In my sermon this past Sunday one of the points that I showed that David was making in Psalm 16 was that if we want to find joy in God, then we have to continually learn more about God through studying the word of God. In short, the more we study the Bible the more joyful we will be. However, whether Bible study is a new concept, or something that you have been doing for years, I know that studying it can seem like a daunting task. How do we connect to this ancient manuscript that has so many references that we just don’t get? How are we to interpret the various literary genres? What are all these names and places about? The questions go on and on and can lead you to just want to quit. But there is joy to be found as we uncover the deep truths that God has revealed in these pages. So don't quit. Don't sell yourself short. Learn how to press in.
Many books have been written on how to study the Bible. Some of my favorites are Dig Deeper by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach, Bible Study by Jon Nielson and Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul. Also, if reading in general is something that is challenging for you, I recommend Morton Adler’s classic book called How to Read a Book. I could never hope to capture the wisdom in all these books in one blog post, but here are a few thoughts to help get you started.
1. Pick a time and stick to it
There are many things going against us when we try to study the Bible. “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Psa 119:25 ESV) We need the Bible to give us life, but we have an enemy who wants to deny us that life. Also, our own sinful flesh, while defeated through the death of Christ, is not fully eradicated from our lives. Therefore, though reading the Bible is meant to a deep experience of joy, that does not mean that it is going to be easy. Our enemy and our sin are going to do whatever they can to distract us through busyness, sleepiness and other “urgent” things. So if you just try to pick up the Bible whenever you can, the reality is, you will never really study it. In order to overcome all that is going against us when it comes to studying God’s word, we have to discipline ourselves to develop consistent practices.
So pick a time of the day when you will read God’s word and stick to it. Personally, I do this in the morning and think this is a good rule of thumb. As one author has said, “It is not a bad thing to read the Bible at night, but I am not tempted towards evil while I sleep. I need the life of God’s word when I am awake and living my life.” However, more important than when you read the Bible is your consistency in doing so. Just like you can’t expect results from working out if you just go at random times throughout the month, so too you can’t expect to really grow in your knowledge of God’s work without consistency.
Now make sure that you are realistic as you set up a plan to consistently read God’s word. If you haven’t been very consistent in your study, don’t block out 2 hours and think you will fill it. Do you know that if you read the Bible for 15 minutes every day, even if you are a slow reader, you will be able to read through it in 3 years? So why don’t you just start with that? Now, don’t stay there. I think a healthy amount of time is closer to 30 or 45 minutes. But be realistic with where you are at and set up a plan to start getting some consistency.
2. Pray before, during and after
I have been a reader my whole life. When I was studying English in college I usually read anywhere from 800-1,200 pages per week. While this has served me immensely in training me to read well, the challenge is that I can start reading the Bible like any other book. I go through the routine of of applying literary theory, seeking to understand the author’s original meaning, thinking through the implications of what is being written, etc, all the while forgetting that in order to truly benefit from this divine book I need God’s help.
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:13-14 ESV)
We need the Holy Spirit’s help to open the eyes of our hearts, so that we can truly understand this Holy book. So pray before you start reading, pray as you read and pray after you read. I like to think of Bible study and prayer as a conversation. As we study the Bible we hear God speak to us and as we hear him speak, we speak back to him through our prayers and that interaction continues throughout.
“Turn the Bible into prayer. Thus, if you were reading the First Psalm, spread the Bible on the chair before you, and kneel and pray, ‘O Lord, give me the blessedness of this man’; ‘let me not stand in the counsel of the ungodly.’ This is the best way of knowing the meaning of the Bible and of learning to pray.” (Robert Murray M’Cheyne)
“Prayer turns reading into seeing.” (John Piper)
3. Have a plan
As our Philly boy Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Don’t just pick up your Bible and thumb through it until you find something that catches your eye. How would that work out if you tried to apply that same technique to any book? You’d be confused, the plot wouldn’t be compelling and you’d have no idea about what the Book was really about. Yet, this is how most Christians read their Bibles. But this just makes no sense. The Bible is one book made up of 66 different books. And while there is one large meta narrative running throughout, if we miss the smaller narratives that make it up, we cannot really appreciate it as a whole. So pick one book of the Bible and work your way through it verse by verse. Also, try to go back and forth between reading various genres. I usually read a NT book and then an OT and just keep going back and forth. My pattern typically is to start the New Year in a Gospel, then read through the Psalms, then one of the Pastoral Epistles, then a major Prophet, then a general Epistle, then read one of the books of History, back to a Gospel and then either the Proverbs or a Minor Prophet. There are many different plans that you can follow. Try out a few and see what works for you. Just make sure it is one that is systematically taking you throughout the whole Bible. Finally, if reading the Bible is new for you, I’d encourage you to start in one of the Gospels and then try to read Genesis. That will start grounding you in the major themes of the Bible.
