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TH O UG H TS & TIPS ON

HOW TO REA D THE BIBLE


BY JEFF BETHKE

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THOUGHTS
TIPS ON

READING THE

AND

THOUGHTS AND TIPS ON


READING THE BIBLE

BIBLE

BY JEFFERSON BETHKE

My wife, Alyssa, is honestly one of the sweetest women on this


planet. Am I biased? Of course. But theres hardly anyone who
comes in contact with her who doesnt say the same thing. She
is always thinking of ways to encourage, pray for, or speak life
into others.
One of my favorite things she does goes back to when
we were dating. After the Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus
poem got a little crazy, I started travelinga lot. To churches,
colleges, etc. Whenever I would go on a trip, Alyssa would
write me these personal notes of encouragement. The catch
is she would write one for every day I was there, and I was
ordered to open them only once a day (they were self-designated, as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.I think you

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get the idea). What was funny, though, is Id hardly make it


back into the car after leaving her house, and Id open all of
themall at once.
Why? I couldnt help myself. They brought me so much
joy, life, and encouragement, I just wanted to read them all in
one sitting. (I was also that kid who begged my parents to let
me open my presents two weeks before Christmas. Patience
isnt a virtue I hold innately.)
But it begs the question, why? Why was I so antsy to read
them all? Why did I enjoy them so much? Simple answer is
because I truthfully believed Alyssa loved me, was all for my
joy, and cared about me.
If I thought she hated me, and didnt want to date me
but felt like she had to for some reason, would I be tempted
to read them? No, of course not. You are more inclined to
read someones words when you believe those words are there
because they care for you.
Ive seen a lot of books or blogs on how to study or read
the Bible. You can have all the techniques and hermeneutics in the world, but if you think God is burdened by you, is
aloof, or doesnt care about you, youll be predisposed to have
a distorted lens through which you view him right from the
beginning!
So just stop for a second and ask if you really believe he
loves you. For that matter, the word love is a little fuzzy and
overused in our culture. How about, do you believe God likes
you? Delights in you? Knows you? Because if you do, then I

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have a feeling that motivation to pick up his grand narrative


called the Bible wont be that big of a problem.

WHATS THE BEST WAY TO VIEW THE BIBLE?


What lens do you see the Bible through? Meaning, what is it
to you? A sword? A road map to life? A collection of stories?
Pause on that question for a second. Even though you
probably dont think so, the answer to that question has
cosmic implications. In fact, your answer to that question
ultimately gives you a very specific view of God and your role
as someone under him.

The Sword of the Spirit


For example, it is common in the Christian world to refer
to the Bible as the sword of the Spirit. Correct? You find it in
the book of Hebrews. But does it say that anywhere else? Is the
writer painting a subnarrative? The writer uses the imagery of
a sword to show the Bible has an edge to it, its sharp, and can
create things. It can cut deep. It has power. It divides between
soul and spirit, bone and marrow.
But follow me here. If you ultimately take that subnarrative and elevate it to the place of ultimate narrative, what does
that produce? If you primarily see the Scriptures as a sword,
then what does that say about God?
It projects that he is nothing more than a sergeant or captain who has commissioned us to fight in a war. And if God
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is a captain of an army, what does that make us? It makes us


soldiers. Is that imagery given in the Scriptures? Of course!
But its not the ultimate narrative. Do you see it everywhere?
In Creation? In the history of Israel? In the words of Jesus? In
the Epistles?
Its used only on a few occasions to convey a special aspect
of the Christian life. So its a subnarrative (meaning its true,
and its there) but it seems to be an illustration used to serve a
greater narrative. Notice that the word soldier isnt used nearly
as often as bride or child. When elevated to the level of the
Bibles ultimate theme, do you see how it can distort the truth
and help create groups of people wielding their swords,
quoting verses about how evil those people arean us versus them culture? (Distortion by definition is something right
that has been misplaced in a particular direction.)

