Saturday, 20 December 2014

HEADING BACK TO GENESIS?




 The old year wanes and the start of a new year beckons (yes I know there is still a little something to come first) and for some of you that means that you will shortly be completing your sojourn through the entire sixty-six books of the Bible.

 Perhaps at this very moment you are being mystified by the Book of Revelation for the 24th straight year in a row and are preparing thereafter to begin your odyssey anew back in Genesis.

All sixty-six books in twelve months.

Perhaps you’ve done this every year since you got saved. Perhaps this was what some well-meaning soul told you twenty years ago and so you have stuck with it ever since.

 Well, for those about to embark upon this ritual for the umpteenth time, can I offer a recommendation?

Don’t.

Whilst there is some value to having read through the entire Word in this way, even more than once, in my view the value of the practice when repeated over and over again is relatively limited.

If you have done this before then you already know that in order to complete your task you are going to have to read around four or five chapters every day which is actually quite a lot of reading. 

 And that is every day. If you miss a day you have up to ten chapters to read the next day, skip a weekend and fully fifteen chapters await you on Monday morning. 

Even for those with a lot of free time, the amount of concentration required for such marathon sessions is likely to make it little more than an exercise in speed-reading.    

Unless you’ve got a lot more free time everyday than I’ve got, this workload simply doesn’t allow sufficient time to meditate on each passage and chapter in a way that facilitates real understanding of what the text is saying.

 In reality, when we go on this whistle-stop tour of all sixty-six books every year all we are really doing is repeatedly skimming the surface of God’s Word without ever penetrating below the surface.

So let me suggest to you an alternative strategy for next year. Instead of rattling through the whole Bible at a rate of knots, slow down.

 Instead, as your bible-reading project for the year ahead select a handful of books which you feel you are least familiar with as to their content and fundamental message and undertake a year-long, in-depth evaluation of just those books.

Read these twice, three times. If you didn’t grasp a particular writer's thought or argument, read it over until you do. You have the opportunity to do this now that you have been liberated from the self-imposed tyranny of having to complete all sixty-six books by the 31st December next year! 

 If you can afford it, buy a solid single-volume commentary of each of these books to aid you in your understanding of such matters as context and original language. These will greatly enhance your comprehension of the book.  

 Amongst our branch of the Church I detect a painful lack of commentary-use. Some of this may be down to the prohibitive cost of such books (though actually if you go online commentaries can prove ridiculously inexpensive especially second-hand ones), but I rather think that our aversion to commentaries has more to do with that traditional Pentecostal penchant for just sitting under a tree alone with our Bible and allowing the Holy Spirit to be our Commenter.

A word of advice regarding this practice also: stop it because it’s silly. 

 Now obviously the Spirit speaks to us through the Scripures, but I can assure you that you can sit under that tree from now until the crack of doom and the Holy Spirit is never, ever going to parse so much as a single Greek verb for you. Nor is He ever He going to fill you in on the cultural background at Corinth or enlighten you as to the manuscript evidence for the longer ending of Mark. 

He just isn’t.  

 He gave us commentaries and other resources for such tasks and so we ought to stop trying to be more spiritual than the Spirit and use the tools that God has actually provided for us, however prosaic we may consider them to be.   

Concentrating book-by-book in this way also helps us with that other perennial act of Pentecostal malpractice, that of lifting single chapters and especially single verses out of context and treating them as stand-alone items.

The Holy Spirit did not inspire the Bible verse-by-verse nor even chapter-by-chapter, but rather book-by-book, and so that is how the scriptures are intended to be read.

When you receive a five-page letter from your Aunt Matilda in Australia you don’t begin at page four, then read a couple of lines from page two, wait a few weeks and then maybe read half of page one. 

 We have enough respect for Aunt Matilda and for the fact that she wrote a (hopefully) coherent and cohesive message which she meant to be read in its entirety and in the order that she wrote it.

We don’t read Aunt Matilda in a piecemeal fashion so why do we do it with Paul and his letter to the Romans?

For instance, those comforting words in chapter eight which we love so much are not a stand-alone item but are meant to be understood in the wider context of Paul’s epic presentation of the Gospel so we ought to read and know that wider context. 

 With Paul, in Romans especially, there is a closely-argued, logical thesis being presented to us. This is not just a random scattering of thoughts which we can dip in and out of at our leisure. 

 If we stopped doing so, and instead read and followed (re-reading where necessary) the whole argument of Romans we would unquestionably understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ a whole lot better.    

 I am certain that knowing the overall message of the book of Jeremiah will help you during the year ahead when (about every two weeks or so) someone pronounces chapter 29 and verse 11 over your life. I read recently that this is the verse most passed on by UK Christians through social media. I had no idea there were so many late 7th Century BC Jewish exiles living in Britain today!

 Ok, I know there is always a general application of God's Word to our lives but still we ought at least to know the original context before we start applying. Knowing the whole of the prophecy will mean that at least you will know to whom God originally spoke those words and why.   

 Who knows, perhaps the next time someone reminds you that “this is the day that the Lord has made”(Ps 118:24), you may actually know which specific day the psalmist had in mind. Clue: it wasn’t this day.

So pick your books!

 Have you always been left moribund in the Minor Prophets? Exasperated by Ezekiel?  Have you never tackled Titus which seems to me to be one of the least read, least quoted books in the New Testament?

January beckons and so now is your opportunity.