Advice to a Student: How to become a better Bible reader

My first semester of teaching hermeneutics is almost over, I have three papers left to grade. However I was pleasantly interrupted by an email from one student. He asked for advice regarding how to continue to develop his skills as a Bible reader. His attempts to find the “Main Idea of the Text” were often close, but not quite where he wanted them. He was hoping I could point him to some class, or book, or something that could help him to continue to develop.

Emails like that make me so excited. I love to see guys long to read the Bible better. I love that he is taking his education seriously. I love that he is willing to put in the work it takes to understand God’s Word better and to communicate it more clearly. Emails like that make teaching an exciting profession.

I responded to this student like any good preacher would, with three points. I will include them below. I would love to hear if you have any other advice.

  • It is important to remember that reading this way takes practice. Most of us were not trained to look for the author’s main point when we read the Bible. Many preachers seem to work from model of reading the text that we would not accept. Rather than first asking, “what is this text saying,” many pastors start with “what does my congregation need to hear?” Then they pick and choose what parts of the text to emphasize based on what they think will most powerfully or effectively address their audience.

    What we are asking you to do this semester is vastly different and can seem foreign to many students. However, if you are convinced, as I am, that meaning should come from the author, then you will have to retrain yourself to read with the author’s main point in front of your mind at all times. Just like any training that is worth doing, it will take time and practice. So, be patient and keep pressing toward a better way.

  • Another important thing to do is to practice your own writing skills. Do as much writing as you can. Try to keep your arguments succinct. As you become a more proficient writer you will begin to find it easier to get in the mind of the Biblical writers. It’s true that they use genres that will be different from your own. However, as you write you will begin to identify with the struggle over what sentence should go where, and how to order your paragraphs. These types of questions are common to almost all writers.

    Also, you can begin to read books on writing style and sentence construction. I am personally hoping to begin reading Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence, in order to continue to train myself in this area. Howard Hendricks suggested a similar strategy, recommending Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.

  • Regarding classes to take, you should be aware that there is no single class you can take that will make you a good Bible reader or help you correctly find the main idea every time. However, you will find certain classes more helpful than others. Bible reading is, at its heart, simply reading. Therefore you are well served by taking as many English and literature classes as possible. Pay special attention to teachers who discuss issues like grammar and genre as these issues translate exceptionally well to Bible reading. College students at Southeastern should take classes with Dr. Michael Travers whenever possible. He is well known for his work in various genres, especially poetry. If you get to take his class, beg him to teach you how author’s use their genre to communicate their points, not only to our minds but to our hearts.

    In my own experience, my Greek classes contributed to my understanding of Bible reading more than any others. The first two semesters are hard work, and the main payoff is really just a little bit of grammar. However, if you are willing to push through, the 3rd, and especially the 4th semester are much more helpful. Plus, once you finish the third semester you are qualified to begin taking book studies in the original language. I don’t mean to suggest that “practical” classes, or even theology classes, can’t be helpful, however, I decided, when I started seminary, to spend almost all of my electives in Greek. I have never regretted that decision. Learning to read the Bible well was worth all the work.

    Perhaps no single class was more influencial that Dr. David Black’s 4th semester Greek class. The opportunity to work through the entire book of Philippians with Dr. Black was an invaluable experience. Additionally, that semester he introduced me to a book that profoundly influenced the way I read the Bible. Dr. Black’s, Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, provides a clear guide for analyzing the authors words, sentences, and style in order to locate the main idea. Even if you haven’t had a single Greek class, it would be worth buying, however it will obviously be much easier for students who have taken some Greek. Regardless, you should not miss out on his chapters on syntax, semantics, and discourse analysis.

If you have any other advice, I’d love to hear it!

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Can Salvation Come Apart From the Law? – Romans 5:12-21

The hermeneutics class I am teaching recently worked through an exciting argument in the book of Romans. It was fun to read through their papers and see some of the excellent work they did. This post is to offer my own contribution to all their hard work.

One problem that many students had was figuring out how Romans 5:20 fit with the rest of the passage. The passage seemed to focus primarily on Adam and Jesus, which made a comment about the law seem out of place. Adam died way before the law was given, it seemed like a verse about the law would be more fitting in a conversation about Moses.

The answer to this problem is found by looking back through the book of Romans. The context of the argument lets us see that vs. 20 is actually less out of place than Adam is. Paul’s argument is about how salvation and justification can happen even if we don’t have or don’t keep the law. The question now is, why bring up Adam if you want to show us how to be saved apart from the law? Hopefully this outline can help make sense of that question.

