Voices: Four books of the Bible you should study next

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The whole Bible is inspired, authoritative and edifying. All Christians should study all of Scripture all the time. But you can’t take it in all at once; you must read and study it one piece at a time.

I commend to you four books of the Bible that usually are overlooked and/or misunderstood. These four “hidden gems” of Scripture have shaped me in unexpected ways, and I hope you mine their riches, whether you are a pastor looking for your next sermon series, a Bible study leader looking for a new lesson plan, or simply a Christian pursuing personal study and devotion.

Ruth

Ruth is a brief book sandwiched between Judges and 1 Samuel. It often is overshadowed by its much larger companions, and when people do study it, they often treat it as a guide for dating and marriage. You should view Ruth through that lens only if you want to completely misunderstand the entire book.

Ruth is about ḥesed. This Hebrew term, usually translated in English as “lovingkindness,” is a key word in the Old Testament. It is packed with significance and meaning, which can be explained best simply as a combination of self-sacrifice and faithfulness.

This little story presents Naomi, Boaz and, especially, Ruth as exemplars of ḥesed in action. At key points in this book these characters go above and beyond to help one another in sacrificial ways. But taken together, these characters and their story demonstrate the ḥesed of God himself, working itself out in and through his human agents.

Moreover, this book elevates and empowers women. The two main female characters are childless widows—among the most vulnerable kinds of people in the ancient world—and they carve a path not only to survive but thrive. Ruth is also a Moabite, an ethnic and religious outsider to Israel, who through her faithfulness becomes a part of God’s people.

Habakkuk

Habakkuk is a brief prophetic book tucked away in the middle of a collection called “The Twelve.” Other prophetic books like Isaiah, Jeremiah and even Amos get more attention than Habakkuk.

Set in the Southern Kingdom of Judah sometime between Assyria’s conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem, Habakkuk consists of a dialogue between the prophet and God.

Habakkuk cries out to God in confusion, hurt and despondency. He asks God why he has let evil and injustice run rampant among his people. God responds by saying he soon will send the Babylonians to bring God’s wrath against Judah. Habakkuk is horrified, as the Babylonians are even more cruel and evil than Habakkuk’s countrymen. God then responds in turn with a vision of future punishment against Babylon and restoration of God’s people.

In this book, we see a prophet questioning God and even arguing with him. And God inspired Habakkuk to do this! This brief exchange provides reflections on the problem of evil, God’s justice, and doubt in ways rivaled only by the book of Job and the Psalms.

Mark

Mark is the shortest of our four Gospels, and even though scholars are nearly certain it was written first, it usually is overshadowed by the other three—Matthew, Luke and John. Mark lacks many of the most famous and beloved stories about Jesus, and it paints a darker picture than the other Gospels.

Each Gospel emphasizes different aspects of Jesus. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ kindness to sinners and outcasts. John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity and his role as the new Temple. But Mark presents Jesus as the mysterious suffering servant.

Jesus’ identity in Mark is mostly obscured, with Old Testament references being allusive and muffled. Jesus is cryptic and often harsh. The disciples appear as fools and failures. It is only at the very end, with Mark’s abrupt conclusion, that real hope comes back on the scene. Mark is basically The Empire Strikes Back of the Gospels.

But this portrait of Jesus is fundamental for understanding who he is. Jesus is not an action hero or an ancient Mr. Rogers. Following Jesus faithfully involves suffering, and the road of discipleship often is marked by confusion and failure.

2 Corinthians

This actually wasn’t the second letter Paul sent the Corinthians. He had an extensive correspondence with them, but only 1 and 2 Corinthians have been passed on to us. Paul’s “second” letter to the church at Corinth is perhaps his most personal, and it certainly is one of his most passionate.

Paul’s ministry was marked by suffering and perceived weakness. He traveled a very hard road and was quite unimpressive by human standards. The wealthy and influential Corinthians were more than a bit disturbed by their apostle’s seemingly perpetual humiliation.

But Paul’s life and ministry are Christ-like. They are cruciform. Paul embodies what it means to follow the crucified Lord. He passionately makes this case to the Corinthians, desperate to show them God’s strength is not like human strength and God’s standards are not like worldly standards.

The United States is more like Corinth than any other ancient city to which Paul wrote. In a culture of wealth, influence, megachurches and celebrity preachers, 2 Corinthians is a manifesto of the crucified life, a how-to manual for following Christ’s command to “take up your cross and follow me.”

Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.


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