21st June 2018
How do we get the best out of reading the Bible? There is a long answer and a short answer. The long answer takes a lifetime; it’s like asking how we get the best out of a marriage, or a friendship. But I think there are some short answers as well. In a message in January 2017, I gave five words that summarise how we can get the most out of Scripture, and if you’re fairly new to the word of God, you might find them helpful.
Read it slowly. I love the way the Psalmist describes the righteous person: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day & night” (Psalm 1:2). Meditating involves turning something over in your mind, savouring it, memorising it, getting all of the goodness out of it, as if you were sucking a sweet. That’s how to read the Bible: with enough space, and time, to read it slowly, and really draw the meaning out of the words, the phrases, the sentences. It’s like John Piper says of reading the Bible: “Raking is easy, but you only get leaves. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
Read it quickly. This may sound ridiculous in light of #1, but there are lots of parts of Scripture that, at least at first, need to be read quickly. If you read Numbers 7 slowly, you may never get out of it! So there are lots of passages in which it is good to keep moving, especially when you are new to the Bible. When you read the Old Testament genealogies, clock the names, but otherwise you can skim it. When you read the building passages, move quickly. When you read prophecies of judgment against surrounding nations, get the main point (God is angry with X for doing Y, and he will do Z), but don’t get mired in the details. With stories, things are bit easier, because the story keeps moving, so read it fast enough to keep things moving, but not so fast that you don’t understand what you’re reading.
If you’re wondering how to tell which bits to read slowly and which bits to read quickly: as a general rule, read the Old Testament quickly, and the New Testament and Psalms slowly. As you get to know the Bible better, you’ll find all sorts of exceptions to that. But generally speaking, it’s a good rule of thumb.
Read it in community. One of the most dangerous features of Western individualism is that it can make us think “real” growth happens on our own. But the Bible is meant to be read together. Remember: for most of Church History, most of God’s people couldn’t read, so they would gather to hear the word read (and explained) publicly. I’d even go further: the Bible is meant to be heard, not just read. At King’s, we do that on Sundays (as we hear it read and preached, so that its spiritual power crashes into us and reshapes us), and in groups (where we ask questions, discuss and grapple with it, talk about how it applies to us, and study parts of it in more detail). Make the most of opportunities like that.
Read the Bible prayerfully. I love the image that songwriter Matt Redman uses here: he talk sbout breathing in revelation, and breathing out response. So you read a passage about God (breathe in), and it fuels praise (breathe out). Or you read a passage of lament (breathe in), and it prompts you to pour out your heart to God or to pray for others (breathe out). And so on. I would encourage you to pray as you start (“Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your word”), when you don’t understand (“What on earth does this mean? If this is difficult, Father, it’s because you want me to think about it. What is going on here?”), when you do understand (“Thank you for revelation! I praise you, O God, because ...”), and as you finish (“Thank you for speaking, Father – now help me live according to your word, your story, and your purposes”). Read the Bible prayerfully.
Read the Bible Christianly. That sounds silly. How else would a Christian read it? But the reality is that it is surprisingly easy to read the Bible as if it is about us, rather than Jesus. So we read Genesis and ask, “where am I in this story?”—which is fine!—but may find it much harder to ask, “where is Jesus in this story?” Joy comes to me, time and time again, when I notice the ways in which a passage reveals Christ to us. Jesus is the true and better Adam, who won his battle with temptation in the garden, and whose life (rather than death) is granted to all who are in him. Jesus is the true and better Abel, rejected and killed by his brother(s) out of jealousy, and whose blood cries out for acquittal rather than condemnation. Jesus is the true and better Noah’s ark, the one in whom we find safety from judgment, by grace, and emerge through the waters of baptism to inherit a new world and receive God’s covenant promises. And so on, and so on, throughout the Old Testament.
Like most relationships, our relationship with God through Scripture will grow over time. The Bible, as Gregory the Great put it, is “like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” If you’re a lamb, enjoy paddling in the shallows; if you’re an elephant, keep doing deeper. His word is a lamp to out feet, and a light to our path.
Posted by Andrew Wilson
Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham and Lee. Over the past fifteen years the church has seen continued growth, both in size and diversity. Steve is also involved in Newfrontiers and regularly coaches other lead elders. His book, Good to Grow, was published in July 2011. He is married to Deb, and they have three sons.