Last week we talked about how important it is that we spend some time
every day in the Word, letting God have a voice in our lives.
If the Bible is simply a leather binding with paper and ink that stays
on your shelf at home, then it’s really of no more use than an unused cookbook
– it might contain amazing recipes, but you will never taste the delicious
dishes that might come out of it. The Bible has the power to change lives, but
as long as it stays closed away and unopened, it is powerless to do anything.
The Bible is a book meant to be read and heard and acted
upon. Its purpose is to change our lives – as the Hebrews writer puts it: “For
the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it
penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the
thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)
And that’s my goal – to help you transform your thinking
about the Bible from ink on paper to the living Word of God. And that’s going
to require two things from you: that you spend time in the Word, and that you
open your heart and your life to being changed by it.
Let’s start with the easy part – spending time in the Word.
I want you to get the most out of your reading of the
Bible, and there are some basic steps in accomplishing that:
First comes observation.
As you read a passage of scripture, don’t just quickly scan the words so
you can move on through. There is value
in reading through the Bible, but only if you pay attention to what you are
reading. This is God’s Word – that’s pretty important, so slow down enough to
ask a few questions along the way.
There are several basic questions to ask as you read –
things that determine how you read a particular passage. Begin by asking what
kind of writing is this: history, poetry, prophecy, a letter? Is it written to
an individual or to a group? What are the circumstances in which it is written? Who is the writer, who are the listeners?
What is happening to the writer, what is going on with the listeners? All this
is background information that helps you understand the reason for the writing.
And you need to understand that you don’t read poetry like
you would history or prophecy; a letter isn’t like a Gospel. So many of our
problems reading the Bible come from not understanding what it is we’re reading
and how to read it. And many of our problems with not understanding what we’re
reading is not asking the right kinds of questions.
And most of the things you can learn from simply spending
some time observing as you’re reading. Look around and use some common sense.
While the Bible is a complex book it is not complicated. 95% of what we read in
the Bible makes sense if we just pay attention. A professor of mine used to
say, “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that give me trouble,
it’s the things I do understand.”
As you read, you’ll want to pay attention to both the
larger and the smaller context. If you’re reading a letter, read each sentence
within the larger paragraph and each paragraph within the context of the larger
letter. Does the paragraph or the book have a major theme? Does the passage
have a key verse? Is there some idea that I don’t want to miss? (That’s
avoiding the danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. We’ll get focused
on a word and miss the larger point that is being made.)
While we’re talking about observation, let me suggest a
couple of things you need to have in front of you while you’re reading:
The first is a notebook in which to take notes while you’re
reading. Write down your observations, write down the things you learn, make
note of the questions you have. Write down important and memorable verses. A notebook is one of the most important tools
you can have in front of you as you read the Bible.
The second thing you need in front of you: A good study
Bible is important – at the beginning of every book it will give you an
introduction to the book – read it. The author will give you information about
all the questions you should be asking, and will help you get a panoramic
picture of the book. The notes at the bottom of the pages will identify people
and places and events that show up in the text and answer your questions about
what is going on that caused the writer to write.
A couple of examples of observation: When Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to
every authority instituted among men, whether to king or governors…” he was
writing during the time of Nero, who impaled and burned Christians alive using
them as torches to light the roads to his parties. That certainly gives you a
little different perspective on how serious Peter is when he writes about
submitting to whatever government you are living under.
When Jesus said, “Anyone
who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the
cross meant only one thing – a terrible, horrifying death. There was no
metaphorical meaning for the cross to those people – they understood that to
follow Jesus meant they were risking everything, including death.
The more you know about the background of what you’re
reading the better able you will be to move to the second basic step in getting
the most out of reading the Bible: interpretation.
Now, I’ve met some people who claim, “I don’t believe in
interpreting the Bible, I just read what it says.” And if you are ever tempted
to say that, let me save you some embarrassment. Every time you read from the
Bible and make a decision about what it says, you are interpreting the Bible –
that’s the definition of interpretation.
