I have a good friend, a clergy woman who I have deep respect for, who on a couple of occasions shared with me revelations she received from God while in deep prayer about my ministry. These revelations did occur during my ministry. My wife Beverly, on a couple of occasions, has had what she calls premonitions about my ministry. In each of these cases what was revealed came to pass. I cannot explain how or why, but I believe that people whose hearts are at one with God and with others are open to receive God’s revelations. I believe the writers of the Bible were such people.
This is the third in a three-part series about the Bible. Previously, I shared that our scriptures came to be after years of conversation, prayer and discernment. In fact, the Bible was not finalized until more than 350 years after Jesus’ death. The Gospels were written 25 to 70 years after Jesus’ death and the book of Genesis thousands of years after the stories occurred. The Bible was never written to record history or science but to give us deeper insight and understanding of God, the community of faith and ourselves. About 75% of the Bible is story and poetry. More than history, the Bible is sacred story about the meaning of God, humanity and life. Today I want to talk about revelation, what is revealed through the Bible.
There are several ways to read the Bible.
- Academic – to learn about the text, and when it was written, who wrote it and why it was written.
- Devotion – to be inspired and moved to act on God’s Word.
- Revelation – to discover what God is calling us to be and do.
No one way of reading the Bible is the “right” way. Each has a purpose and as disciples of Jesus, I encourage you to read the Bible through these three different lenses.
Just as there are several ways to read the Bible, there are several ways to interpret the Bible.
- Sacred story – the Bible is a collection of stories to be studied to be understood. This form of study is called exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis uses commentaries and Bible dictionaries or attends Bible studies in which the teacher has used these tools to understand the setting, the original meaning of words and phrases, and how others have interpreted the verses in the past. Reading the Bible as only sacred story can lead to picking and choosing the passages that reinforce our story.
- Inspirational – God breathed stories and teachings to move us to live a holy life. Here the Bible is read devotionally – how will I live this verse or verses today? While knowing the context and meaning of phrases will be helpful, to receive God’s inspiration does not require thorough study. For instance, the 23rd Psalm, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and 1 Corinthians 13 about love speak deeply into us without knowing everything about these passages. Meditating on these passages is appropriate for daily devotions. Reading the Bible only devotionally leads to a shallow faith.
- Literal Word of God – the words on the page are to be lived as printed. As I shared in the previous article, I have never encountered a United Methodist that reads the entire Bible literally or, maybe I should say, follows the entire Bible literally. There are scriptures about food, clothing, keeping the Sabbath holy (Saturday is the Sabbath day, but we do not even keep Sunday as prescribed in the Bible. There is an entire list of what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath), as well as many others that we do not follow literally. But there are scriptures we should follow literally – the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment, 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, forgiving other’s sins, etc. Reading the Bible only literally sets people to judging one another.
Here is a paradigm for three ways to read the Bible. Read each row from left to right to see how each differs from one another and enhances each other.
Sacred Story (study) Inspiration (meditate) Literal (read)
Understand Wonder Know
Believe Trust Conviction
Knowable Mystery Truth
Clarity Excite Concrete
Interpret Meditate Take at Face Value
Different Interpretation My Interpretation One Interpretation
Story of Creation Story of Pentecost Story of the Crucifixion
Notice in each method of interpretation, each column has value for understanding and living the Bible. When we lean only on one column, we become dogmatic, narrow, and miss the full revelation of God. It is in the combination that we capture the full breath of God’s unfolding story. Only reading the Bible through one of these lenses misses the wider revelation and understanding God has for us.
Revelation engages all three and is a journey rather than event. Revelation is about the next step forward, the unfolding mystery of our next step and the future’s path for our life. The Bible is filled with mystery, in other words, it is not fully known and faith is required for revelation.
God is most often revealed in the scriptures when we are most vulnerable because that’s when we are most open to God’s revelation, just as these Biblical and religious stories illustrate:
- Abraham sees a ram in the bush and knows it is a gift from God.
- Moses is awed by a burning bush that is not consumed and understands God has a mission for him.
- Mary understands God is doing a new thing through her when the baby in Elizabeth leaps.
- During his baptism, the heavens open and the divine mission of Jesus is made known.
- Paul, on a sunny day on the road to Damascus, realizes he is to make disciples of Christ, not persecute them.
- John Wesley, on a ship that looked like it was about to sink, finds faith in Christ.
Each highlights God’s revelation when the individuals were most vulnerable. When we are the most vulnerable we have the most to learn, understand and experience.
Ultimately, revelation is about finding ourselves in the passage. Too often, we are trying to find a message for others while the passage is searching for us. When you think the passage is speaking about someone else, spend time reading, studying and meditating on what God is saying to you. If the Word returns empty, become more vulnerable. God wants to reveal something for us every day.
Keep the faith!
United Methodists of Greater New Jersey