The Bible is Not About You

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.

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. 

Literary Genres in the Bible and Why They Matter for Bible Study

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.

When you read a story to a child, do you read it the same way as you would an encyclopedia article? Do you read the newspaper the same way you read a poem? 

We instinctively know that we can’t read everything the same way. The style and form—or genre—of what we’re reading shapes our expectations and interpretation. The genre gives us reading "rules."

If we look for metaphors and deeper layers of meaning in an instructional manual, we’d be missing the point. Likewise, if we expect a children’s storybook to give us nuanced answers for our self-help predicament. We pay attention to genre to read well.

Genre and How We Study the Bible

Do you know the Bible contains several different literary genres? As we read and interpret Scripture, we must pay attention to it to read well and read the passage as it was intended to be read. 

When you read a passage of Scripture, ask, “What is the genre of this book/passage? How does that genre inform the way I should read, interpret, and apply this?”


One of the best single resources I know for this endeavor is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart. This book is well worth having on your shelf.

For each of the genres in Scripture, the authors explain the main features of the genre, the Biblical books it applies to, and the basic principles for reading and interpreting the genre. They keep everything practical and accessible, focus on broadly applicable principles that can guide our reading, and pepper these principles with examples. 

For our purposes here, I’ll give a brief overview of the biblical genres—but I’d encourage you to get a copy of How to Read to learn more.  

Biblical Genres At A Glance


The narratives in the Bible tell us about God’s work in history. These stories from the past are intended to shape us in the present, but they are not intended to be moralized. They may illustrate implicitly a principle or standard of morality (positively or negatively) that is explicitly taught somewhere else in Scripture, but they do not always give us a clear judgment of people’s behavior.  


The Law was a binding covenant, or legal agreement, between Israel and God, and explains how the nation of Israel was to behave and worship, individually and as a society. It included specific blessings and curses that would come as a result of their faithfulness or unfaithfulness (see Deut. 28). These blessings and curses are important to understand the rest of Israel’s history, particularly the prophets and the exile. 


Poetry uses evocative and imagery-laden language and is peppered with metaphors and similes. The Psalms (the largest collection of poetry in the Bible) are songs and poems to and about God, intended to give voice to the praise and prayer of God’s people. They are music, not in-depth or extensive explanations of doctrine. They are properly interpreted as a whole, with each line understood in light of the ones around it. 

One feature to keep an eye out for: parallelism. The writer puts two lines of poetry in parallel with each other, to add a depth of meaning—and beauty—by the way they compare to each other or build on each other. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see how frequent it is. For example, Psalm 19:1:

"The heavens declare the glory of God, 
And the sky above proclaims his handiwork."


Wisdom literature in the Bible uses poetry to give practical, pithy statements about how to make godly choices and think and act based on God’s truth. By nature it is inexact and not exhaustive. It gives us a memorable snippet of truth but doesn’t tell us all about it. This is why all wisdom literature must be read and interpreted based on the entirety of Scripture.  


The prophets spoke for God to specific people in a specific situation. They announce God’s enforcement of the covenant, as given in the Law, and declare both judgment and hope. They must be read in light of the historic setting and background of the audience and in light of the blessings and curses of the Law. The prophets often convey their message using poetry, so we should remember to pay attention to the imagery, metaphors, and parallelism in their message, just as we do in the Psalms. 


The Gospels are selective presentations of the life, work, and teaching of Christ, for a specific audience. The differences in the Gospels are intentional, and paying attention to these differences will help us understand what is being emphasized and communicated by each Gospel writer. Just as we pay attention to the intended audience of the Gospel writer, we pay attention to the audience of Jesus’ teaching. His parables and stories expect a response, and they are properly understood when we remember who he is calling to respond in that moment (disciples, crowds, Pharisees, etc.).


The Epistles were letters written by apostles to a specific group of Christians for a specific purpose and to a specific situation. Since we’re only given one "side" of the conversation, we need to pay attention to the historical context and to the clues we’re given about the “other side” of the conversation. It’s crucial to read these books with an eye for the entire argument and flow of logic. We must constantly be asking what the author’s words would have meant to his original audience, and then (and only then) we can consider what a comparable situation and application it has for today.


The word apocalypse means “revelation, disclosure, unveiling” and refers to an unveiling of unseen or future spiritual or earthly events and realities. It heavily uses symbolism and visions, and it is concerned about future judgment, justice, and salvation. It is important to remember that apocalypse (which appears in Revelation, Daniel, and prophets like Ezekiel) is a form of literature, and one that is heavily stylized and artistic in its imagery, use of numbers, structure, etc. 

