There is nothing like a good quiz, especially when the subtitle reads: 98% of Christians Can’t Pass this Bible Quiz. I have taken at least a dozen of these quizzes, but with mixed results. I’m really good at questions like, “How many fish did the disciples catch in John 21?” or “In what town did Jesus encounter Zacchaeus?” In fact, on one quiz, I managed a 45 out of 45 and received a “Nice Try” for my efforts (Isn’t “nice try” what you say when you only get 20 out of 45?). But then, there are these other questions in these Bible quizzes that leave me scratching my head. For instance, one Christian quiz asked, “What was the name of the carrot on Veggie Tales?” (Can carrots even be Christians?). Or, “In which Texas university is the biggest Bible in the world housed?” (I didn’t even know Texans read the Bible, let alone weigh it!). But bad questions on Bible quizzes are not the real problem. It’s the significant lack of understanding of biblical content. Only 57% of those taking these quizzes could name the two Great Commandments. Only 13% could identify the creature who tempted Eve (we could choose between a serpent, a goat or a bear). Only 2% could correctly identify the Last Supper from a list that included other titles like “the Farewell Feast” or “the Sad Supper.” Now, I realize these are simply silly internet quizzes, but we also have real research from Barna, Lifeway Research and the Pew Research Center that tells us Bible literacy is plummeting. Almost 1 in 5 churchgoers say they NEVER read the Bible. 12% of active churchgoers read the Bible only once or twice a month, while only 45% say they read the Bible at least once a week. But it gets worse. 24% of churched millennials never read the Bible. Why do we think that is happening? Because 36% of churched boomers seldom or never read their Bibles. Gender-wise, women are more likely to read the Bible at least once a week (60% to 40%), but when it comes to seldom or never reading the Bible, it is equal. Churched women are just as likely as men not to read the Bible. As I said, biblical literacy in the church is a mess. As a result, our communities are a mess.

We are looking at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. Last week, we argued that prayer was an essential component to a healthy Christian community. This week, we want to contend that Scripture is also an essential component of a healthy church. Why? Bonhoeffer explains:

“How shall we ever attain certainty and confidence in our personal and church activity
if we do not stand on solid Biblical ground?
It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s Word.
How often we hear innumerable arguments ‘from life’ and ‘from experience’
put forward as the basis for most crucial decisions,
but the argument from Scripture is missing.
And this authority would perhaps point in the opposite direction.
It is not surprising that such a person [who offers only advice from life and the world] does not seriously read, know and study the Scriptures.
But one who will not learn to handle the Bible for themselves
is not an evangelical Christian.”

Here’s the big point: We must “learn to handle the Bible” for ourselves. Bonhoeffer offers three suggestions on how to do this.

First, our goal in reading the Bible should never be simply to glean a guiding thought for the day, but to be swept up in God’s revelation of himself. Many of us learned at an early age that the key to reading the Bible is to find out how it is relevant to our lives today and to focus on that. Now, I am all for seeing how the Bible is relevant to our lives today, but I’m not in favor of twisting the Bible to make it relevant. Years ago, a good friend was reading Psalm 42 and wanted a “word” from God to encourage her in her day. When she read verse 7, she knew God was with her. It reads: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” As someone who loved waterfalls and running through the breakers in the ocean, she found God speaking to her; and just like that, the psalm became extremely relevant. Unfortunately, waterfalls and deep waters and waves and breakers in the ancient world were not pictures of God’s presence, but of his absence. They were terrifying. As a result, the psalmist was crying out for God to make himself known in the midst of this horrible time. Read this way, the psalm was no longer as relevant or as tender as my friend was hoping. It was, however, speaking the truth as the author intended.  

My friend, though, is not alone. We all do this. We read the Bible to find what God wants us to do. We read the Bible to discover a new promise. We read the Bible to find a morsel of blessing.  We read the Bible so that it is relevant to our lives today. We read the Bible as though it was written directly to us.  But when we read the Bible that way, we are misreading the Bible. Scot McKnight addresses this same issue in his book, The Blue Parakeet. He writes:

Some of us have been taught to read the Bible in such a way that we return
to the times of the Bible in order to retrieve biblical ideas and practices for today. . . .
What we’ve got in the pages of the New Testament are first-century expressions
of the gospel and church life, not permanent, timeless expressions.
They are timely expressions; they are Spirit-inspired expressions;
but they were and remain first-century expressions.
We aren’t called to live first-century lives in the twenty-first century,
but twenty-first-century lives as we walk in the light of the revelation
God gave to us in the first-century.

Reading to make the Bible relevant misreads the Bible. Bonhoeffer writes:

“There is little doubt that brief verses cannot and should not
take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole.
The verse for the day is still not the Holy Scripture
which will remain throughout all time until the Last Day.
Holy Scripture is more than a watchword.
It is also more than ‘light for today.’
It is God’s revealed Word for all people, for all times.
Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages;
it is a unit, and it is intended to be read as such.”

Our goal is not to pluck individual verses out of context so that the Bible can speak to our hearts, but to read the whole Bible so that it can speak to our whole lives. 

Second, our goal in reading the Bible should never be to gain information, but to seek transformation through the revelation of Jesus the Christ. True spirituality is never measured by how much of the Bible we know. Knowing there were 153 fish and that Jesus was in Jericho do nothing to bring heart change. Knowledge puffs up; love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1). But before we can excel in love, we need to understand God’s character, hear Jesus’ commands, see Jesus model for us what the spiritual life looks like and develop godly wisdom; and the only way to do that is to read the Bible again and again, from one cover to the other.  

