Reading Scripture in One Sitting (or Sometimes It’s Best to Swallow an Elephant Whole

Eating-The-ElephantAbout fifteen years ago, in response to several requests, I decided to lead a study on the book of Revelation for my Wednesday night Pastor’s Bible Study. It’s a formidable task, as you might imagine. There is perhaps no other book in the Bible that confounds people more than the Apocalypse of John, as it is also known. This is not just because it is of the type of ancient literature called apocalyptic, which is very different than any kind of literature we are familiar with today, but also because apocalyptic literature uses vivid and often bizarre imagery, symbolic and metaphorical language, and is set in the future in what is mistakenly called “end-times” i.e. end of the world. The very nature of this bizarre (to us at least) literature lends itself to bizarre interpretations and misreadings—whack-job interpretations, to be quite honest.

It’s the whack-job interpretations, however, that sell books and make for good movie scripts—“good” in the Hollywood sense of being action-oriented, scary and dramatic with bad guys that are really bad and underdog good guys who are really good. So I knew that a lot of people coming into my study would have already been influenced by these books and, quite honestly, really really cheesy movies.

Knowing that most people tend to get bogged down in the weird details, at the end of the first class I gave everyone this assignment: sometime before the next class, find a block of time and read the entire book in one sitting, start to finish, as fast as you can. Resist the temptation to stop and ponder details, just read the entire book all the way through without interruption.

The next week I asked the class, “Based on that experience, what would you say the book of Revelation is trying to convey?” Pretty much everyone had the same impression, expressed in different ways: no matter how bad it gets, no matter how much it appears that evil wins the day, God is in control and in the end will prevail.

“There,” I said. “You now understand the book of Revelation. The rest is just details.” We then started examining the details to see how they fit into the larger picture.

Even though I was the teacher, I learned an important lesson: the way most of us read the Bible, in small little chunks of a few verses, causes us to get bogged down in the details lose the whole sweep of the message. We think that to understand the message we have to break it down into its component parts and study them, and when we’ve studied them all we’ll understand the whole message. I’ve found, however, that you don’t understand the whole by understanding the parts; you first have to have understand the whole before studying the parts, so that the parts are understood in light of the whole.

So now when I teach a book of the Bible, I have everyone go home and read the entire book in one sitting. In fact, a lot of times I spend the first day of a class reading the entire book; I don’t allow anyone to follow along in their Bibles but just to sit and listen. Most books of the Bible can be read in less than an hour, and that’s how they should be read, at least initially.

There is a place for the devotional reading of Scripture where you read a few verses from Romans today, then a bit from Jeremiah the next, something from the Psalms the day after. But it is very dangerous if that is all that you do. Piecemeal reading of Scripture should only be done in the context of understanding the full sweep of Scripture.

My favorite theologian, N. T. Wright, talks about this in a YouTube interview. Take 7 1/2 minutes of your life to watch it.

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