Improving your biblical literacy

Owning a Bible does not make you biblically literate. Nor does simply reading it and acquiring a number of random facts. You need to study, and to do so in such a way that your knowledge has an impact on the way you live.

Helping believers improve their biblical literacy was the aim of a recent-ish conference. Below are bare-bones notes and embedded audio from three plenary sessions with David Platt.

1. Reading the Bible as Story

Why do we have the Bible? Answer: To reveal who God is and how God redeems His people for His kingdom. The two key words are: revelation and redemption.

In a kingdom, you have a people ruled by the king, a place where the people live and a purpose for the kingdom. The story of the Bible is of God bringing His people into His place for His purpose.

We want to:

  • See the overarching story of the chronicle of redemption
  • Experience the story—we’re a part of it. The God of the Bible is our God.
  • Tell the story

2. Teaching the Bible as Scripture

How do we teach the word so that those who hear it understand and worship, as happened in Nehemiah 8?

David Platt’s definition:

Teaching is expository exaltation for purposeful application.

Expository exaltation

The central purpose of God’s word is to make His glory known (Exodus 14:4; Deuteronomy 4:5-7; Joshua 5-6; Ezekiel 36:22; Psalm 23:3). Therefore, the passion of those who teach the Bible is to make God’s glory known.

Purposeful application

What people need is to be transformed into the image of Christ. They don’t need practical tips. The Bible doesn’t answer every question we may have (e.g. UFOs), nor does it speak to every circumstance we face (e.g. living with teens).

Application should be:

  • Biblical
  • Contextual (a person living in urban USA would have a different application from one living in rural India)
  • Incarnational (from the inside-out)

3. Obeying the Bible as servants

Note what  Matthew 28:18-20 says: to teach people to obey what Christ commanded, not to teach people what Christ commanded. The goal is transformation, not information.

How do we teach the Bible for radical obedience?

  1. We need to saturate our hearts with the gospel.
  2. We need to fill our minds with truth
  3. Trust the text.
  4. Call people to action
  5. Shepherd the body with care

Some helps to read the Bible better

These are my notes from a conference talk given by Gordon Fee. He is the co-author of How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book. The talk is far more coherent than these notes. 🙂

Fee identifies two main problems with Bible reading: flattening and fragmenting.

  • By flattening he means reading different kinds of genres the same way. Just in the same way you don’t read a novel and a news article in the same way, you don’t read an epistle and prophecy in the same way.
  • By fragmenting he means losing sight of the overarching storyline of the Bible, not understanding how all the stories fit together and not reading books in their entirety.

Following are a few tips, by no means exhaustive:

How to overcome the problem of flattening

1)       Get rid of the numbers. They are convenient, but they can get in the way of the author’s own structures. See examples of this from Malachi and Philippians below.

A leaf from Papyrus 46 which contains a number of Paul's letters
Paul didn't insert the chapters, verses and paragraph headings (image via

2)      Read a Bible that distinguishes between prose and poetry. Hebrew poetry, unlike English poetry which is based on metre and rhyme, is characterised by parallelism. The bulk of the book of Job is in poetic form. Proverbs contains short pithy sayings that employ both synonymous and anthithetic parallelism. Naturally, we’re most familiar with the Psalms.  The book of Genesis is an example of Hebrew narrative, of which there are various kinds. Genesis is held together by 10 headings of somewhat independent stories. These headings are found in Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1&32, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1&9, 37:2.

How to overcome the problem of fragmenting

After encouraging his listeners to read an entire book out aloud, Fee gives two examples from How to Read the Bible Book by Book.


The book contains two well-known verses that are often used in a legalistic way:

  • Malachi 2:16, on divorce.
  • Malachi 3:10, the tithe.

But what about the context of these verses? The core of Malachi is a series of complaints that post-exilic Israel had with God, about 100 years after the return from the exile. In Malachi’s day, men were deliberately divorcing their Jewish wives to marry pagans, thus breaking covenant. The non-paying of the tithe was a lack of covenant loyalty. Incidentally, tithing is mentioned only once in the NT (Matt 23:23). Giving in the NT is more about generosity and meeting the needs of others.

The six disputes in Malachi arise because the people didn’t think the covenant was worth it. Here they are:

  • 1:1-2:5: Does Yahweh love them or not?
  • 1:6-2:9: The priests’ contempt for Yahweh  by offering blemished animals
  • 2:10-16: Breaking covenant by marrying foreign wives
  • 2:17-3:5: Injustice of several kinds
  • 3:6-12: Withholding the tithe
  • 3:13-18: Speaking harsh words against Yahweh

The first two are complaints by the people while the middle four are disputes God has with them.


