Bible Study Basic: Genre in Scripture

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“The nature of the material under investigation determines the rules by which you interpret it.”

It’s been 10 years since I sat in his class but I can still hear Dr. McKenzie hammering that sentence down, down, down into our skulls. In today’s Bible Study Basic post I’ll be explaining the concept of genre (in a rather simplistic way).

You read a love letter differently than you read a textbook, differently than you read a newspaper. That’s because they are each written in a different genre. The love letter is bound to contain flowery symbolic language aimed at tugging your heart strings, but you’d hate to read a textbook full of symbolism. In the same way you’d never profess your love in textbook form with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Those differences are (basically) the differences of genre and though the discussion on genre can get pretty deep, I don’t have to explain the basics. You instinctively learn the difference between a love letter and a newspaper.

When you come to study the Bible you are coming to a book filled with different genre. A few examples include:

  • Historical Narrative: Joshua
  • Gospel (Theological Biography): Matthew
  • Prophetic: Isaiah
  • Apocalyptic: Revelation

Each of these forms must be read differently in order to understand their meaning. Dr. McKenzie taught us that the text itself (the material under investigation) will help you interpret it (determines the rules by which you interpret it.) What does that mean? It means that you should read with an eye towards genre. As you read a book of the Bible you are also teaching yourself (or the text is teaching you) how that book should be read. Reading the Psalter repeatedly over time will make you a better interpreter of the genre of Biblical wisdom literature. As you read the Gospel of John over and over you’ll develop a keener sense of the rules of interpreting a gospel.

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Recommended Resource: Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson

51fBcQ3mCGL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Yesterday I finished reading Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson (the same pastor who gave us The Message). Just as Tim Keller’s book will be my go-to resource for Christians who want to learn to pray, I highly recommend this book for those wanting to learn to read the Bible for spiritual nourishment.

The title comes from the passage in Revelation when the Apostle John is commanded to eat the scroll which contained God’s Word. As he devoured the Word it was sweet in his mouth and bitter in his stomach. Peterson’s hope was that Christians wouldn’t just read the Word of God, he wanted us to would devour it, taste it’s utter sweetness as well as feel the bitterness of conviction it can bring.

Peterson spent part one of the book explaining what kind of book the Bible is, and how we should approach it. Part two is a method for reading the Bible spiritually (lectio divina), and the end of the book includes Peterson’s commented on textual transmission, translation and his work on The Message.

This book will lead you to a higher observation of God’s Word than you’ve known before, and it will push you headlong as a participant in the world of that Word. Here’s a link to purchase it along with some quotes to mull over:

Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. pbk. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub Co., 2009, ©2006.

  • Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.
  • An interest in souls divorced from and interest in Scripture leaves us without a text that shapes these souls. In the same way, an interest in Scripture divorced from an interest in souls leaves us without any material for the text to work on.
  • This may be the single most important thing to know as we come to read and study and believe these Holy Scriptures: this rich, alive, personally revealing God as experienced in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, personally addressing us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, at whatever age we are, in whatever state we are- me, you us. Christian reading is participatory reading, receiving the words in such a way that they become interior to our lives, the rhythms and images becoming practices of prayer, acts of obedience, ways of love.
  • It takes the whole Bible to read any part of the Bible.
  • Lovers don’t take a quick look, get a “message” or a “meaning,” and then run off and talk endlessly with their friends about how they feel.
  • Contemplation means living what we read, not wasting any of it or hoarding any of it, but using it up in living.

 

Sensing the Scriptures

I’ve had an ongoing conversation with a handful of church members about meditation on the Scriptures. We’ve been talking about how we practice meditation, what it is, and how we can increase in the blessing it brings to us. We all agree, as do many Christians throughout history, that meditation moves from merely reasoning the words of Scriptures towards sensing the words.

Just as we have 5 physical senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing that we use to live in and experience the world around us, inwardly our imaginations possess those same qualities.

  • If I asked you to think about your mother’s voice you can hear it. She doesn’t have to be in the room with you, but you hear her speaking. Her voices lives inside you.
  • Remember, when as a kid, you walked barefoot outside in the height of Summer? You’re running down the line of woods near house and the sweetness of honeysuckle washes over you. Following your nose, you locate the vine overflowing with white and butter-yellow blossoms. Carefully pulling the stem, that one drop of nectar hits your taste buds.

