The Word of God: How to Read the Bible, part 2 (3/5)

Making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland

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The Word of God: How to Read the Bible, part 2 (3/5)

This is the third post in a five part series considering what the Bible teaches about itself. The previous posts in this series are 1. How Not to Read the Bible2. How to Read the Bible, part 1. The final two posts in this series are 4. How the Bible Reads Us and 5. Reading the Bible, a practical guide.

Savouring the Word of God

The Psalmist writes of Scripture in a way that is, quite simply, astonishing,

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)

Read the verse again, slowly, and think carefully about what is being said.

Over Christmas I was struck down with the winter flu that floored so many of us this year. When I get sick with colds and the flu, I tend to drink a lot of lemon tea (hey you, yes you, stop sniggering)…

The truth is that I don’t particularly like lemon and so I add a big spoonful of honey; the sweetness of the honey cuts through the sharpness of the lemon. It maybe that you eat honey with your toast or pancakes, but you will know that honey holds a rich, textured sweetness utterly unlike that of sugar and artificial sweeteners.

The Psalmist writes that, as he reads Scripture aloud, the words leave a rich sweet taste in his mouth, like honey. The Psalmist does not simply read Scripture; he savours it.

Treasuring the Word of God

In the way of your testimonies I delight
   as much as in all riches. (Psalm 119:14)

Think about that item in your home (or on your drive); that thing you hold as most valuable. Maybe that thing is your home, maybe it is a new 50 inch HD Plasma Screen TV, or maybe a gift, some piece of valuable jewellery. Now ask yourself this question, ‘How much is it worth to me?’ Some of us may be able to calculate and rationalise our attachment to the item in financial terms. This thing is indeed valuable, it cost a particular amount of money. Or I attach value to that thing because it cost £100, £500, £1000, £10,000, or even more.

gold-coins-copyIt may be that we have invested time in the particular thing. Perhaps we have strategized and planned over weeks, months, even years to arrive at the position where we are able to acquired the long awaited prize. 

Perhaps the thing holds great sentimental value to us. Maybe it is a gift from a loved one. Maybe we associate it with some particularly significant life event.

The Psalmist looks at his riches, the accumulation of his most valuable things, and concludes that Scripture is more delightful to him than anything else he possesses. The Word of God is more precious to him than riches.

Longing for the Word of God

My soul is consumed with longing
     for your rules at all times. (Psalm 119:20)

Firstly, think about the, ‘at all times’.

8pm at night just as your favourite TV programme is about to start. 7.30am as you are rushing around trying to get the kids ready for school while struggling to get yourself ready for work. 9pm on a Friday night when you are out at the pub with your mates. 3pm on Saturday afternoon while watching the match. 2.30am when most of the world is sleeping…

You see how bold, how insane, the ‘at all times’ is? Now think about the other component of this statement, ‘My soul is consumed with longing’. There it is, that word, consumed. This is an incredibly evocative word. Perhaps you are married and away from home on business and your thoughts turn restlessly and continuously to your spouse, you are consumed with longing. This is the depth of feeling conveyed by that word.

Consider the object of this longing, the Psalmist is consumed with longing, ‘for your rules’. Now, I don’t know about you, but this just seems plain weird. Who among us ever thinks, ‘Man, I could do with just a few more road traffic laws’; or, ‘The problem with my job is that there isn’t quite enough red tape’. The idea that we would be consumed with longing for rules seems utterly bizarre to us.

The Psalmist is not simply referring to any rules, however, he is referring to Scripture, the Word of God. The Psalmist’s compulsion is to savour, to treasure, to imbibe the Word of God and this is why the ‘at all times’ makes sense. The Psalmist is so consumed with the things of God, so obsessed with the word of God, that he awakes in the middle of the night reaching for his Bible. He is in the car on the way to work and he feels the irresistible urge to pull over and pull out his Bible from the glove compartment and read. He is watching TV, some poised-on-a-knife-edge sports event, but he finds his mind turning from the score-line to the word of God; he turns off the TV, opens his Bible and reads.

This is what it means to be consumed with longing.

Savouring, treasuring and longing

Now take the Psalmist’s sweet savouring of Scripture, his treasuring of Scripture, his longing for the Word of God and let us ask ourselves whether this savouring, treasuring and longing reflects our own attitude towards Scripture. The sad, tragic truth is that none of us treasure Scripture in the way that even comes close to reflecting its true worth.

The reasons for this indifference towards the word of God, I believe, are threefold.

Firstly, it may be that we have too low a view of Scripture. In my previous post in this series (to read, click here), we considered the Apostle Paul’s assertion that ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God’. To understand this, and I mean really understand this, must effect the way that we regard and handle Scripture.

If we truly believe that Scripture is the inspired and inerrant word of God, this must affect the way that we approach the text. If we truly love the Lord and truly believe that the Word is His words we will desire to study Scripture more intently because we long to hear from Him. This, I believe, is the path that leads to the place where we become consumed with longing for the Word of God. A wholehearted pursuit of the Living God will cause us to yearn to read His Word more often that we might know him more deeply and see him more clearly.

