This past Sunday as we continued our series, How to Read the Bible, we talked about why engaging with the Scriptures is something worth your time. When the percentage of American’s who engage with the Scriptures has fallen 10% in the last year, this is something we need to know for ourselves and so that we can share it with others. Read on to discover some reasons this matters so much in your life and in the lives of the people around you.
Making a Case
Have you ever had someone try to convince you to do something you weren’t interested in or perhaps even opposed to doing? Have you tried to do it to someone else? How did that go? Did they succeed in their aim? What kind of an approach did you take? There are many different options available depending on the nature of the relationship between the two of you. In school, something like this often takes the form of basic peer pressure. They could have used the “everybody’s doing it” line. They might have offered a variety of reasons why you should do it. It could be they started mocking you for your unwillingness to join in, calling you any manner of names in the process—”scaredy cat,” “goodie two-shoes,” “weakling,” and so on and so forth. It could have been a pretty girl or handsome guy enticing you toward whatever it was with the promise of more personal attention if you came. There may have even been the threat of physical violence toward you if you didn’t join in.
Or perhaps you were a young person attempting to convince your parents to take a particular course of action (or not take one!). You may have tried the sob story or protested how all of your friends were doing it. You could have gone with a bit of attitude with the implied promise of more if they didn’t relent. There’s always the assurance of exemplary behavior in exchange for extending permission. In the reverse situation here, parents can try to use reason, but depending on the age of the kid…or the parent…that may not work. We have things like the loss of privileges or the larger threat of punishment. There are also old staples like a bit of nagging, the angry tirade, of even simple intimidation. Now, I am by no means saying all of these different methods are equally effective (or even morally commendable), but am simply making the point that there are all kinds of different ways we seek to convince someone to do something when doing it isn’t their first preference.
Personally (and when I’m at my best), I’m a big fan of the reasoned conversation. Goading someone on toward some personally desired end by guilt or fear or force may accomplish the immediate object of your aims, but in not changing a heart, all you’ve really accomplished is to give yourself a bunch of extra work because in order to get them to do it again, you’re going to have to resort to similarly exhausting, not to mention morally compromising, efforts. But when you can woo and persuade by convicting and convincing reason, you will have managed a much more impressive feat: changing a heart. Well, this morning, I am going to try to change your heart. Actually, that’s not quite right. I can’t change your heart. The Holy Spirit is the one who has that power. What I am going to do though, is to see if I can’t open your heart and mind to something you may have considered before, but perhaps aren’t currently giving the attention it’s due. I’m going to try to convince you that engaging with the Scriptures on a regular and consistent basis is worth your time. Now, the fact that a preacher is going to make something like that his goal is probably a surprise to exactly none of you, but stick with me because I think there’s more here than you might expect.
This morning we are in the third part of our series, How to Read the Bible. The big idea for this whole series of conversations is that while churches and pastors and Christians generally encourage people to read their Bibles all the time, we don’t always do quite the same job explaining and teaching them how to actually do that in a way that will be to their benefit. Two weeks ago we got started by going back to the absolute basics of the Bible. We talked then about what exactly this thing we call “the Bible” even is. We landed on the idea that the Scriptures are God’s primary means of self-revelation to the world. In other words, the Scriptures are how we get to know God. Last week was a bit of a special entry as we talked about why reading the Bible with our lives is essential to the passing on of the faith from one generation to another.
After those first two parts of the series, we know a bit more about what the Bible is. But knowing what the Bible is and caring what the Bible is are two very different things. If all someone heard was that first part of the series, it would be easy for them to come away thinking something like, “Wow! I didn’t know that about the Bible,” and go on their merry way without really giving it much of another thought. Well, while convincing someone to think the Bible is cool is certainly a worthy goal, it is not by any means a sufficient goal if the Scriptures are going to do what they were designed to do in a person’s mind and heart. To put that another way, convincing someone that the Scriptures are how we get to know God and encouraging them to use the Scriptures to get to know God are not the same thing. Indeed, in just the last year, the number of Americans who are engaged with the Scriptures has dropped 10%. Perhaps the reason is that while they still think it’s a matter of curiosity, they don’t have any solid reasons driving them to it. This morning we are going to seek to fill in that gap.
