Consider Each Book’s Genre and Purpose When Reading the Bible
Paul writes to his protégé Timothy that all Scripture comes from God. We can use it to teach, rebuke, correct, and train us in right living (2 Timothy 3:16). That is, everything in Scripture is useful. We must keep this in mind when reading the Bible. This includes some of our less-favorite books, such as Leviticus.
Despite this, we will do well to recognize that not every verse carries the same weight as others. That doesn’t mean that some verses are not useful, just that other verses are more useful. When reading and studying Scripture, we should consider this biblical hierarchy.
Reading the New Testament of the Bible
The New Testament focuses on the new covenant that we have through Jesus. We should direct our attention to the books of the New Testament, though not at the exclusion of the Old Testament.
Here is a breakdown of the New Testament books:
The four biographies of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell us what Jesus said and what he did. He serves as our teacher, clarifying our view of the Father and guiding us into right living (righteousness) that honors and worships God.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and life. He provides the pathway to Papa (John 14:6). After Jesus, everything else is secondary.
For this reason, the good news of Jesus’s life rises as the most important books of the Bible. We will do well to focus on them.
All the Gospels, and especially Luke, prepare us for what happens next. This unfolds in the book of Acts. Acts chronicles the events of the early church. It tells us what Jesus’s first followers did. Their actions and their attitudes can guide us in what we do today in our churches—and in our life—as we serve and worship God.
After Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Acts stands as a critical book of the Bible when it comes to understanding our faith and putting it into action. These first five books of the New Testament are its historical documents, and we can learn much from them.
Letters to All the Church
Third in importance in the Bible are the letters that Jesus’s followers wrote to the universal church. Unlike letters to specific groups or individuals, these letters rise above them because they have a general-purpose that we can rightly apply to us today and that pertain to all situations.
These are 1 and 2 Peter, James, Jude, and 1 John. We’ll also include Hebrews in this list, even though its audience was implicitly Hebrew people and not all Christians.
Because these books, unfortunately, appear towards the end of the New Testament, many people don’t know as much about them, read them as often, or study them as deeply as they could—or should.
We need to change that. We must elevate the importance of these books because there teaching is universal and provides us with much value—if only we will tap into it.
Letters to Specific Churches
Following these general letters written to Jesus’s church, we consider those messages written to specific churches or individuals. Why do we make this distinction? It’s because the content of these letters is intended for a specific audience and may not readily apply to everyone else.
They’re content may answer questions asked by the recipients or address struggles by the recipients that come to the authors’ attention.
If the passages in these letters are answers to questions, we don’t know what the questions are. Therefore, it’s hard for us to know how to understand the response. And if passages address issues relevant to the recipient, we need to exercise care before applying them to us today.
Of greater value, however, is if we see the same theme, command, or advice repeated in multiple letters. Then we can rightly receive those as a general passage that is more relevant to us today.
One such example, albeit perplexing, is Paul’s recurring command to greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26).
Placing too high of an emphasis on these letters that have a specific purpose can cause confusion. We must take care and not place undue emphasis on these letters with a specific audience to inform our doctrine.
The final book in the New Testament is Revelation. Its content applies to all Christians, but we must take care to properly understand its meaning, without overreaching.
It’s a vision from God, and just like the prophetic books in the Old Testament with their many future-focused pronouncements, we must discern how to rightly interpret the passages in Revelation.
Most people in the Old Testament, even those living at the time of Jesus, misinterpreted much of the prophetic words contained in Scripture. We run the same risk today when looking at Revelation.
We will do well to read those words figuratively and use them to draw one singular conclusion: In the end times there will be an epic battle between good and evil which will affect everyone on earth. God wins. The enemy loses. The end.
Reading the Old Testament of the Bible
As we read the Old Testament—and we should—we must keep its words in a proper perspective. Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament law and prophecies (Matthew 5:17). We must, therefore, exercise caution in building a modern-day theology on the Old Testament covenant, which Jesus replaced.
One overreaching conclusion, which some Christians adhere to, is to dismiss the Old Testament. The opposite extreme is to put its words on the same level as the New Testament.
Again, forming doctrine based solely on what we find in the Old Testament puts us on a dangerous footing because we may be espousing a perspective that Jesus fulfilled. The primary value of the Old Testament is to help us understand how Jesus fulfills it in the New Testament.
Here’s a breakdown of the Old Testament books:
The Old Testament opens with a history of God’s people. These books start with Genesis and go through to Esther. Their value is that they help us understand Scripture’s story arc, pointing us to Jesus.
As the saying goes, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And the Old Testament has a lot of mistakes for us to learn from. Knowing God’s expectations under his old covenant, helps us to better understand and accept his mercy and grace under his new covenant.
Closely following the value of the historical books in the Old Testament are the prophetic books. These cover Isaiah through Malachi.
They address the then-current state of God’s people and look toward the future. Some of their prophecies have been fulfilled—primarily through Jesus—and others we still await.
The prophetic books of the Old Testament help us anticipate Jesus’s arrival in the New Testament. And like the historical books, they enable us to see the sins of our forefathers so that we can avoid repeating their mistakes.
The final group of books in the Bible is the poetic books. They are Job through Song of Songs, with Psalms being the most favorite, beloved by many. These are ideal books for us to read to spark our emotion. They can encourage us when we struggle.
They can lead us into powerful worship of God, our Creator. And they can supply motivational passages to inspire us and draw us to Papa.
The poetic books of the Bible are great when it comes to encouragement, inspiration, and informing our worship. We must remember, however, that this is a genre of poetry. We must exercise care and not use a poetic verse to form a theological statement—unless we can find support for it in another part of Scripture.
Bible Reading Summary
All Scripture is useful to guide us in our faith journey. Based on the various books’ genre, audience, and timeframe, we can better understand how to apply it.
When reading the Bible, may you read and study all of Scripture.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
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