John 5:39 “Search the Scriptures”
There are few greater privileges than to have the Bible in one’s own language. Over 450 years ago Erasmus expressed a hope that some day the farmer as he followed the plough and the weaver as he sat at the loom would cheer themselves with the message of Scripture. The thought burned in the heart of William Tyndale who longed to give English-speaking people the Bible in their own tongue. Arguing once with a man who disdained this hope Tyndale said, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest’. At the cost of his own life Tyndale fulfilled his ambition and for centuries we have had the Bible in English.
There are an estimated 5103 languages in the world and at the close of the twentieth century an ‘adequate’ Bible is available in only 225 of them, with an ‘adequate’ New Testament in 450 languages. Translation is in progress in over 800 languages and a further 600 have a definite need for translation. More than half the languages of the world have no portion of Scripture at all. This embraces perhaps 150 million people.
In many areas of the world there are severe restrictions upon the publication and sale of the Bible. In one of his books Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes a scene in a prison camp in Karaganda in Northern Kazakfistan where Ivan Denisovich wakes in the morning to the sound of a fellow prisoner reading his New Testament. ‘Alyosha the Baptist was reading the Testament under his breath (perhaps especially for him – those fellows were fond of recruiting): “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this behalf’ [1 Peter 4.15 & 16]. Alyosha was smart: he’d made a chink in the wall and hidden the little book in it, and it had survived every search.’ (Alexander Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, p.25 Penguin ed.).
To have the Scriptures in our own language with a ready access to them and complete freedom to study them – these are great privileges. Yet we can fail to profit from the Bible and make little progress in understanding it. The Christian life is paved with the best intentions of reading the Scriptures regularly, and also with many broken resolutions and disappointments. Jesus exhorts us to search the Scriptures [John 5.39]; that is, we are to ransack the Word of God, to pore over it, subject it to every kind of analysis, and grasp its every shade of meaning. We are to be obsessed with a desire to understand it. This passionate concern is never to become incidental or secondary. It should be a priority in the Christian life, an activity around which our existence revolves. If man cannot live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds out of the mouth of God, then God’s Word must have an absolutely basic place in the whole of our Christian life. To its reading we must apply ourselves with the utmost industry.
The following are five basic suggestions to help you fulfil your obligations to the Lord of the Word.
1 STRENGTHEN YOUR DESIRE
To keep reading the Bible regularly, self-discipline is essential. Many people would like to lose weight; they talk about it frequently but do nothing. Then one day they feel frightened. Walking up a hill, which in former days presented no difficulty, they have to pause for breath, and to pretend they are admiring the view. They may even feel some pains in their chest and their doctor tells them that their blood pressure is too high and that they are overweight. If they want to live they must exercise and lose weight. So they go on a strict diet because their desire to preserve their health has been strengthened.
The daily reading of the Bible results from a strong desire and resolution to do so. This is no easy discipline: there are many obstacles to overcome, both internal and external. You must know the importance of searching the Scriptures.
(i) The Nature of the Scripture. ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ [2 Timothy 3.16-17]. The Bible is a holy book. It is different from every other book. The Word of God stands apart not only from every serious composition and work of classical literature that man has written, but also from every piece of religious and Christian literature. It is to have a unique place both in the time devoted to it and in the affection in which it is held by every Christian. Henry Martyn, a famous young missionary of the nineteenth century, made it a rule that if any book got the affection the Bible alone should have in his heart he would lay that book aside. John Bunyan was enabled by the Holy Spirit to write The Pilgrim’s Progress, and yet, great book though it is, no Christian has ever claimed that it is inspired as the Bible is inspired. There are many such books written by gifted men, but none can claim to be the direct outbreathing of God, so that what it says God says. That is Scripture’s ‘grand prerogative’, and that distinctiveness no other book shares, for there is an absolute equivalent and correlation between what the Bible says and what God says. Only in Holy Scripture does God speak directly to us.
(ii) The Message of Scripture. The Lord Jesus Christ assures us that in the Scripture is eternal life. That is, it is the means through which God communicates eternal life. How can men believe in someone of whom they have not heard? They must know the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Scripture is essential to that faith in him by which they may live. Also the transformation of their personalities to be like the Lord Jesus can only be accomplished by a constant and conscious exposure to the Bible. ‘Desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby’, says Peter [1 Peter 2.2]. Eternal life, whether in the knowledge of Christ, conformity to Him, or growth in love, is not going to come without the searching of the Scriptures. We are all dying men and women in a dying world and there is one book alone in which eternal life is revealed. Let me know that book!