The Road Map to Life


What other subnarratives might we elevate to something
they are not? Another example thats common in our day is
the idea that the Bible is the road map to life. Is it sufficient
for our lives? Of course. But we also have to admit its not the
typical manual we would want as our road map. It doesnt tell
us what colleges to attend, what person to marry, or what jobs
to take. In fact I dont find much specificity from God on the
things we seek. And I see razor-sharp focus on Gods ultimate
will being that we follow him, live humbly, seek justice, and
be obedient.
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When you view the Bible as your road map to life, how
does that affect your view of God? You cant help but create
a God who is a cosmic Santa Claus who exists to satisfy your
needs, answer your specific questions, and give you exact
details about who he wants you to marry or what school he
wants you to go to. What view of yourself does this view of
the Bible and this view of God produce? It puts you as the
center of the story! The map is centered around you! The
world is revolving around you and God is present as butler
not Lord.
View of the Bible

View of God

View of Yourself

Sword of the Spirit

Chief Commanding
Officer

A soldier created
to fight

Road map to life

Cosmic Santa Claus

The world and God


revolve around you

A grand narrative
of a God who
loves, creates,
and redeems his
creation

A grand storyteller

A small part in
Gods story. We are
not at the center
he is.

There are plenty examples of seeing the Bible through the


wrong lens. The list goes on and on. The problem is we often
give those distortions the ultimate importance rather than
seeing them as simply pieces of the pie.
Remember, the Bible contains sixty-six books. Almost forty
different authors wrote it and it spans more than thirty-five

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hundred years. The authors range from kings, prophets, apostles,


shepherds, and peasants! Really let that sink in.

A Story
Imagine a letter written by President John F. Kennedy
and then a letter written by a blue-collar peasant from the
fifth century. There would be enormous differences in the
cultural, sociological, and philosophical frameworks they
were operating in. And thats the beauty of the Scriptures! Its
full of songs, historical accounts, genealogies, and letters that
have brought hope to millions down the ages, written from
many different perspectives.
With that in mind, the best way to see Scripture is as a
storya long story that is full of bumps and bruises, twists
and turns, plot lines, character development, and climaxes
and conclusions just like every story should have. The thread
that ties the extremely diverse texts together is that all point
to Gods rescue operation of this thing called humanity.
The Creation account, the Law, the Prophets, the Songs, the
Gospels, the Epistles, and the book of Revelation all tell the
same storyhow the Creator God (Jesus) brought about
and is still bringing aboutnew creations despite our
rebellion, sin, and cosmic treason.
The Bible is about Godspecifically about how God
became King of the world. In Genesis, God created us so he
could dwell with us and be our God. In the Old Testament the
mission of God dwelling with us is central.
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s4HE/LD4ESTAMENTISALLABOUTWHATITWILL
ultimately look like when God becomes King and
restores this world.
s4HE'OSPELSAREABOUTWHATITLOOKSLIKEWHEN'OD
actually becomes King.
s4HE%PISTLESAREABOUTHOWTOLIVEINLIGHTOF'OD
being King.
s!ND2EVELATIONISABOUTTHEFINALITYORCONCLUSION
where God is King and everything is in shalom
Hebrew for peace, rhythm, etc.as he intended in
the first place.
When we see the Scriptures as a story, more importantly
this specific story, then where does that leave us? It makes us
each a person with a role in the story. We arent at the center. We arent the main stage. The spotlight isnt on us. But
God created us to co-create with him. To co-labor in bringing
about the task he commissioned us with. We arent the story,
but we are in the story! How awesome is that?
Have you ever gone to a movie to see the extras? No one
does that. Personally, I go to any movie Denzel Washington
or Will Smith is in. I dont care what its about, if they are in
it, I see it. Why? Because they rock as actors.
But imagine if you are watching one of Denzels movies
and in one particular scene in a close-up of Denzels face, you
see something strange in the background. You squint, but its
fuzzy and blurry. Soon, though, it becomes obvious its an
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extra, flailing his arms, trying to distract from the scene. The
extra wants the spotlight. Wouldnt that be incredibly weird?
Of course.
That doesnt ever happen because the movie is about
Denzels character. And when the extra plays his small role
well, acting as a tool pointing toward the main storywhich,
if he does his job properly he goes unnoticedthen it flows
perfectly. Thats us with God. We are in his story. His redemption and rescue operation. He is King. He is Lord. He is on the
throne. When we live our lives pointing to ourselves, we look
just as stupid as an extra in the background flailing his arms
during his three-second spot on camera.
So, when you read the Bible, make sure you read it as a
story. In fact, its the greatest story ever told. Its the reason
we all feel a whisper in our hearts every time we read a good
story. Its a signpost pointing to the story all of us are ina
wonderful kingdom narrative with God at the center.