In meditation we imaginatively use our senses, much like we do in remembering, in order to contact with and hear the text.

In Bible study we de-contextualize and isolate texts. We dissect words, relationships, structure, and meaning. We stand over and above the text as interpreter. We bring our questions to the Bible ask it to answer us. We reason with the text. Our rational capacities engage, and the result is knowledge and understanding.

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In meditation we see, taste, touch, smell, and listen to Scripture. We sense it. The Word becomes our guide as we sit under and beneath it. We don’t ask it questions, as much as it addresses us and calls us to answer. We sense the text. We descend with the mind, down into the heart. We laugh, smile, cry, gasp, and wonder. Truth becomes light. Law becomes pain. Grace issues forth into song.

Jonathan Edwards left us an example of what it means to sense the Scriptures:

I very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, on the banks of Hudson’s River, at some distance from the city, for contemplation on divine things and secret converse with God: and had many sweet hours there. I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy scriptures. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.

He’s reading the Bible, but he’s being touched, and handled. Looking at words on a page he senses his interior person pulsing with harmonic vibration in response to the Word. The words taste sweet, yet in them he also submits to a superior strength pressing against him. Every sentence deserves the attention to detail given to a mouthful of wine, wonders beyond wonders available to the patient and perceptive. Meditation is participation in the living world of the text.

Bible Study Basic: Read the Parts and the Whole

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It’s week two of Bible Study Basic. Last week I told you The Bible is About Jesus. This week I’m giving you a method of reading the Bible. If you’re going to be a good Bible student you have to learn to read the parts and the whole. What do I mean by that? Well, we can divide your Bible up into smaller parts.

  • The Whole Bible
    • The Old Testament
      • The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
        • Genesis
          • Genesis 3
            • Genesis 3:14-15

Above you see six levels of depth. As you read and study your Bible you should work to see how the whole helps you understand the individual parts, as well as how the parts contribute to the whole. Here are some questions you should ask:

  • How does the story of the Bible relate to the story of Genesis 3:14-15?
  • How does Genesis 3:14-15 relate to Genesis as a whole?
  • How does the message of the Pentateuch help me understand Genesis, or Genesis 3?

Let’s take Genesis 3:14-15 for example.

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring  and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.

How does the story of the Bible relate to the story of Genesis 3:14-15

The Bible is God’s grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration in Christ Jesus. Our passage obviously teaches us about the Fall of man. Having been deceived by the serpent and spurned God’s love this verse is actually part of the curse God spoke over creation. Thankfully, even in the curse of the Fall God has redemption in mind. One day, the descendant of Adam and Eve will crush the serpent’s head.

How does Genesis 3:14-15 relate to Genesis as a whole?

The enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent likely refers to the division throughout Genesis between those who trust and obey God and those who oppose his rule. Though they both knew what God required Abel brought an acceptable sacrifice and Cain refused. The descendants of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, represent those who seek God in Genesis. For the rest of the book the author makes distinctions between those who God calls in his grace and those he does not.

How does the message of the Pentateuch help me understand Genesis 3?

Here you’ll have to read and process a lot. The point of the Pentateuch is to show us where we came from and why we are the way we are (Creation and Fall). The Pentateuch is also given to us to show that only unilateral action by God himself will rescue us from our pitiful state. It is God who calls the undeserving Abraham and covenants to bless the world through him. God alone rescues his people out of their bondage in Egypt. He redeems his people, brings them to himself (Sinai), and calls them to obedience (Ten Commandments). No one in the Pentateuch demonstrates faithfulness or obedience to the degree that God must accept them. The end of the Deuteronomy shows us that even the most faithful leader, Moses, had disobeyed God and wouldn’t enter the Promised Land. When the book closes, the serpent still lives. The people of God must wait for the one who is greater than Moses to come and crush the serpent’s head.

10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. — Deuteronomy 34:10-12 (ESV)

Where do I begin?

1. Read Deep and Wide

If you want confidence when you open your Bible you have to read both deep (dig into small passages) and wide (read Romans in one sitting). You must work diligently to understand the parts in light of the whole. How can you do that if you never commit to read the entire Bible? You must work to understand the whole in light of the parts. How can you do that without committing to studying God’s Word in a class, or on your own?