Reading the Bible in Context: Part 2, The Big Picture

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.

I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love a good story. We love being caught up in them, swept up in our imaginations, transported to another time. They make us laugh and cry. They inspire us and challenge us to live differently. Stories shape who we are. 

I hope you’ve encountered some good storytellers in your time—the sort that captivate you as they slowly pull you into their tales. 

We cannot forget that the Bible tells us a story. It is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It tells the grand story Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. We are a people of this story. We are marked by it. And we have been called to live in it.


To understand the Bible properly, we need to understand its Story. We need to see how the parts of that story fit together. When we’re reading the Bible, we should ask, How does this passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?

CASKET EMPTY is the best tool I know to explain the biblical story and keep each part of the Bible in its larger framework. CASKET EMPTY was developed by two Gordon-Conwell professors for the purpose of helping people understand the story of the Bible. They’ve used CASKET EMPTY as an acronym to describe the major highlights of the biblical story. This acronym structures the beautiful illustrated timelines for the Old and New Testaments as well as the companion study guides. If you’re looking for a thorough yet accessible overview of the Bible, you really must take a look at these

I’ve given broad brush strokes of the Story below, using the CASKET EMPTY framework. Remember that this is a sweeping abbreviation, so you’ll want to read more on your own to fill in the gaps and details.

Old Testament


Genesis 1-11

God creates the world and everything in it, and it is good. Adam and Eve, the first humans, are deceived in the garden of Eden, and sin enters the world. This “Fall” brings the results of sin and death, including the effects of sin on our relationship with God, with each other, and the with created order.


Genesis 12-50, possibly Job

God makes promises to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3, 17:1-8) and makes a covenant with him. This covenant continues to his descendants, starting with his miraculous son Isaac and moving to the entire nation of Israel.


Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth

God delivers the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, with Moses as their leader. He makes a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai and gives them the Law. They enter into the Promised Land, with God promising to dwell with them in the tabernacle.


1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah

God grants Israel a king—first King Saul (which ended badly), then King David. God makes a covenant with David, and his is the true royal line. After David’s son Solomon dies, the Kingdom is divided into Israel in the North and Judah in the south (which follows the rightful line of David). Both Kingdoms stray from God’s Law, though the Kingdom of Judah does have some godly kings, who call the nation back to worship of God alone. Because Israel and Judah have broken the Law, God promises judgment. The prophets write during this time, calling the nations to repentance, announcing judgment, and promising God’s faithfulness. The Kingdoms continue to rebel, however, and God brings judgment through the means of other nations. Israel is conquered by Assyria, and Judah is conquered by Babylon.


Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Obadiah, Psalms

After the Kingdom of Judah is conquered, the people are taken to exile in Babylon. The prophets say that after a time of exile, God will restore His people and bring them back to their land. They also promise the coming of a Righteous King, and a new covenant in which God’s people will be freed from sin and given hearts that are soft to obey Him. 


Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Psalms

As God promised, the people of Judah are allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem. They rebuild the city, the walls, and the temple. 

New Testament


Between the end of OT and beginning of NT, no Biblical books

The Israelite people continue to wait for the promised Messiah the prophets spoke of, as they continue to face oppression by world powers. 


Matthew, Mark, Luke, John

Jesus comes as the Messiah and in his life, death, and resurrection fulfills the promises made to God’s people. He announces the arrival of the Kingdom of God and proves its presence with signs and miracles. He calls people to repentance and a response to the Gospel. Jesus lived a sinless life but died a criminal's death on a Cross. His death paid humanity’s penalty for the effects of sin and death brought on by the Fall and began a restoration of all of Creation. His life, death, and resurrection are the climax and ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament, and the basis for the Christian church’s teaching in the rest of the New Testament. This is the highlight and center of the Story.



After Jesus returns to Heaven, his disciples receive the Holy Spirit. They begin to spread throughout the known world, obeying Jesus’ command to baptize and teach disciples in His Name. God makes clear Gentiles (people not of ethnic Israel) and people of all nations are equally welcomed into faith. Fledgling churches spring up and expand, even in the face of persecution. Paul, once a persecutor of the church, emerges as a key leader.


Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude

Leaders of the church write letters to teach early Christians about the effects and implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They talk about how new life in Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit change the Christian’s thinking and behavior. They also deal with issues related to organizing the early church and wrestle with early wrong interpretations of Jesus’ teaching. 



