This week we wrapped up our month-long series, How to Read the Bible. So far we’ve talked about what the Bible is and why engaging with the Scriptures matters. What we haven’t yet talked about is how to actually do that. This week we fixed that. In this message we talk about several different approaches to engaging with the Scriptures. Some of it may be familiar, some of it may be new. And this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination. All of it, though, will help you move in the direction of coming to know and better understand the God revealed within its pages. Dig in here and see what you can put into practice.
Making an Investment
One of the most common bits of investment advice given to young people is to start doing it now. If you can put a small amount away on a consistent basis, over time, that small amount has the potential to grow very large indeed. Now, sure, anything could happen, but all things being equal, and assuming on the basic stability of our nation’s economy, a little bit added to a little bit at a time can become a lot if you go far enough down the road. Even if you don’t know anything else about investing at all—and I don’t—taking this basic approach will pay off over time. You just about can’t go wrong if you take it. The very worst thing you can do here is not to make a wrong decision, rather it is to make no decision at all. Even a small something is better than nothing.
This morning finds us in the final part of our series, How to Read the Bible. All this month we have been talking about just that: how to read the Bible. And if that seems like an odd topic for a pastor to be addressing from the pulpit—surely there are weightier matters than basic Bible reading for the preacher to preach on—I hope the last few weeks have made clear it isn’t so strange as it might seem. Across the nation the level of engagement with the Scriptures is dropping. This is true of the culture at large, but it is also true in the church. I submit to you the reason for this is three-fold: people don’t really know what the Scriptures are, and so don’t care about them like they should; people don’t really understand why engaging with the Scriptures on a regular, consistent basis matters; and people don’t actually know what to do when they start reading them anyway. This last idea, in fact, is what has been driving this whole series of conversations. While we are often really good about encouraging people to read their Bibles, we’re not so good on helping them understand how to do it in a way that will allow them to gain the most benefit from it they possibly can.
Those challenges are what we’ve been seeking to address in this series. We started three weeks ago by simply talking about what the Bible is. Above and before anything else, the Scriptures are how we get to know God. Everything else about them comes second to that. Two weeks ago we veered off topic just a little bit to talk about the importance of the Scriptures in passing on the faith from one generation to the next. Last week, then, I made a case for why engaging with them is something that’s worth your time. After talking through several different reasons for it, we landed on the fact that life is better with the Scriptures than without.
While knowing all of those reasons to engage with the Scriptures is a good and important thing, it’s not enough on its own. With that in mind, we actually ended last week on a bit of a cliffhanger. I told you to come back this week for the rest of the message. Knowing why to engage with the Scriptures is good, but without knowing how, we aren’t going to make it very far. Today, we’re going to try to fill in that gap. I have a very simple and clear goal for this morning. I want you to walk out of here in just a little while with at least one new approach to studying the Scriptures than you had when you came in a little while ago. I want you to leave here with confidence that when you open your copy of the Scriptures later this afternoon or tomorrow morning or whenever it is you do it next, you have at least some idea of what you are doing.
Guiding us in our efforts today is going to be another idea from Psalm 119. If what we saw last week in its opening verses pointed us in the direction of why engaging with the Scriptures is worthwhile, these next couple of verses from the next stanza give us some good wisdom on the how element. We’ll start with what the psalmist here gives us and then add some more to it as we go. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you find Psalm 119 and look with me at vv. 15-16. The psalmist here writes: “I will meditate on your precepts and think about your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
So, what’s going on here? If you are going to engage with the Scriptures, and if you want your engagement with them to accomplish something meaningful in your life, you are going to have to give them more than a cursory attention. Yes, it’s true that something is better than nothing here. Because the Scriptures are God’s word, even dabbling in them opens the door to God’s changing your life entirely. Yet if you want your engaging with the Scriptures to accomplish something truly meaningful in your life, you are going to have to do more than just dabble.
The psalmist here declares his intention to “meditate” on God’s word. Well, what does that mean? Because of the cultural popularity of meditation, most of us have a pretty well-defined image of what a meditating person looks like. This image is generally pretty Eastern in its orientation. That’s not what the psalmist here has in mind. When the psalmist writes of meditating on God’s word, He’s talking about taking time to engage with it. Unlike with Eastern or New Age forms of meditation, this does not involve emptying ourselves, but rather filling ourselves. We fill ourselves with God’s presence and with the Word. This involves reading it carefully, reading it prayerfully, thinking critically with that prayerful spirit about what it means, and asking for the Spirit’s help in living out its application in our lives. Meditating on the Scriptures means we don’t quickly scan through a devotional just to check a box. It means we sit with it and reflect discerningly on what God might have to say to us in light of what we have read. It means committing it to memory so it is stored inside our hearts and minds such that God can draw on it to point us in the direction of truth should the right situation arise. It means loving the word. And I use the word “love” there in the same way it is used throughout the Scriptures in a very much volitional sense. That is, we choose the Scriptures and the way of life they commend over anything and everything else we might have otherwise chosen. Now, none of this is necessarily easy. It is a spiritual discipline. It takes effort. It takes commitment, It takes intentionality. It takes time. It is an investment in ourselves. But if you want to grow, you have to invest.
