Most of Us Read The Bible The Wrong Way

Have you ever been in a relationship in which everything you say is misunderstood? It’s as though the other person has a built in bias to misinterpret you:

  • You say their new tie is attractive. They wonder if you are buttering them up in order to borrow fifty bucks.
  • You privately mention that their plaid, pink tie clashes (in the tiniest way) with their striped, orange shirt. They think you are a critical jerk.
  • You say nothing at all about their new tie. They figure you are a self-obsessed narcissist who never notices anything about anyone else.

A built-in-bias prevents them from hearing what you have to say because their hearing is filtered through their agenda. They only hear what they want to hear.

Well, we are that biased, agenda-driven person, only we misinterpret what God says. We read scripture through the lens of our purposes, and we overlook his purpose.

We are missing the boat to a rich life with God, and boarding a dinghy to relational hell.

The misread purposes

Our personalities and training bias us to read scripture through these lenses:

  • Doctrinal. We primarily read scripture as a handbook for how to think. Francis Schaeffer, a leading 20th century Christian thinker, claimed that his biggest temptation was not temptations of sensuality but temptations to abstract theological truths. Thinking-oriented people see the Bible this way.
  • Behavioral. We primarily read scripture as a guidebook for how to act. We see the Bible as God’s guidelines for human behavior. It is about the right and wrong of actions. Legalistic-oriented people read scripture this way.
  • Inspirational. We primarily read scripture as a manual of inspiration. The normal course of human life brings difficulties which result in pain. We just feel bad. We read the Bible as an emotional supplement to bolster our feelings. Feeling-oriented people read scripture this way.

Please don’t misunderstand me (and, by the way, that is a very nice tie you are wearing). It is only in scripture that we discover true doctrines, right behavior, and great inspiration.

They just aren’t the primary purpose of scripture. These misinterpretations thrive because they are so close to the real purpose. They just aren’t it. The best counterfeits are the ones closest to the real thing. They just aren’t it.

So what is the Bible all about anyway?

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus meets two doctrinally-weak, behaviorally-confused, emotionally-depressed disciples. He challenges their truth, changes their behavior, and brings them a joy. How does he do it? He reviews the scriptures and explains that the Bible is all about him:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).

Jesus says, “All of scripture is about me.” The Bible is a self-portrait painted by God.

Scripture is God’s revelation about himself. THE BIBLE IS NOT ABOUT US! It is about God. It’s not about our pet-doctrines, personal behaviors, or feel-good inspirations. First and foremost, the Bible is God’s self-revelation. He’s showing us who he is.

Until we understand that the Bible is about God, we are lost.

Seeing Jesus

‎Jesus claims that abundant life is simply in knowing Jesus (John 17:3). It’s knowing a person. It’s not dogma, behavior, nor just inspirational feelings. C. S. Lewis said,

We come to Scripture not to learn a subject but to steep ourselves in a person.

The four gospels are obviously about Jesus; of course. They’re filled with his birth, life, death, and resurrection. But can we really “see Jesus” in other places, like the law, or proverbs, or stories of early heroes? Jesus said all scripture is about him.

Are the Psalms about us?

We can easily see Jesus in a few, messianic Psalms; he is the Supreme King (Ps. 2, 45, and 72) and he is the suffering servant (Ps. 28, 55, 102). But what about all those other “normal” Psalms, like these verses from Psalm 71:4-5,

Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.

At first, these verses are inspiring. We ask for God’s protection from injustice. We cry out that he is our hope and trust. From our youth. The verses seem about us.

But wait a minute. I merely want him to be my hope and trust, but the truth is … well, I’m really not so hot at making him my hope. Instead I place my trust in my ideas and street-smarts. There is no one—not one saint, man or woman—in the history of the world who has fully placed their hope and trust in God. Every human has failed.

Except one

Only Jesus really placed his hope and trust in God, and Jesus did it when he was in the hands of the wicked and in the grasp of the unjust. Only Jesus trusted from his youth. Not you nor me.

In this Psalm (and all the rest), when we are honest, we merely see our failure. This Psalm cannot be about us. If it was, what hope do we have? Because we fail all the time.

But Jesus didn’t only die for us, he gave the life he lived to us. When God looks at us, he sees a person (Jesus) putting all his hope in God in the time of his deepest darkness. Read the Psalms with Jesus in mind, understand the beauty of Jesus given to us, and we have no need to despair at our weakness.

When we see Jesus in scripture, we see perfect truth, righteous living, and inspired communion with God; but now it is personal and no longer abstract.

Or let’s look at Old Testament characters

Sure, some Old Testament characters are types of Jesus, but can we see Jesus everywhere?