The best-known verses in Philippians (4:13 and 19) are often taken out of context. Philippians is a fine blend of two kinds of letters known in antiquity: the friendship letter and the moral exhortation. These two parts are clear in the Greek, distinguishable by the pronouns used (‘I’ and ‘you’).

  • 1:1-11: Salutation
  • 1:12-26: Paul’s own circumstances and how he’s responding to them. He uses himself as an example of how Christians should respond in adverse circumstances
  • 1:27-2:18: the Philippians’ present circumstances—problems from without and from within. Christ is presented as an exemplary paradigm for them in 2:5-11
  • 2:19-30: Paul’s and their circumstances in light of what’s next. Timothy and Epaphroditus, whom Paul is sending back to Philippi, serve as examples of humble servitude
  • 3:1-4:3: The Philippians’ circumstances—they shouldn’t yield to Judaism. Paul uses his own story as an example
  • 4:4-9: Closing exhortations. But the letter isn’t finished…
  • 4:10-20: Acknowledging their gift. He puts their gift in divine perspective. Reflecting on his need, Paul recounts how he’s learned to live in plenty and to live in want. It is in this context that he writes 4:13—through Christ he can live both with much and with little. Culture dictated that Paul reciprocate their gift which, being imprisoned, he couldn’t. In verse 18, he switches metaphors from commercial to sacrificial, saying that their gift to him was in reality a gift to God. Since Paul cannot reciprocate, he turns his end over to God in verse 19.

Doesn’t that make Philippians 4:13 and 19 even more significant than we normally take them to be?

Why Christians read the Bible poorly

These are my notes from a conference talk given by Gordon Fee. He is the co-author of How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

Reasons for poor Bible reading

1)       The culture as a whole is abandoning reading for other sensory stimulants. We’re overstimulated by audio-visual products.

2)      Christians, particularly those from liturgical backgrounds, have not been taught to read the Bible for themselves.

3)      A reader who starts in Genesis doesn’t get far before becoming puzzled. The Bible isn’t easy reading compared to everyday stuff, and consequently most readers need help. For example, what do you do with the genealogies in Genesis 4 & 5 and the plotless second half of Exodus?

4)     The non-liturgical evangelicals who emphasise Bible reading read it in a way foreign to the way it was put together.

a)      We seldom read scripture on its own terms—from the perspective of the divine author

b)     Based on the conviction that the Bible is God’s  word for all time, we tend to:

i)       Read in a non-contextual individualisation of verses way, epitomised by a ‘promise box’ collection of verses. Since we’re looking for a verse for the day, we have fragmented and atomised God’s big story.

ii)     Read in a flattened way. We read narrative, prophecy, epistle, poetry the same way, even though God didn’t give us His word in only one genre.

Results of reading poorly

1)       A tendency to have a fragmented understanding of what the Bible is about. We know our favourite portions; we know there are two testaments that are somehow connected. But we find ourselves in difficulty in explaining how a single book fits into the whole.

2)      We miss a great deal of the NT because we’re unfamiliar with the OT. In order to be better readers of the NT we must become better readers of the OT.

a)      Most of the NT was written to Gentile converts who were mostly illiterate.   The only Bible they had was the OT, ‘the scriptures’. They knew Scripture infinitely better because they were read to aloud, and had to retain it in memory (they couldn’t look it up). They therefore got the OT citations and allusions more readily.

Remedies for reading poorly

Following are two examples of how knowing the OT helps open up NT passages:

1)       John 10. Themes: Jesus as the Good Shepherd; the sheep know the shepherd’s voice; the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep; other sheep in another fold. This isn’t just a pastoral illustration, but a fulfilment of Ezekiel 34. So we need to understand more about the prophet and his book.

a)      The prophet. Ezekiel, a priest, was taken to Babylon in 598 BC (588–siege, 586–fall of Jerusalem). In 593 BC, Ezekiel’s 30th year, God appears to him. His oracles, full of imagery, are dated and mostly in chronological order.

b)     Structure of the book of Ezekiel. Chapters 1-24: coming destruction of Jerusalem; chapters 25-32: judgement on the nations; chapter 33: personal matters; chapters 34-48: restoration of Davidic kingship, land, Yahweh’s presence. Chapter 34 falls in this last section.

c)      The Pharisees knew the context of Jesus’ allusion and they couldn’t have missed the point He was making: He was claiming to be the shepherd spoken of in the prophecy.

2)      Luke’s birth narrative has a number of similarities to 1 Samuel. A pious, barren Elizabeth echoes Hannah. Samuel anoints David; John baptises Jesus. Luke 1:80, 2:40 echo 1 Samuel 2:26. 2 Samuel 7:16 is echoed in Luke 1:32-33. Mary and Zechariah’s songs echo the Psalms.

In the next post: Helps to avoid flattening and fragmenting the Bible.

Hebrews: Let us

Here are the ‘let us’ passages in Hebrews (4:1, 4:11, 4:14, 4:16, 6:1, 10:22, 10:23, 10:24, 10:25, 12:1, 12:2, 12.28)


  • I left out Hebrews 6:1
  • The two let-uses of Heb 12:1 appear on one slide
  • There’s an abundance of the word ‘therefore’

Hebrews: The priesthood

Here’s a chart highlighting the differences between Jesus’ priesthood and the Levitical priesthood.

Jesus' priesthood vs. Levitical priesthood
Jesus' priesthood vs. Levitical priesthood


  • I got the verses from Between Two Worlds.
  • I had no idea how to pictorially represent #5 in the space available. No one has seen the greater and perfect tent of #7, so a question mark seemed fitting.

Hebrews: Jesus is better

Here’s something I prepared with some of the explicit ‘better’ statements in Hebrews (1:4, 7:19, 7:22, 8:6, 12:24).

Jesus is better!
Jesus is better!

Other statements include:

  • Jesus is better than Moses (3:3-5)
  • Jesus’ rest is better than Joshua’s (4:8-10)
  • and many more…

To find the lost (Part 3)

This post, continued from yesterday, is based on chapter 9 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey, explaining some of the cultural background to the parable of the prodigal that may escape us.

  • The father behaves like a mother. An oriental patriarch would be expected to remain at home in stately dignity. Instead, he runs down the road and showers the son with kisses.
  • The father, as a symbol for God, evolves into a symbol for Christ. The father in the parable does exactly what Jesus was accused of doing: receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2).
  • The meaning of the banquet:
  1. According to the father: (Luke 15:23-24). The father does not say, “He was lost and has come home.” The son was lost and dead, and as a result of the father’s costly demonstration of love, he was now found and resurrected. The banquet is a celebration of the success of that finding and that resurrection.
  2. According to the little boy: (Luke 15:26-27).  This boy isn’t a servant because they’re inside the house making preparations. Additionally, a servant would have referred to the father as ‘my master’ not ‘your father’ (verse 27). The boy offers the community’s understanding of what’s happening:

Your brother has come, and you father has killed the fatted calf, because [now comes the second interpretation of the banquet] he [the father] has received him [the prodigal] with peace! (Luke 15:27, Kenneth Bailey’s translation)

For the community, the banquet is a celebration of the father’s efforts at reconciling his son.

  1. According to the elder son: (Luke 15:30). Is the banquet in honour of the prodigal or in honour of the father? Will the guests congratulate the father or the son? Note that the older son’s view, commonly accepted, conflicts with the other two.
  • The older son’s anger. He is angry not that his brother is safely home, but that he’s been reconciled—without having to pay for his sins! He insults the father by refusing to join in the celebration.
  • The father’s response to the older son. The father, for the second time, offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love. Grace is offered to both the law-breaker and the law-keeper.
  • The sons’ responses. The younger son accepts being found. We don’t know what the older son decides. The previous two parables end in joy; here the joy is missing.

♠The End♠

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

To find the lost (Part 2)

This post, continued from yesterday, is based on chapter 9 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey, gives some helps for a culturally-aware reading of the parable of the prodigal.

  • “He came to himself” (Luke 15:17). This has commonly been taken to mean that he repented. But this clashes with the other two stories. If the prodigal makes his way home on his own, then this story is the exact opposite of the other two.

For the psalmist, God brings him back to God (see this post). The prodigal returns to himself, not to his father. The father is an instrument to get what he wants: something to eat.

But what of his confession in Luke 15:18? The scribes and Pharisees, well-acquainted with the Jewish scriptures, would have recognised this as Exodus 10:16 where Pharaoh is trying to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues. Pharaoh wasn’t repenting. The prodigal was going to work (Luke 15:19) so as to recover the money and then be reconciled to his father. No grace necessary.