(iii) The Testimony of Scripture. Scripture testifies to the Lord Jesus Christ: He is the theme of the entire Bible. Broadly speaking the Old Testament points forward to Jesus’ coming and the New Testament points back to Him. But that is a generalisation which needs clarification, for at every point the mind and teaching of Christ is revealed in the Scriptures. The Old Testament prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ that was within them. The whole Bible is a revelation of what God in Christ has done, what He promises and what He requires. The Christian’s great passion is to know the mind of Christ, to understand His Person and His will for His disciples. If I am passionately concerned to know Jesus where else can I go? ‘Search the Scriptures’, Jesus tells me, for there alone is the authoritative revelation of what God in Christ is and what are His demands upon me.
(iv) The Organic Unity of Scripture. The Bible is a body of truth which is organically inter-related and interdependent. You cannot isolate a part of the human body and understand its functions without reference to the whole. So the Old Testament cannot be understood without the New Testament, and Paul’s letters must be accompanied by a knowledge of the Gospels. Even individual chapters or verses cannot be understood in isolation from their own particular or general context. For example, in Luke 18 Jesus tells the parable of the importunate widow as an illustration of His words that men ought always to pray and not to faint (v.1). Then He asks that great question, ‘When the Son of Man cometh shall He find faith on the earth?’ (v.8); that is, when the Son of Man comes (whether in judgment upon a congregation or at the end of the age), will He find this faith in Him that reveals itself in a waiting upon the Lord in persevering prayer? Scripture is not a string of texts to be used simply at random, but rather is an organic unit that throbs with life. Even incidental and comparatively unimportant details will, on sounder and more intelligent reflection, become rich in meaning.
(v) The Usefulness of Scripture. Life is exceedingly complex: the prevailing climate in present-day Society is hostile to the Christian faith. Marx, Darwin and Freud have all contributed to the dominant philosophy of unbelief that prevails in the Western World. The mass media repeatedly attack the faith of the Bible. The breakdown of the family, promiscuity, divorce, abortion – these things present considerable ethical problems to Christians. We are beset with baffling questions and we need to know what is the right thing to think and to do. God caused His Word to be written with the peculiar difficulties of the close of the twentieth century in mind, just as much as any other period in these ‘last days’. Answers to our complex contemporary questions are found in the Bible and our task is to equip ourselves with the knowledge of the Word so that all needed insight and strength will be ours. Laziness is our great temptation. Reliance on knowledge gained in the past is a great danger. We must be growing Christians. Our convictions, our conduct and our devotion must be rooted in the Word of God. ‘For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.’ [Romans 15.4].
There is nothing like the power of affection to strengthen desire. A youth may struggle to learn the language of a foreign country in school to little avail, but if he falls in love with a girl from that land how strong is his appetite for mastering its language. The love of Christ is the strongest constraint to knowing the Scriptures and if we have little desire for the Bible we should ask if we indeed know the Saviour or if our first love has been left. Let us begin here, let us be sure that we are in love with the Word of God: ‘0 how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day’ [Psalm 119.97). Does not this create and maintain our desire to read the Bible?
2 CREATE A TIME
Reading the Bible is not like reading another book. If we do not allocate particular portions of our time to this activity it will never be done. There is the sheer size of the Bible: 66 books that cover more than 1,000 pages. And then there are the intellectual demands which it makes on any reader. The Book of books is not always easy to understand.
So we use every available moment and are constantly on the alert for anything that gives us a better understanding of the Word of God. When we read other books our minds are constantly looking for light on Scripture. When we listen to sermons it is to grow in our knowledge of the Bible. When we gather with Christian friends that is still our concern: ‘they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name’ [Malachi 3.16]. But all this is sporadic, and the great problem, for what can be done at any time may be done at no time. So we deliberately create a time to study the Word of God, choosing apart of the day which is set aside for that precise purpose.
These moments will not appear as if by magic. Our whole pattern of life must be structured with this time in view. Such discipline has nothing to do with a man’s personality. It is easy to admire another’s regularity in Bible reading as, we suppose, the fruit of a naturally disciplined life style, and excuse one’s own more irregular reading as the reflection of a more ‘creative’ personality. We deceive ourselves with that attitude. We are creatures made in the image of God and our heavenly Father is a God of order both in creation and in redemption. We too function most effectively when we have a scheduled structure to our lives. So just as most men each morning allow themselves ten minutes before a shaving mirror to clear the stubble of their beards, and all of us set aside times to eat our meals each day, so we must create a time to read the Bible. Someone asked Andrew Bonar why he was always such a cheerful Christian. ‘I never let a day go by without a transaction with the Lord Jesus’, he replied.