  • Jesus is the true brother Abel who was innocently slain, but whose blood cries out for our acquittal not our condemnation.
  • Jesus is the better Abraham who answered the call of God to leave the comfort of the familiar and go out into the world.
  • He is the real Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved so we—like Jacob—only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up.
  • Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord, and who mediates a new covenant.
  • He is the better Job, the only, truly innocent sufferer who then intercedes for his friends.
  • He is the better David, whose victory over Goliath becomes his people’s victory, though we never lifted a stone to accomplish it ourselves.
  • He is the true and better Esther, but who said “When I perish, I perish.”
  • He is the true Jonah who goes into the belly of hell itself so the people could be saved (I heard much of this list in a series on preaching by Tim Keller).

Try an experiment with me

Try to see the person of Jesus in your scripture study, or look at these passages:

  • Read the story of Joseph, and ask God to reveal Jesus (Gen. 37, 39-45, 47).
  • Read Psalm 56, see Jesus, and recognize the gift of Jesus’ life to us.
  • Read the Good Samaritan, and try to find Jesus (Luke 10:29-37).

Seeing the heart of Jesus in all of scripture brings the peace we desperately need. Our hope doesn’t depend on how good we’ve been (let’s be honest, we screw-up every day); our hope depends on seeing Jesus.

(And by the way, did I mention that tie really brings out the color in your eyes.)


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What do YOU think?

16 thoughts on “Most of Us Read The Bible The Wrong Way

  1. Sam: This is terrific. Paying attention to the biases we bring to Scripture is such an important corrective. It helps us see what we are not seeing; it helps us understand why it is we tilt one way or another. Well done…another great encouragement.

  2. “Scripture is God’s revelation about himself. THE BIBLE IS NOT ABOUT US! It is about God. It’s not about our pet-doctrines, personal behaviors, or feel-good inspirations. First and foremost, the Bible is God’s self-revelation. He’s showing us who he is.” Really like this, the only thing I would add is that scripture reveals to us God’s character, it’s called law and his love for his creation, his desire to redeem those he loves to Himself, to present his masterpieces to the praise of his glory and that’s called grace.

    The minute we make one iota of God’s work, HIS Word, about us is the minute we place at least one foot in the water of prosperity gospel. All of us are guilty, just some of us placed a foot in saw the water was warm to our liking and went and jumped all the way in, getting thoroughly soaked.

    • You are so right with your addition; scripture reveals to us God’s character.

      Part of the problem is that we only like parts of the character we see; we want to paint God in our culture’s image. Our culture loves that God is love but we hate that God is a judge and brings retribution!

      What we fail to forget (and so we really don’t know God’s love) is that God’s love was shown when he poured out his judgement on Jesus–for our sakes.

      God is not only just and loving; he’s smart. No one else could have imagined a salvation like that. Otherwise he’d have been loving but not just (and the world needs justice) or just without love (and the world needs love).

      He figured a way to do both.

      • Well, I’d say it’s a good essay. But a visceral desire for revenge is not the same as the cry for justice, and I don’t think that psalm reflects Jesus’ thoughts as demonstrated by either the cross or the law. It reflects plain human pain.

        In fact, this particular psalm seems to be an example of the exact opposite of your thesis idea, i.e. it’s precisely about me.

        Did I taking your point too strictly, though? I just don’t think every psalm has a messianic voice.

        I could say that Christ is present in psalm 137 in a different way—identifying with the psalmist’s pain and suffering (and ours) as he yearns toward his incarnation. Future events would reveal not only that but—in a perfect expression of both justice and mercy—that he identified with the sin of the perpetrator as well.

        The psalmist could not have appreciated the shock of that revelation, though. You need the whole of the scriptures plus the risen Jesus explaining it on the road.

        At least.

  3. This was helpful — thank you. I actually have come to the point where I admit that I don’t like reading the Old Testament because of all of the judgment and condemnation and other horrific acts of violence. I embrace the redemption that Christ bought for me but my human brain and heart just cannot understand so much of the OT. Yes, I know that all of scriptures is true but I have to be like a horse with blinders on — focused on the amazing wonder of the New Covenant. But I am glad to read your post so that if or when I read in the OT I will for sure be looking out for Jesus!

    • Hi Elissa,

      You are so encouraging. Thanks.

      I completely understand a reluctance to read some of the Old Testament stories. We want to see more love and mercy.

      One thing that helps me is to realize that the violence in the Old Testament is exactly what I deserve (I really do, when I’m honest enough to admit my own failings).

      God has shown me his mercy through Jesus on the cross.

      It’s funny, but I’m actually using the God of the New Testament to judge the God of the Old Testament. But they are the same God.

      It gives me a greater appreciation of his love when I see how much he hates the injustice in the Old Testament. He must REALLY love me to suffer that much for me.

      Elissa, you are a great reader, and I appreciate all your great encouragement.