True biblical literacy occurs when we understand Scripture in its context and apply it to our lives.
In Luke 11:28, Jesus says that people who hear the Word of God and keep (obey) it are the ones He considers blessed. Jesus puts hearing and keeping the Word together. In the biblical world, hearing is only half of the equation. In order to obey, a person has to understand what was heard and then act on it.
In the biblical world, the term “to keep” can carry a number of meanings, but when it is associated with God’s Word, it means something along the lines of understanding and doing. Keeping is a matter of understanding what God has said and then applying that to our lives through obedience. This is the entire purpose of biblical literacy. To be biblically literate is not simply to be familiar with Bible stories. It also means learning the meaning of Scripture in light of the nature of God and the meaning of the Gospel, and then living out this knowledge as Christ followers.
Developing biblical literacy is two-sided, because it includes both the biblical world and its original context, as well as a contemporary group of hearers.
Both the biblical world and the group of hearers have their own unique preconceptions, convictions, and cultural frameworks. Often, the most important task is helping listeners get outside of their own worldview and hear what is being said in the Bible’s own context. But this is only the beginning of our task as preachers and as obedient hearers.
As a preacher, I approach sermons as a way to lead people into the biblical world so they can begin to learn how to listen to Scripture and hear clearly what it says. My hope is to serve as a guide to the biblical world by offering four basic questions about the text: when (historical context), where (cultural/ethnic considerations in the text), what (the content of the passage in regard to the character and purposes of God), and why (the theological implications of the passage). While I am asking and attempting to answer those questions for the congregation, there are three additional aspects I keep in mind in order to help my congregation become fully literate in Scripture: here and now, who, and what now.
While I am laying out the historical/biblical context, I also try to be aware of the context of the congregation to which I’m preaching: the here and now. A broad range of influences affect people’s perspectives including personal stories, political views, and moral convictions. It’s important to consider whether these influences are limiting or enhancing the congregation’s ability to hear and understand the biblical world.
At first, many people don’t think they can relate to people in biblical texts because of the differences in time and culture that separate Bible characters from people on Sunday mornings. If I can help the biblical culture make sense by remaining sensitive to the cultural variances of the listeners, my prayer is that they can see that the people in the text (who) face many of the same challenges they do, despite the differences in context. It is exciting to watch people light up as they begin to understand the biblical world for what it is instead of what they assumed it was.
Finally, I am connecting the initial questions of the texts to the last main application question: What now? Once there is an understanding of the passage, I am asking the congregation, either verbally or implicitly, “Why does this matter?” and “What am I supposed to do in response?”
The question of what now reminds me that if people are not aware of how the truth in the passage points to real life, they most likely will not understand. People face various dilemmas, carry burdens, and search for meaning in their own lives. How does the truth in the passage speak directly into their lives?
I want people to realize that the Word of God defines reality for us, and if we listen to it intently, it will lift our burdens, transform us, and fill us with meaning.
I consider teaching biblical literacy one of the most rewarding tasks when listeners become more than just listeners. When people listen to Scripture and truly hear it so that it begins to fill the imagination, align perspectives, dispel preconceived notions, inform ignorance, and transform character, then they are able to be drawn ever deeper into its world until it becomes the one world out of which they live their whole lives. My hope is that the listeners will be blessed as they hear and keep the Word of God.
Isaiah Bleese is Teaching Pastor at LaMoure Church of the Nazarene in LaMoure, North Dakota, USA.
Holiness Today, Jul/Aug 2018.