As I write this post today, which will be the last in this current series on studying the Bible, I sit in the tension of two truths.
1. The Bible is not about you.
As Western Christians, we get uncomfortable with that first statement. Some would take quite an offense at it. Some would use it to call into question my views of Scripture.
In our time and place, we sit in Bible studies in which we hear too often the phrase “What this passage means to me is…” We sit in these studies or classes or sermons in which Scripture is read but then we sprint to how it’s about us. How it somehow relates to an aunt’s illness or a conflict with a co-worker, questions about the future or a sense of comfort and wellbeing. It’s as if the Bible becomes a Magic 8 ball, we shake it, flip it open, and slap the verse we pull out onto our current situation.
We must remember that the Bible is not first and foremost about us. It tells God's story. It was written in another time and place and, if you come from a Western culture, in a radically different culture. It was written for the ears of particular audiences, for a particular purpose, in light of a particular situation.
2. The Bible has everything to do with you.
Just as our God is not only transcendent, removed, wholly and holy other, but made Himself immanent and accessible, so it is with His Word. It is true that the Bible is not about us. But it is also true that it has everything to do with us. Yes, it tells God’s story—but He has invited us into that story.
Scripture teaches us what God is like. It shows us how He works in the world. It tells us everything we need to know for salvation and proper relationship with Him. It models for us how to live in a way that pleases Him and embrace the abundant life He offers.
It can be applied to our lives and speak to our circumstances. Through the piercing, tender work of the Holy Spirit, it can move us to repentance.
It is God’s Word, written in time and space, but speaking to people in all times and spaces. It is both not about you and completely about you.
The Final Step
I think this dichotomy guides the way we approach Scripture.
When we remember the Bible isn’t about us, we approach it with respect and care. We study it. We pay attention to genre and allow it to shape our reading expectations and approach. We read it in light of its immediate context of surrounding verses and chapters and its big-picture Redemption story context. We notice the use of words and literary devices. We listen for the Word spoken to the original hearers.
If the Bible were any other document, this is where our work would end. We’d put it under our literary and historical microscopes, analyze and dissect, arrive at a conclusion and that would be the end. But because the Bible has everything to do with us and our lives, we don’t end here. After we have done the careful study, we come to the place we can apply it.
When we understand what God was communicating to the very first audiences of Scripture, we have a solid framework to take that message and apply it to our own circumstances. We can look for an appropriate and correct parallel to our situation and apply the same lesson.
For example, that oft-quoted, oft-abused verse, Jeremiah 29:11, gains proper clarity. From our study, we know God is talking not to an individual but to a corporate group of His people. We know they are in the darkest days of their history—they will be brutally ransacked, many will die gruesome deaths, God’s presence in the Temple will leave them, and they will be ripped away from their homeland, the land of God’s promise and favor. But God says, “I know the plans I have for you (plural). Plans not to harm you (even though that’s all you can see right now, even though my righteous judgment would give me cause to cast you off). Plans to give you a hope (when now you feel hopeless) and a future (when now it seems all is lost).” This is the message that can be applied to a parallel situation. We know it isn’t just a warm and fuzzy sense that everything will be fine. It’s a sure promise in trial, when all is dark, that God will not abandon His purposes with His people, and that these purposes can never be thwarted.
And so we come to the final step. The place where this glorious and gracious story—that is so much bigger than you or I—touches our little world and shapes our hearts.