A friend asks a question that every Christian should seek to answer, yet I suspect few think about deeply, if at all:
How do I profit from reading the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16) rather than just gaining knowledge? Sometimes when I read it I feel like I’m just reading to learn some new fact or insight, and it’s hard to avoid.
This is a good question. While theological knowledge is a good end in itself, ultimately what you are doing when you read Scripture is looking for God to speak to you. You want to become more like him, not just in knowledge—though sanctification does start there (Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:10)—but in character. Which means you need to be able to know how to apply that knowledge to your own life. How does it affect how you should act?
Often this is difficult to answer, for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, in the case of more doctrinal parts of Scripture, there isn’t always a clear connection between the knowledge in your head, and the attitude of your heart. Abstract concepts are interesting, but they don’t automatically translate into things we can do. We need to see how they apply to people, and then figure out how they can apply to us.
Secondly, on that point, because Scripture was originally written to other people in very different circumstances, it can be hard to figure out the similarities between them and you. How does what was said to them apply to your life? For instance, you often find yourself wondering this when reading parts of Leviticus.
Scripture reading as self-shepherding
Ultimately what this comes down to is learning to be better at self-shepherding. If you think about it, a pastor’s job is to shepherd people by applying the word of God to their lives. That can be through preaching, or counseling, or group discipleship, or Bible studies, but he is doing fundamentally the same thing in each of those cases. He just adapts the message and the method to the situation. So you’re aiming to do essentially the same thing to yourself when you read the Bible: apply the word of God to your life. It’s just self-shepherding. So in a way, this should give you encouragement if you find it hard, because it is hard. The whole reason we are given pastors is because shepherding is difficult, and we need the help of people who have been specially gifted at it. So let me first make a couple of points on that:
- Don’t be discouraged if you find reading the Bible by yourself is often difficult. It will be. But there are four good reasons to stick with it rather than just relying on your pastor: Firstly, you will only improve with practice, even when you feel like you’re making very slow headway. Secondly, often God will use what you read to shepherd you later rather than immediately—but he can only use his word if it is in your head and your heart to begin with, so get it in there. Thirdly, your shepherding is ultimately your responsibility, and you can’t just outsource it. It isn’t fair on your pastor(s) to place that burden on them. They are there to help you, not be you. Fourthly, it isn’t ultimately about you; it’s about glorifying God by building his church. You have no idea how God might work in you to achieve that. I do a lot of pastoral work myself that I never even dreamed I would do. God’s word is very powerful if you seek diligently to apply it to your life, even if you think you’re a semi-autistic theology nerd with no people skills—or, for the matter, an extroverted party animal with no theology skills.
- Even though shepherding yourself is your responsibility, that doesn’t mean you should do it alone. It is also the responsibility of your pastor(s). One way they fulfill that responsibility is by shepherding you every Sunday from the pulpit so you can see how it’s done. (If they aren’t doing this, find another church.) Another way is through Bible studies. Another way is through group discipleship. Another is through personal counseling. Seek out these things. And don’t just rely on the people who have been given that role in your church; we are all called to help one another, and there will be other mature Christians who can help you to read the Bible more profitably if you sit down and read it with them. Again, take responsibility for seeking this out; don’t just rely on your pastor(s). A good pastor will seek to ensure that this is happening in the lives of each of his sheep, but he can’t do everything or be everywhere, and he can’t help those who won’t help themselves.
Having said all that, there are two things that anyone who is good at shepherding will do when reading Scripture, to find ways to apply it in their lives:
1. They will seek God in prayer
As I said, ultimately you are reading God’s word to hear him speak to you. You want to know his thoughts, not just propositionally, but in an intimate, internalized way. Yet as Paul says, only the spirit within a person can know that person’s thoughts, and so it is only through the Spirit of God indwelling us that we can really hear him speak (1 Corinthians 2). Because his word was written to different people in a different time, you need the indwelling Spirit to “respeak” them to you in your time. Therefore, start with prayer; when you draw near to God, he will draw near to you (James 4).
2. They will continually ask themselves questions about the text
At first, you can do this consciously, working through a checklist. But after a while, you will start to just look for these things without thinking about it much any more:
Why was this passage written in the first place? Who was the original audience? What kinds of similarities are there between them and me? What kinds of dissimilarities are there?
Knowing why a passage was written is a good start to understanding how to apply it to yourself. Was it written for all people at all times? Or was it written for a specific people in a specific situation, that we can nonetheless gain instruction from (1 Corinthians 10:11)? Are there any analogies between your situation and theirs? Or are they very different—in which case, how might this Scripture not apply to you, and what lessons can you learn from that?