Romans 5:12-21
The Context: 
After a brief introduction to the book, where Paul tells us that he will be explaining the the gospel, he launches into a nearly three chapter demonstration that we all fall short of God’s righteousness and therefore we all deserve God’s wrath. Then in Romans 3:21-22, he presents the most exciting and most shocking claim of the entire book, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

I say that claim is exciting because Paul has just proven that our lack of righteousness brings God’s wrath upon us. It marks us for death. But now, we have access to the perfect righteousness of God through Jesus Christ. We have access to a righteousness that can keep us from death and from the wrath of God. No news could be more exciting.

But the claim is also shocking. In fact, especially if you were a first century Jew, it is almost too good to believe. How in the world can righteousness come apart from the law? Why would God give us righteousness for what we believe instead of what we do? Why would God even give us the law if it can’t provide us with righteousness? It is easy to see why Paul’s readers, especially the Jewish ones, might receive this news skeptically. This is why Paul spends the next few chapters proving salvation can come apart from the law, and that this belief is completely consistent with the Old Testament. In Chapter 4 Paul uses Abraham as exhibit A, in our passage he turns to Adam as exhibit B.

Introducing Exhibit B – Romans 5:12-14
To prove that righteousness, and salvation, can come apart from the law, Paul uses an argument from precedent. He is claiming that we should allow a past event to explain and interpret the present dilemma. The precedent that he offers in verse twelve is the case of Adam. He explains that Adam’s one sin brought two consequences. His sin immediately introduces death which reigned over all people. It also set all people into a pattern of sin which perpetuated the problem, continually extending death over all mankind.

After introducing Adam for comparison, Paul explains why this is a legitimate comparison to Jesus. Remember that the argument is that Jesus can offer righteousness and salvation apart from the law. For this reason Paul has to demonstrate that Adam offered sin and unrighteousness apart from the law. Paul makes this clear in vs. 13-14. ISV translates the verses clearly.

Certainly sin was in the world before the law was given, but no record of sin is kept when there is no law. Nevertheless, death ruled from the time of Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin in the same way Adam did when he disobeyed.

Though sin may not have been recorded the same way, or known the same way, before the law was given, it was nevertheless still there. We know this because its effects were still there. People obviously sinned because death was there, reigning over mankind.

Thus, if Adam’s gift to the world, though it is a gift we don’t want, can come apart from the law, there is no reason to believe that the same isn’t true of Jesus’ gift. Adam’s situation is legitimately comparable to Jesus’. Or, we can say, Adam is a legitimate precedent. Or if you prefer to use Paul’s language, Adam is a type of Jesus.

  • Introducing Exhibit B: Adam – Romans 5:12-14
    • The Relevant Data: What About Adam Compares to Christ – Romans 5:12
    • The Reason the Data is Admissible: What Makes Adam’s Situation Similar to Christ’s – Romans 5:13-14

Jesus Is Like Adam, But Better – Romans 5:15-19
While Adam is a type of Jesus, or a precedent for Jesus, it is not true that they are exactly the same. The difference isn’t how they interact with the law, that is how they are the same. Instead, the difference is in the quality of their gifts. Paul gives several reasons that though Jesus is like Adam, he is way, way, better.

First, we expect Jesus’ gift to be better because it comes from a better source. Adam’s gift was given to all men even though it came simply from one man’s offense. Certainly then, Jesus’ gift must be available for all men because it comes from God’s grace, and is the result the God-Man’s obedience. Second, Adam’s disobedience brought condemnation and death, a reward that no one wants. But Jesus’ gift far exceeds Adam’s in that he offers justification and life. Finally, Adam’s disobedience set the pattern, which all men followed, each one of us disobeying God like our first father. But Jesus, again proving to be superior, makes us righteous and establishes a new pattern of righteousness for us to follow. Truly, Jesus gift exceeds Adam’s in every way, just as Jesus himself exceeded Adam in every way.

  • Jesus is Like Adam, But Better – Romans 5:15-19
    • Jesus’ Gift Comes From a Better Source – Romans 5:15
    • Jesus’ Gift Brings a Better Reward – Romans 5:16-18
    • Jesus’ Gift Establishes a Better Pattern – Romans 5:19

The Law Has The Same Effect On Jesus’ Gift as It Had On Adam’s – Romans 5:20-21
Having already put forward why he could compare Adam and Jesus, and then demonstrating how Jesus surpasses Adam in every way, Paul now comes back to the question that started this discussion in the first place; “why the law?” While we find other answers to this question in other places in the Bible, here Paul is content to focus on the law’s ability to highlight the greatness of Christ’s gracious gift.

