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EPISODE 53: Reading the Bible

We all know we need to read the Bible. But we do need a little help getting into it for ourselves. Gary Millar’s book, Read This First really helps with this in a clear concise way.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I'm delighted today that my conversation partner, all the way over from Brisbane, Australia, in Queensland, is Dr. Gary Millar. Gary is the principal, or what we might consider the president, of Queensland Theological College. Gary has been a pastor. He's been a preacher. He’s a scholar. He writes commentaries on the book of Deuteronomy. But he's also written a great new book for brand-new Christians about how to get into the Bible for themselves. It's called, Read This First. That's going to be the topic of our conversation. Gary, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thanks so much. It's marvelous to be with you.

Well, I want our listeners to have an ever expanding vision about what God is doing around the world. You're originally from Northern Ireland, Belfast, a town near and dear to the heart of us C.S. Lewis Institute people. But then God called you to be principal of a seminary in Australia. Tell us a little bit about Queensland Theological College.

Well, Australia is slightly smaller than the US, but one of the big differences is that we only have six states or territories. So Queensland is massive. I can fly 2 hours to the north, to a place called Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef, and I'm still only halfway up Queensland, so it's a massive area. But the large part of the population is clustered in the southeast, around Brisbane and the Gold Coast, so about five or six million people living down here in the southeast. And our college is Presbyterian by foundation, but less than half our students are Presbyterian. Essentially, we are the gospel center. It’s a gospel coalition flavored college. And so we equip pastors, gospel workers, men and women for all kinds of roles in the church across Queensland and across Australia and beyond. So the church is really strong in Sydney in New South Wales, about an hour's flight south of us. But across Australia, everywhere else, it's fairly weak and battling against, in many cases, very little evangelical heritage. And also, like many other places in the English-speaking world, just a growing tide of sort of default secularism and really anti-gospel thinking.

Yeah. So you're training men and women for ministry, mostly in Australia, or is it throughout Asia as well?

A little bit of that. Mostly from Australia. But even then, Australia, like most parts of the US, Australia has rapidly become incredibly multi-ethnic, even on our staff. Our new finance person is a beautiful Christian believer from Shanghai in China, and even our Australian students are from Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Korean backgrounds. Some of those people will go back to Asia. Some will continue to seek to reach the very rich community that we have here now.

I was delighted, several years ago had the opportunity to come there and get to see some of the country and do some speaking there. And you're right. It is very international, very multi-ethnic. It was really beautiful to see. It was surprising for me to see that, which only shows how uninformed I was, but-

Well, it has changed quite quickly. If you go back 40 years, that wouldn't have been the case.

Okay, all right, so that's all very recent. Okay. So great opportunities for ministry in that setting. Well, I'm personally very excited about our opportunity to talk, because I heard you preach a sermon from the Gospel of Luke seven or more years ago at the Gospel Coalition Conference. And it was one of the most powerful and helpful sermons for me and has really helped me read the Gospels more richly. So I don't listen to a whole lot of sermons more than once, but I've listened to that sermon several times. I'm going to link to the link there for our show notes. It was just very, very helpful for me.

But today we're talking about your book, Read This First: A Guide for People to Get into the Bible, a short book. But I found out about it by an announcement of a book, and I thought, “Oh, we've needed this for quite a long time,” or especially recently, with so many people who are coming to faith with no background in reading the Bible, and how do you get into this book? So tell us a little bit about how it is that you came to write this and what your prayer and hope is for this book.

I think it really had its genesis in the twelve years that we spent in Dublin in a pair of small Presbyterian churches and planting another one, and in God's kindness, over the twelve years, we saw lots of people come to faith mostly from a nominal Catholic background, because in the Republic of Ireland, in Dublin, that's 95% of the population. But essentially then those people, even though they had been in and around church for lots of their lives often, they had had no exposure to the Bible or to the gospel at all. So what we’d find is that most of them would come to Christ or at least have their foundations kind of laid as we took them through Christianity Explored and took them through Mark's gospel. And then we realized…. We did a very kind of brief beginner's Bible study that was almost just like fill in the word that's missing from this sentence.

And then the next thing, we wanted them to be part of our home group network, and there was just an enormous gap, because you take these new Christians, and they'd read through Mark's Gospel with someone's help. They’d just be dropped into a Christian community, and often you have that tension. They had so many questions that I desperately wanted to answer with them, or the leader wanted to answer, but you've got other people in the room whose issues and questions and understanding is so much deeper and better. So that was part of it. And then I realized… I taught in a seminary in Dublin. And then I came here and realized that one of the hardest challenges we have in getting people set up to read the Bible well and then to teach it, is even with people who've grown up in church, getting them to read what it actually says on the page.