Secondly, maybe we have misunderstood the end of Scripture and, as a result, our studying of the Word of God has become a dry, academic, intellectual pursuit. I address this danger in the first post of this series (to read, click here), but the good news is this: Scripture points towards, illuminates and reveals Jesus. The end of Scripture is that we might see Jesus, know Jesus, honour Jesus and gain Jesus.

This is where we landed last time. The Apostle Paul observed that Timothy had been taught the Scriptures by mother and grandmother and that these same Scriptures had made him ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:15) which leads me to my third point and here I hope to spend a little time.

The Apostle Paul writes,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

As I consider elsewhere (to read, click here), Paul explains that Scripture is ‘breathed out by God‘, and, in addition to this, that Scripture is ‘profitable’.

This then is the third reason why our experience of Scripture may be but a pale reflection of the Psalmist’s delight in and dependency upon the Word of God. Indeed, we may believe that Scripture is breathed out by God, we may believe that Scripture points towards and illuminates the Son of God, but we are unable to make that final leap and so are left with the confused shrug of so what?
All Scripture is profitable

Paul’s encouragement to Timothy is that ‘All Scripture is… profitable’ and there is huge encouragement in this.

For example, we may find ourselves lost around chapter 10 of Leviticus and, in despair, we feel a million miles away from the place where we are savouring, treasuring and are longing for the Word of God. In fact, we may be sorely tempted to abandon our meditation and turn the TV back on. How then should we navigate our way through this difficult and alien terrain of septic sores and blood sacrifice?

Paul’s promise is that these words, difficult and obscure as they might seem, are both breathed out by God and profitable for believers (or rather, because they are breathed out by God, they are be profitable for believers). We know, therefore, that these words, when understood correctly, will enable us to see Christ more clearly and know Christ more fully. This encourages us to persevere, to meditate deeply and to study more thoroughly.

But note that Paul is careful to define the precise way in which Scripture is profitable,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness… (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Paul writes that Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training.

Scripture is profitable for teaching

It what way, we should ask, does Scripture teach believers?

Imagine you are from a totally unchurched background and you hear a simple gospel presentation, that Christ loves you and gave Himself for you. You hear, you believe and you receive Christ, but still you have only the vaguest of outlines of the gospel account.

Now you turn to Scripture, perhaps beginning with the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of John and, as you read, you understand more about the life of Christ, that he lived a life without sin, that he performed the most astonishing of miracles, that he suffered the cruellest of deaths and that he came back to life.

In reading John’s Gospel, you perhaps learn something of the pre-existence and incarnation of Christ. You now understand that Christ is the Word who was with God in the beginning, and that all things were created through him and for him.

In reading Mark’s Gospel and the account of Jesus’ baptism, you perhaps glimpse something of the mysterious truth of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit.

And, in reading the Gospels, you come to understand a little more of what Jesus requires of those who call themselves Christians. There is talk of taking up our cross (we now understand the significance of the cross). There is talk about Christ being more important than money, sex and even life.

This ‘teaching’ is intrinsically bound up with the truth of the gospel, of who God is and all that Christ achieved upon the cross. It is significant, therefore, that the Greek word, didaskalia, here translated ‘teaching’, is elsewhere translated ‘doctrine’; the King James Version, in fact, reads that Scripture, ‘is profitable for doctrine’. 

Practically speaking, this then is the way in which Scripture teaches: we see people who have no understanding of the gospel, receive the gospel; people who had no revelation of Jesus Christ become worshippers of Jesus Christ and people who lived a life utterly apart from Jesus Christ now coming to reflect the values, character and glory of the Son of God.

This is why Scripture, the gospel, is indispensable when we think about evangelism, because the gospel is the primary means by which men and women come to see God, come to know God and come to respond to God.

Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, ‘Preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words’. Now, I think I understand what Francis means by this. What I believe he is saying is that Christians should strive to live such good lives among unbelievers that they would see our lifestyle and our values and that this would create the kind of climate whereby the message of the gospel is gladly received. Understood in this way, Francis’ words are both helpful and true.

It is absolutely Biblical to say that our lifestyle should be such that we authenticate the message of the gospel by the way that we live. To suggest, however, that the gospel can advance without words, or more particularly, without the Word is patently nonsensical. 

Paul writes elsewhere in the New Testament,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

There is a great deal here that I simply do not have space to discuss, but Paul’s point is simply this: the advance of the gospel begins with God sending people to proclaim the gospel.

This absolutely is the case with you and me (assuming you are a believer as you read this). In order for us to come to faith, someone, somewhere told us, taught us, proclaimed to us the gospel of Jesus Christ and, in the moment we believed (perhaps years later), we came to understand the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”.

But as we see in our hypothetical example of the unchurched convert, this teaching does not end with conversion. As we grow in our knowledge of Scripture, we grow in our knowledge of Christ and in our understanding of what a Christian is called to be.