In order to do this, I want to take a look with you at a passage that is part of a larger section which gives more direct attention to the nature, purpose, and worth of God’s word than anything else in the Scriptures. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is one of the several anonymous entries in this masterful collection of Hebrew poetry, prayers, and worship songs. Some folks have tried to attribute it to David, but we don’t actually have any idea who wrote it. More importantly than that, in a collection of literary masterpieces, Psalm 119 stands out from the rest in terms of its structure and composition. The whole psalm is one long reflection on why God’s word is so great. Its focus is primarily on the Law, but the truths it reveals and proclaims about God’s efforts to communicate with us more generally are pretty timeless. Every single verse of the 176 that make it up (it is the longest single “chapter” in the Bible) makes mention of God’s word in some form or fashion. Even more than that, though, the whole psalm is actually an acrostic using the Hebrew alphabet as its guide. There are 21 stanzas to the poem—one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—and each line in its respective stanza starts with the letter label of that stanza. That is, the first eight verses all start with aleph, the next eight all start with bet, the next eight gimel, and so on and so forth. It’s hard to see any of this in English, but in Hebrew, the literary artistry of the psalm is incredible. It was written and designed to be a memorizable teaching tool, helping kids develop a love for God’s word…kind of like we talked about last week.
This morning, I want to focus our attention in on just the first three lines of the poem. This opening bit has something really powerful to say about the worth of engaging with God’s word. Look at this with me. “How happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk according to the Lord’s instruction! Happy are those who keep his decrees and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.”
So, what’s going on here? Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about just these verses right here, and then we’ll broaden our horizons out a bit from there. The psalmist declares those whose “way is blameless,” who “walk according to the Lord’s instruction,” who “keep [God’s] decrees,” and who “seek him with all their heart,” to be happy. Other translations use the word “blessed” there instead of “happy.” The Hebrew word here is describing someone who is extraordinarily pleased with his life and how it is going. This isn’t just a garden-variety happiness like you might have after enjoying a good meal. This is a kind of superlative joyfulness that pervades your whole existence for a time. And we can achieve this kind of happiness or blessedness when we have a couple of things going on in our lives.
One of these things is that we “walk according to the Lord’s instruction.” Well, what does that mean? The Hebrew word translated “walk” is not talking about what you might go do around the park. It’s talking about a person’s whole lifestyle. He’s talking here about a person who lives her whole life “according to the Lord’s instruction.” And by “the Lord’s instruction,” the psalmist means the Law of Moses. That’s obviously not the case for us, living under the auspices of the new covenant, but we can insert there the idea of living according to the Law of Christ—those eight words we talked about a couple of weeks ago: love one another as I have loved you.”
That’s not the only phrase in v. 1, though, describing the person who is so supremely happy. This person is also described as one “whose way is blameless.” Blameless is a pretty interesting idea. It’s actually kind of a scary idea. We think about a person who is blameless as a perfect person. But we’re not perfect. So, how can anyone hit this mark of happiness? That’s why I don’t think “blameless” is the best translation of the Hebrew here. Some better options in English here would have been “complete” or “whole” or “integrity.” The idea is of a person whose life is in balance. What she says, thinks, and does are all harmonious. She’s the same (righteous) person out in public and at home with her family. There are no inconsistencies to her character.
Notice in v. 1 how both of these descriptions are said to be so happy. It’s almost like the two of them are meant to go together. The person who lives according to the Law of Christ and loves everyone around her in the same way Jesus loved her is going to have a consistent, whole, complete life. And when you have a life like that, you’re going to be incredibly pleased with how your life is going. The same basic idea comes out in v. 2 as well. Happy are those who keep His decrees—in other words, whose lives are characterized by obedience to the Lord’s instruction—and who seek Him with all their heart, which says basically the same thing.
Then, v. 3 adds this one extra element: “They do nothing wrong.” Would anybody in here like to volunteer themselves for that particular category? I don’t know about you, but that seems a little beyond the mark I normally hit in my own life. But look at what is paired with that description: “They walk in his ways.” Verse 3 is a great example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. You don’t have to remember that, but what it means is that the first and second parts of a verse are intended by the author to go together. In other words, the author considered walking in God’s ways and doing nothing wrong two sides of the same coin.