The argument is simple. Sin obviously existed before the law, he already proved this in Romans 5:13-14. Therefore, the law simply makes sin worse. Scholars debate exactly how it makes sin worse. For instance, does it mean we sin more or that our sin is worse because we should have known better. The answer to this debate, however, isn’t extremely important to Paul’s point. Instead it is enough to realize that the law demonstrates in excruciating detail how disobedient we are. Yet, the worse our sin is and the more we realize the depths of our depravity, the greater God’s grace is proven to be. The point is, the law wasn’t needed to kill us and the law isn’t needed to save us. However, the law does show us how dead we are, and the law does show us how great God’s grace is.

The point is made. There is very little room left to question why God would save us regardless of how well we kept the law. All Paul has left to do is present his final closing argument. Here, in vs. 21 he recaps the entire argument showing that just as sin once ruled, now grace rules. And this new rule, the rule of grace, is glorious indeed for it results in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • The law has the same effect on Jesus’ gift as it had on Adam’s – Romans 5:20-21
    • The Purpose of the law – Romans 5:20
    • Closing Statement – Romans 5:21

So What – Some Practical Applications
As we all know, it is not enough to simply know what the Bible says, we must let it affect the way we live. Some passages challenge us to do things, some challenge us to think things. Regardless, every passage challenges us to respond.

This passage is clearly trying to impress us with the greatness of God’s grace in Jesus. This mean we want to ask how this passage can lead us to a greater appreciation of the greatness of God’s grace. While there may be several ways, let me suggest three that correspond with the three points of Paul’s message.

  1. Spend time thinking about the depths of your sin. – David said in Psalm 51 that he was conceived in sin. This passage helps us understand what that means. But David also recognized that he continued in that pattern set by Adam. Or consider Luke 18:9-14 and ask yourself, are you more like the Pharisee who thanks God that you are not like the sinners, or more like the tax collector who beats his breast and cries, “have mercy on me, O God?” If you are like the Pharisee, you will never see the greatness of the grace of God.
  2. Consider whom your life more closely resembles. – Adam set a pattern of disobedience, death, and destruction. Ever since then, all men have naturally followed in their father’s footsteps, disobeying God, setting off on a path that leads to death. Is this the same path that you are on? Or have you followed Christ? Are you trusting in His gift and following His pattern. He offers the only road toward eternal life.
  3. Marvel at and give thanks for the incredible grace of God. – God gave the law and He gave His Son so that we might catch just a glimpse of how amazing He is. The angels describe Him in Isaiah 6:3 as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” He is wholly good, without any blemish. He hates all sin and injustice and vows to destroy all evil. Yet, He is simultaneously full of mercy, abounding in love. Only by grasping these two truths can we begin to see the incredible nature of His free gift of grace, in which he delivered His own Son so that we might share in His righteousness. This kind of grace deserves unending praise.

The Oldest Bible

Codex Sinaiticus (Greek Edition)If you like old books, its hard to beat the Codex Sinaiticus. Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest known copy of the Bible written in Greek. You can buy a facsimilie of the book on Amazon for only $640 (I check the used bookstore for a copy all the time, but to no avail). However, if your budget is more like mine you may have to settle for the online edition which you can find at the Codex Sinaiticus website.

One of the most striking features of the text is how hard it is to read. I suppose if you were a native Greek reader it may have been a bit easier. However, if you take a look at it you will see why it was probably a little difficult even for the native speaker. I took a screen shot of John 3:16 to demonstrate just how difficult. It took me a while to even locate the verse. There are no chapter and verse markers. Everything is written in all caps and there are no spaces between the words. And, it definitely isn’t a reader friendly font.

Nonetheless, the Codex Sinaiticus is really cool. While there are fragments of the New Testament even earlier than this codex, it stands as the earliest complete collection of the New Testament that we have. It was hand copied and read around the time of some of our early church fathers, perhaps just shortly after Constantine took control of the Roman Empire under the banner of the xi rho.

As cool as the Codex Sinaiticus is, I must admit that I love progress. I am so thankful for the growth in the economy which led us to decide that it isn’t a waste of paper to leave a space between our words. I am thankful that we can read our Bibles today with ease in our own language. The gift of the Bible is truly an amazing gift. We should be diligent not to take it for granted.

What does it mean to read Greek?

