1. General principles of reading comprehension apply.  Obviously, there are special rules of Greek and Hebrew for advanced linguists that might have a bearing on higher level learning of the text, but fortunately such scholars have applied their skills to translating these languages into a variety of English renditions.  In essence, we can read and study scripture according to the same linguistic mechanisms we employ to understand English literature:  similes, metaphors, synecdoche, inferences, literal and figurative terminology, etc.  We must, however, read and study with discernment, which is becoming a rare talent in a non-reading culture like ours.

2. The #1 determiner of accurate reading is context.  This cannot be overstressed:  questions like who are the author/readers; what is the historical setting (political, cultural, moral atmosphere, etc.); what is the general purpose of the book; how does the author lay out his argument (especially in the epistles) are crucial to teasing out the true meaning of the text.  So many false conclusions are drawn by not adhering to the author’s purpose and “proof-texting” – applying a passage to a subject it was not intended to address. 

3. The Old and New Testaments must be differentiated.  This is not always done even by those who already understand the purposes of these two covenant documents.  The “Old Testament” (including both patriarchal history and Mosaic law) is valuable for understanding historical background and types and figures of Christian concepts but is not judicially applicable today.  The “New Testament” is the covenant Christ inaugurated by virtue of His atoning death and resurrection.  He has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28:18) and is the sole focus of our relationship with our heavenly Father. 

4. There is a unity behind the diverse genres of New Testament books.  The gospels give relevant information about the life of Christ – His travels, teaching, miracles, interactions with people and the details of His rejection, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.  Acts is brief account of the blooming of Christianity in the Roman world in the first century – the fulfillment of God’s plan for forgiveness and reconciliation with sinful mankind.  The epistles are “mail,” correspondence between the inspired writers and their readers – local congregations, individuals and regional churches.  This unique type of instruction is different from a text like Leviticus, for it frames the law of God in the format of real churches and individuals facing real problems that are addressed by practical and doctrinal instruction.  And, of course, Revelation requires some specialized study skills to properly grasp due to its high degree of symbolism.  There is no difference between “red and black letters” in the NT; everything written is by the Holy Spirit’s direction and bears heaven’s authority.  God has graciously shared His thoughts with us.  We owe Him our best in discovering those thoughts as we seek to do His will.