For a couple of months last summer, a church I pass on the way to my own church had this quote on its sign: "Buy the truth, and sell it not." I recognized the quote right away, although I did have to look it up to be able to tell you exactly where to find it (Proverbs 23:23). I know that it means to work to get wisdom, and once you've got it, keep it; don't forget the wisdom you learn, because it is valuable. But every time I passed that church sign, I wondered what the average non-Bible-literate person might have thought that it meant. For that matter, one trip I asked my own family what they thought it meant, and they pretty much came up dry. Out of context and as a sound byte, the proverb is very nearly meaningless. It's something that you have to pause, and ponder, and take some time out to try to understand. (Kind of a silly thing to put on a church sign, if you ask me, but they didn't ask my opinion!)
I think modern Christians, at least in this country, have sometimes gotten the idea that they have a pretty good grasp of what the Bible says, when in fact they have obtained only a superficial familiarity with and understanding of the Bible. The Bible is a long, complex book. Parts of it are interrelated (the prophetic books and the historical books, for example), and sometimes it seemingly repeats itself (the four Gospels, or the books of Kings and Chronicles). Authors of books that were written later in time often refer to or even quote parts that were written before their time, and the context of a Bible verse is of critical importance to its meaning. It's a real disservice to the Bible that we so often take it one verse at a time, pulling a verse out of a promise box or daily devotions book, and never even attempt to understand the big picture. My quest to read the Bible in a year (which has turned into a quest to read the Bible in two years) has resulted in a real appreciation for the continuity of the Bible. It contains a grand story of God's love for His chosen people, and their (often rebellious) response to His love. There is a continuity that runs throughout, and if you've never read the whole thing, you're coming in halfway through the movie. You're not going to understand everything that goes on.
Another serious deficiency in the understanding that many Christians have of the Bible is that they mostly are familiar with the New Testament. The New Testament is wonderful and important, don't get me wrong... but there's more to the Bible than that. Do an experiment for me: get a Bible (an all-66-books Bible, not a New Testament) and find Matthew 1:1. Stick your finger in there and close the Bible. Now, tell me... is there more Bible before Matthew 1:1, or after Matthew 1:1? The answer is that there is much more Old Testament than New Testament. If the only thing you know from the Bible is Matthew through Revalation plus Psalm 23 and a couple of random snippets from Isaiah and Proverbs, you are severely shortchanging yourself. You don't really know the Bible.
Why should you even bother to know about the Old Testament? Come on, I know you're thinking it. Well, there's a very good reason: Jesus Himself said it was important.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV)Jesus Himself said that the Old Testament was important; that's reason enough to take a look at it. But even if He hadn't specifically said that, there are good reasons to have a familiarity with it.
The Jewish people of Jesus' day knew about the Scriptures. The writers of the New Testament knew the Scriptures, and quoted from them. When you read one of these places where a New Testament writer quotes the Old Testament, you not only need to know the context of the verse in the New Testament, but you really need to know the context of the verse from the Old Testament as well. Each will illuminate the other, and sometimes knowing the context of the original passage will let you see things in the New Testament passage that you might not have realized otherwise. For an example that I ran across in my reading, see this post on "I believed, and so I spoke." In that particular case, Paul almost quoted the verse as sort of a shorthand, assuming that the reader would know what he meant by it. The phrase "May the force be with you" carries, in our culture, a whole world of meaning along with it. It makes you think of the characters and stories in the Star Wars movies, and it might also carry a pop culture irony with it, depending on how it is used. "I believed, and so I spoke" presumably was familiar enough to Paul's expected readers that he didn't feel the need to elaborate; it was self-explanatory. But unless you are as familiar with Psalm 116 as the Christians of ancient Corinth were, it's not self-explanatory to you! So in order to really understand that passage in the New Testament, you have to also understand the quoted passage in the Old Testament.
Another fallacy I see in our attitude toward the Bible is thinking that reading the Bible is the key to becoming better Christians. Reading the Bible is certainly critical, and it is the first step, but it's only the first step of many. In order to truly gain understanding of the Word, it requires study. You have to immerse yourself in what it has to say. Good tools, such as in-Bible cross-references, Study Bible notes, commentaries, Bible software, and so on can help you make great strides toward a fuller understanding of the Word. Paul advised Timothy to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV) "Do your best" implies zeal, effort, diligence. If there's not any work involved... if you're just breezing through the Bible so you can say you did... then your gain from reading it will be minimal. Reading alone is not the key. Being serious about knowing the truth of God's word is.
But you know what? Bible study has an element of work in it, but with the right tools and a clear understanding of what you're trying to understand, Bible study can be incredibly fun. It can become addicting. Do you know why? Because you begin to love the Word of God. It becomes part of your intellectual makeup. You want to know more, understand more. You want to see all of the connections. When you fall in love with someone, you can spend hours just studying their eyes. When you fall in love with the Word, you can spend hours studying its teachings, and it feels like minutes. Why don't you try it? Look up your favorite Scripture passage at MyStudyBible.com and check out the "Bible Study Notes" window. If you see a small letter next to a word, put your mouse over it and see what related Scripture references come up. Follow a rabbit trail or two and see what you learn!
I've had a great time writing these six blog posts. I never knew I had so much to say about the Bible, and if you read all the way through all six posts, i sincerely thank you for hanging around. You're the person I wrote this for! If any part of them inspires you to open a Bible (or start up some software, or open a Web page, or install a phone app...) when you wouldn't have otherwise, then I'm thrilled that I was part of it. No matter what color your Bible is, the best Bible is always a "read" Bible... read yours today!