As people enter the first week of their New Year Resolutions, some of whom may have resolved to read the Bible, let me encourage you NOT to start at the beginning. For many, we pick up this book and look to devour it like it was a James Patterson novel or God’s authorized biography. It is not. It is far more complex and life changing than that.
And I wonder if so many people leaf through the first 11 chapters of Genesis, known as “Prehistory” and think to themselves: well if I cannot accept a talking snake, where did Cain & Seth’s wives come from, there is no way that 7 of every animal would fit into a man made boat, I’d be better spent reading Aesop’s Fables cause at least there I will be spoon fed the moral of every story.
Like this one, which btw is great advice:
The Man and His Two Sweethearts
A MIDDLE-AGED MAN, whose hair had begun to turn gray, courted two women at the same time. One of them was young, and the other well advanced in years. The elder woman, ashamed to be courted by a man younger than herself, made a point, whenever her admirer visited her, to pull out some portion of his black hairs. The younger, on the contrary, not wishing to become the wife of an old man, was equally zealous in removing every gray hair she could find. Thus it came to pass that between them both he very soon found that he had not a hair left on his head.
Those who seek to please everybody please nobody.
We often come the Bible expecting cute fables like this that will wrap up each episode with a clear moral; or at least a deep thought like a Scrubs voiceover. What we discover, however, are stories wrapped in traditions and symbols laden with deeper meaning that causes us to dig deeper and deeper. Therefore, when starting to read the Bible, we wrinkle our nose at these ancient “fools” and let an air of suspicion (and pride–which the Bible calls the root of our problem) leak out of our “modern sensibilities.”
Therefore, I would suggest that the beginning is NOT the best place to start. Come back to it, once we have allowed the Bible to read us. Once we see that Scripture is not a single book, but a single story told through a variety of genres, voices, time periods and real people. This point of this story is to do two things:
- Humble us during the good times
- Provide us hope during the difficult times
This objective is told through the 4 chapters of God’s Story:
- Creation::God created the Universe, and is in the control of all things (Genesis 1 & 2).
- Mess::Though God created it, we have messed it up, and daily stumble, fumble, rumble through our existence continuing to mess it up (Genesis 3-Malachi).
- Christ::Seeing that we cannot do it on our own God so loved the world that He sent His Son to clean up our mess for us (Matthew 1:1-Acts 1:11).
- NewCreation::The result is that as God’s kingdom breaks forth more and more, and we prepare for Heaven to come to Earth, we catch glimmers of Christ’s love in people, in the gathered community (church) and in our mission to live lives worthy of the Gospel for others (Acts 1:12-Revelation).
So instead of starting at the beginning, read it from the inside out.
Treat it like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, we all cheated on as a kid; skip ahead and look where the story is going so that you can understand what God is trying to say “In the Beginning…”
The Big Story hangs on the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Chapter 3):
- If Jesus never lived—then God does not have the power to create and order the world (Chapter 1).
- If Jesus never died on a cross—then we are still trapped in our own messy lives; and mess cannot clean up mess (Chapter 2).
- If Jesus was never resurrected—then there is no hope for us. For if Christ took upon himself all of our mess, and God brought that Mess back to eternal life; then the good news is that He can clean me up too. If His bones are still rotting in some ground, then we’d be better served reading Aesop’s morality (Chapter 4).
So my recommendation is to stop your reading plans right now, and cheat a little by reading ahead.
Some great places to start:
- Mark’s Gospel (It’s the shortest one and could be read in one night)
Then go for Luke, John, Matthew…and then read them again.
- Galatians—this is great introductory to theology as the church is struggling to understand grace in a world of rules. Solid companion voice to reading Galatians.
- Psalms—You can emotionally relate the roller coaster life of King David and others, as they go from the pit of despair and the valley of death to lifting their eyes up to the hills where their help comes from.
- Ecclesiastes—why here? Because you can see that the words written by a man 2500 years ago could be made by anyone who has achieved success without significance in our era. Plus its short.
Now, let me be clear, I believe that the Bible is fully infallible—fancy word for that it will not fail us—it will not lead us astray; if we keep coming back to it time and time and time again for direction it will lead us in the way we should go. So I am not saying avoid these parts because they are “untrue” or difficult to understand, but wonder if our best intentions (to know God better) get derailed by good efforts (to read from cover to cover).
For the Orthodoxy Nerds out there, here is my faith statement regarding scripture.
- I believe in the mystery of Scripture: God has orchestrated a true story that, for each of us, holds eternal implications for and direct authority over our lives. Led by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, all of the scriptures are transformed from their particular cultural manifestations into the eternal and universal Living Word that reveal perfectly and completely the will of God through Jesus Christ for our daily lives.
I view scripture, the 2nd derivative Word of God from the Primary Word of God, Jesus Christ, to bear the same complexity as the hypostatic union. #TheologicalShowboating.