When should such a time be? The answer to that can only be – when you are most alert mentally and can have an undisturbed period of time. Every person is unique and we must beware of the man who insists that we speak to God before we speak to anyone else. That is sheer legalism. Most people acknowledge the morning as the time when they are freshest. There may be a certain glamour about reading the Bible at midnight when one’s fellow-countrymen are at rest, but that fancy quickly disappears when one staggers to work next morning. Many people find it difficult to wake up in the morning and that problem is often caused by going to bed too late at night. More disciplined television viewing is called for. If you are a slow starter in the morning, do not try to read the Bible immediately. Wash, dress, have some refreshment and then read. A housewife may find that getting the children off to school is her first priority, and then, before beginning her day’s work, she is free to use that quiet period for studying the Scriptures. Others may find that the early evening, when they get home from work, is the best time. We are all different, and adult Christians should never attempt to impose their own particular pattern of reading and prayer upon fellow believers. In this matter we stand individually responsible to our Master.
Whatever time best suits you when your mind can be free of the clamour of the day and you can concentrate, that period must be guarded jealously. It will often come under attack and we shall arid ourselves almost automatically sacrificing it under pressures. Weakness there will mean weakness everywhere, while conversely, strength there brings a strength which will be present m other circumstances. The greatest battles we fight in our Christian lives do not change; we march that familiar terrain of our victories and our set-backs all the years of our pilgrimage. The self-denial required to create a daily time for God’s Word is the continued duty of every Christian.
3 MAKE A PLACE FOR GOD’S WORD
You can take a Bible anywhere, and it is one of the great pleasures of the Christian life to be on a hilltop, or at the seaside, or by a river, reading the Word. But for regular, disciplined reading a place is needed as free from distraction and as conducive to study as possible. Our Saviour went to a garden, Peter had a rooftop, and Elijah an upper room. There is an advantage in reading the Scriptures day after day in the place which is firmly associated in your mind with that activity. You can slip into the right frame of mind the moment you sit down, because you have established the habit of getting down to study once you are in that place. Make sure it is well lit. Good light is very important for reading the double columns of a Bible. It should also be properly ventilated and neither too hot nor too cold. The less you are aware of your surroundings while reading, the better. Lying down is not the best posture in which to study the Bible (or any other book for that matter), because it is essential to stay alert, and even slouching in an easy chair can defeat that object. Some have knelt while reading the Bible, but kneeling can be painful and the discomfort quickly distracts from the matter in hand. You may think that all this is utterly inconsequential, but our posture in devotion is not unimportant; for example, to kneel is to begin to pray. One humbles oneself in the presence of God. One prays with one’s body. ‘My heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God’, says the Psalmist (84.2).
So to read the Bible best, set apart a definite time; go to a regular place of study; get plenty of light; do not let the air get stuffy, or too warm or cold, and do not make yourself too comfortable.
4 DEVELOP A PLAN
Effective Bible Study is largely a matter of good habits of work. Begin with firm determination; begin at once. Never wait until you are in the mood or you may wait for weeks. Get in the mood by starting to read: the Bible creates its own mood. As J. C. Ryle says about it – ‘The way to do a thing is to do it.’ The way to read the Bible is actually to read it, not wishing and meaning and resolving and intending and thinking about reading the Bible, but actually reading it. You will not advance one step until you have done that.
If you have a plan to guide you then you have a head start. Indeed, if you do not have a plan you will never read the Bible. You may read parts, but never the whole Book, and you will never gain that familiarity with it which is so necessary if you are to benefit from the fulness of its message.
There are various plans which, if followed, will take you through the whole Bible in a year, or even Old Testament once in a year and through the New Testament and Psalms twice. They are ambitious programmes of reading which requires men to read at least three or four chapters a day.
To follow such schemes is an ideal for a believer. It is true that there have been more ambitious goals attempted and attained. Samuel Annesley, John Wesley’s grandfather, as a child of five or six began to read twenty chapters a day and continued that throughout his life. Arthur Pink wrote to a friend: ‘In my early years . . . I read through the entire Bible three times a year (eight chapters in the Old Testament and two in the New Testament daily). I steadily persevered in this for ten years in order to familiarize myself with its contents, which can only be done by consecutive reading’. (Letters of A. W. Pink p.23 Banner of Truth). Few Christians today have the stamina for such a scheme.
Reading the Bible at the table after a meal is a wonderful habit. It should be the goal for every family. To make the most of it each person should have a Bible open before him. In that way one’s thoughts can be prevented from wandering too wildly and everyone can join in the discussion after the passage is read. Such comments are necessary if the main thrust of the passage is to be understood by all present.
