The Parts in Light of the WholeStudying the Whole Gospel
“The Bible when it was written, wasn’t intended to be read in 10 verse chunks. We have cut the Bible down to size… Most of it including Paul’s letters, and certainly the Gospels and great books like Isaiah, are read in order to be experienced the way you would experience a symphony.” N.T Wright
New Testament scholar, N.T Wright compares reading the Bible to listening to a symphony. You wouldn’t go to a symphony only to listen to part of it and then come back the next week for more. Instead, you sit and listen to the whole thing, you experience the whole thing. Wright reminds us that the Bible is like a symphony. It wasn’t meant to be read in small bits. Instead, it was meant to be experienced.
I think when a lot of us read the Bible, myself included, we may tend to read it in little bite-sized chunks. We read the story of Noah and the flood, for example, but don’t read the chapters before or even after as part of that story. We read about David and Goliath, but we read it as its own separate story. We read different passages in the New Testament without looking at how those passages fit into the rest. And so, sometimes, the Bible may seem random and disconnected, which makes it hard to read deeply.
But the truth is, none of the Bible is random. Every book of the Bible is a whole book, with whole stories, themes, and arguments. They all have a structure and a flow of thought. And, even more importantly, each of these books flows together to tell a whole story.
The books of the Bible are in fact whole books. There are some books like Psalms and Proverbs that are written in smaller pieces. You can certainly study one Psalm without studying the ones before or after it. But most of the other books were meant to be read as whole books. And, as Wright says, you will have a deeper experience with the Bible when you understand how it all flows together.
When you sit down to study the Bible deeply, I want to encourage you to take some time before you dive into specific verses or chapters to just sit down and read the book straight through. If you’re wanting to study part of the Gospel of Matthew, like we are in this book, try reading the whole Gospel first. Spend some time reading it all the way through, even several times. And as you read, pray. Pray for God to show you the whole story of Matthew. Look for things that come up over and over through the book. And then, we can dig deeper into the chapters and verses. And as we dig deeper into the chapters and verses, keep thinking about how they fit together.
Read the Whole Thing.
It’s similar to watching a movie, TV series, or reading a book series. If you start watching a TV series in the middle of season 3, chances are you’re going to be confused. You won’t know why the characters act the way they do. You won’t understand the references they make to previous seasons and episodes. At the very least, you won’t really be able to enjoy the series as much as you would if you had started at the beginning. Then, once you watch the series all the way through, you can always go back and watch your favorite episodes. But each individual episode only makes sense in light of the others.
When you’re reading a new book, you don’t start in the middle. There may be some people out there who read the end of a book to know what happens. But they still go back to the beginning so they can see how the whole story comes together. In order to get the whole experience of a book, you need to actually read the whole thing. Even if we look at non-fiction books, we have the same illustration. You wouldn’t start reading any book in the middle and be able to have a proper understanding of that book.
And so, in order to really study the Bible well, we need to understand the parts in light of the whole. That doesn’t mean we can’t ever study smaller parts of the Bible. It just means when we do sit down to study an individual story or passage, we need to consider that story or passage in light of the rest of that particular book. Understanding the story around a particular passage will give us a deeper understanding of that passage. This was probably one of the things that changed reading the Bible the most for me. God showed me that the Bible all flows together and understanding that really made reading the Bible much easier for me.
Studying the Whole Gospel
I think studying the Gospels in this way is especially helpful. Some of the time when I read the Gospels, I find the teachings of Jesus to be a bit random. They don’t always seem to fit together. He seems to just start talking, saying whatever pops into His head at that moment. If you’re just skimming through the Gospel it may not look like there’s a connection between the stories at all.
But the Gospel of Matthew is a story. Even more, it’s a story with a purpose. Matthew has a point he’s trying to get across throughout the whole Gospel. And every story is going to expand and point back to his main point. So, as we study we need to pay attention to how the story builds on Matthew’s purpose.