But there is another dimension to this. The Bible is so big and Jesus’ glory is so vast, it requires numerous readings for us to understand it (if we can ever grasp all that it wants to say to us). Bonhoeffer writes:

“It becomes apparent that the whole of Scriptures
and hence every passage in it, as well,
far surpasses our understanding.
It is good for us to be daily reminded of this fact,
which again points to Jesus Christ himself,
‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2:3).
So perhaps one may say that every Scripture reading
always has to be somewhat ‘too long,’
because it is not merely proverbial and practical wisdom,
but God’s revealing Word in Jesus Christ.

Most of the time, we try to bring the Bible into our lives today (it’s a relevant thing). Bonhoeffer wants us to place our lives into the Bible:

Consecutive reading of the biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear
to put himself, or to allow himself to be found,
where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men.
We become a part of what once took place for our salvation.
Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land.
With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief
and through punishment and repentance experience again
God’s help and faithfulness.
All this is not mere reverie, but holy, godly reality.
We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst
of the holy history of God on earth.

Kierkegaard predated Bonhoeffer here by a few years. He wrote:

When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself,
‘It is talking to me, and about me.’”

I would like to make a slight modification—that when we are reading God’s Word, we must regularly see ourselves as the bad guy. God is challenging us as we read his Word. He is teaching us, rebuking us, correcting and training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). By the way, beware of pastors who are always God in their stories.  Even Bonhoeffer would agree with that. He wrote:

“It may be taken as a rule for the right reading of the Scriptures
that the reader should never identify himself with the person who is speaking in the Bible.
It is not I that am angered, but God;
it is not I giving consolation, but God;
it is not I admonishing, but God admonishing in the Scriptures.
It will make all the difference between right and wrong reading of Scriptures
if I do not identify myself with God, but quite simply serve Him.
Otherwise, I will become rhetorical, emotional, sentimental, or coercive and imperative;
that is, I will be directing the listeners’ attention to myself instead of the Word.
But this is to commit the worst sins in presenting the Scriptures.”

Bonhoeffer’s point is important. We need to insert ourselves into the biblical story and get caught up in the flow of the story so that we can clearly see God’s outworking of grace. Here’s Bonhoeffer’s advice: Don’t race to bring the Bible into our world today. Slow down and enter into the world of the Bible and experience the unfolding of God’s redemption.

Third, our goal in reading the Bible should never be to reinforce our idea about who we are, but to find our true identity in the biblical story.

“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must still be proved,
but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ.
It is, in fact, more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ,
than to seek what God intends for us today.
The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die,
and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead
is the sole ground of my hope
that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.
What we call our life, our troubles, our guilt, is by no means all of reality;
there in the Scriptures is our life, our need, our guilt, and our salvation.
Because it pleased God to act for us there, it is only there that we shall be saved.
Only in the Holy Scriptures do we learn to know our own history.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God and Father of Jesus Christ and our Father.

Kline Snodgrass has written extensively on identity-formation. He wrote these penetrating words:

“Our true history is the history of Christ into which we are grafted.
His history, within which and to which our personal history is subsumed,
is our defining history.
That is what faith, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are about.
Christians lay the story of their lives—damage and all—in the hands of God,
confess that parts of their story are not good,
affirm that they do not direct their own story,
and ask that their story be taken into and conformed
to the narrative of what God is doing in Christ.”

This is Bonhoeffer’s point. Our true identity is not found in our past, our present struggles, or even in our future. It is found in Christ and in the biblical story. And that is why it is critical that we read and reread the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. 1 Corinthians 1:30-32 says:

“It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus,
who has become for us wisdom from God—
that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”

Where do we learn the wisdom of Jesus? Where do we learn what righteousness looks like? Where do we learn how to define holiness? Where do we learn about redemption? We learn all these things as we absorb the Scriptures as we read them. And as we read, we grow wise. In fact, reading the Bible this way will make us wise unto salvation.  

And what does all of this have to do with community? Simply this: We are to speak into each other’s lives with God’s word. We are to teach each other, admonish each other, correct each other, encourage one another and pray for one another on the basis of God’s word. Bonhoeffer put it this way. It is simple, but powerful:

 “We should listen with the ears of God
that we may speak the Word of God.” 

If you understand that, you understand the whole point of this post. 

Now, this is a huge topic and there is much more to say about it, but we are out of time. But let me leave you with four great quotes on the Bible that should stir your heart and reinforce everything that Bonhoeffer hopes we will understand from this chapter. These are the best quotes.

From CS Lewis:

“The Bible, read in the right spirit
and with the guidance of good teachers,
will bring us to Christ.” 

From Bonhoeffer:

God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word,
but also lends us God’s ear.” 

From Scot McKnight:

“God did not give the Bible so we could master him or it;
God gave the Bible so we could be mastered by it.”

And from Søren Kierkegaard: 

“The Bible is very easy to understand.
But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.
We pretend to be unable to understand it
because we know very well that the minute we understand,
we are obliged to act accordingly.” 

Here’s today’s first question: If there was a quiz on “properly handling the Bible,” would you pass? And second, if you are not reading the Bible properly, regularly or so that you may grow wise, what’s your plan to correct this misstep? And last, are you a scheming swindler?