Intro: Bible Reading is Hard
The first thing I want to say is that Bible reading/study is hard. I’m not sure in church circles we’re always ready to admit that, but its true! Bible reading and study – quiet times – daily devotions… might seem quite common-place for Christians, and maybe you’ve thought you were the only Christian who struggled with it. Struggled to understand the Bible, struggled to really do any regular Bible reading… struggled to even enjoy reading the Bible… period! But I’d venture to guess that if we took a poll of all of ACF, you’d be surprised to see just how high a percentage of us really find it hard to read our Bibles regularly… if at all!
Bible reading and study really takes discipline – Dave said a couple weeks ago that discipline has the same root as disciple. That discipline is how we are trained and brought up… meaning a Christian discipline is a means by which we are trained and brought up as disciples of Christ. And reading and studying the Bible – God’s words to us – is of course really central to that process. To take the definitions a little further, Bible reading takes self-discipline. It’s not going to come naturally to many of us, we’ll have to exercise some willpower, we’ll have to overcome some of our natural lazy tendencies if we really want to get into scripture. And some personality types will find this easier than others… big nerds who already love reading and studying might find it all a bit more to their taste. But let me assure you, even the big swats find the Bible challenging, but that doesn’t make any of us exempt.
Why is it Tricky?
So why do we find the Bible so difficult sometimes? If it’s God’s words to us, why aren’t we nose in all the time? Well, for one the Bible is an ancient text! Written between 1200 BC and the first century… and how many other ancient texts are you reading regularly? It wasn’t written in our language or to our culture – there are customs, places and historic events that the writers of the Bible take for granted. There are things we won’t understand straight away… things that may even offend us at first because they are so far removed from our experience and culture!
The second, and even more important reason, we find the Bible difficult is – I think – because of our pride. God doesn’t always do what we think He should do. Events don’t always turn out the way we think they should. There isn’t always an obvious moral to the story… and when there is a lesson to be learned, we’re not always sure it’s the lesson we expected to hear. But we’ll dig more into that a little later.
Now of course, there’s also a lot in the Bible that is relatively easy to understand and take in. There are stories and truths that we regularly teach to children, because they’re so universal, so digestible. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this sermon thinking they have to be a scholar in order to read the Bible, to really get something out of it. But neither do I think its healthy or correct to read the Bible at a primary school level for the rest of our lives! We all need to be growing in our knowledge of Scripture, deepening and maturing our understanding.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul reprimands the Corinthian church for exactly this, for acting like babies in the faith and failing to grow in their faith. “Brothers and sisters,” he says “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly – mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” So let’s not remain infants in the faith when it comes to the Bible, but let’s exercise some Christian self-discipline, because God’s Word is worth it!
Where to Begin?
Now, even using the term “Bible study” might be a bit intimidating: it makes me think of someone in a library, revising for exams, books and papers strewn in front of them. An academic trying to get as much information in as possible! And maybe you’ve been put off Bible reading because it feels too much like school work, or you because you go the impression that Bible study has to happen in this super serious, academic way: sitting down, reading and taking notes for at least an hour every day. Well, whatever ideas are putting you off, let’s set them to one side, because Bible reading and study doesn’t have to happen in one particular way. It’s really a lot like getting your exercise: you don’t have to jog a 10k every day in order to be healthy, even though that might be what comes to mind when you think “exercise”! Maybe a walk with a friend, or your dog, is more your style, or maybe you like to cycle, or play a sport. Maybe you love the outdoors, or maybe you’d rather watch a Pilates video, or go to a fitness group. There are different tools, methods and means for everyone! Are you ready for Cheri’s top tips for Bible reading?
- So when it comes to the Bible, the first question is, which translation are you using? Have you only ever tried reading your grandma’s King James Version, leather-bound and weighing as much as a small child?? Why not get a translation that you will find easier to understand?
- Furthermore, while you’re at it, why not get a study Bible? Yes, I know, there’s that “study” word again, but a good study Bible will have notes, Q&A’s and even practical applications dotted through it to help you! So when you read something you don’t get, oh look! There’s a note about it on the same page. Ah, now I get it.