2. Start a Journal

One of the best things you can do is to start a journal to take notes from your pastor’s preaching or your Bible study’s teaching. Any time they relate the passage under immediate investigation to the whole make note of it.

3. Summarize the Book in One Sentence

As you read the book look for recurring themes, phrases, words. Can you write out the argument the author is making in one sentence? I’ll never forget that the key phrase in Exodus is, “That you may know that I am the Lord.” It occurs 38 times in the book. Hebrews shows us that Jesus is supreme. John wrote his gospel that, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) I typically write my one sentence summary at the top of the title page of each book.

Bible Study Basic: The Bible is About Jesus

So, you want to study the Bible? Bible Study Basic will be an ongoing series of posts written to introduce you to the most basic concepts and methods for proper Bible reading and interpretation.

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How you approach the Bible changes what happens when you read and study the Bible. Do you approach the Bible as an answer book to improve your life? Do you see yourself above it asking it your questions? Or, do you see the Bible as something greater than yourself, under which you stand, waiting to receive? How should you approach the Bible? The teaching of Jesus can help us here. Two disciples were walking down the road after the resurrection of Christ, yet they didn’t believe. Though they didn’t recognize him, the risen Lord came and explained how we should all approach the Scriptures:

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24.25-27

It’s easy to miss exactly what Jesus teaches us here. All of the Scriptures are about him. The Scriptures aren’t primarily about us. They’re about God and his rescue mission in Christ. That means you and I should approach our Bible reading and study looking ultimately for Jesus.

No only does Jesus say that the Scriptures are about him. He tells us that all of the Scriptures, rightly interpreted, lead us to him. What does that mean, and why is it important? It means that anytime you have read your Bible or listened to a sermon/lesson from the Scriptures that didn’t culminate in Jesus you have not yet arrived at the final purpose for which God spoke his Word. Two examples:

  • A Bible study on Joseph shouldn’t just encourage you to trust God when things go wrong. It should point to Jesus, the true Joseph, who though he was betrayed by those closest to him did not retaliate, but rather chose to rescue us when we were dying of hunger. That’s because the story of Joseph isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus.
  • A sermon on David and Goliath should never leave you thinking that with enough faith you can face your giants. That story is about David acting as the representative of the people of God. His victory would be their victory his defeat would be theirs. Risking his own life, David struck down the enemy. Jesus, the better David, is our representative who went out to battle our enemies. His victory is given to us. He didn’t just risk his life as our representative, he gave his life up for us to strike down our enemy. David and Goliath isn’t about us, it’s about Jesus. It’s only because Jesus has faced down the ultimate enemies of sin and death and we have power to face our sins in this life.

You see, Jesus isn’t one branch in the river of Biblical understanding, he’s the main channel. All of our reading, interpretation, and application must flow from him or we aren’t taking the Scriptures seriously. This is lesson one of Bible Study Basic. As you read and listen to sermons begin to train your eyes and ears to find Christ on every page.

Recommended Resources:

If you’d like a solid resource to help you do this check out Edmund Clowney’s wonderful book The Unfolding Mystery. Clowney walks through the entire Old Testament pointing the reader to Christ along the way.

You can also listen any Tim Keller sermon. Find his sermons at Gospel in Life.

How to Meditate: Luther’s Garland Prayer

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5 centuries ago Martin Luther’s barber asked him how to pray. Luther responded with a 40 page letter entitled A Simple Way to Pray that has been read and practiced by Christians ever since. Last night I shared one of Luther’s methods for meditating on God’s word with our church. It’s called garland prayer.

As a garland is made by intertwining multiple strands of greenery, Luther teaches us to weave a 4 strand prayer. Here’s a simplified, and somewhat modified, outline of Luther’s method:

1. Find a Quiet Regular Place for Morning and Evening Prayer

First, when I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little psalter, hurry to my room,

It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.

2. Begin with a Prayer of Acknowledgement

… kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think as briefly as you can:

O heavenly Father, dear God, I am a poor unworthy sinner. I do not deserve to raise my eyes or hands toward You or to pray. But because You have commanded us all to pray and have promised to hear us and through Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, have taught us both how and what to pray, I come to You in obedience to Your Word, trusting in Your gracious promises. I pray in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ together with all Your saints and Christians on earth as He has taught us

I’ll typically begin my time of reading and meditation by echoing this prayer. I am usually sitting and I open my hands. There’s nothing super spiritual about opening my palms to God. It’s just a cue to my heart that I am opening myself up to receive from God whatever he chooses to give me.

