Getting the Most Out of Your Bible

Hebrews 4:12

Last week we talked about how important it is that we spend some time every day in the Word, letting God have a voice in our lives.

If the Bible is simply a leather binding with paper and ink that stays on your shelf at home, then it’s really of no more use than an unused cookbook – it might contain amazing recipes, but you will never taste the delicious dishes that might come out of it. The Bible has the power to change lives, but as long as it stays closed away and unopened, it is powerless to do anything.

The Bible is a book meant to be read and heard and acted upon. Its purpose is to change our lives – as the Hebrews writer puts it:  “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)

And that’s my goal – to help you transform your thinking about the Bible from ink on paper to the living Word of God. And that’s going to require two things from you: that you spend time in the Word, and that you open your heart and your life to being changed by it.

Let’s start with the easy part – spending time in the Word.

I want you to get the most out of your reading of the Bible, and there are some basic steps in accomplishing that:

First comes observation.  As you read a passage of scripture, don’t just quickly scan the words so you can move on through.  There is value in reading through the Bible, but only if you pay attention to what you are reading. This is God’s Word – that’s pretty important, so slow down enough to ask a few questions along the way.

There are several basic questions to ask as you read – things that determine how you read a particular passage. Begin by asking what kind of writing is this: history, poetry, prophecy, a letter? Is it written to an individual or to a group? What are the circumstances in which it is written?  Who is the writer, who are the listeners? What is happening to the writer, what is going on with the listeners? All this is background information that helps you understand the reason for the writing.

And you need to understand that you don’t read poetry like you would history or prophecy; a letter isn’t like a Gospel. So many of our problems reading the Bible come from not understanding what it is we’re reading and how to read it. And many of our problems with not understanding what we’re reading is not asking the right kinds of questions.

And most of the things you can learn from simply spending some time observing as you’re reading. Look around and use some common sense. While the Bible is a complex book it is not complicated. 95% of what we read in the Bible makes sense if we just pay attention. A professor of mine used to say, “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that give me trouble, it’s the things I do understand.”

As you read, you’ll want to pay attention to both the larger and the smaller context. If you’re reading a letter, read each sentence within the larger paragraph and each paragraph within the context of the larger letter. Does the paragraph or the book have a major theme? Does the passage have a key verse? Is there some idea that I don’t want to miss? (That’s avoiding the danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. We’ll get focused on a word and miss the larger point that is being made.)

While we’re talking about observation, let me suggest a couple of things you need to have in front of you while you’re reading:

The first is a notebook in which to take notes while you’re reading. Write down your observations, write down the things you learn, make note of the questions you have. Write down important and memorable verses.  A notebook is one of the most important tools you can have in front of you as you read the Bible.

The second thing you need in front of you: A good study Bible is important – at the beginning of every book it will give you an introduction to the book – read it. The author will give you information about all the questions you should be asking, and will help you get a panoramic picture of the book. The notes at the bottom of the pages will identify people and places and events that show up in the text and answer your questions about what is going on that caused the writer to write.

A couple of examples of observation: When Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men, whether to king or governors…” he was writing during the time of Nero, who impaled and burned Christians alive using them as torches to light the roads to his parties. That certainly gives you a little different perspective on how serious Peter is when he writes about submitting to whatever government you are living under.

When Jesus said, “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the cross meant only one thing – a terrible, horrifying death. There was no metaphorical meaning for the cross to those people – they understood that to follow Jesus meant they were risking everything, including death.

The more you know about the background of what you’re reading the better able you will be to move to the second basic step in getting the most out of reading the Bible: interpretation.

Now, I’ve met some people who claim, “I don’t believe in interpreting the Bible, I just read what it says.” And if you are ever tempted to say that, let me save you some embarrassment. Every time you read from the Bible and make a decision about what it says, you are interpreting the Bible – that’s the definition of interpretation.  Everybody who reads the Bible interprets the Bible. The only question is will you do it intelligently or ignorantly. And if you will take the time and put in a little bit of effort, you can do it intelligently. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to understand the Bible, you just have to put in a little extra effort to get the most out of it.