THE WORST BIBLE STUDY QUESTION EVER


The other day I was driving in the car with one of my mentors and we were chatting about the Bible. I was wrestling
with how a lot of stuff that has made the Bible come alive to
me, isnt always that accessible. Sometimes Ive been intimidated, thinking I need to know Greek, Hebrew, and have a
PhD in first-century Judaism to understand a lot of the Bible.
He encouraged me by explaining thats why God has always
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raised up teachers in different times for exactly what the


people need. The teachers job is to teach the people of God
the things of God and give them tools to study and put those
things into practice.
One thing struck me in particular about our conversation.
I dont remember exactly how we got there but I remember
remarking how a popular thing in todays Christian culture
is for Christians to gather in community for Bible study and
that often the teacher will ask, Well, everyone, what does this
passage we just read mean to you?
My mentor calmly looked at me and said, Jeff, you dont
do that with an e-mail, do you? When is the last time you read
an e-mail and said, Hmmm, what does this mean for me?
Is an e-mail the same as the Bible? Of course not! And my
mentor would be the first one to say that. But it is a profound
question I think we have to answer in our twenty-first-century modern evangelicalism where we are obsessed with
being authorities unto ourselves.
The question about us not doing that with an e-mailor
letter, narrative, etc., for that matteris that usually (actually
always) those things are trying to communicate something
specific. The author or sender is the one who has that authority.
Their illustrations and use of words are trying to communicate something. You dont usually read an e-mail or a letter and
try to guess what the person is saying. Why? Because he or
she wrote it in a context, with a point, and to a specific person
or group. Thats the point of languageto communicate.

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When you read the Bible, its communicating something


to you. What you find in there probably had an original
meaning or teaching. The authors use metaphors, words,
and illustrations in order for us to understand something
that might bring us into closer intimacy with God. So a better question to ask instead of What does this mean to me?
is What is the author trying to get across? or even better
What is God trying to say in this text? When you ask the
first question, you are the focus. When you ask the second or
third question, God is the focus.
That question also subtly reveals where we believe true
authority lies. Is the Bible above you, informing you, with you
trying to follow it? Or is it beneath you, and you are trying to
mold it to you?
Obviously the illustration breaks down a little. The
Bible isnt an e-mail. Its the whisper of God. Its the word
that points to the Word. There is mystery in it. The way God
moves, weaves, and came near to particular individuals in
particular times who then picked up their pens is something
we might not ever entirely understand. But there are millions
of people down the ages who would testify to its power.
When read with a heart of humility, approaching God
to know more of him, something happens. His whisper
becomes close and you feel like you can hear directly from
the King of the Universe. And he knows you by name. How
awesome is that?

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ITS LOUDEST WHEN ITS QUIET


Notice this awesome passage in First Kings where God speaks
to Elijah. When God tries to get his attention, notice how God
does it and how he doesnt.
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong
wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks
before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And
after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in
the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the
Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of
a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his
face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of
the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said,
What are you doing here, Elijah?*

Notice the phrase that repeats a few times? Theres wind,


theres an earthquake, and theres fire. All immensely powerful and seemingly loud or extremely noticeable! But after
each one it says, but the Lord was not in that particular
element.
Then it says: After the fire the sound of a low whisper . . .