So on the one hand, you've got people who just do not know what to do with this very odd-looking book that's printed on thin paper in double columns and is an ancient book. And then you've got sometimes people who have grown up in church who think they know what the Bible says without actually reading the words. And I think those two things came together to say, well, really what we need to do is encourage people to do what they actually have the innate ability to do, which is to read. Obviously, we all learn to read at some level, but there was a massive confidence gap for people who are new Christians, and then sometimes, if you like, an overconfidence in people who've been Christians for years.

And so when The Good Book Company people came and said, “Gary, we’d really like a simple introduction to reading the Bible,” I was just thrilled because I'd wanted one for so long to give to people and didn't have it. And the privilege of my position now is my role, a step away from the coalface of local church ministry, is that you do get a little bit of time to reflect and do something like this. My prayer is that it will it will actually help people in church, who are not yet in church, to read the Bible.

Yeah. Well, I think when I just read it, not too long ago, I would say that that confidence gap has been addressed really well. I think someone could read this book and feel like, “Okay, I can do this.” And I think you're right. We’ve needed this book because we've got some very, very good books about why we can trust the Bible, why it's accurate historically, and all of those questions, which are very, very important. And then we have books of, like, either commentaries or even entry level commentaries of, “Well, here's what the Bible says.” But you're right. There was this gap of, “Okay, wait, but how do I just read it for myself?”

And we've got some really good scholarly, rigorous books about how to interpret the Bible, and that's very, very good for seminary students. I'm really glad I read some of those when I was in seminary. But if I see someone become a brand-new Christian, it's like, “Okay, this will really help you. And it'll encourage you that if you can read, you can read the Bible.” And, yeah, there's some complicated parts, there's some difficult parts, and you acknowledge that, but it really helps people with that confidence that they need.

When I went looking for a book like this, the problem…. And I agree. There are some excellent books, but what tends to happen is that either you get to about page 40, and they start using words like hermeneutics. Or the first 50 pages are quite helpful and straightforward, but the book itself is 280 pages long.

If you're dealing with kind of white collar, middle class, university educated people that may…. I mean, I don't think it will work for everyone because I spend a lot of time at university. I think we kid ourselves sometimes. People who spend time at university or college aren't necessarily readers, but we really are setting the bar very high. So part of the challenge was to try to write a book for non readers. But I think also, I think for me, this is out of deep theological conviction, because if we actually believe in what's sometimes called the perspicuity of Scripture, if we believe God's word is plain, I think we have to be very careful. And people like me, you know, me, I work at a seminary, we have to be very, very careful that we don't end up trying to make ourselves into a medieval priesthood. “The Bible is plain and simple, but really to understand it, you need to talk to someone like me or you need to read 27 commentaries and to know the original languages.” Now, I realized that's a tension, but I know which side of the tension we tend to miss on, that in our circles, and circles that take the Bible and the Gospel seriously, I don't think we could be accused of making the Bible too straightforward or too accessible for people.

I regularly talk about all of the resources that we put together at the C.S. Lewis Institute. I want to highlight one right now. It's our Keeping the Faith, and it is a whole library and collection of resources for you, parents and grandparents. It's a whole entire program with courses and materials that have been developed to equip you, parents and grandparents and other caring adults, for intentional discipleship of the children that God has placed in your life. And we've got videos, we've got articles, we've got study courses. This is one of the things we've made as a major emphasis on our newly designed, award winning website. And I really want to encourage you to check it out. And even if you are not a parent, that you'll check it out and recommend it to the parents that you know or perhaps use it at your church in Sunday school. It's a wealth of things, resources for equipping the next generation of disciples.

Yeah, yeah. By the way, a great strength of your book is that you never use the word “perspicuity” in it. I think that's really a great strength. I always think that that word came up as a joke. Someone said, “Okay, we want to try to convince people that the Bible is clear, so what we need is a really unclear word to tell them that it's clear. So we need to pursue perspicuity and eschew obfuscation as much as possible.” And that's just crazy. But anyway, so your book is, it’s very helpful in that way. It also acknowledges, though, some of the difficulties. In fact, I think it starts out with… don't you have a section right at the beginning of why not? Why not to read the Bible? And here's all the potential headaches that you've heard about. And yeah, they could be real, but here's how to overcome them.