4. Interact with the text
Don’t just read the BIble, be an active reader. There are three basic steps in how to do this.
Observe (What am I reading?)
The goal of this initial step is just to make as many observations as possible about the text that you are reading.
- Who wrote this? Who were they writing to? Why were they writing?
- What is the plot line of the story, or how does the poetry progress, or point of this passage get made?
- What words, phrases or concepts are being repeated?
- What are some things that seem out place or don’t make immediate sense?
- Are there promises being made? Commands given? Questions asked?
I find it really helpful to write all this stuff down. Personally I don’t like marking up my Bible, although many people do. I copy and paste what I am studying into a word document and highlight, underline, and make comments from there. Regardless of how you do it though, you are going to need to put your thoughts into writing. This is crucial for staying focused on seeking to observe as much as you can, as well as, retaining it for the future.
Interpret (What does this mean?)
The goal of this step is to seek to understand the main point of what it is that you are reading. It is popular in our culture to say that there are many interpretations to a text. However, if the Bible is God’s word, then we have no right to just import our own meaning into it. We must seek with integrity to find out what God’s meaning is. So look at all your observations and ask for God’s help to make sense of them. If you have a Bible that has cross references look them up and see how other scriptures reflect on this passage's theme. Try to arrive at your own conclusion of what the passages you are reading means.
- What is this passage saying about people/me?
- What is it saying about God?
- What is this saying about Jesus?
Now, many books would encourage you to just stop right there. However, I think if you do that you are short changing yourself. The reality is that we live in a country where we are blessed to be able to read scholars who have studied these passages in far greater depth than we ever could. There is great benefit in using the ESV Study Bible that gives you introductions to each books and notes about the verses. Also, invest in some good commentaries. There is a great website called www.bestcommentaries.com where all the major Bible commentaries are listed in order of their rating by pastors and theologians. Many of them are pretty technical and would be hard to read without formal theological education. However, the ones with a P (for pastoral) or D (for devotional) are usually pretty accessible. Now, you need to be careful and remember that what you are reading is not authoritative. Scholars can get things wrong. So don’t just blindly read and assume that everything they are saying is true. However, don’t be dismissive and assume that you have nothing to learn from people who have spent decades studying the original languages of the Bible, its historical contexts and theological implications. There are some great resources out there that will really serve your study.
We haven’t really studied the Bible until we bring it home to our lives. So after observing and interpreting prayerfully ask the question, “What is this supposed to mean for me?” Is there a sin to be repented of, a promise to believe, an example to follow, a hope to have, a truth to cherish? Jesus said that all of the Bible is actually about him, so really the best question to ask is, “What does this passage teach me about Jesus and how is that meant to affect my life right now? After writing down all your observation notes, your interpretation points, try to capture one sentence of what this passage means for you. Think about that throughout the day, meditate on it and pray about it.
5. Fellowship with others through sharing what you are learning and asking about what they are learning.
We talk all the time at Christ Church about the importance of community. The simple truth is that God has created us to be people who best thrive when we are in meaningful relationships with other people.
that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:3 ESV)
As we have fellowship with God, which literally means life sharing, that is meant to lead us into life sharing fellowship with one another. Our study in the Bible is not a personal experience, but meant to be a shared experience. So share with others what you are reading, what some of those “one sentences” are. Ask about what concepts are hard for you, share humbly about what you don’t understand, ask what they are reading, etc…
6. Note to parents with young children
Children are a blessing from God. However, while young, they present a tremendous challenge in being able to spend time with God. Your spiritual health just isn’t on their radar. Getting time to study God’s word probably seems like an impossible task. As a parent of young children myself, let me give you some encouragement.
First, while your time with God might be shorter and more distracted with having little ones around, remember they are not interruptions. God is giving you incredible discipleship opportunities. Explain to your children why you are reading the Bible and why it is important. Ask them to pray with you. Give them their own Bible to look at. Perhaps you might need to send them to their room, but don’t do it out of irritation. Give them something fun to do by themselves, again explain why this time is important for you and put on a timer for when they can get out of their room. Even if takes you 15 minutes to get them setup and you then only get 5 minutes to quickly read the Bible, that is time well spent. Remember, they will grow out of wanting to crawl all over you at some point. So don’t let them dictate your schedule, but remember these days will be gone. Don’t miss out on these early discipleship moments.
Second, talk to your spouse about how you can team up together to make personal study of God’s word a priority for each of you. Maybe consider trading off kid responsibilities every other morning, or one of you take the point in the morning, one of you at night. There are a bunch of different ways to work out a schedule, but seek to work it out together. Guys, I would encourage you to take the lead in having this conversation as an expression of love for your wife. Ask her how you can help her to have quality time in study and then think through a plan for how that will work for both of you.
May we continue to be a church that finds much joy in God through diligent study of the word of God.
I love you Christ Church!
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