- And where will you find these Bibles? Well, you can go get one from ACF as we have free Bibles ready to go home with you! Just ask someone like Vijay, Brian or Dave! Or text me and I’ll hook you up. Or there’s of course the amazing Christian Book Store in Aberdeen – Its called CLC and is in the “Academy” building, across from the Art Gallery. They will have lots of guidance for you! Or if you’d rather not go, I would highly recommend a website called 10ofthose.com and you’ll see a huge selection of Bibles and study Bibles (and other Christian books)! Just narrow down what you want in the filters! So there are a couple plugs, but seriously, get yourself a helpful Bible that you can actually read!
- Having a new shiny Bible is great, and I’d strongly suggest every Christian should have their own Bible. But even that can be intimidating, and there are lots of books and apps that make Bible reading easier. Maybe you much prefer to listen to the Bible – why not buy or download an audio Bible to listen to during your day? Dave listens to Nicky Gumbel’s Bible in a Year every day, which is just on his phone. I have an app from Scripture Union, of course, called “Daily Bread” that gives me a short daily reading and some insights. And we both have these on our phones because we both find it hard to be completely self-motivated when it comes to Bible reading.
- Something else to think about is when and where you read your Bible. Is there a time, is there a physical space you could give to this, to try and make it a habit? And maybe its not a daily thing, though that would be great… maybe its every Saturday morning when you put the cartoons on for the kids, and you take half an hour in the next room to spend with God. Maybe it’s an audio devotional in your car during your commute. Maybe its last thing in your bed as you reflect on your day – that’s my time. I don’t want to heap on guilt here, but just have a think to yourself about the very practical when and where that would actually work for you.
- Now these were all meant to be really practical tips about getting into your Bible, but genuinely it won’t matter how new your Bible is, or if you find the perfect app or study guide, or if you find the perfect time of day… if you don’t remember to make God a part of your Bible reading. Bible reading and prayer need to go hand in hand EVERY SINGLE TIME. If you’ve been randomly opening your Bible and finding it dry and lifeless… well, have you been asking God to speak to you through it? Have you invited God into the experience at all? The role of the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture, to make it a living, breathing Word into our lives is absolutely vital. John 14:26 says: 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
Now all of the things I’ve mentioned so far are individual, personal ways of reading the Bible, but just as important… if not more important… is to be reading and studying the Bible with others. In a Bible study, in a church home group, and obviously, by listening to the Bible be taught by a pastor or teacher.
Interestingly, reading the Bible alone, independently, for yourself, is kind of a new thing. For a long time, most of the world’s population was illiterate, and so couldn’t read. So hearing Scripture read and taught in a group, or in public, was how most of the world’s population learned Scripture… until more modern times!
I’d like to spend the next chunk of time in a passage from the book of Nehemiah… this took place when a group of Israelites came back to Israel after being captives in Babylon. It’s kind of smack dab in the middle of the story of the Bible… a few centuries before Jesus, but many centuries after the events of Genesis and the kings of Israel. The Israelites at this time are trying to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and really trying to reclaim their identity as God’s people after being immersed in a hostile, foreign culture. And in the midst of their rebuilding, they kind of rediscover the Old Testament, essentially. The people had become pretty disconnected from the words and laws of God during their exile, and so a day is set aside for the people to hear the law spoken – most likely the first 5 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
8 And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they [a]asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had [b]given to Israel. 2 Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from [c]early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. 8 They read from the book, from the law of God, [d]translating (making it clear) to give the sense so that they understood the reading.
9 Then Nehemiah, who was the [e]governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to [f]celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.
13 Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ households of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law.
What does the passage end with? Essentially, a small group Bible study! (vs 13) The heads of households were meant to go back to Ezra and learn even more, I would imagine so they could pass that learning onto their families. And so Bible reading and understanding would spread through the whole community in waves.