And maybe that all sounds good but how do we do it? Well, perhaps the number one bit of counsel I can offer on effectively engaging with the Scriptures is that we need a plan. You need to sit down and sketch out the contours of a plan for engaging with the Scriptures. Now, this doesn’t have to be some exhaustive spreadsheet whereby all of our moves are entirely scripted out. It can be little more than a doodle on the back of a napkin. But we need a plan. A plan can be changed when the circumstances demand it, but it does give us a framework for most days, all things being equal. The plan should include reading for breadth, for depth, reading more devotionally, and reading with the intent of studying as deeply as we can. Not all of these are going to feature in every single day, but over the course of a week or two—maybe a month—we would be wise to give ourselves a balanced diet of several different approaches. If you want to grow, you have to invest, and every good investor knows that a properly diversified portfolio is better than piling all of our eggs in a single basket.
Now, as I said, part of your plan should be to find a good devotional or reading plan to help guide you. Given the sheer number of devotionals out there, though, choosing one can feel a little overwhelming. Here are three rules of thumb that can help. First, go with a classic over something new. If a devotional was published more than 50 years ago and is still in print, there’s a good chance it’s going to be worth your while. Second, go with a best seller from a well-known author over something more obscure. Now, this can be a little more risky since a bad devotional with good marketing can still become a bestseller, and there are diamonds in the rough, but in most cases you’re going to be okay doing this. Third, ask for help. You’ve got two pastors on staff here who are readily available to help you choose wisely in this. Between Nate and me we’ve either heard of it already, can glance through it to quickly give you a thumbs or or down, or we know someone who can give more guidance. You’re not on your own here. It won’t be automatic, but if you want to grow, you have to invest.
Another part of your plan to engage with the Scriptures should be to read them for breadth. As we have talked about a couple of times in this series, the Scriptures, in spite of their diversity, tell one grand story from start to finish. So, read it like the story it is. Now, like we talked about, this is not something you should do from start to finish until you’ve got the basic foundations of the new covenant in Christ down, but even before then, you can read whole documents in the New Testament all at once rather than picking them apart verse-by-verse. If you don’t already have one, consider getting a copy of a translation like The Message which is designed to be for easy reading like that. Translations like The Message aren’t necessarily great for in-depth study, but in terms of just reading the Scriptures, they can be really helpful.
On that note, picking the right translation is important if you are going to engage with the Scriptures. Different translations of the Scriptures bring different things to the table that can impact your engagement. Used to be, everyone read the King James Version. And, when it was generally the only translation available, it was better than nothing. But it’s written at a collegiate reading level…which not even all college grads have. If you have a book you can’t read easily, you’re probably not going to be reading it. This is not to mention the fact that it is written like exactly no one talks anymore and some of the words in it don’t mean the same thing today as they did when it was written 500 years ago. If you are choosing a translation, choose one you can actually read and whose approach fits the particular goal of your reading. If you want to study deeply, get a more literal translation like the English Standard Version. If you are reading deeply, but devotionally, get a general translation like the New International Version or the Christian Standard Bible (which is what I use). If you are reading for breadth and pleasure, go with The Message or the New Living Translation. Choosing the right translation can take a little bit of work—that I can help you with—but if you want to grow, you have to invest.
Now, if you are using a study Bible for your engaging with the Scriptures (the ESV Study Bible is the best there is and worth your getting; my copy of it is always open on my desk), spend some time occasionally reading for depth and detail. Use the resources available to you—and there is a lot more available to you than you might think—and dig into the background and cultural context of a particular passage. Go through and read all of the cross-references for an individual verse. Those are not inspired and should not be treated as such, but they are what a really bright scholar considered relevant within the Scriptures to help you understand a particular verse or passage better. Allow the Scriptures to help you interpret and understand the Scriptures. Now, yes, it does take some time to look up a whole bunch of different references like this, but if you want to grow, you have to invest. And these are all investments that will pay off in spades.