* 1 Kings 19:1113, The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton:


Standard Bible Society, 2001.

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Isnt it a little crazy to think that the God of the universethe one we cant even fully comprehendmade
himself known in a whisper? I think that principle couldnt be
more pertinent to our social-media-saturated culture.
God is found in the quiet and anchored in the quiet.*
Is that you? Do you ever take time to just rest? Let your
mind be still? For me, that is ridiculously hard to do. First
thing when I wake up, my to-do list is on my brain. E-mails
are a fingertip away. I want to do everything except be still
with God. But its in those moments a firm faith is formed.
Its in those quiet whispers, which can only be heard
when we ourselves are quiet, that we hear the depths of God.
We see him for who he really is. And its those times that give
us strength to live the day.
When Jesus entered public ministry, what did he do?
When you read Luke, you see that the sequence goes like
thisbaptism, wilderness, ministry. I first realized the
importance of that sequence when reading one of my favorite books of all timePrototype by Jonathan Martin. (If you
havent read it, its amazing!)
* Of course, Im not saying God is only there in the quiet. I think sometimes Christians make the opposite mistake where they think God only
is only there during their quiet time in the morning. The truth is, as a
Christian, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with you and in you.
Because of the Holy Spirit, the body is where heaven and earth meet
the temple. So where you go, God goes. But I think sometimes we can
miss him in the noise.

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First, Jesus is baptized. His Father declares his identity. He hears his Fathers voice thunder down from heaven,
declaring, You are my beloved Son; with you I am well
pleased.*
The Father speaks Jesus identity over him. Jesus is a son.
Identity first, activity second.
But notice what comes next. Youd think after such a
crescendo, Jesus would go directly into ministry. Knowing
who we are in Christ is all we need before we go into ministry, right?
The truth is that identity has to be fleshed out. It has to be
marinated in. We have to sit in it until the other voices begin
to be drowned out. Thats why Jesus went directly into the
wilderness. He had to brand that identity on his mind and his
heart before he went headfirst into the noise.
My question to you is, do you have that in your life? Even
writing this, I feel convicted I dont have it enough! Too many
mornings I let other things tell me who I am before I let God
tell me who I am. I let the noise kill the silence. Kill the beauty.
Kill the truth.
Lets not grow weary. Lets continue to fight for the silence.
Its in those moments we are made fully alive and fully human,
getting glimpses of the ever-glorious Jesus.

* Luke 3:22, The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard
Bible Society, 2001.

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JOURNALS ARE YOUR FRIENDS


One of the biggest mistakes I made early on is that I didnt capture my thoughts when reading the Bible. As an artist this began
to become more problematic as Id have lines come into my head
while driving, while at the store, or while in class. So I started
either writing them down in a journal Id carry around in my
back pocket or writing them in a note I had saved on my phone.
I think our Bible reading should be similar. We read,
study, and learn but never capture it. Just the simple act of
writing down a thought actually helps you remember it better,
even if you dont ever go back to it. In the morning, just write
down wherever your thoughts go. I like my journal more than
my computer because theres no delete button.
So when I read, I usually write down a few things. Below
are just a few questions you can ask yourself when you read
the Bible that may help give you a better grasp on the text.
s7HOWROTETHISPIECEOF3CRIPTURE
s7HOWASITWRITTENTO
s7HATWASTHEWRITERTRYINGTOCONVEY
s7HATDOESITTELLUSABOUT*ESUSOR'OD
s7HATDOESITTELLUSABOUTMAN
s(OWCAN)APPLYTHISINTODAYSCULTUREORTOMYLIFE
s7HATSTANDSINTHEWAYOFMEAPPLYINGITATTHIS
moment?
s(OWCAN)CHANGETHAT

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Really wrestle through those questions. Dont leave your


reading until at least some of those questions have been
answered. For me, sometimes I even try to close my eyes and
visualize the scene Im reading about. For example, what was
going on around Jesus? What were the streets like? What does
it say about how many people were around?
Questions are your friends when reading the Bible. Just
write them down. Put your thoughts on paper. One of my
favorite things about journaling is getting to go back a few
years later and see where God taught me certain things I still
hold onto. I hope its the same for you!

