In a discussion with Shane Rosenthal on the White Horse Inn, John Lennox talked about how “immensely rich” the stories of Genesis are but also noted that in order to profit from those riches, we need to look at the stories in context, in light of the larger flow of thought in Genesis and the Bible as a whole:
ROSENTHAL: Do you think part of the problem [of people missing out on the riches in these stories] is that we do look for the practical “How does this apply to me?” rather than tracing those threads…all the way through to the end in which those themes are ultimately resolved in the person and work of Christ?
LENNOX: I Think that’s one of the problems. The word “practical”—what exactly does it mean? What I have experienced and seen many, many times is, the more time you spend trying to understand what it says, the easier it will be to see what it means. And if you see the thought flow—the way the stories are built up—rather than just seeing them as individual stories (which you must do, as well), then you begin to get inside the story, and you can sense what it’s about. And therefore, if you tell the story well and accurately, people can see the application. They don’t have to be told it; they see it.
And I like to try, at least, to generate that “aha” effect—“Oh, so that’s what it’s about! That’s what it’s saying!” And they don’t have to shuffle around, looking for an application. It’s there.
If you’re a pastor, or you’re teaching a Bible study, or you’re simply reading the Bible on your own, be careful not to move too quickly to application. Teach what the Bible says first; show us how the text reveals God to us (particularly through Christ), then the applications will follow. (Greg and I discussed tips on how you can steer your Bible study conversation towards context before application here.)
Remember that the Bible is primarily there to show us who God is and what Christ has done for us, giving us a 2,000-year history of his works, revealing his character, our purpose and need, and his solution. Sometimes, people who are teaching the Bible try much too hard to be brilliant, giving us their own insights into life rather than letting the brilliance of the Bible speak for itself. Let the Bible speak! I would rather hear one halting, inexperienced speaker show me God in a text of the Bible than hear 1,000 polished pastors give me their three-point, alliterated instructions for life, which are often only loosely based on the actual text.