  • The running father. The father spots his son before the latter reaches the village (Luke 15:20). He runs to reconcile his estranged son. By running, he deflects the attention of the community away from his son and onto himself.

He kisses his son before hearing the speech. He doesn’t demonstrate costly love in response to his son’s confession. Rather, it is a prelude to his son’s remarks.

Why doesn’t the son finish? His father doesn’t interrupt him. The son changes his mind in genuine repentance, surrendering his plan of self-salvation. He accepts to be found.

He [the prodigal] did not complete what he was planning to say, which was “make out of me one of your paid craftsmen” … because he saw from the running of his father to him and the grace-filled way his father met him and embraced him that there was no longer any place for this request to be made into a craftsman. For if after such acts he had made such a request, it would have appeared that he doubted the genuineness of his father’s offered forgiveness.

–Abdallah Ibn al-Tayyib, Tafsir al-Mishriqi (The Interpretation of the Four Gospels), 2:272-75. Translated from Arabic by Kenneth Bailey and quoted on p. 109 of Jacob & the Prodigal. Ibn al-Tayyib was an eleventh-century Syriac scholar in Baghdad.

Why did he [the prodigal] not say to his father, “Fashion out of me one of your paid craftsmen” when he had planned to say it? The answer is that his father’s love outstripped him and forgiveness was everflowing toward him.

–Diyunisiyus Ja’qub Ibn al-Salibi, Kitab al-Durr al-Farid fi Tafsir al-‘Ahd al-Jadid (The Book of Unique Pearls of Interpretation of the New Testament), 2:157. Translated from Arabic by Kenneth Bailey and quoted on p. 110 of Jacob & the Prodigal.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

To find the lost (Part 1)

This post is based on chapter 9 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

Dr. Bailey gives the following pointers for a more culturally-aware interpretation of the story of the prodigal son:

  • The request. The younger son can’t wait for his father to die. The father, as an Oriental patriarch, should beat him and chase him out of the house. However, the father doesn’t.
  • The community. The family home isn’t a grand house isolated on a hill-top. Agricultural land is scarce in Israel; farmers reside in tightly compacted villages. So, at the end of the tale, the father runs in full view of the community. The community is invited to eat the fatted calf. Community-based musicians are hired. The community is assumed rather than being explicitly mentioned.
  • Jesus doesn’t use a Middle Eastern patriarch as the model for the father. While the shepherd and the woman don’t do anything extraordinary, the father breaks all bounds of Middle Eastern patriarchy. No human father or mother is an adequate model for God. Thus Jesus elevates the figure of father beyond its human limitations as He reshapes it into a metaphor for God.
  • The younger son liquidates his assets (Luke 15:13). This presumably meant selling his inheritance to people within the community. He does so “not many days later”, implying haste on his part—no doubt because anger within the community at his actions is rising.
  • Expensive or riotous living? How did the younger son spend his money in the distant land? The Greek is unclear. Syriac and Arabic translations avoid references to immorality, opting for ‘expensive’, ‘indolent’, ‘luxurious’ and ‘wasteful’. The elder brother, on returning from the field, accuses his brother of having wasted money on prostitutes, but how would he have known?
  • An attempt to earn back the lost money. The younger son seeks employment in order to recoup his losses so as to avoid a kezazah (the cutting-off) ceremony on his return to the village. Having lost his family inheritance to Gentiles, he was a candidate for the kezazah ceremony.

(To be continued)

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)

The lost coin

Brooklyn Museum: The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue)

This post is based on chapter 8 of Jacob and the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey.

Jesus often paired His parables: one story from the life of men and another from that of women. In Matthew 5:14-15, He says, “You are the light of the world,” and illustrates this by using city-building (men’s work) and lamp-lighting (women’s work) metaphors. On another occasion He says, “The kingdom of God… is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden” (Luke 13:18-19). He goes on to compare the kingdom to “leaven  which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal” (Luke 13:20-21). The double parable of the good shepherd and the good woman is another example of communicating with both men and women.

The woman loses her coin, accepts responsibility by lighting a lamp and looking for it. The coin cannot aid in its rescue. The friends rejoice with her; they don’t judge her for her efforts. Repentance, according to this parable, is being found.

Posts in this series
1 Introduction & overview
2 Three stories, one parable
3 The parable of the lost sheep
4 The lost coin
5 To find the lost (Part 1)
6 To find the lost (Part 2)
7 To find the lost (Part 3)