Evil is finally and fully judged, and God is shown to be the Victor and King. The Redemptive story comes to its full conclusion as Creation is fully restored. God’s people are brought together and live in God’s Kingdom in a New Heavens and New Earth.

Whenever you’re reading a passage of Scripture, locate it within this big overarching Story. Then consider how it relates to the Story, how it moves the Story along, etc. Also consider how its position in the Story affects the way you interpret it. This is all a part of reading the Bible in context—grounding each passage of Scripture within the whole Story of how God has and is working in our world. 

Friend, we are a part of this story. As you sit and read your Bible and ask these questions, you sit in between the “teachings” and the “yet-to-come.” We haven’t seen the full arrival of God’s Kingdom or His full Restoration. As a part of the Church, as a believer in Jesus, you are a part of His Story and a part of His work in the world. I stand in awe of this!

Taking the Bible to English Class

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.

Last week we talked about the importance of paying attention to the immediate context of what we’re reading in Scripture. Today, I want to talk about words.

I love words. I love how they can be spun and stretched and woven into a thing of beauty. I love that meaning can be conveyed not only mechanically or simply for the sake of information but as a crafted work of art.

God chose to reveal His Word to us through human language—and what a masterful work of art it is. The artistry of its language, its complexity, its imagery, its beauty—it invites us to study and consider it as we would any other great work of literature. But unlike any other piece of literature, we approach it with awe and reverence, knowing that what its pages communicate is not concocted by a human mind but by the mind of God. Its pages reveal who He is. Its words are alive.

When we pay attention to the literary nature of the Bible, we are not undermining its power. We are embracing it for what it is and how God has chosen to reveal himself. He revealed himself in a way we could understand—in a book, written in human words, using stories and poetry and logic, using the same literary tools we use today.

Words, Context, and Imagery


This is where some would say, “Yes, Diana, but this is for nerdy English-major types like you. Why should I care about this?”

I will admit I probably get more excited about this than some. But this isn't a matter of nerdy-ness or liking literature. If we're seeking to be sensitive to the context of Scripture so that we read and understand it properly, there are some important words and literary devices we should pay attention to.

Physical Time and Space 

  • Speaker and audience, “I”, “you”—Who is speaking? Who do they assume is listening? How does this influence the way we understand the passage?
  • Place markers—Are you given any information about where this is taking place? Where the people involved are located? What does this have to do with the passage?
  • Time markers—Are you given any indication of when something is happening? Are you given a month, day, year? Is it put in the context of someone’s life or death? What does this time frame have to do with the passage?

Logic and Train-of-thought

  • Sequence markers—Are there words indicating an order of events? Look for words that imply a ‘first this, then that’ or ‘that was then, this is now’ relationship. Words like “after,” “now,” “then,” “when,” etc. How does this order of events affect the passage? Are they talking of something in the future or the past?
  • “Therefore,” “For this reason,” “Thus”—These words signal a conclusion based on previously given information. What is being concluded? Look back at what came before. What supporting evidence or logic led to this point? 
  • “For”—Often used to introduce an example or supporting piece of evidence in a logical argument, particularly when it starts a sentence. How does it relate to what came before it? To the entire flow of the chapter?
  • “But”—This word signals a contrast with what came before. Example: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy…” (Eph. 2:1,4). How does the verse contrast or give a surprising conclusion compared to what came before? 

Literary Devices

  • Repetition—Repeated words or phrases usually indicate emphasis. What words or phrases continue to reappear in a verse, chapter, or book? (Think about words related by a root, for example, joy and rejoice, or encourage and encouragement.) How do they relate to or point to the main message?
  • Metaphors and Similes—Both use imagery to make a comparison. A simile uses “like” or “as” (“the devil prowls around like a roaring lion”) and a metaphor does not (“the Lord is my Shepherd”). How does the imagery relate to the passage? What point is it trying to make? What is it illustrating?
  • Contrasts and Comparisons—Are two things being compared or contrasted? Are there connections being made to how they are similar or different from each other? (Example: Paul contrasts law and Gospel and life in the Spirit vs. life in the flesh in the book of Romans.) How does this relate to the passage? What point is it making? How does comparing/contrasting these things help to make this point?
  • Quotations—Is something else being quoted? Is it another passage of Scripture? Is it another source from the time? Is it someone else’s words? How does it relate to the passage? Is it being approved of or criticized? If it’s another passage of Scripture, look back at that other passage (you’ll usually go back to the OT from the NT), and read it in its own context. How does this context relate to what is being said in the NT passage?

