Last year a few people from our local church in Banská Bystrica asked me to lead a group on how to read and study the Bible. So we started a Bible study club and set out to read the book of Acts together. We learned that the book of Acts works like a story that moves from tension to resolution and that the tension that drives the plot is defined by the programmatic verse in Acts 1:8.
Overall, it was a good study. I think each of us came away with a better understanding of the book.
I believe that if people really want to become better readers of Scripture there’s no substitute for reading, reading, reading. So I asked everybody to do four hours of work to prepare for each meeting. I also tried to give them some specific reading strategies to make their reading and studying time more fruitful. For example one month, when we were covering Acts 9–12, I asked them to focus in on Acts 10 and note all the times when Cornelius does something by his own initiative, when Peter does something on his own initiative and then finally when an action is undertaken because God is the one who initiates.
Even though attendance dwindled from 20 to 10 as the year went on, those who stuck it out enjoyed getting to know their way around the book of Acts a little better. This year I decided to lead the group again but this time we are getting an overview of the whole Bible while focusing in on some basic Bible reading skills.
I call this year’s study the Biblical Scenic Trail (Biblická magistrála–it sounds much more majestic in Slovak) because I use the analogy of hiking to describe the basic skills I think a person needs to read the Bible well.
First, to read the Bible well you need the trail itself. That’s the plot of Scripture that runs from beginning to end along the path of tension to resolution. You need to know what the tension is that drives the Biblical plot.
Along with the trail you need the trail markers. Trail markers are the literary conventions that keep you on the right track. It’s good to know, for example, how symmetrical patterns work. Then you can understand that Abraham’s wife sister stories aren’t just two similar stories in the Abraham saga, but they are actually connected and move you along the trail toward your goal.
The next thing you need as you are hiking the Biblical Scenic Trail is to be able to recognize the major mountain peaks and valleys. Not only does this provide amazing views but it helps you orient yourself along the way because you can see where you are in relation to the overall landscape.
So along with the plot and literary conventions you need the themes or motifs that come up again and again in Scripture. Just like looking at a mountain peak from different perspectives along the trail, so the reader’s perspectives on these themes change as you advance through Scripture.
Temple imagery is a good example of this. The theme of temple shows up already in Genesis 1. Creation is a temple where humanity dwells in the presence of God. But then in Genesis 3 humanity is cast out of God’s presence, or out of the temple of creation. All of Scripture is about God making a way for us to return to his presence. He uses the tabernacle tent (a movable temple) and the temple itself to signify his presence among Israel (Exodus 24–40) all throughout its history. When Israel is unfaithful, God abandons the temple but reveals through Ezekiel that he will provide a new temple and give Israel a new heart and a new spirit. At the end of John’s Revelation we read about the new heaven and the new earth which is cast in the imagery as a temple where humanity dwells in God’s presence just like in the beginning.
Finally, you need to be in good physical shape if you are going to be doing any real hiking. You can’t get in shape by getting out and hiking once a year. You need to work on your physical fitness consistently every day or you won’t enjoy the hike and you certainly won’t make it to the top of the highest peaks where the view is best.
It’s the same with reading Scripture. You need to do it consistently and you need to push through the pain and keep reading even when it seems like there aren’t any results. As you continue to read you will gain more skill at understanding the story, leveraging the literary conventions that the various authors use and also recognizing the peaks and valleys that shape the biblical landscape.
So that’s what we’re going through in our Bible Study Club this year. Hopefully we’ll all take a few more steps toward being people who are better able to read Scripture and apply it to every day life.