BIBLE READING IS A TWO-WAY STREET


If reading the Bible is God talking to you, then praying is you
talking to God.
In reality, its not that simple and prayer is a two-way street,
but the principle remains that there should be a back and forth
to Bible reading. I dont want you to think of God as a professor and you as a student sitting at a desk disengaged. Is God a
teacher? Are we students? Of course. But the visual of an old
man with glasses teaching difficult things that dont make
sense and a noncommitted student thinking about lunch is not
the picture I want you to have. Its more like a conversation.
God speaks through his Word and we respond through prayer.
I struggle with this. My personality is more concrete, factual, and linear. So if I have the right answer, I feel like Im
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good to go. Sometimes knowledge can be the enemy of the


Spirit of God. Knowledge can be raised to an idolatrous position, where we dont need the Spirit nor need to be close to
Jesus. Thats the beginning of sin, pride, and the attitude of
a Pharisee.
Prayer can be tough for myriad reasons. The thing that
stands in my way is usually pride. I dont think I need him. I
dont think I need more than the answer. The truth is, God
himself is giving me the very breath to be alive, so its a sure
thing I most certainly need Him.
I heard an example I thought illustrated this point
beautifully. Imagine you are talking to two peoplean eightyear-old and a sixty-eight-year-old physicist. If you ask each
of them how to ride a bike, what do you think their answers
would be? The physicist would probably get very elaborate,
talk about centrifugal force, the definition of momentum,
etc. The child, on the other hand, would probably say something like, You pedal hard and try not to fall off. Lets also
say the child has been riding since age four and the physicist
has never actually ridden a bike. In that example, who knows
how to ride a bike? The child, of course!
Is the physicist an idiot? Of course not. All the stuff the
physicist explained was 100 percent right. But the scientist
didnt have the experiential knowledge or tacit knowledge
the child had. The simplicity of the childs answer, and the
fact the child has ridden a bike, provides a sense of beauty,
wonder, and warmth. The child just knows. That I think is

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sometimes how we need to see the Bible and the Spirit of God.
We, too many times, are like the physicist trying to answer
questions elaborately and theologically.
But do you actually know him? Do you talk with the Spirit
of God? Ask the Spirit for help? Or just have a bunch of very
complex answers? Now hear me, the answers arent wrong. But
lets make sure we dont exchange them for the Spirit of God.
Remember the primal sin in the gardeneating of the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The primal sin was
trying to be autonomous and declare what was right and
wrong without God himself! We all too quickly return to that
when we take the Bible, distort it as an answer book, and dont
desperately lean on the Spirit asking him to teach us, guide us,
humble us.
When you read the Bible, does it look like that?
I could write more but I think this is a beautiful place to
end. I wanted to keep this short because the less I write, the
more quickly you can put this book down and turn to the
beautiful Scripturesthe thing that truly matters. As N. T.
Wright wrote in Scripture and the Authority of God: Writing
a book about the Bible is like building a sandcastle at the base
of the Matterhorn.
So feel free to take a few notes on this sandcastle. But turn
your gaze upward and see the thunderous, beautiful, magnificent Scriptures for what they are. Turn to them for guidance
and wisdom. But most importantly, turn to them to continue
learning about the greatest story ever told and ask the Spirit

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of God to illuminate what you read. He has been sent to teach


us, so ask him to do just that.
May we always pick up the Bible and allow it to turn our
gaze to the great KingKing Jesuswho is ushering in his
kingdom at this very minute and every day through feeble
people like you and me.

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