Engaging Afresh with Scripture
Covid-19 has disrupted everything, including (for some people) their engagement with Scripture. According to a recent study in the USA, the first half of 2020 witnessed a fall in Scripture engagement. The largest changes were in the groups classified as “Bible Centered” and “Bible Engaged”. Another new poll indicated that many found it challenging to understand the Scriptures on their own. Whether or not these surveys indicate a widespread reality we must acknowledge that we need constant help to engage with Scripture. This is not merely a matter of discovering a new method, technique or tool. One of the reflections on the survey results is that Christians need to be reminded about why they need to regularly engage with the Bible. But it may be that this should include a reset in the attitudes we bring to Scripture and how we approach it.
The Larger Catechism gives some clear biblical guidance about the right way to approach Scripture in reading it. It shows how to read it so that we may understand it and get the most spiritual benefit. This article summarises and abridges the comments by Thomas Ridgeley and J G Vos on the following question in the Larger Catechism.
Q. 157. How is the Word of God to be read?
A. The holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God; and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey, the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.
1. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE CHARACTER OF SCRIPTURE
We must read the scriptures with a high and reverent esteem of them and a firm persuasion that they are the Word of God. (Psalm 19:10; Nehemiah 8:3-10; Exodus 24:7; 2 Chronicles 34:27; Isaiah 66:2).
As we read Scripture, we see the glory of the perfection of God’s wisdom, sovereignty, and goodness. Its unerring wisdom and infallible truth bring its own authority. We ought to approach Scripture with a different attitude to any other book. Scripture is the only source of saving truth; it reveals sin and the only way of obtaining forgiveness. Other books may draw from its teaching, but the Bible alone is the standard by which all other books are to be judged. It completely equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). Those who speak of Scripture in the page of the Bible itself do so with a high and reverent esteem of it (Psalm 119:97; Psalm 19:16). We must read the Scriptures with a firm faith that they are the very Word of God (2 Peter 1:19-21).
2. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE AUTHOR OF SCRIPTURE
We must, in reading the word of God, be conscious that God alone can enable us to understand it (Luke 24:45; 2 Corinthians 3:13-16).
We will get no benefit from reading the Scriptures without understanding them. But we need divine help for this because our understanding is darkened and clouded by sin by nature (Romans 1:21, 28; 1 Corinthians 2:14). The Holy Spirit must enlighten our understanding at the new birth. Yet we also need His work of opening and illuminating our minds to understand the Bible (Luke 24:45). All spiritual wisdom comes from God and therefore we are dependent on Him in this also (Ephesians 1:18). We need His blessing to open the wonders of the Word in all their beauty and glory to us (Psalm 119:18). We may have the highest intellect and powers of reason but still be strangers to the mind of God in His Word.
3. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WILL IN SCRIPTURE
We must read the Word of God with a real desire to know, believe, and obey His will contained in it (Deuteronomy 17:19-20).
If we do not read the Bible with the right motive of submission to God’s will, we will find fault with it and be ready to cast aside what it teaches if it does not suit us. Approaching it merely as literature or history fails to handle it as it is meant to be handled. It must first serve a practical purpose, we must apply it to ourselves personally in relation to our own soul. We must read the word of God with a desire to have our faith established and any doubts about its truths removed. We ought to desire, not only to believe but also give constant and cheerful obedience to everything that God requires of us in it.
4. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WORD DILIGENTLY
We must be diligent in reading the Word of God (Acts 17:11).
The Bible is extensive and contains many things that need careful study. If we do not give ourselves to it, we will not have an adequate understanding of it. Anything worthwhile demands constant effort. We are meant to progress from milk to strong meat and not remain children in our understanding (Hebrews 5:11-14; Ephesians 4:14).
5. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WORD CAREFULLY
We must give attention to the matter and scope of the Scriptures in reading them (Acts 8:30,34; Luke 10:26-28).
We must read the matter or content of Scripture carefully, noting important things such as who it is that is speaking, the occasion and circumstances. The context must be respected so that we note how the words relate to and connect with statements before and after and the chapter as a whole. We must also consider the overall scope or purpose of what is written in terms of the purpose of a book of the Bible as a whole and goal of the whole Scriptures themselves.
We must not remove verses from their context, or we will not understand their true import. When we read “there is no God” in a verse we must note that the speaker is “the fool” (Psalm 53:1). We must also note that the verse goes on to say that those who say such things in their heart are declared to be “corrupt” and to “have done abominable iniquity”. Similarly, we read that a man will give all he has for his life (Job 2:4). Quoted out of its context it would be very misleading but when we realise that Satan, the father of lies has said it we can discern its true import.
6. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WORD DEEPLY
Our reading of the Word of God ought to be accompanied with meditation (Psalm 1:2; Psalm 119:97).