Okay, but what does all of this mean? Well, put it together. The person who lives his life committed to the Scriptures has a pretty good life. His life is marked by contentment and integrity and wholeness and blessing. Who wouldn’t want something like that? And how do you gain access to such a thing as this? By committing yourself to the Scriptures. When you invest your life in the Scriptures, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of blessing far beyond anything you will experience by any other means. It’s really not close. These three verses alone make a powerful case for why you should be engaging with the Scriptures. Life is better with the Scriptures than without.
But, that’s just one take, isn’t it? I mean, for the Bible to be promoting itself like this seems a little on the nose, doesn’t it? At least, that’s the kind of question you might get if you were to approach this whole idea like this with a skeptic—you know, one of those people you might be trying to convince to do something they don’t really want to do on their own? Well, how do we respond to an objection like that? Why else is engaging with the Scriptures something anyone should consider worth their time to do?
How about we start where we landed a couple of weeks ago? The Scriptures are how we get to know God. If you want to get to know God better than you currently do, the Scriptures are the best place to do that. Indeed, if you can think of a better one, I’d like to hear it. The apostle Paul was clear that we can know enough about God to make our rejection of Him ultimately sinful if we persist in it simply by looking carefully at the world around us. There we see an ordered, creative, beautiful world. It is also a world filled with such vast amounts of information that we cannot even begin to get our minds around its volume. Such a world could have only come into existence if there was a being who was superlatively smart and wise and creative and good. This being would have to be the absolute maximum amount of each of those traits and more as well. Such a being would rightly be heralded as a god. In fact, it would best be identified as the God. Because this God created the world and everything in it—including us—we rightly owe Him our lives in obedience. Yet how can we come to know what we are supposed to do in order to obey Him? It must be revealed to us. This is where the Scriptures enter the equation. But they don’t merely inform us what this God wants us to do, they tell us more about who He is. We learn that He wants a relationship with us as well as just how far He was willing to go in order to achieve that relationship. If knowing God is something that is at all on your list of things worth doing, the Scriptures are how you will manage it. Life is better with the Scriptures than without.
There’s more. A lot of folks talk about and think about the Bible as if it is a big book of answers to all of life’s toughest questions. That sounds good and it sells well, but it’s not true. The Bible is not a book of answers. As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, it’s not a book at all, but we don’t need to rehash that now. What the Scriptures provide for us are not mere answers, but wisdom. If you go to them looking simply for answers to tough questions, while you will find that they address a pretty wide slate of issues, they don’t address all of them. Not even close. There are all kinds of debates and moral quandaries we face today about which the Scriptures are entirely silent. Those kinds of things weren’t on the hearts and minds of the authors or the original audiences to whom they were writing. What we can find throughout them, though, are timeless principles that we can apply in our situation whatever it happens to be. That’s not always going to jump off the page at us, though. Sometimes it’ll take a little bit of work and some careful reflection. It’ll take some critical thinking on what exactly it looks like to love one another the way I have loved you in this or that situation. But if we’ll stick with it, the Scriptures will provide us wisdom for doing life well. Life is better with the Scriptures than without.
Speaking of loving one another the way I have loved you, one of the things the Scriptures offer us is a pathway for understanding how to do life God’s way generally. This comes in a couple of different packages. The first is a whole series of negative examples. This is one of the things the Old Testament documents offer us in spades. Across the history of Israel we find one individual after another doing life their own way instead of God’s way along with a description of the consequences of that decision. We see people do this who are by no means interested in doing life God’s way and dealing with the ramifications of that right alongside people who are otherwise lauded for their faithfulness and character doing it as well. Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are four of the most widely celebrated characters in the story and yet they all did things along the way of their journeys that would have left us writing them off as incorrigibly corrupt scoundrels and villains. There are many places where we can see the decisions a person made presented in such a way that we know to do the opposite.