Yeah. I think also, those of us, especially if you've been a Christian for a long time or you've grown up in church, I think we underestimate the weirdness of the Bible. If you haven't grown up in a Christian context or culture, and even physically, it's unlike any book that anyone else that anyone will normally pick up.

And I think moving to Australia probably clarified things, because we have moved very quickly to essentially a post-Christian culture. And I think we're sort of twenty or thirty years ahead of where, for example, people in Ireland, where they may never have read it, but they still had an essential kind of reverence for the Bible, and despite the issues in the church, the Catholic Church in particular, believing in God was not a shameful thing. It was still part of the cultural fabric. So there it was much easier, in that people thought the Bible was too hard, but they weren't opposed to it, whereas in Australia… and it's not even hostility, it's just, “Why would I read the Bible? It's just ancient, too long, outdated, opaque, incomprehensible.”

Yeah, yeah.

The title for the book, it was funny because I wrote a book for new Christians, again because, when I was in Dublin, I just wanted a highway code to lay out for new Christians in 80 to 100 pages. Here's what you might expect, because I just kept bumping into or seeing people in church who, six months in, would say almost like, “Gary, why didn't you tell me this?” And I don't mean major apologetic roadblocks or anything, just, “You didn't really tell me how hard this is going to be or that joy comes in the middle of suffering.”

And so, when I was working on that, it was funny. The publisher said, “Why don't you call that Read This First?” And I actually said it to Fiona, my wife, and my daughters, and they laughed and accused their husband and father of hubris and all said, “Shouldn’t we really read the Bible first?”

Yeah, yeah.

Which was a fairly compelling point.

Yes, yes.

When the publisher of this came along, I thought, “Ah! I know what I'd like to call that book,” because we really do want people to read the Bible first.

Yes, yes.

And I think… it would be my prayer that the book, whether people are Christians or not, that it actually gives them, not just confidence in our ability to read the Bible and get the main point, but I think particularly that it hopefully goes a little way to restoring our confidence that actually the thing we want people to do is to read the Scriptures.

Yes, yes.

Yes, they need a little bit of help. Yes, we want to be there walking with them. But ultimately the power resides in the word of God.

Yes, yes. Oh, that's good. Well, let me ask you about a few statements that you make in the book that I think you wanted them to be, not provocative, that’s not the right word, but appealing or attractive. So early on, you say that reading the Bible is like watching Netflix.


So what do you mean by that? Help our listeners think through that a bit.

Well, I think, particularly when it comes to reading narrative stories in the Bible, as human beings in virtually every culture, we have the ability to make sense of stories. And if we switch on TV or watch a Netflix series, very quickly, without thinking about it, we have picked up whether this is going to be, whether it's a comedy or a drama, whether the atmosphere is tense or relaxed or a kind of an idyllic country scene. We get all those things. And also, when we do that, I mean, you know, I could have said read a novel, it's the same thing. But if you watch Netflix, we know we trust the program maker to tell us what we need to know, and we don't ask 400 questions.

Oh! Good, good, good. Right!

And this was actually my eldest daughter, Lucy. She wouldn't mind me saying this. When she was she was a kid, oh! You’d start to watch something, and she was, you know, “Who’s that? Daddy, why is he doing that? Why is that car red? Does he know her?” And we’re just going, “Lucy, just watch! It will become clear.” I think I was just trying to give people the sense that, yes, they're stepping into a slightly strange world, but actually, especially the narrative parts of the Bible, storytellers tell us what they want to focus on. It's not a mystery puzzle. When something's important, it will be repeated.

Right, right.

If something matters, God through the writer, will shine a spotlight on it.

Yes. Right. Good.

If it's a detail that never occurs again, well, maybe the grass was green because it was green. My Bible study group in church, we just started Revelation, and we had a long discussion on Wednesday night about whether the fact that Jesus puts His right hand on John was terribly significant. It could be, but I'm not aware of anywhere else in the Old Testament that there’s much significance. I suspect it was because Jesus put His right hand on John. And nothing else is made of it as we go on, you know, so you just read it. And I say to our students in seminary, if you're wondering, “Is this significant?” the single most important thing to do is to keep reading.

Oh, good. Right, right.

And if it's really significant, the writer will tell us.

Yeah. And so very often well, we're not told things right away. We're told a little bit, and we're told it in a way that you think, “Oh, there's more to this story,” or, “There are more details coming, but the writer doesn't want me to have that yet because it wants to build that tension, build that anticipation.” So, yes, keep reading. Keep reading. Sure, there's going to be things that you won't understand, but there's a whole lot of things that you don't understand them when you go through it the first time, and then you get to the end, and, “Oh! I'm going to read that again and get so much more of a fuller picture.”

