This is the first lesson in an ongoing series which will help you get more familiar with the entire Bible. You don’t have to go to Bible college or spend hundreds of dollars on heavy books in order to learn as much as your pastor knows. In fact, you’d be surprised how quickly you can become quite the little scholar in your own right.
But before we begin, we need to talk about motivation. Why bother to study the Bible at all? One popular reason is to become a smarty pants and earn degrees that you can wave in other people’s faces. Some people study just so they can always have the answers in Bible study classes and make everyone else think they’re super holy. Such carnal agendas won’t take us anywhere good. We don’t want to study the Bible so we can show off, we want to study it in order to mature in our relationship with God.
You’ve probably heard this before: “You can’t grow unless you read your Bible.” This is a very popular bit of propaganda floating about the Church today which is intended to make you put your trust in a physical object instead of Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. But of course this is total rot. The Holy Spirit is the One who presents you with truth and gives you the mental and spiritual capacity to understand what He is saying. The Holy Spirit does not need physical props to teach you things in life. As one of the Creators of all things, He is quite capable of teaching you without any assistance. So we don’t read the Bible because we think our Gods can’t possibly teach us without it—such a belief makes our glorious Creators out to be far too limited.
The Holy Spirit is not a book, and He is quite insulted when we treat Him and the Bible like they are one and the same. Would you want to be referred to as a chair or a desk? Would you want your friends to say that they couldn’t possibly hear anything you said unless they were reading something at the same time you were trying to talk to them? We need to think about these ridiculous theories our pastors thrust upon us and realize how insulting they are to God. God is not a book. The Bible is not alive. It is just a bit of glue and paper which has only been around for a short period of human history. When the earth is finally destroyed, all copies of the Bible will be destroyed with it. You’re not going to be reading chapter and verse in Heaven, you’re going to be with your Makers. It’s very important that we view Them as far more valuable than some collection of old manuscripts.
So when is it the right time to study the Bible? When the Holy Spirit is sparking your curiosity. When you feel hungry to know more about God or you’re tired of always hearing other people’s interpretations of Scripture. Wait for God to motivate you. Don’t drag your eyeballs through page after page when you’re feeling bored stiff and you don’t understand what you’re reading. When reading the Bible feels like a flat, dull, tedious experience, it is because the Holy Spirit is not in the mood to help you understand it. Without His help, you’re not going to get anything useful out of the passage you’re reading. It’s important to let God lead your study time by waiting for Him to inspire you. Reading the Bible was never supposed to be some chore that you make yourself do because your pastor made you feel guilty. When you let God lead your study time, you’ll find it to be a fun and fascinating experience. You will feel inspired, not discouraged. So start paying attention to your experience of reading the Word. When it becomes negative, take a break until God inspires you to start reading again.
THE BIBLE’S PLOT
Now if you pick up a romance novel at a book sale and read only the last few pages, you aren’t going to get much out of them. Sure, you’ll get the general idea that the couple live happily ever after. But because you didn’t start at the beginning and become emotionally invested in their journey, their victorious ending just isn’t going to be the wow finish that the author intended when she wrote the book. Good writers carefully build their plots up to a satisfying and powerful climax. They leave you feeling deeply impacted and inspired by the time you come to the end of their stories. But to get the most out of the experience, you have to be willing to let the writer guide your journey. You have to read things in chronological order so you can see how one event leads to another. If you read the chapters out of order, you miss the key lessons the author is communicating.
When it comes to the Bible, most Christians are taught to only read the end of the Book: the New Testament. This is a major problem, because without an understanding of the Old Testament, the New Testament simply won’t mean much. Sure, you can learn about Jesus—sort of. But if you’re like most Christians, you probably think that Jesus was a sweet, loving Guy who went around attracting people to His gracious Personality. This is a complete crock. Jesus was an outrageous, shocking Fellow who went around starting fights with pastors, insulting people, and throwing His devoted followers into one theological crisis after another.
Perhaps you’ve heard the theory that Jesus talks much nicer in the New Testament than Yahweh does in the Old. This is another fat lie. Jesus talks exactly like His Father—They use the same tones, the same teaching styles, and They have the same intense Personalities. They both act quite exasperated by spiritual rebellion. All of this is right in front of you when you read the Gospels, but you completely miss it if you don’t know your Old Testament.