C. H. Spurgeon suggested, ‘Every minister ought to read Matthew Henry entirely and carefully through once at least. I should recommend you to get through it in the next twelve months after you leave college. Begin at the beginning and resolve that you will traverse the goodly land from Dan to Beersheba. You will acquire a vast store of sermons if you read with your note-book close at hand: and as for thoughts, they will swarm around you like twittering swallows around an old gable towards the close of autumn.’ (Commenting and Commentaries, p.3, Banner of Truth).
The chief aim of studying the Scriptures is not the amount read or even the reading itself. The aim is to know God. It is not to pacify our consciences that we are obeying our minister’s exhortations and reading the Scriptures. Yet encouragements to persevere in reading can help, especially in the initial stages. For example, a congregation could adopt a scheme and distribute an outline throughout the membership. One of the readings in the Sunday service could be the set chapter for the day, at least in the first months. In Wales children memorize verses from the Scriptures during the week and recite them on the Lord’s Day. They could select verses from the passages allocated as week follows week.
In whatever ways we adapt the suggested plan to our own particular needs we must aim at reading two or three chapters at a sitting, or a whole book or epistle. There are many precious things we shall never see unless we read the Word of God in large chunks. We would never read fifteen lines of any other piece of literature and then set it aside, believing that we had thus satisfied the author’s original intentions. To see the whole massive movement of biblical thought, the Scriptures need to be read frequently and from Genesis to Revelation. The Christian must be content with nothing less. He will not understand the individual verses unless he has the framework of knowledge which a larger acquaintance with Scripture provides. The more he reads the more comprehensible the Bible becomes.
Then a reading strategy should be adopted. One of the most popular is known by the code SQ3R which stands for ‘Survey: Question: Read: Recall: Review’. Firstly, Survey the passage. If a new book in the Bible is being started, make it your business to discover from a Bible Survey or a Study Bible something about that book. If your memory is faulty, re-read the passage studied on the previous day.
Secondly, question the passage as you read it. Interrogate it. What does it say? There are all these words before us but what is their meaning? We are looking at the Word of God and every single letter has been deliberately chosen. So we approach it with the awareness that every word has a purpose and message. We begin with this great concern to know what that can be. Perhaps in the portion we are reading God has an argument with the world, or with the church, and we must ask what is God’s message at this particular point. We must use every possible aid within the range of our God-given abilities. We want to know the meaning of these words in their context, why they were written and what is their message. For example, why does the New Testament always say through faith and never on account of faith? Why does it speak of faith into Christ? Why does it speak of baptism into Christ? God has used great care in the inspiration of each word and we must understand and grasp the meaning. So we will use any notes, commentaries, concordances and dictionaries that may help us. What is the message and the argument at this point? What is the doctrine insisted upon? What is the experience opened to me? This is something of tremendous importance. I am to approach the chapter brimful of questions, longing to get the meaning, not of verses only, but of whole sections, and using every possible help in order to understand.
Thirdly, read the passage, applying it to yourself. Come with your background, pressures, stresses and problems, and say, How does this word relate to me? Is there a doctrine for me to learn? Is there an error I should avoid? Is there a sin against which I am being warned? Is there a promise extended to me? Is there a word of rebuke, correction or comfort? Is there some duty I have been neglecting? Is there some guidance for my daily life? I read firstly to know the meaning and I have to respond to it with my mind. But the passage also speaks to my whole emotional life. What should I feel concerning this passage? What is my emotional reaction in response to it? Joy? Shame? Fear? How does this word speak to me at this very moment? What is its message?
Fourthly, recall to yourself the content of the passage you have just read. If, for example, you were to write out the teaching and message of this passage how much of it could you recapture? How accurate would your recollection be?
Fifthly, review the section. Go through it again to see if you were right in what it was teaching.
There can be many variations of this ‘SQ3R’ strategy of reading. There is no need for our reading habits to be stereotyped and identical. You may want to read with a pen in your hand and a notebook, because writing makes an exact man. Certainly stick to using one Bible and making notes in its margin and perhaps employing ’emphasizer’ felt pens to colour certain verses: all this helps our largely visual memories to remind us where in the Scripture we found certain lessons which were profitable.
The briefest regular perusal of Scripture has deep and largely unconscious effects upon us. So even if your achievements on certain days fall short of your desires, do not be discouraged, for ‘in due season we shall reap if we faint not’ [Galatians 6.9].
Finally, meditating on the portion read is a vital but neglected means of grace. Better indeed to meditate upon one verse than hurriedly to read a chapter, but there need be no dichotomy between reading three chapters and thinking over one verse. Select a verse, perhaps writing it down on a card to help you memorize it and ponder over it; that can be good for that day, ‘meditation standing to reading as mastication does to eating’. (See Arthur Pink’s Letters, p.24, for an example he gives of how he meditated upon Psalm 119.105 “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path’.