Yeah, that's it. We're encouraging any Bible reader to embrace that, to be patient, because if you start to read, I don't know, 2 Kings, you have to read to the end to get the punchline, and in the case of 2 Kings, it’s also one of those… it's the setup for the next series. And that's partly why I used the Netflix image. You don't watch the first episode in a box set and get really annoyed that everything hasn't been answered. That’s not how it works.

Yeah, okay. Well, then very soon after that, you say that reading the Bible is like watching cricket. Now, you're going to have to help us Americans here. Even some of us who have seen some cricket, we really don't understand that game at all. So help us. What did you mean by that?

Well, I think Americans should be able to appreciate it for that very reason. If I can flip it over, my brother has a house in the US. I've spent a bit of time there. When I first watched baseball, baseball, like cricket, it’s a very simple game at heart. Someone throws a hard ball, and someone with a bat hits it.


That’s it. So my brother lives near Boston. I watch the Red Sox. I kind of get what's going on. There is a language around baseball that is utterly meaningless to me. I don't really understand the stats. I don't really understand the different types of pitches. But actually, if I went and sat with a baseball aficionado and sat in Fenway Park or wherever I happened to be, I sat with him for an hour, pretty quickly they would be able to tell me why he's doing that. What is the difference between a fastball and a curve ball or whatever? There is an insider language, and it's the same. So in cricket, the field positions have all got ridiculous names, things like silly mid off, which is incomprehensible unless you have someone sit down and go, “Oh, that's the guy who stands there.” You go, “Oh!” So when we first come to the Bible, we just have to realize the gist of it, that the message, that the central things that are going on are actually pretty clear.


But you have stepped into a world where there's a different language. And it’s not a matter of intelligence, and at this level, it's not even a matter, I would say, of spiritual discernment. You just need to understand the world to get the lingo, and actually, quite quickly, you go, “Okay, I start to appreciate this.” And that’s where I would want to hold on to the inherent simplicity, so that if Americans watch cricket or Australians or Irishmen watch baseball, there's a fair bit of the detail that's bewildering, but you get the game.

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Yeah, that's really good. That's really helpful. I love it. All right, let's dig into another direction. There are two parts of your book, about how do we interpret the Bible. And on the one hand, I was really, really glad you said, we don't get to make it up. We don't get to make up the meaning, because that's so counter what our world is saying. In our world, constantly we're being told, well, it means whatever you want it to mean. It means whatever you decide. So on the one hand, you say, we don't get to make it up. And then later in the book, you say, it’s not about me, although it is. And so those are some really good tensions. Tell us about the second aspect, where you wrote it’s not about me, although it is.

Yeah, I think that's where…. The Bible is a book about what God has done, is doing, and will do in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is about the gospel, the announcement of what God has done first and foremost. That’s everywhere. However, as God's creatures, as human beings, when we read that message which is about us, it inevitably has implications for us. And I think that's where we get if we go to the Bible just saying, “I am assuming this is going to make statements about me, Gary Millar, at this point in history, feeling this way on a Friday morning,” and just dive in, we've just completely ignored the purpose.

But when we actually grasp the truth of what God has done and is doing for us in Christ, then from that standpoint, it has much to say about us in relation to that grand story. But if you leave out the grand story, you're just distorting it completely. And then you might as well just pick any book from a shelf in a library and try to jumble together the words and construct what you would like to hear from it.

Well, I was so grateful that you didn't just avoid, you negated the two very, very opposite extremes. The one is it's all about me, and it's just this subjective book. I open it up, and I let it…. And I always get nervous whenever I hear someone say, “Well, I read this and what that meant to me….” No, you can't be too strong, but we don't really want to know what it meant to you. We want to know what it means. So on the one hand, it’s, “Well, it's not all about you,” but on the other hand, I mean sometimes you hear also of, “Well, it's not about us at all.” You found this route of saying, “Well, it's not about me, but it is for me.” And I think that's the right balance. It is about God and what He has done and what He is doing, but this is for me, it's for my edification. It's 2 Timothy 3:16-17. It's for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training, so that was good.

That’s right. And when you see the way the Bible is written, the Bible is written to do something to us, and at points, that is to thrill us, to humble us, to instruct us, to excite us, to expand our minds, but it's acting on us. Not simply kind of putting us in the spotlight. It's saying the spotlight lies elsewhere, but when you see what is happening here, you need to react, respond. And that God's action in Christ. God isn't just passing us information, but actually, through this message, He is changing us, calling us to repentance, hardening us.

