This series of posts come from a Bible class series I taught in January 2018. However, the ideas of the three tasks first came togehter as a teaching strategy to move people from reading scripture to doing something about it. Read the rest of the series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
Reading the Bible is an essential discipline for the Christian. Even more important is to heed the truth of Jesus’ statement at the end of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7):
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” –Matthew 7:24-27
Yet, here is another truth: “making good sense of the Bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is a hard thing to do.”
The Bible can be hard to understand. And even when we do, figuring out how and when to apply it can leave us perplexed, stuck without purposeful action. Throughout my years as a Bible teacher, I have found a reliable pathway through the confusion of Bible reading and wise life application. That pathway is a process of three important tasks that we bring to reading the Bible.
The first task we bring to the Bible is to know it—to learn about it. This is often referred to as biblical literacy. This might include learning something as simple as all the books of the Bible, as detailed as the list the kings of Israel and Judah, as interesting as the cultural and historical background of the stories, or as complex as word studies.
Biblical illiteracy is a problem in our world. The fact that Christians are reading the Bible less than in years past is part of a larger movement of people doing less reading of any kind. Less reading translates into a lack of knowledge about the Bible. Yet, we must understand that Bible knowledge is not the point. In our quest for biblical literacy, it is easy to miss the point. I can know my way around the Bible, quoting verses and facts, and still be a jerk (as seen too well in our current culture of those who proclaim to love the Bible). Knowing the Bible, and knowing it well, is important. But there is more.
The second task we bring to the Bible is to do theology—that is to think about it, to reflect on its meaning as we consider our own context in the world. This is often referred to as theological reflection. Though this sounds like a complex task reserved for a scholar, we do this anytime we think about how a scripture passage applies in our current day. In this task, we become listeners attentive to what the Spirit is saying through the words of the Bible and the events of our lives.
“Making good sense of the Bible” (to borrow from the quote above) turns us all into theologians. Doing theology equips us speak about our faith, develops and supports our spiritual health, and draws us closer to God as we become more in tune with God’s way thinking, being, and doing. Theological reflection leans into our knowledge about the Bible and our life experience, requiring us to make connections between the stories of Scripture and the stories of our life. We turn these thoughts in our hearts and minds and ponder intersections that bring meaning and purpose. We recognize the Spirit’s voice, “Don’t just sit there. Do something!” We have come to the edge of action, ready to do the will of God.
The third task we bring to the Bible is to translate the first two tasks in to missional action—that is to put it into practice in a way that brings life, hope, and love to the people around us. This is where the Bible comes to life beyond the pages of a book, the ideas in our head, and the passion in our heart. Missional action suggests that application of scripture is more than just for our own good, but contributes to the good of the world. Through missional action, we participate in God’s healing of the world.
Picking up again on the above quote from Davis and Hays, “applying that sense wisely in our lives” challenges us to consider holistic, rather than piecemeal changes or soundbite communication. More than just life application or even evangelism, missional action is about putting skin on the gospel. More than making our churches more user friendly, when we live the gospel we move out into the neighborhood as friends to those who may not even realize what our church is about or that it even exists.
Here are two observations about these three tasks. The first
is that they work as a process, though not necessarily linear. Each task needs
the other two. Nor can any task be skipped. The second is that the Spirit of
God works in the midst of each task and in the process as a whole. We gain no
clear insight, no great idea, and no creative inspiration without the Holy
Spirit leading us and working through us.
 Ellen Davis and Richard Hayes, The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003), p. xv.