Remember that our goal is to read and interpret Scripture well. Noticing these words and literary features helps us to read a passage of Scripture in the right context. They ground a verse in a train of thought or story as a whole. When we see it in its proper place in the whole, we are better equipped to understand it correctly. 

This is true in a small verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter sense. It’s also true with the Bible as a whole. Next week, we’ll talk about the big-picture of Scripture and how to locate what we’re reading within the overarching redemption story.

Reading the Bible in Context: Part 1

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the man who wanted to discern God’s will for his life. He let his Bible fall open on the table, and, with his eyes tightly closed, jabbed at a point on the page with his finger. He opened his eyes to read what the Lord had “revealed” to him. It was Matthew 27:5: “Judas went and hanged himself.” 

He was stunned. Surely he must have gotten something wrong. Perhaps he should try again. He repeated the procedure, Bible falling open, blindly picking a verse. This time, he randomly picked Luke 10:37: “You go, and do likewise.”

* * *

It is a basic commonsense reading practice to pay attention to context. We do it with books, with poetry, with the newspaper, even with a letter from a friend. We would scoff at someone who presumed to pull a single line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and attempt to explain its meaning clearly apart from the lines surrounding it. It’s challenging enough to do this with the entire poem before you! 


What if someone presumed to read Anna Karenina by daily flipping to a page at random, plunging her finger onto the page, reading a sentence or two at will, and closing the book until its appointed literary roulette the following day? It would be laughable. She may know a few names, perhaps stumble on a plot point or two. Over time, she may piece together some of the story or themes. But her grasp of these would be limited, and she would surely miss the power of the story arc, the intricacy of language, the shifting character development. She would miss the message of the book as a whole. She would miss the story.

Why do we think we can treat the Bible this way? 

I want to talk today about the importance of context. We talk about context in relation to the Bible in two important senses. 

  • The immediate context—What words, thoughts, arguments, etc. surround the verse or verses we read? 
  • The Redemption-story context—How do these verses, this passage, and this book fit into the big-picture, overarching story of Scripture?

We’ll talk about the first one, the immediate context, this week. 

Why Is the Context of Scripture Important?

Simply put, we need a context to understand the full meaning of words.

We realize this quickly when we drop into the middle of a conversation. We get confused: Wait, what happened? Who was that? What did they do? Why were you there? We ask someone to back up and explain what came before. We need a summary of the back story. We need caught up. 

Can you sort through these questions without stopping to ask for some context? To some extent, yes. If you listen carefully, your friend may retrace her steps and reexplain. You may be able to piece together the details. But you also run the risk of catastrophically misunderstanding her entire story.

So it is with the Bible. We can drop into the middle of a book like the middle of a conversation. We may be able to piece together the correct meaning. Or we may completely misunderstand. This could be avoided if we take the time to pay attention to the context of what we're reading. This does not require a seminary degree or advanced skill. As I said last week, you do not need to be an expert to study and understand the Bible well. 

It does require us to pay attention. We recognize that we’re dropping into the middle of things, and then we are careful as we listen. We’re wary of jumping to conclusions. We look for clues. We ask good questions. In short, we look for the context.

Practices to Read the Bible in Context

Reading well is a skill. Understanding the flow of an argument is a skill. Seeing the big picture around a sentence—and its role within that picture—is a skill. But these skills can be learned and developed. If this is a struggle for you, be encouraged—you can get better at this.

Becoming a better Scripture reader will not come all at once, but we can take steps in the right direction. The practices I’ve outlined here are suggestions to get you started. Other basic reading and reading comprehension skills are also helpful here. 

  • Work your way through an entire book of the Bible from start to finish instead of choosing verses at random. Pay attention to how what you read yesterday relates to what you’re reading today.
  • Read a book of the Bible the whole way through in one sitting. You may miss some details, but the larger themes and repeated portions will stand out better. Remember, these books were originally listened to aloud.
  • As you seek to interpret or apply a specific verse, read the verses that come before and after, the entire paragraph, or the entire chapter. Look for clues that would indicate a connected flow of logic, the borders of a story, or the bounds of an illustration. 
  • Ask—How do the verses I’m reading connect to those that came before and those that come after?
  • Use basic Bible study tools, like the book outline or notes in your study Bible. These outlines will trace the basic skeleton of the book and help you to see how the part you’re reading fits in with the whole. Good study notes should also help with this. Use these as a tool when you get lost or are struggling.

There’s another important practice I haven’t mentioned. We’ll talk about that next week…