So I think that's encouraging because that's the balance that, on the one hand the Bible is an objective message about God and what He has done. But God in His infinite wisdom and mercy has spoken that message to us, so that message has an effect. And I think I agree with you. When people say, “This is what it means to me,” at best they're just using the wrong word. If they say, “This is how it impacts me,” or, “This is what it implies for me,” I'm going, “Oh, yes!” And I think you're right here. We’ve got to be really careful. What it means to you is kind of meaningless, really. It's not a helpful way of speaking.

Yeah. But you know, there's a strange kind of liberation. It’s liberating of, “Oh, it's not all about me. I’m not the center of the universe. What a relief!” So, okay, I better not go on that too long. Let me just tell our listeners one more thing that I really appreciate about the book is that you give us exercises at the end of each chapter. It’s, “Now it's your turn. I've shown you this principle that I'm trying to teach about how we interpret different genres or different parts of the Bible. Now, here, take a look at this Psalm or this passage,” and you walk us through it in a very helpful way. And you don't shy away from doing that with some difficult passages. I mean, toward the end of your book, you take on some pretty heavy stuff. In fact, I even remember thinking when I got to, like, “Oh, he's going to go there with the reader! Okay! Let’s watch this happen.”

Well, I think the danger… and this is just through working with new Christians or seeing people come to Christ, the danger is that they go, “Oh, Randy helped me to see that. I could never have seen that.”

Oh! Yeah, yeah, yeah.

It's the special knowledge that has been imparted to Gary or Randy or someone else. And I think that's where, just straight away I want people to see, “Yeah, okay. I work in a seminary. I’ve been a pastor for a long time, but actually, I'm not talking about special knowledge. I'm saying if you do what I have just described, you'll actually hopefully build some confidence because you'll see that, at one level, it's not that hard.”

Yeah, yeah.

There are no tricks. It's about reading the words and prayerfully thinking about what they're saying. And listening to other voices from across the centuries and all the rest. But the core issue is that, if you read the text carefully in a decent English translation, you will get what it's talking about.

And actually, for me, there was a formative experience a long time ago. I did my PhD in Deuteronomy in Oxford, and when I finished my PhD, actually I borrowed Phil Ryken’s laser printer, who's now the president of Wheaton College. Phil had a laser printer, and none of the rest of us did. I printed out my thesis on Phil's printer, and as I stood watching it coming out of the printer, for about 30 seconds, I was really depressed because I thought, “You know what? There's nothing in that thesis that any Christian who'd been given three years to sit down with the NIV on Deuteronomy and had read and thought and prayed about it, there's nothing in my thesis that they wouldn't have seen.” And my dreams of academic greatness shattered around my fate, this 100,000-word statement of the obvious. And I was depressed for about 30 seconds, and then I thought, “Actually, Gary, no. If you believe that God's Word is God's Word written for His people, actually it should be worrying if you've come up with anything that a faithful Christian believer, given time with the gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn't come up with.” And I think that really was a formative experience.


And I think, sort of 30 years on, that's what I've tried to convey in Read This First, because you don't have to go to Oxford and do a PhD or be a seminary professor or an apologist or an evangelist to actually understand what God is saying to us in his word, because it really is clear, and it's rich, and we can read this, and it’d be fresh for a lifetime. But it's really not special knowledge. It's God's word to His people.

Well, that is a great place for us to draw this to a close, because I think that comes through so very frequently and clearly in your book. “You can do this. You can read this book. And sure, there's some difficult parts, but here, let's give you some practice and some insight.” And I do especially want to say I think this is a great book, too, for those of us who have been Christians for a while to give to young believers or our children as they're getting to the age of being able to read these things for themselves, because it's such a delight to be able to see a fairly young Christian say, “You know what I just read in the Bible? Look at this!” And they show it to you like you've never seen it because they're just so excited about, “Look at this! This is so great!” And so your book can help us have more of us get to that point of being on the showing side and on the receiving side. So I recommend it. I hope it will become a really important tool in discipleship.

Thank you, Gary, for joining us. We're going to sign off now. To our listeners, we’re going to have some show notes and a link to Gary's book and some other things that he's put together for God's people. Check out our resources on our website, We hope this podcast, our other podcasts, and all of our materials help you grow in discipleship of the heart and mind. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman.

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