They’re not all bad examples, though. We also find many good examples and sound teaching. We are called to care for the poor and the vulnerable—for all of the “least of these” in fact. We are told to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We’re told to love one another. Those are principles that can come into play no matter what our circumstances might happen to be. Those kinds of things are all God’s way of doing life. And we do see many examples of folks getting these things right along with the happy results that come from it. If we follow suit, we’ll experience that happiness and wholeness the psalmist was talking about. Life is better with the Scriptures than without.
Let me give you another reason engaging with the Scriptures is so worthwhile. The Scriptures don’t merely offer us wisdom on how to do life God’s way. They don’t only help us come to know God better either. The Scriptures tell a single story from start to finish. It comes in many parts and pieces, but they are all cohesive with one another and move the reader in the same direction as they go forward. Furthermore, this overarching story starts with creation and ends with the consummation of all things when Christ returns and creation is restored to its intended glory. In other words, this story spans the whole of human history from as far back as you can go all the way forward to the end of time. We can see where things began. We can see how they unfolded over the span of somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 years of history. We can see where they are going. Do you know what you can do when you can see the big picture of human history like that? You can place your life in the context of the greater whole. That is, you can see where you fit in the larger story (and rest assured: there is a place for you). And when you can see where you fit, you will come to understand yourself better.
This is a more important point than perhaps you realize right this moment. Think for a minute about all the commercials you’ve seen lately for things like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. Why are those kinds of services so popular right now? Because people want to know their stories. They want to know where they’re from. They want to know how their past might have shaped their present so they have some direction as they move into their future. The Scriptures may not be able to give you a precise breakdown of your DNA, but they can give you incredible perspective on how your life fits in the larger story of human history. They assure us that we are a part of something much larger than just our lives. In fact, we are a part of a story that spans the whole of human history. It is an epic adventure in which we can play a critical role in the season of it our life happens to occupy. There’s no greater context than that. Life is better with the Scriptures than without.
And speaking of knowing ourselves better and understanding where we fit in God’s big story, the Scriptures provide for us a pathway for fulfillment and purpose no other source can provide. Think about it: If we know God has a bigger story being written than just our lives, then the world can’t be all about us. Knowing that keeps us humble. At the same time, knowing we have a role to play in His story fills our lives with meaning and purpose. Everything we do is suddenly flush with significance. Yet this is not some burdensome significance that leaves us buried under a load of guilt or shame when we fail to realize it and which we don’t really want to pursue anyway. That’s what the world gives. In the Scriptures we discover that God is doing something great in the world and that He wants us to be a part of it. If we drop the ball along the way, He’s big enough to help us pick up the pieces and keep moving forward. We see all of this in the Scriptures.
Think just about the story of Joseph. How many times have you felt like your life was a crumbling, purposeless mess? So did Joseph. And every time things seemed to be getting better and he was able to start making the most of a bad situation, they got worse again. But God was using all of it, and as he remained faithful, he eventually experienced that good in spades. Or how about Paul’s story? He was completely sold out and focused on a goal he was convinced was good and righteous…until he discovered it wasn’t. Life from there was nearly infinitely more difficult than it might have otherwise been, but it was good. He had a purpose He knew was right on target with what God wanted and was playing a key role in advancing something far larger than his own, selfish interests. Those stories, more like them, and the invitation to be a part of the adventure offer our lives purpose and significance we won’t find anywhere else. Life is better with the Scriptures than without.
Life is better with the Scriptures than without. There’s simply no way around that. The trouble is here, though, is twofold. First, we are so accustomed to doing life without the Scriptures, that for most folks, they literally cannot imagine the difference. They quite honestly don’t know any different or better. They are used to eating plastic feasts and mud pies all the while completely oblivious to the glorious Thanksgiving dinner waiting for them if they would only try it. That’s why you need to know everything we’ve been talking about this morning, so that you can help convince them to take the plunge. That, of course, assumes you are taking the plunge yourselves. Because if you don’t and you’re not, you’re really no better off than they are. Life is better with the Scriptures than without. This, however, brings us to that second trouble: We can think the Scriptures are cool and we can feel motivated to engage with them…but we don’t know how to get started. Come back next week as we wrap up this series and we will take some important steps together to address that very thing.