Live The Life!
I. Why Read The Bible?
What is the reason why we should read the Bible? Or, to put it another way - what is the purpose of the Bible?
The purpose of the Bible is to testify, to witness, to the Lord Jesus Christ. John the Baptist pointed to Christ, when he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
In the same way the Bible exists to point men to Jesus, the only Saviour.
So the Bible isn't there because it's a good book with lots of stories, and some good wisdom in it. Rather, it's a way in which we come to Christ, the Living Word of God. As John 20:31 tells us, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
We study the Bible so that we may come into personal contact with the Lord Jesus Christ, and putting our whole trust in Him, live obediently to His Word. Jesus Himself taught us about the purpose of Scripture in John 5 : 39-40 when He said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have eternal life.”
In these words we learn the purpose of all Bible Study: “…study the Scriptures…come to me to have eternal life”.
Thus the purpose of Bible reading is a personal encounter, a face-to-face meeting, with Jesus Christ.
The Bible can be studied in other ways, such as history or literature, but it doesn't then speak to our hearts as the living Word of God. It all depends on why we read the Bible, and how we read it. The purpose of our daily Bible reading is to meet God in Christ, and to be spoken to by Him, through the Holy Spirit.
II. How Do We Read The Bible?
If this purpose that we're talking of is to be realised, then the Bible must be read in a certain way:
First of all, there must be reverence in our approach. If the Bible is to be an interview with the Living God, we must read it so that we can fully concentrate on it. For example, sitting at a table where you can spread out your books and take notes easily is much better than sitting on a sofa.
Secondly, we should come to our Bibles with a high level of expectancy. We have to believe that we will meet with the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and that He will speak to us through the words of Scripture.
Thirdly, there must be a dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the only One who can interpret Scripture and reveal Christ to us. So it's good to begin our Bible reading with a prayer for the Spirit's help, such as: “Lord Jesus, please unlock the truth with Your Spirit as the key. Open to me the Holy Book.”
When we do these three things, our reading, or more likely some part of the passage, will stand out for us, and apply itself to our condition. Christ the living Word actually speaks through the words in our Bible. But that phrase, “actually speaks”, is not meant that we hear words as some Christians claim. God speaks to us by putting convictions in our minds. These may be convictions of truth, convictions of sin, or convictions of positive duty. These convictions are the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
To read the Bible in this way means that we have to give it sufficient time. The value of reading the Bible in a hurry is practically nil. But if we take it nice and easy, forgetting about the clock, then we are able to benefit from it. The week should be planned so that there are definite set periods when this unhurried reading can be enjoyed.
Yet even with enough time it's still possible to read the Bible too quickly, to skim over the surface, instead of mining for the gold hidden in its depths. These suggestions will be helpful.
Read only a short passage at a time. Many people make the mistake of reading too much at one time. There's little value in just reading through the Bible, or a book of the Bible, in the shortest time. It's better to have a thorough appreciation of one painting in the art gallery than to quickly see the whole exhibition - because then you really see none at all. A chapter is always sufficient, and is sometimes even too much. Take just one incident or passage, and concentrate on that, e.g. a parable. Sometimes using the N.I.V. subject heading is a nice subject divider.
Read through the passage slowly, using your mind fully in order to know its meaning, and asking all kinds of questions about it. Make sure that you understand it, and if you don't, determine to find out by either asking someone else, or by using a commentary. It may also be helpful to compare similar passages that come to mind, or are suggested by the references in your Bible.
If the reading is a story or incident, make a vivid picture of the scene in your mind by using your imagination. Look at the different characters and see the action of the story. It's very important in living the Christian life that the Word of God should capture our imagination. Having made that picture in your mind, look at it as long as possible, so that the scene can sink deeply into your mind.
Ask what God is saying to you through the passage, and how it applies to your own life and situation. Note especially any sentences that hit you, and ask what practical directions God is giving you for your present life. Make a practice of obeying and carrying out these directions, because the reason for hearing the Word of God is so that we may do it. Many have found it helpful to have a notebook in which to write down each day their convictions and directions.
III. What Helps Us To Read The Bible?
The only help needed in reading the Scriptures is that of the Holy Spirit, the Revealer and Interpreter. He who gave the Word can alone correctly interpret it. But the Holy Spirit often works through a human agent, such as the time when He interpreted the Scriptures to the Ethiopian through Philip. So we have helps that the Spirit gives us.
There are many parts of the Bible that can be understood without any outside help, because the meaning is obvious. No one, for example, finds trouble in understanding the history of the books of Samuel, or the stories of the Gospels. Yet, at the same time, other people can help us to understand these passages better.
