Injecting Purpose into Our Bible Study
Every good endeavor should be done with purpose. Without a clear sense of purpose, our efforts to do a good thing well can flounder. But with a clear purpose, we are far more likely to persevere. This is certainly true of building Bible literacy—it takes effort to build, but maintaining a clear sense of purpose sustains us in our labor. How can we begin to be more purposeful in the way we approach Bible study? It might seem terribly obvious to say that we should study the Bible with purpose.
Certainly, we all have some purpose in mind when we begin to study, but we want to have in mind the purpose that the Bible itself intends us to have when we open its cover. No lesser purpose will do.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is telling us about the reign and rule of God. This is the Big Story of the Bible, the purpose for which it was written. Each of its sixty-six books contributes to telling this Big Story—a story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. The Bible purposes to tell us this Big Story in a thousand smaller stories, from its first page to its last.
It follows, then, that our purpose in studying must be to look for that Big Story each time we go to the Scriptures. We should study asking not just what a particular portion of Scripture wants to tell us, but how that portion of Scripture is telling us the Big Story of the Bible as a whole. Studying the Bible with purpose means keeping its overarching message in view at all times, whether we are in the Old Testament or the New, whether we are in the Minor Prophets or the Gospels. In order to do this, we must “zoom out” from any one particular book or passage and gain an appreciation for how it plays its part in unfolding the Big Story.
What a Plane Ticket Taught Me
I gained a clearer understanding of this Big Story principle on a vacation. Most vacations find our family making the ten-hour drive from Dallas, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to spend time with grandparents. We have grown accustomed to the trip—coffee stop in Wichita Falls, lunch in Amarillo, snack in Tucumcari. The scenery on the drive is intermittently spectacular, and the kids know exactly where I will tell them to drop whatever they are doing to enjoy a mandatory “nature moment.” My husband is a lover of maps, and his faithful recitation of the topographical changes to the landscape is always a hit:
“We’re on the southern plains now . . .”
“Just entered the Red River Valley . . .”
“Here we go up onto the Llano Estacado . . .”
“We’re dropping into the Mesalands . . .”
The fact that he even knows these details has always been a marvel to me. His high school geography teacher should be basking in the glow of a job well done. And mine should be languishing in obscurity: I haven’t known the topography because I was never taught the topography.
So it wasn’t until I had a reason to fly out to Santa Fe that I began to fully appreciate what my husband knew. As we lifted off and turned west, I suddenly realized I was watching the southern plains unfurl beneath me, transected by the Red River Valley, punctuated by the Llano Estacado. I saw the fingers of the Mesalands reaching toward the mountains in the north. I saw from a bird’s-eye view the story I had only appreciated in part, and suddenly all the intermittently spectacular moments of the drive fit together into one continuous and stunning landscape. The perspective I gained on that flight forever changed the way I perceived the drive. For the price of a plane ticket, my children gained not one, but two parents babbling about topography for ten hours each holiday.
The Big Story of the Bible
The Bible has its own topography, its own set of “geographical features” that fit together to form one continuous and stunning landscape. But many of us have never bought the plane ticket to understand its contours. Many of us, after years in the church, don’t know the topography because we haven’t been taught the topography. We know when we are seeing something beautiful in the pages of Scripture, but we don’t always know how what we are seeing fits with the rest of the story.
But without the bigger picture, we can gain only a partial appreciation of what any individual snapshot is trying to tell us. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is telling us about the reign and rule of God. Its topography speaks of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration in every vista. The topography of the Big Story is populated with different genres of writing—Historical Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom Literature, Law, Prophecy, Parables, Epistles—all conspiring to expand our understanding of the reign and rule of God in different ways.
Knowing how a particular book of the Bible relates to the Big Story is important, but the individual elements of the creation-fall-redemption-restoration theme can also occur in the smaller stories of the Bible, in various combinations. Our task is to search for these themes as we study.
If only learning to connect a passage of Scripture to the broad vista of the metanarrative were as effortless as buying a plane ticket to Santa Fe. Identifying the metanarrative as we study does not happen effortlessly—it’s a study skill that requires time and practice to acquire. All new skills require a learning curve. As you begin to study purposefully—with the Big Story in view—allow yourself a learning curve as your eyes adjust to this new vantage point. Over time, you will become better at integrating individual areas of study into a collective understanding of God’s purpose from Genesis to Revelation.
This post was adapted from Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin.
Jen Wilkin is a speaker, writer, and teacher of women’s Bible studies. During her fifteen years of teaching, she has organized and led studies for women in home, church, and parachurch contexts. Jen and her family are members of the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. She is the author of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds.