Do you know what that is? That is a stack of letters, because sometimes I forget that I live in the 21st century and there’s this thing called email these days. I hear it’s all the rage among those crazy kids.
There’s just something so heartwarming about getting a thick letter in the mail. It makes my whole day. It’s a very tangible statement that you’re important to someone. Unfortunately, writing letters is quickly becoming a lost art. And right along with that we’re losing the other half of the equation: how to read letters.
You might not think that really matters, since you’ve probably fully embraced the digital age and don’t get nostalgic over having to pay someone $.50 to deliver a message for you. But you know what letters are still hanging around that are kind of important? Almost one-third of the books of the Bible.
So How Do You Read Them?
You’ve probably heard all kinds of strategies for studying your Bible. Some people like to use COMA (Context, Observation, Message, Application). Some people use specialized study Bibles. Other people like more structured devotionals. But let’s take a step back from in-depth study and just talk about reading.
Of course, there are a plethora of reading plans out there too. Some people simply do a chapter a day. Other people commit to a plan that puts them through the entire Bible in one year. Others prefer a more relaxed pace of reading the Bible once every four years. And while those plans are helpful to keep you moving forward in difficult passages, particularly in the Old Testament, when it comes to letters, you don’t need to overthink it.
Ready to hear the big secret? Are you prepared to learn how to read letters properly? All right, here goes:
You sit down and you read them.
That’s it. No big strategy necessary. You know what I did when each of those envelopes in the above picture arrived? I opened them up and I read each one, start to finish, without stopping. I didn’t stretch is out over days or even weeks. I didn’t jump around from spot to spot. I just read them straight through.
Why would I read a letter like that, you ask? (You probably didn’t, but we’ll pretend you did.) Because that’s just how they make the most sense. If I really want to understand what the author of the letter is trying to say, reading their words in order is the only way to do it. If I mix things up, I won’t get the full impact of their message. And this is coming from the person the letters were directly addressed to at the time they were written. Now imagine it’s 2,000 years later in a completely different culture. It’s no wonder we find Epistles confusing when we insist on jumbling them up.
To be fair, there are times when ripping a book apart and studying its pieces in depth is appropriate. (Figuratively speaking. Please don’t go deface a book on my account.) But that shouldn’t be the only way we experience the Bible. And it especially shouldn’t be the only way we read the 21 letters in the New Testament.
I didn’t realize how much of a difference this really made until I read the book of Galatians in one sitting. It’s a short read: only six chapters. Trust me, you can do it. And once you do, you’ll be amazed at how much more sense everything makes. Yes, the fruit of the spirit sort of makes sense on its own. But read in context, it becomes part of a larger message that paints a much clearer picture of the early church’s problems, many of which we still face today.
At the end of the week I’ll share a little more about my insights into Galatians thanks to treating it like a real letter. But I don’t want to spoil it for you, because that’s your job this week. Find half an hour (it really shouldn’t take any longer than that) to sit down and read the entire book in one sitting. Then come back here and share what you learned through this experiment.
P.S. Finding a good Bible translation will make reading and studying much more enjoyable, no matter what method you’re using. At either extreme, you have your literal translations and your paraphrases. Literal translations will be very accurate, but also very difficult to read smoothly. Paraphrases flow nicely, but they’ve sacrificed some accuracy to achieve that. I recommend compromising with a good middle-of-the-road translation. My two favorites are the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV). The ESV leans a little more toward accuracy and the NIV a little more towards readability.