3. Read Slowly

as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.

This is where meditation begins. You must read slowly, word for word. And do not just read. Taste. See. Hear. Meditation is sensing with the mind. Theophan the Recluse defined prayer and meditation like this, “To meditate is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present all seeing, within you.” George Muller encouraged us to not let our Bible reading become like water flowing through a pipe.

4. Practice Garland Prayer

I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.

Luther applies the garland concept specifically to the Ten Commandments, but it can be applied to any passage. When you read the passage ask two simple questions to find the instruction:

  • What does this teach me about God/Christ?
  • What does this say about who I am or who I should be?

Here’s an example of taking a short passage and practicing the garland method:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Instruction: Our Father. Jesus doesn’t say, “My Father.” He says, “Our.” Now what does that mean? It means that we aren’t just saved as individuals. We’re saved into a family. We have brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thanksgiving: Thank you God, that you’ve given me a family. I don’t have to be alone in this world because of what you’ve done!

Confession: Forgive me God, some of my brothers and sisters irritate me. I don’t like being around them, and I certainly don’t feel like loving them in your name. Jesus died for me just as much as them. Forgive me.

Supplication: Make me more aware and thankful for my family in you. Change my heart towards that family member I can’t stand. Give me an opportunity to serve them in love

5. When Your Heart Begins to Flood with Goodness, Stop. Do Not Move On.

If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit Himself preaches here, and one word of His sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.

6. Proceed with Vocal Prayer

Having devoted yourself to meditating on God’s Word, then move on to normal, vocal prayer. Pray through your requests.

When you practice this method your Bible reading will cease being like water running through a pipe.

 

What are Spiritual Disciplines?

Growing up as a left handed person can be a real challenge. At times it feels as if everything in the world is made for right handed people. Have you righties noticed that your desks in school had an extended support for your forearm when you write? Lefties don’t have that. Have you ever realized that doors typically open toward your right? The English language, written from left to right, means that left handed people smudge ink or graphite onto their hand. Many left handed people are never taught to write properly, and for most of my life I had the ugliest handwriting.

About two years ago I was finally sick of my “chicken scratch” thank you cards and decided to improve my penmanship. In order to do that I had to practice handwriting disciplines. I’d print off these sheets from the internet on how to properly form letters. Whenever I had five or ten minutes to spare I’d pull out a sheet and slowly start writing. Let me tell you, when I first started it was atrocious. I couldn’t even follow a dotted line on paper. It looked about the same as if my 2 year old tried it.

But slowly, over time, my writing became comfortable. I could trace the exact movement of the line with fluidity. I didn’t have to exert nearly as much effort to see results. And even though my handwriting is far better now, I’ve noticed that if I go for any period of time without coming back to those sheets my handwriting suffers. I make slight changes. I don’t form the letters exactly right. A little sloppiness creeps into my thank you notes.

Now, the spiritual disciplines are for your spiritual growth what those handwriting sheets are for my penmanship.

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Donald Whitney, in his Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, says:

The Spiritual Disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.

Just as there are disciplines that help you develop mentally and physically there are disciplines that God’s people have recognized help develop and mature our spiritual life. Just like my hand didn’t naturally know how to form letters properly our fallen souls don’t naturally know how to properly devote ourselves to God and experience his life on an ongoing basis. Christian’s throughout the centuries have realized this and devoted themselves to various practices designed to foster spiritual life. Below is a list I have adapted from Kenneth Boa’s book Conformed to His Image.

  • Solitude and Silence
  • Prayer
  • Journaling/Reflection
  • Bible Reading and Study
  • Meditation
  • Fasting
  • Chastity
  • Secrecy
  • Confession
  • Fellowship
  • Simplicity/Stewardship/Sacrifice
  • Corporate Worship
  • Service
  • Witness

Disciplined spirituality makes a concerted effort at shaping the affections of the heart and the will towards love for God and obedience to his Word. These practices train the soul towards what it does not do naturally. I’m sure you probably observe a few of these disciplines and have thought about some of the others. In future posts I’ll fill out more detail for the individual disciplines, but for now I’d love to hear about your experience with the spiritual disciplines, what books have helped you understand/practice them etc.