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As a pastor, one of the most common questions I get asked is, how do I read the Bible and getting something from it? By this, people are normally expressing the frustration that comes to most Christians – they want to read the Bible and to be fed as they read, to drink in the Word deeply and have it nourish them. I think this is the heart-cry of every believer. To jump into the Bible with such a desire is exciting but can also bring a let-down when we jump into, say, the book of Ezekiel, or the Gospel of Luke, and then find that we are reading what seem to be dead words and stories. Of course, we know the Word is living and active (Heb 4:12), but, which of us doesn’t know the frustration of reading pages of the Bible and yet seeing nothing more in what we have read than what the ink and paper convey on the surface? Let’s look at how we might read the Bible in such a way as to be open to it reading us.
1) Reading as Dialogue
This last phrase is a good place to start – because the Word is “living and active”, because it throbs with the heartbeat of the Living God, when we approach the Bible, we approach something that is capable and even willing to approach us. Of course, the Bible is in one sense just ink and paper, the physical Bible has no power. But when the Spirit is present to make those words live, God is there to reveal himself to the reader and to reveal the reader to him/herself. In this way, reading the Bible as a believer, is a dialogue and we ought to approach it as such. We ought to ask deep questions of God as we read, but we must also be asking that God ask deep questions of us. A practical way of reminding ourselves of this is to pray (even briefly) before we open the Bible, asking God to open himself up to us and to speak into our hearts that which he has for us.
2) Internalize the Word
Along these lines, it is important that we remember that the Word is not a word for other people or situations, but for us. It is easy to read the Bible in order to learn principles and doctrines, but to ignore the fact that these are principles for us and not for others. For example, a pastor may preach through the book of Hosea and decide that he is going to approach the book as an instruction manual for marriage, given that Hosea is focused around the marriage of Hosea and his adulterous wife, and God’s love for his wayward people. But what is missing here is the fact that the message of Hosea is from God to His people, Israel. It is not a book generally about marriage, but a message from God to His people who have gone astray and are called back to fidelity to a God who welcomes them even though they are unworthy. Rather than preach Hosea as a book about marriage, it would be more impactful and honouring of the text if it is preached as a call for the church to return to a God who has graciously made a way for them to be in relationship with Him, and how He has done this ultimately through his Son. The pastor was so focused on the principles he could extract from the book that he missed the fact that the message was personally directed at him and his church. In the same way, you and I may read Jesus’ words about removing the plank from our eye before dealing with the speck in someone else’s (Matt 7) and then think, “Boy, could my wife/husband/friend benefit from learning that lesson!” We tend to externalize the Word of God, projecting its teaching on others rather than taking it in ourselves. We should learn to internalize the Word as we read the Bible.
3) Promise, not Law
I remember a professor once telling us students that we could read the Bible as promise or as law. If we approach the Bible as “law” we will be asking it “What should I do?” and we will likely come away disheartened as we realize that we are being asked to do things that we cannot do. Reading the Bible as law will leave us thinking that God is a task-master, a demanding tyrant only interested in obedient children. But, if we approach the Bible as the gospel demands, as a promise, then we see it as God’s telling us what he will do and has done. We ought to read the Bible as grace not law, as God’s provision and action on our behalf, not as his demands on us. I’ve heard it (wisely) referred to as reading the Bible in an apostolic rather than a rabbinic way. After all, this is how the Biblical narrative unfolds – grace comes before law; it is the gracious act of God (what he has done) that prompts, encourages and empowers obedience (what we do), not the other way around. If we read the Bible like this, we will find our hearts increasingly melted by grace, continually assaulted by the love of our Father. When we read the Bible like this, we will see the depths of the gospel unfolded before us as God reveals himself in greater measure to us. From this place of grace, we will then find ourselves wanting to serve and please our Father. We will leave our times of Bible reading encouraged, not frustrated.
4) Use Resources,…eventually
As a very practical tip, I encourage believers to read their Bibles along with commentaries and studies… eventually. When a pastor is preparing a sermon, he ought to first spend time praying through the text and chewing on it without the aid of extra-biblical resources for a time. Before seeing what others have said about a text, allow the Spirit to disclose the meaning of the text to you. Each of us has a specific way that we hear God, and we find God graciously reveals himself in ways that we can hear/see him. Think about how God revealed himself to Israel in the past – as a burning bush, a pillar of smoke and fire, a still small voice, a baby. Each time, God came precisely as Israel needed to see Him. Elijah needed to hear him as a soft voice. You and I need to allow God to speak to us before we consider how he has spoken to others. Having spent time going over a passage, looking at it from different angles, reading it over and over, sometimes quickly to get the overall idea of the passage and other times reading it slowly, asking ourselves and God why certain words and images are used. Having done this, commentaries and studies and sermons can help us to see things we have not seen and to consider deeper questions of context and language that we may not be equipped to understand on our own. Using resources like these help us to get excited about the Bible as we learn new things, but if we only approach the Bible to learn new things, then we will find ourselves chasing novelty and neglecting God. We will find ourselves caring more about what the Bible says than who the Bible speaks about.
Perhaps it is best to close with a prayer – Lord, I pray that you would help us to see your Word as not merely dead letters, but living words revealing the Living Word. Help us to overcome our flesh and make time to read your Word and to be still and quiet before you as we listen to your Spirit. Speak to us through your Word and help us to see that you are the God who saves before you demand obedience. Show us the gospel, show us your Son so that we might see how you love us and be spurred by that grace, to serve you better.