Scripture is profitable for reproof, for correction

So too, Scripture is useful for both reproofing and correcting us. Now this requires a little more thought as the view that reproof or correction could be in anyway beneficial is increasingly at odds with a society which is becoming increasingly suspicious of any form of discipline. Let me show you the profit in reproof and correction.

gideon-and-caroline-copyAt the moment, Gideon Thomas, my eighteen-month-old son, is developing a curiosity for all things electrical.

Now, in one sense, this is a good thing. I am seriously hoping that this interest is evidence that he is indeed a child prodigy and I look forward to the day of his ninth birthday on which he will surely perfect cold fusion and, in doing so, becomes a child-millionaire.

With his new-found interest, however, comes a very real danger.

Now I am not a trained electrician, but I am guessing that it is not a good idea to lick a plug socket. Similarly, I do not think it is good for him to pound on the screen of the flatscreen TV with his baby-fists. I also have a hunch that chewing electrical cabling could prove risky in the medium- to long-term.

My response, as a responsible father who loves his child, is to reprove and correct him. But how is this reproof and correction profitable for Gideon Thomas? In short, it will prevent him from dying a grisly and early death.

This is why to be reproved by the Lord is of huge profit to us. When we are in sin, we are in great danger. When the Lord reproves (or even rebukes) us it is both a confirmation that God is indeed our loving Father (consider Hebrews 12:5-17) and a great benefit to us. Paul understands that it is primarily (although not exclusively) through the words of Scripture that the Holy Spirit reproves us (but more with regards to this next time).

Indeed, by way of example, I know a godly guy who, before becoming a Christian, regularly smoked dope. As a new Christian, no one took the time (or had the guts) to explain to him that smoking dope (and breaking the law) was incompatible with the life Christ had called him to lead. By the grace of God, however, and as he studied Scripture, he came to understand that he could no longer smoke marijuana and claim to be a Christian. Scripture proved profitable for reproof and correction.

Scripture is profitable for training in righteousness

Righteousness is an unusual word in today’s culture and it is good that it is not often used. You see, to be righteous is altogether more than to simply be good and or law abiding. To be righteous is to live a life in right standing with God.

The overall effect of studying and meditating on the Word of God is that we experience a greater revelation of the holiness of God and, as we do so, we become more aware of our own sin and weakness. Scripture acts as a kind of sign post pointing (primarily) towards Jesus, but also, as we look to him, back into our lives pointing out areas that simply do not match up. In this, the Holy Spirit convicts us and motivates us to increasingly pursue Christ and increasingly strive for holiness.

As we study and apply the Word of God, this has the effect of disciplining and training us to live a life of righteousness in which the priorities and standards of God become our priorities and standards.

Competence, readiness and godliness

But read on, we see that Paul has an outcome in mind,

…that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Let us take the first part of this passage and ask what Paul means when he envisages that the outcome of Scripture in the life of the believer is, ‘that the man of God may be competent’? In what way should a Christian (Paul is addressing both men and women) be competent?

It seems to me that Paul has the broadest application in mind (as ‘every good work’ suggests’). Paul’s expectation is that this training in righteousness will produce men and women competent in understanding, handling and communicating the gospel. Such men and women will communicate the gospel faithfully and contend for sound doctrine. The 21 Century church, as in Timothy’s day, is desperately in need of both men and women who are able to instruct new converts in the truth of Scripture and are able to defend the church against nut-jobs, wackos and heretics.

Men and women who are trained in righteousness will also be most competent fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. I write about this more fully elsewhere (to read, click here), but happy, godly and content families are grounded upon the truth of Scripture applied in every area of family life.

When we encounter difficulties, do we search for wise counsel in the pages of God’s Word? When we are in disagreement with one another, do we allow Scripture to correct and reprove us? The competent man and woman of God strives to submit in every area of the lives to the truth of God’s Word. This is both a product and the pathway to the kind of training that Paul talks about (training by which we grow in righteousness).

The application of this competence is that we would be ‘equipped for every good work’ and this is hugely important. Paul understands that all this training, correction, instruction and reproof is in order to enable us to live a life of service and worship of the Living God. The promise that runs alongside this is that God will ensure that we are fully equipped to live the life he has called us to lead. Peter confirms this promise in his second epistle, ‘His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3).

We began with a question, how can we arrive at that place where we come to savour, treasure and long for the Word of God? The answer is this, as we see Christ more clearly and the transformation that, through his Word, is wrought in our lives, we will come to understand that, like bread or oxygen, his Word is necessary for life.

As we see this and as, in this, we see Him, Scripture will become increasingly delightful to our soul.

Psalm 119:44-48

I will keep your law continually,
   forever and ever,
and I shall walk in a wide place,
   for I have sought your precepts.
I will also speak of your testimonies before kings
   and shall not be put to shame,
for I find my delight in your commandments,
   which I love.
I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love,
   and I will meditate on your statutes.