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Holy Spirit Interactive: Columns: Aneel Aranha: Studying the Bible

The Bible and the Art of Jigsaw Puzzles

In the mood for a challenge one day, I went and bought myself a jigsaw puzzle. It was a black and white image that reminded me of the photography of Ansel Adams and I thought the completed puzzle, nicely framed, would make a pretty sight on one of my walls.

When I went home and opened the box, 2000 very tiny pieces of colored cardboard spilled out. In varying shades of gray, each one seemed identical to the other. There appeared to be little difference between the pieces even in the way they were cut! After staring at it for a good minute or so, I packed up the pieces and put the puzzle away, deciding I would never be able to put it together.

It, however, nags me to give up a challenge, especially one that other people have obviously solved, so a week later I took the box down and decided to try solving it, determined to give it my best.

I first went through all the pieces, separating the ones with a straight edge, which indicated they belonged to the sides of the puzzle. When I had extracted as many as I could, I set about fitting them together to create the border of the puzzle. Then I went through the pieces again, this time separating the ones that had letters on them, or some recognizable pattern, which would let me patch together little pictures. Then I went through the pieces yet again, and discovered that the grays were not as undifferentiable as I had imagined; there were differences that were more than subtle and I could sort them according to shade. By the fourth sort, I had my eye totally into the puzzle, and everything suddenly started becoming very easy. Then my entire family got into the act, and in a week's time I had myself a lovely picture that went right up on the wall.

Understanding the Bible is just like solving a difficult jigsaw puzzle.

If you pick up the Bible and open a page at random, it will be as meaningless to you as a piece picked up at random from a jigsaw puzzle. Try this one for size. It is taken from the beginning of John's gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

Did any of that make any sense to you? If this was the first time you read that verse, chances are it didn't. And it won't either, no matter how deeply you examine it. Every verse in the Bible connects to another, and it is only when you see how they fit together, that any of it begins to make sense. To properly fit them together, however requires a systematic approach, and the jigsaw puzzle will serve as a starting model.

Just like you would in solving a jigsaw puzzle, the first thing to do is to get one! Buy a good Bible. I recommend the New Jerusalem Bible, the Revised Standard Version, or the New International Version. (My personal favorite is the last. It is written in English that is easy to understand while still retaining the flavor of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, and the accompanying notes in the Study Version are quite excellent. I also have a copy of the Catholic New American Bible so I don't miss out on any of the books taken out from Protestant versions.) Do not use the Good News Bible; the text is insipid and uninspiring.

The next step is to go through it. Ignore the Old Testament (OT) for the time being. Ignore Revelations from the New Testament (NT) as well, but read the rest of the NT from cover to cover, four or five chapters a day. There is much you will not understand. In fact, if this is the first time you are reading the Bible, there is little you will understand. It doesn't matter. What this reading serves to do is give you an outline of the New Testament, similar to setting the frame of the jigsaw puzzle.

Read it again, this time slower. You will notice a few verses that seem to stand out in your mind's eye. Perhaps one of them is from the gospel of Matthew.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

Make a note of that verse. Go through the Bible again, slower still. Now, little pictures begin to form. You realize, for instance, that Matthew 7:7 does not stand in isolation; it is linked to these verses.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15:7)

When you put them together you realize that what at first seemed to be an unconditional promise to grant whatever you ask for is not without condition after all. There are certain things that you need to do first. A picture is forming, but it is still far from complete. There are pieces needed around it. What is God's kingdom and his righteousness? How do you remain in God? How do his words remain in you? Now you are looking for specific pieces, and in your next reading they will leap out at you.

By the time you have completed your fourth reading, most of the picture is in place and you just need to fill in the empty spaces. Soon, you are no longer looking at the pieces, you are looking at the entire image before you. And it is beautiful. Each time you look at it, you discover something new, something you hadn't noticed the previous time. But to truly appreciate it, to uncover the hidden messages and the subtexts, to know why certain paints were used, to what the meaning of the various hues and textures are, you need a better understanding of the Bible, and to help you get that, we bring you the complete text of a wonderful book by my brother in Christ Ronald W. Leigh: Direct Bible Discovery.

May the Spirit be with you.

Aneel Aranha (Jan 21, 2004)