A good example here is reading through the purity laws in Leviticus. None of these apply to us today directly, yet that in itself is a lesson we can apply to our lives, since it takes us to the cross which those laws were nailed to, and the great sacrifice that was paid so we could be free. But these laws also reveal the character of God, not just in the specific laws themselves, but in his great care over detail and order; his great concern that his people be set apart from other nations, even if we don’t understand the specific reasons for the ways he chose (which in itself is a lesson in trust and humility); and sometimes even in the possible reasons we can discern, which reveal his care and wisdom, such as in choosing foods to forbid which were more likely to carry pathogens.
What is the central idea in this passage?
Sometimes you can find this literally by working out the structure of the text and finding the verse in the center. John 7:1-13 is a good example: there is a symmetry there revolving around verse 6-8, which itself has a symmetry revolving around verse 7. The central idea there is the hate of the world for Jesus. Sometimes you just have to follow the thought sequence to see what it is all about.
What characters or parties are present in the passage (if any), and how are their actions presented?
Taking the example of John 7:1-13 again, there are four parties aside from Jesus: his brothers, the Jewish establishment, the flatterers in the crowd, and the naysayers in the crowd. They all have an opinion about Jesus; but more importantly, they all represent various positions in the world. And since they are in the world, if verse 7 is the central idea, then they are all hating Jesus in some way. They are embodiments of different ways the world hates Jesus, which in turn is exemplified in how they stand in judgment over him. Some of these ways of hating are obvious, but some are subtle.
How am I like each of the characters?
I think this is one of the most helpful questions for reading parables, or Old Testament history. For example, when we read the Prodigal Son, we tend to place ourselves in the position of the prodigal. We see him as the point of the story. But most Christians are more likely to be like the second son, who never abandoned his father, yet his heart was cold and jealous. Consciously comparing ourselves to all the characters in a passage can help us see many ways it applies to us that we didn’t expect. Taking the example of John 7 again, we don’t tend to hate Jesus as the Jewish establishment did, but we often do hate him in the subtle ways of flatterers or advisers, when we feign piety and approval of God while our hearts are far from him, or when we secretly imagine that we could do a better job of using our talents than God is doing.
How do the ideas in this passage connect to other parts of Scripture?
For example, James 1:12 speaks of the crown of life. While it’s obvious that eternal life is in view, what many people don’t see so easily is that the crown is more than metaphorical; it is an allusion to the rule of the elect as vice-regents of Jesus, thus connecting eternal life to the kingdom of God. So that ties into, for instance, Revelation 2:10-11, which then picks up the concept of conquering, taking you to Revelation 2:26-27. And that in turn goes back into many places in the Old Testament, beginning all the way back to Genesis 1:26-28 with the kingdom given to Adam. You can follow this thread all over the place—for example, in John 3:16, the world is set in contrast with the kingdom of God, so we can infer that the world is itself the kingdom of man.
What does this reveal about God’s character, desires, or goals? What does this reveal about my own character, desires, or goals? How can these comfort or convict me?
For example, today I was reading 2 Chronicles 30. I was especially struck by how God overlooked the violations of the Passover stipulations on account of Hezekiah’s prayer. It illustrated to me the great condescension of God, and reminded me of three other passages: Micah 6:6-8; Romans 14:23; James 5:16. It revealed to me yet again God’s desire for faithfulness to him over formal obedience, and the great mercy and love of his character. And so it also reminded me of how merely obeying my Christian duties does not put me in good standing before God; indeed, that these duties should be performed out of a heart that is continually seeking him, rather than me trying to continually seek him by performing the duties. But although this convicts me, it also comforts me, because it reminds me that my God loves me and overlooks my failures when I love him in return.
Does this passage reveal something people can do? If so, how would I myself do it? Should I do it? Am I doing it? Does this passage reveal something God can do? If so, how would he do it to or for me? Has he done it? Do I want him to do it?
For example, take an abstruse passage like the genealogy of Genesis 5. This doesn’t reveal anything people can do, necessarily, but it certainly reveals something God does, which is that he continues to give life and uphold the judgment of death from Genesis 1-3. This is something he does for us also (upholding life), and will do (bringing death)—but the latter case is very interesting when we ask, “Do I want him to do it?” because death has been transformed from a curse into an “escape hatch” by which we can be glorified and come into his very presence. Moreover, if we combine this with looking for connections to other Scriptures, we also see that the genealogies reveal God’s perfect control over history, and the purpose such record-keeping served to reveal his hand directing so many seemingly random lives and events to the ultimate purpose of bringing his Son into the world (eg Matthew 1:1-17).
These are just some questions you can ask; I’m sure I’ve missed others, but hopefully this helps as a starting point.