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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How To Read the Bible for the First Time, Part 2

I got one comment on the last post in this series (before LeAnne's guest post), and I've given it a lot of thought since I got it. In case you missed that comment, here it is:
Once a person has accepted the general truths of Christianity, he will probably need some more specific instructions for daily life. The Apostle Paul's writings are a great resource for that, although they can get a little "deep." Ephesians might be the right next step, followed by a good strong dose of James.
While I agree that new Christians need some guidance for daily living, I was worried that Ephesians wasn't exactly a good place to start (as for James, I think it's important to read early on, but not this early). To check up on myself about my misgivings about Ephesians, I reread the first two chapters of that book, feigning complete ignorance of the Bible. After all, I am talking about reading the Bible for the first time, right?

Unfortunately, Ephesians seems to be pretty far along on the Bible knowledge curve. Chapter one talks about tricky concepts like predestination. Chapter two gets more difficult, beginning with, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins," which would need to be explained, since a person who hasn't read about the curse of Adam and Eve or read Paul's explanation of what that meant, would probably think, "Hey, this doesn't apply to me, since as far as I know, I've never died." Later in chapter two, Paul discusses circumcision, which would require a grounding in Old Testament Jewish law and citizenship rules to make sense of it.

So, my anonymous commenter, I respectfully disagree with you on your reading choice.(I sincerely hope that doesn't shut down all comments on this blog, since that's not what I'm going for, here). I'm not throwing out the whole baby with the bathwater, because the basic, underlying point you made is excellent and insightful.

That is, that new Bible readers could begin to believe, if they only focus on the Gospels and never read the rest, that being a Christian is as simple as being nice and believing that Jesus rose from the dead. Too often, Christians (out of either ignorance or malice) tell new converts that Christianity "isn't about rules and guidelines," but that is really a lie. That would mean that Christianity is lawless and anarchist, which is very, very far from it's basic teachings and what even Christ lived. One of the central building blocks of the Christian faith is that there are rules, and that everyone has broken them. Unlike other faiths, Christianity doesn't stop there. It offers grace, which contrary to popular belief, still had to come about by following the rules. Grace without boundaries is lawlessness and injustice (something now one could respect), but grace that doesn't break the rules is merciful while still being fair (which even non-Christians love).

The Law vs. Grace: Why Jesus Came, and What His Death Meant

If you've read only the Gospels, you know who Jesus is, and probably picked up on a whole lot of mysterious mentions about "the Law and Prophets." If you guessed that the Old Testament is all about "the Law and Prophets," you were correct. You also read the part where Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5: 17 NIV). So what is the law, and why did it need to be fulfilled?

The law was very important to the Jewish people (it still is), since it was given to them directly from God at an early stage in their history. It's basically a list of rules and symbolic acts that they understood that they had to obey to please God; breaking these rules displeased God.

Jesus was saying that He didn't come to abolish the rules (He wasn't an anarchist or a revolutionary, as He is often cast), but rather that He had come to follow them completely, even by (and especially by) modeling and obeying the spirit and meaning behind them all. At this early point in reading the Bible, it is essential to understand this.

This is why I'm recommending that new Bible readers should direct their attention to the book of Romans. It was written by the Apostle Paul, and just as the anonymous commenter said, it is a little "deep," but that's because Paul was endeavoring to explain some really deep stuff: the meaning of the Law, and how Jesus fulfilled it. Without understanding the law, none of Christianity makes any sense. That is why the book of Romans is so crucial.

Paul wrote extensively about the law and its fulfillment, because he was a scholar of the highest caliber on the Jewish law--a sort of professor emeritus or summa cum laude of Jewish theology. He had studied it his whole life, but until he met Jesus and believed what He'd said about fulfilling the law, Paul had no understanding of the why of all those rules he'd spent so much time memorizing. If you want to know the why behind Christianity (and the real value of Christ's sacrifice), you have to read Romans.

I'll be back soon with another post on this topic. In the meantime, I really want to hear your comments, because they do help direct me. I never brush them off. So I'll ask again, What do you think should come next in a first-time Bible study, and why? Defend your answer.


Anonymous said...

For new believers: First print out a listing of the books of the Bible that you can see at a glance.

Then start with the 4 Gospels. While reading them, stop when you see references of things like "He said this because it had been foretold about Him......" Use those annotations or footnotes at the base of the page, and go to those scriptures, at that moment, to see how Christ fulfilled the prophecies concerning him. The printed list helps until you are more familiar with where things are found.

I think reading on into Acts is the next step. It helps establish how the church was built, and establishes more basic doctrinal teachings. It shows us how we the Gentiles are included in this great kingdom.

After that I think Hebrews is a good choice. It reinforces the kingship and priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then of course the sky is the limit. Read where you like, and often. You might save a deep study of Levitical law, Numbers' geneology, and the prophetical books until you've read more of the new testament, Psalms, and Proverbs etc.