When you come to the very last book in the Bible, Revelation, you’re going to feel very upset and confused by what you find there if you don’t know your Old Testament. The ending of any book simply doesn’t make much sense once you’ve skipped the beginning and middle sections. But if you read the whole thing in order, suddenly the ending makes a lot more sense–even when that ending is a long series of wild, theatrical prophetic visions.
The first step in understanding the Bible is to recognize that it is not two separate stories but one continuous story which must be approached as a single unit. There is a timeline of events in the Bible which unfolds like a suspenseful plot. One thing builds on another as we move towards various climaxes. People make choices and sometimes those choices lead to very shocking consequences later on.
Now what makes the Bible so different than a book you pick up at the library is the fact that it wasn’t written by just one person. The Bible is a collection of many different historical documents which were written by different people for different purposes. The Old Testament writers wrote their various books over a span of 1500 years. There is a time jump of 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, then the New Testament books were written over a span of 70 years. Some authors (like the apostle Paul and the prophets Moses and Jeremiah) contributed multiple books, while others (like the prophet Haggai) only contributed one. Each author tells one part of the story from his own perspective. Sometimes multiple authors tell the same part of the story from different perspectives, which is the case with the four Gospel books. Other times the same author tells the same parts of a story multiple times, as Moses does in Numbers and Deuteronomy. All of this makes it a bit tricky to put the books in chronological order, but it can be done, and we’ll do it for you in this series. But first, let’s talk about how the books of the Bible are organized.
HOW THE BOOKS OF THE BIBLE ARE ORGANIZED
There are 66 books in the standard Christian Bible. The first 17 (Genesis-Esther) are pretty well ordered to give us a chronological timeline of historical events. So if you read Genesis through Esther, you pretty much keep moving forward in the Bible’s main plot. You do some repeating, and you hear about the same events from a few different viewpoints, but in general you have a sense of forward motion.
Now after these 17 books, our nice neat order of events gets messed up. Next we run into a cluster of five wisdom and poetry books: Job through Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon). To put these books into proper chronological order, we’d have to break them all up and it would be a big mess. Plus, scholars honestly don’t know exactly where to put some of them. For example, Job probably lived back in the days of Genesis but no one knows exactly where to slip him in. We know that King Solomon wrote Song of Songs, but we don’t know when. Psalms and Proverbs are collections of sayings and poems that were written by many different authors—some of whom are unidentified. So while the contents of these wisdom books can teach us some valuable things, we don’t have enough information to place them in chronological order between the historical books. So we just leave them grouped together because they have a similar style of writing (poetry) and they have similar contents (people musing about God and life).
Next we come to the prophetic books. Here again, there are difficulties. Some prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) recorded many messages over many different years. To put their messages in chronological order would require breaking their books all apart—and even then we’re very uncertain about exactly when certain messages were spoken. So rather than make a mess out of things, we just split the prophetic books into two main clusters: longer and shorter. Or, as the theologians say, major and minor. There are five major prophetic books (Isaiah-Daniel), the prophecies we find in these books tend to be broader in scope. For example, instead of just finding one brief message about one specific nation, we find many messages about many nations. Then there are twelve minor prophets (Hosea-Malachi), and in these books we tend to find shorter messages which are often speaking to one specific audience about a limited set of issues instead of a broad range of audiences about a broad range of issues.
Now we get to the New Testament. We group the first four Gospel books together because they all cover the same time period: Jesus’ ministry on earth. Then we continue with Acts, because it moves us forward in history.
But then we run into a bunch of letters or epistles which were written to various churches. Because the letters focus on issues instead of historical events, it’s too difficult to put them in chronological order. So instead, the letters of the New Testament are grouped together by author. First we have Paul’s 13 letters (Romans-Philemon). Then we have a couple of solo entries: one we call Hebrews because it was written to Jews and we have no idea who the author is, and then James’ letter. Then we have two letters by Peter, three letters by John, and one by Jude.
The last book of the Bible is a prophetic book. We don’t group it in with the other prophetic books in the Old Testament because it addresses historical events and theology that isn’t introduced until Christ came to earth. It makes sense to end with Revelation, because it focuses so much on the persecution of the early Church, which places it further down the historical timeline than the book of Acts.
As you can see, putting the books of the Bible in a neat and tidy order is impossible to do. So if the books are not in chronological order, how can we follow the plot line of the Bible from beginning to end? This is where we need to come up with our own system of organizing time periods in the Bible, and that’s what we’ll tackle in our next lesson.
Click here to see all the lessons in this series.