Meditation means thinking carefully, seriously and deeply for a time. It is a focussed effort and application to the words of Scripture. It is necessary because we cannot expect to gain the real riches of the truth of Scripture by a hasty skimming of its surface. It is true in Bible study as in all other fields that serious thinking requires time. The Bible is not a modern supermarket with its wares all packaged and arranged on shelves ready to be checked out with the least possible effort. The Bible is a gold mine that has to be methodically and patiently worked if we are to gain possession of its treasures. The haste and complexity of modern life, with its many activities which make demands on people’s time, have resulted in many Christians who have only an elementary and superficial knowledge of the Bible, and who live from one year to the next with virtually no increase in their understanding of Bible truth. There is no shortcut to success in Bible study: meditation is needed, and that takes time.
Our thoughts should be wholly taken up with its subject-matter; we ought to apply the greatest intense earnestness in seeking to know things that are of the highest importance. As we do so our profiting from this will appear to ourselves and others (1 Timothy 4:15). Meditation is not considering Scripture with a coldly intellectual approach, rather it is a spiritual prayerful activity that engages fully with its truth so that it warms our affections and hearts. For more on this see
Opening the Door from Our Head to Our Hearts and You Are What You Digest (Spiritually).
7. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WORD PERSONALLY
We must read the Word with application, applying it to our own selves by seeking to discern its bearing on our own lives and needs (2 Chronicles 34:21).
The Bible is not a merely theoretical or abstract message, but a personal message suited to the needs of those who read it. A person might study geometry or astronomy out of sheer intellectual interest and curiosity, without any intention to make any practical application of these sciences to his own life. But to study the Bible in such a way would be to miss the real meaning and importance of the Bible. Unless we apply its teachings to ourselves personally, our Bible study not only will do us no good but will actually add to our guilt at the Judgment Day.
8. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WORD SUBMISSIVELY
We must read the Word with self-denial. This means being willing to give up our own opinions, preferences and prejudices and to accept and obey the will of God instead of our own ideas (Proverbs 3:5; Deuteronomy 33:3).
We must deny ourselves by giving up our own opinions, preferences and special ideas and to accept and accept the teaching of the Word of God as our standard for faith and life. We are to accept all the teaching of the Bible not merely those which commend themselves to us as reasonable, desirable, or helpful. We are to deny ourselves by surrendering our own reason as our supreme standard of truth and become as little children, accepting God’s Word on God’s authority. All the contrary reasonings our carnal minds are prone to suggest against the subject-matter of divine revelation are to be laid aside. If we are resolved to believe nothing but what we can comprehend, we ought to consider that the gospel contains unsearchable mysteries, that surpass finite wisdom. We must, therefore, be content to acknowledge that we know but in part.
We must pay deference to the wisdom of God that eminently appears in everything He has revealed to us in His Word. We must adore the divine perfections displayed in it and maintain a humble sense of the imperfection of our own knowledge. It is not that reason is useless in studying Scripture rather we must desire that it may be sanctified and inclined to receive whatever God is pleased to impart. We are also to exercise the grace of self-denial, with respect to the obstinacy of our wills. By nature, they are not inclined to approve of and yield obedience to the law of God. We need to be entirely satisfied with everything He commands in His word, as holy, just, and good.
9. ENGAGING AFRESH WITH THE DIVINE WORD PRAYERFULLY
The word of God must be read with fervent prayer (Proverbs 2:1-6; Psalm 119:18; Nehemiah 7:6,8).
If we lack wisdom, we should pray to receive it (James 1:5). As we have seen, a real understanding of the Bible is dependent on the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. It follows that we must pray for the continuance and increase of this illuminating work in our hearts and minds. Profiting from Scripture is the gift of God and therefore we are to humbly pray to Him for it. There are many things in His Word that are hard to understand; therefore, we ought to pray for help whenever we take the scriptures into our hands. We may humbly acknowledge the weakness and the blindness of our minds, which makes it necessary for us to desire to be instructed by Him, in the way of truth.
The Word is to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths therefore we seek His help that it may be so lest we walk in darkness. We may also plead that our Lord Jesus is revealed to His people as the prophet of His church, therefore we seek that He will lead us by His Spirit into His truth. We may also plead the impossibility of our attaining the knowledge of divine things, without His assistance.
Prayer is not a shortcut that avoids the need to study the Word diligently and carefully, it is not a substitute for that. Rather we are to pray that the Holy Spirit would bless our diligent use of the best available helps and guide us into the real truth.
We need to engage with Scripture in the right spirit with a desire to know the mind and will of God in it. Any prejudices which would hinder us from receiving any benefit from it should be discarded and we must exercise those graces that the nature and importance of the duty requires. We ought to depend upon God by faith and prayer so that we may come to know the divine truths contained in His Word.
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