On the other hand, there are passages in the Bible for which we need help to understand. Many of us won't be able to make sense of Daniel or Revelation without knowing about the historical background. The Bible is an Eastern book written by Easterners with a particular background. This means that we have to understand the Eastern ways to assist us in understanding what the Bible has to teach. That's why within the Church we work together as a body to understand what the Bible says. Together we have a combined knowledge. Like a cricket team, which needs its batsmen, bowlers and fielders, so is the church. And so all Christians, though having different gifts, yet together make up the Body of Christ. In practice this means two things:
First, we are not to just study the Bible alone but also with other Christians. A good example of this are the fellowship groups in our church. Naturally the highest example of this are our worship services. That's why you should make the effort to go twice each Sunday.
Second, the Bible may be studied with the help of commentaries and other books. These have been written so that we can be helped in understanding the meaning of Scripture. But we must make sure it is a good Reformed commentary (William Hendriksen is a good choice, or the New Bible Commentary on the whole Bible). Otherwise we may be told the wrong meaning. If you are in doubt about which commentary to buy, ask a good Christian friend, or your local elder/minister.
It's helpful for you to make written notes on the various books of the Bible, whether it's from your own Bible study, notes taken of sermons, or of knowledge gained from commentaries. A good aid for this is the N.I.V. Study Bible, which some of you already have, but be careful also with this Study Bible, as in places it has a non-Reformed view point. If in doubt, don't hesitate to ask for help.
Remember that your Bible is yours to use. So don't worry about scribbling in it, taking notes, and so on. It is your Bible, to be used as often as possible. As Cliff Richard once sang, “The devil's not amused, when your Bible's well used…”
IV. Where Do We Start To Read The Bible?
When reading an ordinary book we start at the beginning and read through to the end. This would also seem to be the obvious way to read the Bible. But can you imagine starting at Genesis, and trying to read through the Old Testament! I'm not saying that it can't be done, but it's not to be recommended as a starting off method.
There is a wiser and better method. As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, we read Scripture to come to Christ, the Living Word. He is present in all Scripture, but it's better to begin where we can see Him most clearly. This is in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels.
Jesus who lies hidden in the Old Testament is revealed in the New. When we have seen Christ in the New, then we also find Him in the Old Testament. For example, the Book of Leviticus does show us the person and work of Christ, when we see it interpreted for us in the Letter to the Hebrews. So by reading Hebrews first, we are more likely to understand Leviticus. It is better to begin with the New Testament. And in the New Testament, it is best to begin with the Gospels. Can any of you give the names of the Gospels?
From these Gospels we can gain knowledge of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ, and this is the foundation of all Christian and Biblical knowledge. I suggest that you begin by reading the Gospel of Mark, which is the shortest account of the work and suffering of Jesus. Then a look at how Christ works today, through His Body - the Church - as seen in Paul's letter to the Ephesians. This may be followed by the Gospel of Luke, which expands upon the story as told by Mark. Then the Acts of the Apostles, which is volume 2 of Luke's writings, and which is a history of the early church.
When these first steps have been taken, there are different ways in which Bible Study can be continued.
V. Which Ways Help Us To Make That Start?
There are four possible alternatives. These are:
For your daily devotional reading of the Bible, there are helpful reading notes that you can get from various groups, such as the Bible Society and Scripture Union.
A more thorough course, which is excellent, is given by the Inter-Varsity Press under the title Search the Scriptures. This course covers the whole Bible in three years.
Another good method is to choose one of the great Biblical themes such as salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Messiah, the covenant, and so on. With the help of a concordance, you would look up all the references ands study the relevant passages. In this connection, a book of systematic theology, like Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology will be a helpful guide.
You will find that most of the books of the Bible are in groups having the same human author, or the same historical background, or the same essential characteristics. So it's helpful to study whole groups of books at the same time. For example, the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew), the gospel and letters of John, the letters of Paul, the Hebrew prophets in historical order, and so on.
Whether or not you use one of these systems, the most important thing remains that it is necessary to have a system for Bible study. The habit of turning anywhere without a plan, like a seagull diving here and there into the sea of truth, cannot be compared with the value of ordered, planned reading.
Because the Bible doesn't consist of isolated `texts' or disconnected passages, it cannot be looked at in a random way. Rather, the Bible is the written record of the revealing and redeeming work of God in the history of Israel, and in the coming of Jesus Christ. So it must be studied as a whole. Sometimes parts of the Bible seem dull and boring. But no part is really dull. It's only because of our blindness that it may seem that way to us, at first. We need, then, to dig deeper for the hidden gold in these difficult passages.
So we need perseverance in our Bible reading. We must have that ability to go on and on. It's easy to make a start, but the hard part is to continue on, to keep looking to Jesus, the Living and Abiding Word of God.