Interpretation asks the basic question, “What did it mean?” And by that, you’re asking “What did it mean to the writer who wrote it and the people who read it?” Too many people want to skip this step and ask “What does it mean to me?” But you can’t get ahead of yourself. You need to know what it meant to the original author and readers. A passage can’t mean something today that it never meant to them. The authors weren’t writing to us, they were addressing the people of their day, in their historical setting and culture. We have to understand a passage in its original setting before we can ever start asking “What does it mean today?”

So put yourself in the sandals of the original listeners and hear the message through their ears. What does the writer want me to know? What would the writer want me to do? Is there something the writer would want me to change?

Make sure you’re getting the point the original author wanted to make to his original listeners.

 

When Paul writes to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper and he rebukes them: “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” he isn’t starting a controversy over kitchens in church buildings, he is condemning the selfishness and arrogance of the rich who were treating their poorer brothers shamefully by eating all the food for the agape meal before they showed up.

When Paul writes that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” he was referring to the Old Testament. So if you are inclined to dismiss the Old Testament as unimportant and a waste of time, Paul would disagree.

The problem so many people get into with the book of Revelation is that they try to make it into a book that answers 21st century questions about the end of the world, instead of what John actually wrote: a letter to 1st century Christians who were being persecuted and put to death by Rome.

Only when you first answer the question “What did it mean to them?” can you then ask the question, “What does it mean to us?” And that takes us from interpretation to application.

And this is ultimately where our reading of the Bible should lead us, because God meant for the Bible, not just to inform us, but to change us. If we stop at the point of interpretation, answering all of those interesting questions about what it meant, but never asking what I need to do about it, then we’ll have missed the point.  God means for the Bible to change our lives.

And so, as you are reading the Bible, always keep these questions in the back of your mind:

·         Is there some strength the writer is confirming or encouraging?

·         Is there some weakness the writer is challenging or rebuking?

·         Is there some purpose or goal that he wants me to reach for?

·         Is there some danger that I should avoid?

·         Does the writer describe something about Christ that I should imitate?

·         Does the writer describe something in his own life that I should imitate?

And this is the value of daily Bible reading that becomes an ongoing discipline in your life. I don’t want you to read through the Bible as an item on your bucket list (done, check that off), but as something that is as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth.

And the reason for that is that when you read a passage in the Bible one time, it may not seem to have any relevance for you. But then, the next time through, that very same passage will jump off the page and it’s exactly what you needed to hear, because something in your life has changed and suddenly that verse speaks to you personally.

Another reason you need to have an ongoing discipline of reading the Bible is that God needs that time every day to speak to you. His voice is the most important voice you will ever listen to, but when we leave our Bibles closed and go day after day without reading his Word, his voice is silent and all the other voices in this world are there to take its place. Paul wrote: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil 4:8)

When you’re not spending time in God’s Word, it might not seem like anything bad is happening in your life, but sin and neglect are building up and putting you in serious spiritual danger. When you stay in God’s Word, its convicting, cleansing, healing words have that avenue into your life.

The Hebrews writer said that the word is “living and active” and “judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” God’s Word is powerful. It moves mountains and breaks down barriers. It pierces the thickest skin and penetrates the hardest heart. As long as the word of God has a place in your life, God is never finished with you.

Carl Sharsmith, an 81 year old guide in Yosemite National Park was sitting quietly on a bench between giving tours when suddenly a frazzled woman came running up and said to him, “I’ve only got an hour to spend at Yosemite; what should I do, where should I go?” The old ranger looked at her and replied, “Ah, lady, only an hour? I suppose that if I had only an hour to spend at Yosemite, I’d just walk down to that river over there, find a rock and sit down and cry.”

A lifetime would not be enough to spend listening to God’s voice, so don’t let a day go by that you don’t let him speak to you.