5 CULTIVATE PROPER ATTITUDES
(i) Beware of a barren intellectualism. The Jews of Jesus’ own day searched the Scriptures, even committing large sections of them to memory. ‘The rabbis were strong advocates of memorization. Teachings were supposed to be repeated at least four times so that students could get a grip on them, and there were humorous quips to this effect. A man who repeats his chapter one hundred times is not to be compared with the man who repeats it one hundred and one times. Rabbi Perida recommended four hundred repetitions for a dull pupil, then four hundred more! Only by dint of repetition could a passage be put in a student’s “purse” so that it would be his to keep and use’ (Christian Meditation, Edmund P. Clowney, p.23). Yet with all their knowledge of the text of Scripture the Jews who heard Jesus would not come to Him that they might have eternal life. They had a masterly intellectual knowledge of the content of Scripture but failed to respond to that knowledge by believing in Christ. The study of God’s Word is not an end in itself, neither is a correct understanding of its meaning to be the goal of our study. A man may understand all mysteries and all knowledge and yet be nothing. Eminent, well-qualified teachers of the Bible may yet be strangers to God. Does my knowledge of the Scriptures bring me with greater devotion to the Christ who is contained in every chapter? The prize in reading the Bible is to come to the Christ of the Bible [Philippians 3.14].
(ii) Relax. If you take up this scheme and begin regularly to read the Bible it will be a tremendous achievement, but it will do you little good if you approach it in a spirit of dogged determination and tension. Certainly strong resolution is required, but you must realize that there will be days when you will not read the Bible at all. There are days of sickness when you are too ill to read the Word of God. There are times when nothing goes right and we are subject to unexpected pressures. There are periods of spiritual barrenness and despondency in which our taste for the things of God well-nigh disappears. During such periods remember that any particular scheme of Bible reading is a human invention. It is a suggested outline to help you to become familiar with the Word of God. Remember that your salvation does not depend upon the reading of the Bible every day. It depends upon what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for His people by His life and death. If you miss more than a day of Bible reading, do not attempt to catch up on the chapters missed. You will read them next time you go through the Scriptures. What is important is always to be coming back to the Bible after periods of neglect. Do not get new tensions and fresh guilt if you find your own spiritual capacity unable as yet to follow regularly this whole scheme.
(iii) Be forgiving. When things go wrong in our Christian lives it is natural to feel terrible, to question our salvation and to wonder whether we ever truly trusted Jesus Christ. The Christian life is exceedingly complex, as the experience of the Psalmist shows. At times he may rejoice in the way of God’s testimonies; and at other times his feet are almost gone: ‘my steps had well-nigh slipped’, he says [Psalm 73.2). Bible reading, like a thermometer, can test our sense of God’s nearness, but it is no gauge of our justification. God declares all who believe in Jesus to be righteous only through trusting in Him. Reading the Bible regularly adds nothing to the perfection of God’s justifying grace. We read to grow in our understanding of the implications of justification for the Christian life. We read to know more of the mercy of God to sinners who believe. If we come to God and say simply to him, ‘Lord, I am sorry that I have neglected thy Word again and not loved it as I should’, then we believe that in that moment he pardons our sins, casting them into the sea of his forgetfulness, remembering them no more. We ought also to forgive ourselves at such periods and not be hard on ourselves, especially if we are young Christians. There is little purpose in reading the Bible merely out of conviction of past neglect.
(iv) Be humble. Do not expect to master the Bible in a day, or a month, or a year. Rather expect often to be puzzled by its contents. It is not all equally clear. Great men of God often feel like absolute novices when they read the Word. The apostle Peter said that there were some things hard to be understood in the epistles of Paul [2 Peter 3.16). I am glad he wrote those words because I have felt that often. So do not expect always to get an emotional charge or a feeling of quiet peace when you read the Bible. By the grace of God you may expect that to be a frequent experience, but often you will get no emotional response at all. Let the Word break over your heart and mind again and again as the years go by, and imperceptibly there will come great changes in your attitude and outlook and conduct. You will probably be the last to recognize these. Often you will feel very, very small, because increasingly the God of the Bible will become to you wonderfully great. So go on reading it until you can read no longer, and then you will not need the Bible any more, because when your eyes close for the last time in death, and never again read the Word of God in Scripture you will open them to the Word of God in the flesh, that same Jesus of the Bible whom you have known for so long, standing before you to take you for ever to His eternal home.
GEOFFREY THOMAS (Available from the Banner of Truth as a booklet)