So how can you get in on some sweet group study of the Bible? Well, I’d say if you’re listening to this, you’re already doing the obvious thing… attending church or listening to Bible talks would be the first step. The baby step, really. ACF also has great homegroups – why not talk to Pete Henderson and see about getting involved with one? Whether you’re meeting virtually or in person, homegroups help you get to know folks AND help you to study the Bible. Or step three, which isn’t rocket science… why not just ask some Christian friends to do a Bible study with you? You don’t all have to be experts… just pick a bit of the Bible to read together and chat about it once a week or so. It would be a chance to break out that sweet new study Bible you’re about to buy.
And in all of these settings, don’t be put off. Verse 10 says, the Levites have to comfort the people and tell them not to weep when they heard God’s word – I think they were feeling bad, feeling guilty that they were so disconnected from it… perhaps that they’d been really disobedient or just didn’t understand it. It wouldn’t be nice to feel like you couldn’t connect with such a foundational part of your faith, hmm? So if you feel like you’re not as knowledgeable as others… again, Bible reading is something we all struggle with and we all need to pitch in together… and don’t be put off if you find you disagree with other Christians about the Bible. When we disagree and are able to chew over a passage together… everyone walks away better for it! As long as we’re being humble and loving, of course!
When we study and read Scripture with other Christians, we’re able to make so much more sense of it! Especially seeking the insights of older, more mature believers, sometimes even very confusing bits of the Bible can become clearer when we hear different people’s takes on it, different opinions and interpretations!
The next bit of this passage I want to pull out are verses 7-8: The Levites explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. 8 They read from the book, from the law of God, [d]translating (making it clear) to give the sense so that they understood the reading. The experts, and more knowledgeable Levites – priests – were “translating” the law… not necessarily that it was in another language, but they were making it clear and give the sense, so the people understood the reading. They were giving an interpretation. Even for actual Israelites, the laws of God in the Old Testament needed to be explained and made clear. And we need the exact same thing today… actually we need it more because we’re so much further removed from the events and culture of the Bible, and there are passages, chapters and entire books that we will really struggle with! Hence why disagreements might come up, and why interpretations are necessary!
Now this IS NOT to say all interpretations are equal, correct and valid. Christians both past and present have certainly mis-read and mis-understood and mis-used Scripture plenty… I won’t name any names, but *Cheri Young* had definitely gotten it way wrong in the past! We’re human and we’re flawed… all sinful… and wrong interpretations are to be expected. And that’s why study, and going over the Bible together is so important. So you can begin to spot thinking and interpretations that are just plain… wrong! Your OWN interpretations, especially! Otherwise you might get tricked or trapped into some very wrong and dangerous opinions about God, Jesus and what Christianity is all about.
Ephesians 4 says…
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. -Ephesians 4
I fear in trying to talk about our struggles with the Bible, I may have made it sound like the whole Bible is SO confusing and EVERY Christian has a different take on it, and we’re all going to be out at sea forever. Which really isn’t the case. Just look at what this passage promises us: that God brings different people together in the church so we’re all built up, growing into spiritual maturity. We won’t all be infants forever, but speaking the truth in love, we’re all becoming more and more like Christ. That is the attitude and the trajectory that our understanding, our faith… our Bible study and reading should take.
Now What Have I Left Out?
I’ve tried to be as practical as possible today, because I didn’t want anyone walking away without some real tools in their hands when it comes to reading the Bible. But I really haven’t addressed the WHY behind all of it – why are we even talking about the Bible in the first place? I’ve assumed a very important piece of information, that the Bible is God’s word. That it is supremely worth the trouble, because we believe God will speak directly to us through this text. That He reveals Himself through it – reveals His character, what He’s like and how He works… that Christ’s saving work on the Cross is revealed to us. Like a young man or woman sending a love letter, making their heart known to their true love, Scripture reveals God’s heart to us, his beloved creation. 1 Timothy 3:14-17 says:
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
That’s why, event when its tricky, when its hard to find the time and the self-discipline, when we disagree, when everyone seems to have contradicting opinions… we still hold the word of God high *over our head* and we don’t give it up or throw it out or dismiss it… like Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis, we also wrestle with this Word and demand that God reveal Himself! Demand that we receive a blessing! And I believe God will more than happily oblige.