I feel simultaneously inspired and overwhelmed. I just read an article by Daniel Street where he asks the question, “What does it mean to read Greek?” His basic premise is that I can’t read Greek. Not just me, but the vast majority of people who have taken Greek in seminary. I have taken way more than the average seminary graduate (about 7 semesters worth), but as he points out, I can’t pick up the Greek New Testament and read it in the same way I would an English Bible. Instead, when I look at the Greek text I am translating it to English and then reading my English translation. The process is nothing like what an original Greek reader would experience.

What is fun is that he is suggesting there is a better way to learn Greek that would teach the student to read like a native Greek speaker. I am already overwhelmed just thinking about it because I know that it won’t be easy. But then again, few things that are worth doing come easy.

I know that it will be some time before I can dedicate myself to this study. In the mean time I am planning on continuing to read Daniel Streets blog in hopes of finding similar pieces of inspiration. If you are interested in reading the Greek New Testament this seems to be a blog worth following.

Paul the Poet

After working through the Greek reading of last week’s passage, I am again convinced that most English translations are good and helpful. However, I also see why it is helpful to take the time to learn Greek if you can. It isn’t that your English translation is wrong, but you may enjoy seeing some of the brilliant ways the authors poetically make their points.

One great example is in Romans 1:3-4. The Greek text uses words that look and sound similar to show a parallel in the thought process of these two verses. I think you can see it, though less brilliantly, in English too. I will write the transliteration (phonetic spelling) of the Greek and English below so you can see what I am talking about.

Romans 1:3                        Romans 1:4

tou genomenou                   tou horisthentos
(who has come)                  (who was appointed)

huiou theou en dynamei
(Son of God in power)

kata sarka                           kata pneuma hagiosynes
(according to the flesh)      (according to the holy spirit)

ek spermatos Dauid             ex anastaseos nekron
(from the seed of David)     (from the resurrection of the dead)

Some scholars have said that the parallelism is so close and so beautiful that Paul probably took it from a song sung by the early church. There really is no way to know if that is true, but it is clear that these two lines work together. The question is, to what end are they working together? When we remember that the audience of the book was a church struggling with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, I think it becomes clear how these two verses work together to address the issue.

Paul has previously explained that he is an apostle of the gospel, and the gospel is the story of Jesus Christ.  But who is Jesus Christ?  Verse 3 tells us that he is the hope of Israel.  He is the promised king who has authority on the basis of being a descendant of David.  But verse 4 goes one better.  Not only does he have authority according to his flesh, he has authority according to the Holy Spirit.  And it isn’t based on his lineage but based on his resurrection. It is from this authority that Paul been called to be an apostle and it is from this authority that the nations, or the Gentiles, have been called to belong to Jesus Christ.

Paul is still in the middle of his introduction and he has already demonstrated the authority by which he can say that Gentiles have an equal right in the kingdom of God as the Jews. Who in their right mind can argue with him now? If the risen Christ has chosen the Gentiles, who can reject that authority? But the real brilliance of the argument is that he has avoided alienating either the Jew or the Gentile. In these two verses he has upheld the honor of the Jew while simultaneously upholding the calling of the Gentile.  We haven’t even gotten out of the introduction yet and Paul is already well on his way to demonstrating how the gospel can provide unity to a church split over the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles.

Connecting Scripture with Scripture

Holy Bible Holman Christian Standard Bible: Red-Letter Text EditionA couple of years ago I purchased a copy of the Holman Christian Standard Bible.  I have come to really appreciate the translation for several reasons.  One of my favorite features is that in the New Testament, Old Testament quotes and allusions are printed in bold font.  It is a visual reminder of how integrated the entire message of the Bible is.  The New Testament authors knew the Old Testament and they quote it with such frequency that you can tell they expected their readers to know it too.

Another tool that can help us see how verses are related to other verses in the Bible is a cross reference.  This tool, which is located in the center column of my HCSB, lists several other verses which have similar wording as the verse you are considering.  Typically, a Bible only provides an abbreviated list of these cross references.  That’s  because, according to Chris Harrison, there are over 63,000 cross references.  This means that the Bible comments on itself, alludes to itself, or borrows its own wording over 63,000 times.  What astounding unity!

If numbers aren’t your thing, perhaps you will find a visual representation more moving.  The picture below, created by Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild, uses computer graphing technology to draw an arc connecting each cross reference.  The result is an amazing rainbow depicting the astounding degree of interconectedness of the Scripture.  It is a beautiful reminder of the unified message of our Bible.