How to read the Bible

The prophet who wrote the apocalypse (revelation) that became the last book in our Christian Bible opened it with a blessing and closed it with a curse. Today I am reading the opening blessing as a word about how to read the Bible in general as Scripture.

One way of reading the Bible would be historical and critical. In this way of reading, one is always reading each part. In this part, one would note that blessing and cursing formulas are elements of this genre of writing. If you’re writing an apocalypse, you might as well throw in blessings and curses on those who treat your tract properly or improperly, just as you might as well claim to be some great and respected character of the past, and you might as well include some scenes that are taking place in the heavens to throw what’s happening on earth into a different perspective. This historical and critical way of reading is interesting and useful. As a scholar, if you want to be one of those, you must have this way of reading in your repertoire—it is useful in itself, and it will help you with other ways of reading.

But it is not the only way to read the Bible, and if you are reading the Bible as a Christian, it can be a helpful way but it is not the most interesting way. It is not the ultimate, essential way, the way that will help you in your life of prayer or in your following of Jesus or in your life together with other disciples or in your being salt and light in the world.

We can read this blessing near the beginning of Revelation another way. How? This passage itself can be read as telling us how. And it can be applied not just to reading this particular “book” or tract but to reading the Bible as a whole. If we read this way, we are reading the Bible as canon and as scripture.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy.

“Reads aloud” is just one word, the word for reading—there is no separate word for “aloud” in the Greek text—but in the ancient world, not everyone owned their own copies of texts, and not everyone could read anyway, so the “reader” might very well be the person who read the book (or letter or whatever) aloud for others to hear. We know from Paul’s letters that this is how Paul expected his letters to be “read,” and there’s good reason to think that was the case also with every book in the New Testament. Here, that supposition is confirmed by what follows, which talks about the hearer.

To read aloud is to read not only for oneself, but also for those around who also need and want to hear. Here we have a precedent for—and a blessing pronounced upon!—those who do not read Scripture only for themselves, but also for others, and by extension all who work or give to make the Bible available for others to read, and all who make sure that the words of Scripture are not hidden or lost or neglected but voiced, sounded, into the life of their community and the life of their world. Or if one is reading alone, to read aloud (whether we take “aloud” literally or figuratively) is to read in such a way that every word matters, every word is voiced and heard, is not skipped over or skimmed or rushed but given its due, so that it can have its effect on the “hearer,” even if the hearer is only oneself.

Why? Because what one is reading is “this prophecy,” which means that this is not just a useful grocery list or a lovely poem or an interesting historical account but a message from outside of the mundane, from beyond the here and now, a message from God.

And blessed are those who hear.

Whether “those who hear” in this particular moment constitute a crowd gathered for worship, or other people to whose attention one manages to bring these words of Scripture, or just the reader, reading “aloud” alone, the mere hearing of these words already constitutes a blessing. In church, the preacher who reads scripture sometimes concludes with something like “May God add his blessing to the reading of his holy word,” which is fine, but the reading of the Word is already a blessing. It is a gift. It didn’t have to happen. I, the hearer, might well have had to make it through the day, or through my life, without hearing this word. But I have heard it, and that is a giftalbeit a gift from a Giver who expects a return.

And who keep what is written in it.

Beyond just hearing the word, which is already a blessing, and is not even necessarily just passive, it is possible also to “keep” it. What does it mean to “keep” a word from Scripture? It depends on the word. If the word is a commandment, to keep is to obey. If the word is a promise, to keep (as the hearer of a promise from God) is to trust it, to bet one’s life upon its fulfillment. If the word is an explanation that intends to adjust your understanding of the world around you, to keep it is to allow your perspective to be governed by it rather than seeing the world in some different way. In any event, it is to accept, appropriate, and apply to oneself the word that one has read, or heard.

I think part of what “keep” implies is that one is not always easily, quickly, applying the word of Scripture to someone else instead of applying it first to oneself. The writer to Hebrews tell us that Scripture is sharper than a two-edged sword, cutting into us like a knife that separates the bone from the sinew in a butchered animal: if we “keep” it, it dissects us, it exposes our innermost intentions, our subterfuges and self-deceptions and deepest longings. Do we not prefer to pass that Word on to someone else rather than “keep” it? Do we not prefer to brandish it like a meat cleaver, swing it at someone else? I said above that making the Word available to others is part of reading it (aloud). For prophets and preachers and others called to witness in various ways, making the Word not only available to put urgently pressing upon others is the core of their calling. But to read only for others, without above all letting the Word expose and transform oneself, is to evade the “keeping” of the words of the prophecy and thus to lose the blessing of having read them.

For the time is near.

In historical and critical reading, one has to work hard to establish the time. When was this written? What was happening then? And what does that tell us about the time of fulfillment envisioned in the text? For a book like Revelation, that question is particularly vexed. As a historical matter, was this book intended for first- or second-century followers of Jesus? Are its dragons and beasts coded representations of Roman emperors and institutions? Or were they written as predictions about Russia and China and the United States? Certainly the former. No question. Here is the usefulness of historical-critical reading: it keeps us from making dumb mistakes that will distort our entire reading of a particular passage, threatening our ability to read in any truly edifying way. People who want to explain Daniel or Revelation to you by talking about Chinese armies marching into modern Israel are wasting your time and keeping you from the Word that God intends for you in these texts.

But even if you are completely misreading Scripture as history, is it still possible that you will derive spiritual benefit from it? Yes, with God all things are possible, and the most grotesque misreading of the Bible as history and literature can still sometimes be redeemed by the Spirit to enable application some vestigial element of the divine truth in the text to the life of the (mis-)reader. But it is better to understand each text of scripture correctly in its original historical setting before trying to understand how it applies beyond its original setting to our own.

Nevertheless, desirable as it is to understand the “then,” what is absolutely essential to the reading of the Bible as Christian scripture is to understand always that “the time is near.” To read as Scripture is never to say: This text has no meaning for me now. It is to find that meaning. In places, that is difficult. In particular places, taken in isolation from the whole of the rest of Scripture, it is probably strictly impossible.

But to read the Bible as Scripture means never reading any passage in isolation from the whole. It is to believe that these books constitute a whole, and to discern the meaning of each part only in coherent continuity with the whole. And it is to say, as Paul said when interpreting Isaiah 49:8 in 2 Corinthians 6:2, this “day of salvation” is now, or as he says in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.”

The ages always culminate in the now, and the now is always where “the words of this prophecy” are read, and heard, and kept or not kept, and thus become a blessing or a curse.

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