One of the emphases for this congregation, as given by the elders, is on reading our Bibles and making Bible reading a regular part of our lives. To that end, this bulletin includes something about the coming week’s reading, the men offering words of devotion on Wednesday night have been encouraged to take what they say from the reading, and so on. But regardless of what is done as a congregation, the ultimate success of this push stands or falls on whether we as individuals actually read our Bibles, and then whether we apply what we read.
While the point of a daily Bible reading schedule (aside from developing the habit) is to get the general sense of the text rather than to read for analytical purposes, getting the sense of what we read can still be difficult because of how the Bibles we use are structured (and how Bible reading schedules utilize that structure). We are familiar with printed volumes that utilize chapter divisions within each book, and verse divisions within each chapter. This provides a convenient way to reference portions of scripture, such as saying that Romans 3.23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This also provides a convenient way to organize a reading schedule, such as the one we are using that has us reading one chapter from the New Testament each weekday.
But this changes the reading experience quite a bit from the way the Scriptures would have been read originally. While sectional readings did take place in the first century (and inspired writers certainly quoted the Scriptures in fragments as small as a few words), it would not be uncommon for a book such as the letter from Paul to the Romans to be read in its entirety, especially upon first delivery. In fact, it has been suggested that the one delivering the letter from Paul or Peter or another writer would have been given instruction in how to read the letter.
The challenge we have when we read letters in fragments, even chapter-length fragments, is that we often interrupt the natural flow of the text. Consider the book of Romans. When we read chapter 2 in isolation, we read about those who judge and the judgment they bring upon themselves. Consider verse 1:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
So far, this sounds like a rehashing of what Jesus said in Matthew 7.1–2. Nothing new here. But notice the “therefore.” This isn’t only a repetition of Jesus’ warning about judging. How does your understanding of what was going on change when you add in the last few verses of chapter 1?
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
These last few verses give us a key insight into the kind of judging going on in chapter 2. The “you” in chapter 2 was speaking about how depraved and wicked the “they” of chapter 1 were. “They” practice things deserving of death. “They” give approval to those who practice them. Paul’s statement in Romans 2.1 was not just a general warning about judging, but a direct charge that his readers were just as guilty of the wickedness that had been seen in the people talked about in chapter 1! In other words, Paul was saying, “You condemn all those people for envy, murder strife, etc., but you’re doing the exact same things!”
When we read Scripture, even in lengthier blocks such as chapters, it can be helpful for us to pick up the reading a few verses ahead of where we are “supposed” to begin, and perhaps even continue the reading a little past where it is set to end. This accomplishes a couple of things.
It reminds us of what we have already read. Even if the previous chapter was read the day before, we don’t always remember the details very well. There will be times when I’m reading a novel and I have to backtrack a few paragraphs to remember what a particular character was doing at the point where I’m starting. So it is with the Scriptures, especially when reading the epistles (as our New Testament schedule will begin to do this week). Many of the epistles are a series of arguments built upon the previous argument, and so going back and at least refreshing our memory of that previous argument will orient us to how Paul, Peter, or another writer got to where he is in his letter.
It helps us to capture the “big picture” of our Bible reading. While many are critical of arguments made from only a single verse taken in isolation because of how a single verse can be completely mangled when taken out of context, the same can happen even when dealing with one or more chapters. When we look at a single chapter in relative isolation from the surrounding chapters, we can come to a conclusion about what something means within that chapter or what the point being made in a particular chapter is that makes little since when that chapter is viewed next to those surrounding chapters. Staying with the book of Romans, it is easy for Romans 4 to be viewed by itself as a declaration of salvation by faith apart from any works done. But even without going to other texts to disprove this, verses like 4.5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” are explained by the surrounding context: namely the point Paul has been establishing up to this point that no one can make a claim to righteousness based on how well they have kept the law or done some thing or other.
As we read, let us read in such a way that even as we see the little details of God’s revelation, we also capture that big picture so that our understanding of our reading fits with the larger truth of God’s word.