So far this morning we’ve been talking about engaging with the Scriptures casually and studiously. Those are both important. But don’t forget to do it spiritually. Don’t forget that you are engaging with God’s Spirit in the Scriptures. These are His words intended to help you come to know Him better. You will only ever understand anything in them properly with His Spirit’s help. So, seek out His Spirit’s help. One approach to doing this is through an ancient practice called lectio divina, which is Latin for holy reading. This is a contemplative way to engage with the Scriptures. It has four parts to it. You start by simply reading a passage of Scripture. Do it slowly and carefully. Read it several different times. Let it roll around your mind and heart. Next, spend some time reflecting on what you have read, listening carefully as you do to what the Holy Spirit may have to say to you through it. The third step is to go back to the passage again, but this time reading it prayerfully. Pray the passage back to God, along with the insights you’ve gained and the questions you may still have. Finally, read it one last time and then simply rest in the wonder of the truths God has revealed to you. There’s not an agenda here; there’s only sitting quietly with the Lord like you would with a good friend on the porch on a quiet evening. Now, I’ll give you a warning here: contemplative engagement with the Scriptures feels weird at first because we are not a naturally contemplative people. It feels like a waste of time and like we’re not accomplishing anything very quickly. That’s okay. It’s supposed to be slow. Learning to do this can transform our Scriptural engagement if we’ll invest in it. If you want to grow, you have to invest.
Something else critical here is to engage with the Scriptures in community. The whole idea of being able to sit by yourself and read the Bible is a modern invention. Before the printing press, engaging with the Scriptures only happened in community because it was only communities which had copies of it. We need more of that today. If you are not regularly (that is, more than once a month) engaged with a Sunday school group or on Wednesday nights, you are missing out and your soul is starving because of it. Another great resource for engaging with the Scriptures in community is the YouVersion Bible App. I’ve talked about this app before. If you don’t have it downloaded on your tablet or mobile device, you need to download it. Not only does it have nearly every translation of the Bible imaginable, and thousands of different devotions and reading plans, all of their reading plans have the option of reading with friends. You can start a reading plan with a small group of people and all share your thoughts together as you go. That’s reading in community. Now, this will be most effective when you do it on the app and in person, but at least it’s a start. And, I know it can be a little scary engaging with the Scriptures in community like this, but it’s worth it. It’s an investment. And if you want to grow, you have to invest.
One last thing. I want to give you an approach to studying the Scriptures that you may not have encountered before. It’s fairly new in terms of being packaged like it is, but it’s really good. It’s called the Seven Arrows study method. You can look it up online to find out more about it, or even pick up the Seven Arrows Bible Study book or the Seven Arrows method study Bible. It offers a way to engage helpfully with any passage of Scripture. It consists of seven questions to reflect on as you read, each one with a little arrow to help you remember it. Thus it’s the seven arrows method. The first step is to simply ask what the passage says. What is it that you have read? What do the words mean? The next question goes one step further to ask what the passage meant to its original audience. This is where you might have to do a bit of background study to learn some more about it. A good study Bible can be a huge help here. These first two questions are just about getting your mind around the text itself. The third question is: what does this passage tell us about God? What about His character or plans are revealed by these words? Question four turns things in the other direction: What does this passage say about people? What does it reveal to us about the nature of people? This may be obvious, or it may take us a bit of digging to understand, especially if we’re in the Old Testament where direct application is not the thing we’re looking for. As we clarify that, though, we make it even more personal in the fifth question: What does this passage demand of me? What is it calling me to do or think or say? How should I adjust my life in light of what the Spirit is revealing to me here? Yet because God’s activity toward us is never only for us, but is for the world around us through us, we have a sixth question: How does this passage change the way I relate to people? Do I need to be more loving or gracious or kind? Can I be more faithful or humble in my approach? Do I need to repent or forgive? How does it affect my relationships? The seventh and final question turns all of this into prayer: How does this passage prompt me to pray to God? When you get to this question you can answer it by…praying.
Are you starting to get the sense there’s a whole lot here? Now your problem might not be a lack of knowledge when it comes to approaching the Scriptures, but so much knowledge that you don’t know which to draw on first. This is where that plan we talked about before can come in handy. You don’t have to do all of this at once. You don’t even have to do all of this. Today I’ve simply shown you some of the toolbox that is available to you. Which tool you pick and develop is up to you. And it’s okay to start small. You’re not going to be a master at this on day one. You won’t be a master yet by day 1000. But as you invest over time, you will grow. If you want to grow, you have to invest. Now, though, the challenge is yours. Pick your tools, make your plan, and begin to engage with the Scriptures in a way you never have before. More than that, engage with the God who is waiting to reveal Himself through them. Your life will never be the same again.