Everybody who reads the Bible interprets the Bible. The only question is
will you do it intelligently or ignorantly. And if you will take the time and
put in a little bit of effort, you can do it intelligently. You don’t have to
be a Bible scholar to understand the Bible, you just have to put in a little
extra effort to get the most out of it.
Interpretation asks the basic question, “What did it mean?”
And by that, you’re asking “What did it mean to the writer who wrote it and the
people who read it?” Too many people want to skip this step and ask “What does
it mean to me?” But you can’t get ahead of yourself. You need to know what it
meant to the original author and readers. A passage can’t mean something today
that it never meant to them. The authors weren’t writing to us, they were
addressing the people of their day, in their historical setting and culture. We
have to understand a passage in its original setting before we can ever start
asking “What does it mean today?”
So put yourself in the sandals of the original listeners
and hear the message through their ears. What does the writer want me to know?
What would the writer want me to do? Is there something the writer would want
me to change?
Make sure you’re getting the point the original author
wanted to make to his original listeners.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper
and he rebukes them: “Don’t you have
homes to eat and drink in?” he isn’t starting a controversy over kitchens
in church buildings, he is condemning the selfishness and arrogance of the rich
who were treating their poorer brothers shamefully by eating all the food for
the agape meal before they showed up.
When Paul writes that “All
Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and
training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped
for every good work,” he was referring to the Old Testament. So if you are
inclined to dismiss the Old Testament as unimportant and a waste of time, Paul
The problem so many people get into with the book of
Revelation is that they try to make it into a book that answers 21st
century questions about the end of the world, instead of what John actually
wrote: a letter to 1st century Christians who were being persecuted
and put to death by Rome.
Only when you first answer the question “What did it mean
to them?” can you then ask the question, “What does it mean to us?” And that
takes us from interpretation to application.
And this is ultimately where our reading of the Bible
should lead us, because God meant for the Bible, not just to inform us, but to change
us. If we stop at the point of interpretation, answering all of those
interesting questions about what it meant, but never asking what I need to do
about it, then we’ll have missed the point.
God means for the Bible to change our lives.
And so, as you are reading the Bible, always keep these questions
in the back of your mind:
there some strength the writer is confirming or encouraging?
there some weakness the writer is challenging or rebuking?
there some purpose or goal that he wants me to reach for?
there some danger that I should avoid?
the writer describe something about Christ that I should imitate?
the writer describe something in his own life that I should imitate?
And this is the value of daily Bible reading that becomes
an ongoing discipline in your life. I don’t want you to read through the Bible
as an item on your bucket list (done, check that off), but as something that is
as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth.
And the reason for that is that when you read a passage in
the Bible one time, it may not seem to have any relevance for you. But then,
the next time through, that very same passage will jump off the page and it’s
exactly what you needed to hear, because something in your life has changed and
suddenly that verse speaks to you personally.
Another reason you need to have an ongoing discipline of
reading the Bible is that God needs that time every day to speak to you. His
voice is the most important voice you will ever listen to, but when we leave
our Bibles closed and go day after day without reading his Word, his voice is
silent and all the other voices in this world are there to take its place. Paul
brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is
pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or
praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil 4:8)
When you’re not spending time in God’s Word, it might not
seem like anything bad is happening in your life, but sin and neglect are
building up and putting you in serious spiritual danger. When you stay in God’s
Word, its convicting, cleansing, healing words have that avenue into your life.
writer said that the word is “living and
active” and “judging the thoughts and
attitudes of the heart.” God’s Word is powerful. It moves mountains and
breaks down barriers. It pierces the thickest skin and penetrates the hardest
heart. As long as the word of God has a place in your life, God is never
finished with you.
an 81 year old guide in Yosemite National Park was sitting quietly on a bench
between giving tours when suddenly a frazzled woman came running up and said to
him, “I’ve only got an hour to spend at Yosemite; what should I do, where
should I go?” The old ranger looked at her and replied, “Ah, lady, only an
hour? I suppose that if I had only an hour to spend at Yosemite, I’d just walk
down to that river over there, find a rock and sit down and cry.”
A lifetime would
not be enough to spend listening to God’s voice, so don’t let a day go by that
you don’t let him speak to you.
Posted on Mon, February 29, 2016
by John Roberts