As Christians, we rely on the Holy Spirit and the Bible to reveal God to us. If anything hinders our ability to fully understand what God wants us to learn from Scripture, that can be a problem. The more we understand the Bible, the more securely we can know, understand and present God’s truth. In order to read the Bible well, we need to understand genre, purpose, and context.
God inspired the writers of the Bible to present His truth to the world through a variety of genres.
History – Historical writings contain a purposeful presentation of facts. Historians record real people, places and events, but not necessarily the same way a historian would today. Biblical historians majored on details that supported the main point of the event and ignored or minimized the details that didn’t.
Law – The law included moral laws (don’t kill); ceremonial laws (wash your hands); hygenic laws (quarantine lepers), and civil laws (forgive debts every 7 years). There is a distinction between the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law) and the New Covenant (in Christ), but in the Old Testament all of these laws served the purpose of showing the Israelites how to live as holy people of God – the “called out” ones – in the midst of the cultures which surrounded them.
Wisdom Literature – These books are wise or insightful sayings. Proverbs, for example, is full of general principles about how life works. Ecclesiastes reveals a lot of Solomon’s despair and cynicism – and ultimately hope – as he grapples with some of the deepest questions of life.
Poetry – This genre is scattered throughout the Bible, with Psalms as the pinnacle. David and the other writers use colorful symbolism and deeply personal expressions of grief, hope, joy, despair, anger – basically everything we hear in modern songs. Some of the psalms express profound truths about God; others reveal grim self-portraits of people struggling to see God clearly in the midst of a hard life.
Prophetic writing – Prophecy is either a prediction of the future or a challenging analysis of how people are doing from God’s perspective. Far more time is spent on how people were doing, which usually wasn’t good. The prophets usually spoke to specific people in specific situations, but their messages still contain timeless insights about the nature of God and humanity.
War texts – Paul Copan has written quite a bit about the use of exaggeration in historical Near Easter war texts. We read the Old Testament language about the annihilation of enemies very literally; the Israelites would have understood that the genre was a highly hyperbolic way of recording historical events.
Apocalyptic – There are a variety of opinions on how books like Revelation are meant to be read. They are at least meant to be read as messages of hope for people in distress. They are full of strange imagery and codes, as they were usually written at times when the message needed to be cryptic (since Rome was reading the mail). This makes them hard to decipher, but the overall message is meant to be one of hope.
Romance – Song of Solomon is a book about love, sex, and marriage. Some consider it an allegory (and it may be), but it may simply be God’s stamp of approval on love, sex, and marriage. Ruth is a romance that points toward Christ, so it works on several levels as well.
Epistles – The apostles traveled around from church to church, and when they weren’t there in person they would write letters based on their experiences or on reports they were hearing. They would explain theology, talk about church life, describe Jesus, discuss the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit, give advice on how to live holy lives in a particular city, etc.
We do justice to Scripture by reading passages as they were intended to be read.
Some of the teachings in the Bible are specifically prescriptive – they tells us what to do. For example, the Sermon on the Mount contains very direct teaching from Jesus on how to live well in the Kingdom of God.
Some of the Bible is specifically corrective. A lot of Old Testament prophecy tells people how they need to change. Many portions of the epistles focus on correcting distorted teachings or lifestyles in the early church.
Some of the Bible is descriptive. Many Old Testament stories are not instructive or corrective; they just are – they record events “as is.” A lot of the book of Acts is like this as well. We can learn from these descriptions as we understand them in the broader context of the Bible, but their primary purpose is merely to record a particular event.
We have to be careful that we do not read descriptive parts of Scripture as prescriptive commands.
The context includes not only reading passages in their entirety (so as not to deconstruct a verse and lose the broader supporting text), but also understanding the language, the city, the times, the people, and the literary era. All of this information helps us understand how the original audience understood the histories and letters written for them.
Here is an example from Revelations 3: “ I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”
The genre is epistle – it’s a letter to the Laodicean church.
The purpose is instructional and corrective – the church needs to know something important about how God perceives them so they can change.
Laodicea was famous for its aquaducts, which attempted to pipe in water from both hot springs (for healing) and cold mountains (for refreshment). However, while cities closer to the original sources had hot and cold water, Laodicea was so far from both sources that the water was lukewarm by the time it arrived. As the readers of the letter knew, lukewarm water was good for nothing. Laodicea was also famous for its eye salve (but they were still blind), gold (but they were still poor), and black wool (but they needed white clothes to wear).
As important as it is to read the Bible well, let’s not forget the main point: we are not reading the Bible to read the Bible. We are reading the Bible to learn about God. The Bible should never be an idol. It is, however, God’s only biography, and we need to read it well.