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pastors' blog

Fortune-Cookie Bible-Reading

Posted on February 7, 2009

My wife and I love Asian cuisine.  My children are in the process of learning to like it.  At this point their favorite part of the meal is still probably the fortune cookie.  Crack the “cookie” (I use the term generously) and out falls a pithy line about your life, sometimes with a lucky number or two included.

We often approach the Bible like a fortune cookie.  We pick up this mysterious, old book not really knowing what to make of it.  “How am I supposed to use it?”  It doesn’t read like modern literature.  It’s not a novel, magazine or blog.  So, unsure of how to proceed, we just crack it open and look around for a line or two to fall out that might speak to our lives.

Unfortunately, our preaching as pastors sometimes reinforces this fortune-cookie kind of Bible reading.  Sermons today are often so pragmatic, so user-friendly, that preachers give the impression the Bible is a kind of ancient self-help book.  We grab a verse and use it as a launching pad for hot tips on stress management, marital bliss or financial prosperity.  As a result the Scriptures come off as nothing more than a baptized version of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

The great irony of this sort of Bible reading and teaching is that we end up confirming today’s conventional wisdom about religion.  People today often view religion, at best, as a sort of self-improvement, life-navigation tool.  And when we offer the Bible as a “user’s manual” for life (I’ve actually heard it described that way!) we affirm our culture’s viewpoint.  As a result, rather than being convicted and converted, the non-Christian simply dismisses us by saying, “That’s great that you’ve found something that works for you.”

We clearly need a different way to read the Bible.

So if it’s not a fortune cookie, then what is the Bible?  The Bible is fundamentally a story.  But it’s not a fiction.  It’s history.  And more precisely, it is uniquely His-story.  We often fail to see the Bible as God’s unified story because Scripture was written by many authors, over thousands of years, and in different types of literature (including poetry, historical accounts, prophecies, proverbs and more).  And yet in this collection of writings we find a great epic drama, a consistent through-line that ties the various and sundry documents together like no other book in human history.

The Old Testament tells the story of humanity’s disastrous revolt against God’s Kingship as well as God’s amazing promise to bless the whole world through Abraham and his descendents, the people of Israel.  So at one level the Old Testament tracks the history of Israel; yet at another level it expands upon and fleshes out the promise to Abraham for a coming Savior and King who will restore God’s kingly rule and reconcile a sinful world to God.

If the Old Testament traces the promise, then the New Testament heralds the fulfillment.  The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel.  The New Testament then goes on to relate the establishment of God’s new people, the church, through the proclamation of the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  By turning from our sin and trusting in Jesus, we can be forgiven and enter God’s kingdom.  And so God’s story continues to surge forward around the world today, and will do so until the King returns.

Appreciating this story requires a different kind of Bible reading and preaching.  Rather than opening the Bible to find a pithy one-liner to fit into our lives, the Bible calls us to re-locate ourselves within His-story.  Jesus called people to enter into the Kingdom of God by believing in him, and he calls us to find our place in his great epic.  Are there pithy, practical life-applications in the Bible?  Of course there are.  Just read Proverbs!  The Bible is immensely practical.  But we must do life-application from within a framework of God’s majestic, unfolding plan.

How can we learn to read the Bible as His-story rather than as fortune-cookie?  Let me alert you to two great resources.  First, if you have kids, buy them The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm.  This is unlike any other kids’ Bible out there.  Rather than re-telling an assortment of Bible stories, The Big Picture Story Bible intentionally traces this major narrative of God’s promise to bring Jesus.  I suspect it will be enlightening for many of us adults as well!

And second, take a look at The Bible Overview, produced by Matthias Media.  The Bible Overview is a study guide for small groups that traces the meta-narrative of the Bible in 15 sessions, complete with cool little diagrams to help you remember the major movements of God’s narrative.  Pastor Seth is currently using this material for his Old Testament class in the Disciple Training Institute.  Maybe your small group Bible study could use the material.  Or just grab a few friends or your spouse and study it together,

Fortune cookies are fun.  But a big meal of good Chinese food is amazing.  You’ll be astounded at how much more satisfied your soul will be in Christ when you grow beyond a fortune-cookie approach to God’s Word, and begin to have your mind and life transformed by His-story!

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