The Spiritual Practice of Study goes back several thousand years and thus it shouldn’t seem like a new idea to anyone. It can take many forms and can be both an individual and group practice, yet for our purposes in this survey, I will approach the individual side of study rather than the group application. As an individual practice, study is most often approached on a more or less academic basis by most people, and for good reason. Who can argue with the assertion that it is essential for us to have a good foundation in Scriptural understanding?
There is, however, a potential danger to this approach; most of us, in seeking to gain a fundamental understanding of the Scriptures, don’t consult the Scriptures, but instead, consult other works about the Scriptures. As a result, we learn theological doctrine, and only then open the Scriptures to find passages that confirm the teachings we have learned, usually to the exclusion of passages that may contract those teachings.
There is no substitute for reading the Word of God directly.
If you are new to Bible study, it may seem a daunting task at first, but I can assure you that it is not as difficult as it may seem when you begin; here are a few things you should know from the outset.
First, the Scriptures are the written record of God’s revelation of Himself to Mankind. Did you catch that? The written record of God’s revelation of Himself to Mankind.
Second, the Bible is a published volume containing the Scriptures; the terms are similar, but not the same.
Third, when you see the word “version” in the name of a Bible, it means “translation”. They are not different collections of the Scriptures, they are different translations of the same Scriptures from their original Hebrew and Greek texts into English… or whichever language you prefer. Thus, when you see for instance the “King James Version” (KJV) or “New International Version” (NIV) they refer to two different translations, one done in 1611 at the command of King James of England and Scotland, and the other done in the late 20th and again in the early 21st centuries. These are only two popular examples, there are many, many others. Normally, I use the NIV when teaching, although I use several translations in my own study, as well as the original languages.
Fourth, the Scriptures, also called the Word of God, are not like other writings. The Word of God is much more than a collection of old stories, ethical passages, rules and teachings, for the Word is alive and is one and inseparable from the Person of Jesus Christ. While knowing the facts is a very good thing, coming face-to-face with Jesus Christ is the main thing, and should be the goal for any study of Scripture.
Fourth, since getting into God’s Word is the main thing, if you aren’t sure where to start, read a chapter a day. Take your time, this isn’t a race. Start with Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. Before you begin, ask God to guide you, to open the Scriptures to you, to reveal Himself to you and then read slowly.
We are all busy people, but over many years, I have noticed something about busy people: They find time for the things they really want to do, so you can find the time to read God’s Word, and if you can’t find the time, then you can always make the time if you want to; simply schedule it as a daily “to do”.
As a Theology Professor, I was pretty good at teaching Scripture from a purely academic perspective; it was my job after all. I would never denigrate academics, quite the opposite, in fact. Yet in the academic environment, I had the nagging realization that we were doing an excellent job of training the next generation of teachers of the law, but not such a great job of teaching and training men and women to be ministers of the gospel. You see, dear reader, there is a fine line there, between placing our faith and trust in our own knowledge and academic skills, and placing our faith and trust in God, and the two kinds of faith are not the same thing.
Now that I am no longer in that environment, when I come across a student who is preparing for the ministry, I encourage them of course, but I also warn them about this peril. Some see it right away, others are quite sure that I have gone utterly mad… par for the course, I suppose.
A few years back I met a young Seminary student who was so very bright. He could cite chapter and verse for most any subject, he could give a philosophical analysis of everything, he knew pretty much everything. He was so very confident in his knowledge, in his analysis, in his insight. However, it quickly became obvious that he had no conception that anything he had learned about the teachings of Scripture had any relevance whatsoever to daily life. Actually, he wasn’t even entirely sure that he was a believer, but he was sure that he was going to be a Professor of Theology one of these days.
And he probably will, and that is the danger I’m talking about.
We can all study the Scriptures as an academic discipline, but the study of Scripture as a spiritual discipline is something different. Of course it is important to have a fundamental knowledge upon which to grow spiritually, but our foundation is built upon Jesus Christ who is the Person of the living Word. Our foundation as Christians is not built upon the letter only, and that is where many go wrong.
Traditionally, many of us have been taught that to grow in the Faith, we need to spend time in prayer and in the Word; that we need to go to Sunday School and be in worship every Sunday. I’m not going to say that this statement is wrong, but I will say that it isn’t nearly good enough.
Here’s what I mean:
Prayer and Study are two different spiritual practices, and that is how it has been taught for over a thousand years, but they need to be done together. Sunday School isn’t a bad thing. Yet it has one great flaw, do you know what that is? There is no contemplation or concept of anyone ever graduating. Since no one graduates from Sunday School, it simply cannot be something that makes disciples for Christ, because the whole point of making disciples, is to train people to become makers of more disciples.
For the word of God is alive 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.
Do we believe the Word of God? If we do, then we must see that it is not just letters, words and phrases printed on a page. No sir, it is alive in the Person of Christ.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-4; 14
When we go to God in prayer, whose presence do we enter? Gee, that’s an easy one, the answer is right in the question: God’s presence. If the living Word was one with God, and prayer brings us to the presence of God, why would we think it’s a good idea to leave God’s presence to study His Word?
Prayer and Study have always been taught as two distinct spiritual practices; maybe we should think differently and combine them instead. I presented our look at Prayer in two different ways, one more formal and traditional, and the other less formal and less traditional, although far from new. Both are good and I recommended both of them in concert, and now I’ll suggest combining them with our study time.
So, we pray, and then we study. Let’s not forget to ask God to direct us in our study, to open His Word to us, to give us the fullness of His Word.
We read slowly through a passage and come across something that seems odd to us: What is that supposed to mean? We look up other passages, we grab a commentary and look it up or Google it… Did we ask God for the answer? If you’re like me, I probably didn’t, after all, I’m a trained professional and went right to the Hebrew or Greek and applied my knowledge and training and experience… O wretched man that I am!
None of those steps is wrong or bad, by the way, only the attitude is a problem.
Just ask Him!
Even better is this approach: Pray the Word.
Take the actual language of the Scriptures and put it into your prayers along the lines of the prayer. Pray it in short phrases, thank God for His Word, praise Him for what you’ve seen, move on and repeat the process and you’ll get the hang of it. As you come across something you are not sure about, just continue on and ask God to reveal it to you. Relax your mind, ask Him again and thank Him for His amazing Word. Don’t be too surprised when the part you weren’t clear about suddenly pops into your head. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, for often there is something else He wants you to see, and the answer to your question comes along another time.
After an answer comes is when I want to go to my study aids to see if I can confirm the answer that popped into my mind. Let’s be honest, sometimes we only get the answer we wanted to hear, and that might just be our minds playing tricks on us. Usually in those cases, I know I’m wrong about it…
With a little practice, you may well find that the Word of God is a much deeper source of treasure than you had imagined; it’s worth a shot in any case.