I do want to reiterate what I said earlier. None of this means you can’t ever just study a single passage or chapter. As we study the Gospel of Matthew, we’ll be studying one section at a time. But I just want you to think about how what you’re reading fits into the whole story. It’s ok to do a Bible study that jumps around to different parts of the Bible. Those types of studies are great for helping us see how different parts of Scripture are connected. But as you do those studies, remember each part you jump to is part of something bigger.
It’s OK Not to Know Stuff. Trust the Learning Process.
Studying the Bible in this way is going to take a bit to get used to. I know for me it took a while to really get into this mindset. It can still be hard for me to read certain parts of the Bible as part of a whole book. It requires you to slow down a bit and think about what you’re reading. But if you pray for God to guide you as you read, I’m confident you’ll start to see some pretty amazing things.
If you’re looking at all of this and are feeling overwhelmed, I definitely understand. There are a lot of books in the Bible. And a lot of them are hard to understand, even if you read the whole thing. There are some books that I’ve had to read more than once in order to get even just the basic storyline. Sometimes you need help understanding what you’re reading.
And that’s ok. It’s ok to not know stuff.
What’s not ok is letting the fact that you don’t know stuff keep you from trying. I think what might happen for a lot of people, is they want to study the Bible more, and then they intimidate themselves out of it. They hit a hard passage or they see someone else who gets it faster, and they think, well I’m just not spiritual enough. Or they think, I don’t need to study like this. And they retreat to what’s easier and safer.
But I can promise you from my own experience, that when you stick to it, when you challenge yourself to keep studying, even when nothing’s making sense, God will meet you there. And He will use the struggle to grow you.
There have been plenty of passages and books that have confused me. In fact, there are at least two passages in the Gospel of Matthew that I know I personally don’t understand. I’ve read them countless times. I’ve looked at the study notes in my study Bible. I’ve read a few commentaries. I’ve prayed about them. And I still don’t understand yet. But, that’s not keeping me from studying.
It’s ok to not know stuff. It’s ok to struggle. It’s ok for things to not always make sense right away.
But it’s not ok to let not knowing or struggling to keep you from knowing God’s Word better. That’s what the Holy Spirit is for. That’s what prayer is for. That’s what the church is for. That’s what hopefully, these blog posts are for.
Here Are Some Helpful Resources!
I want to provide a few resources that have helped me out quite a bit.
The first is a ministry called The Bible Project. They make videos about the books of the Bible. They have a background video for every book in the Bible, focusing on the book’s structure. The videos are very easy to understand and give some good information about the Bible. As they go through each book they also show how all the books of the Bible are connected. These videos are meant for average everyday Christians. They’re pretty simple but provide some good information. If you want to study a book, but need help understanding how it’s structured and what the story is about, the Bible Project is a good resource. It’ll give you a basic framework for what you’re studying, which will help you understand what you’re reading a bit more.
(By the way, here is the link for the first part of their video on the Gospel of Matthew)
I would also recommend looking into a good study Bible if you can. Most study Bibles have sections in the front of each book that explains the historical background, who the author was, and a lot of the time they outline the themes and story of that book. You can get a good foundation for what you’re wanting to study. I usually use an ESV study Bible and that works pretty well. The elders at Heritage might be able to recommend some others as well.
Keep the Whole Story in Mind.
As we study the Gospel of Matthew together, understanding this concept is going to be important. It’s easy to read the Bible in short bursts. I know personally, it takes some focus to read the Gospel of Matthew like it’s a whole story. We have to remember that the Bible is not random. The Gospel of Matthew is not random. It is a well thought out, Spirit-inspired book. Every story builds on the main point Matthew is trying to get across. So, as we study, try to see how the story flows. When we are studying a specific passage always remember what we’ve already read. Pray for God to lead you as you study. And I believe you will see some pretty amazing things.
Our next post, which will go live next Wednesday, will be about the importance of historical context when studying the Bible.