How Not to Read Your Bible (Transcript)

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Justin Perdue: Hi, this is Justin. Today on Theocast, we are going to talk about Bible reading. Maybe you’re discouraged about reading your Bible. Maybe you feel like you don’t understand it. Maybe you feel like when you do read it, you get nothing from it. We are going to talk today about how not to approach reading Scripture. Then we’re going to consider what the Bible says about how to interact with the word of God.

Over in the members area, we are going to consider whether or not personal Bible reading is a litmus test of being a good and faithful Christian. Stay tuned.

Jimmy Buehler: As more people have listened to our podcasts, we pay attention to the different backroom talk as people process the things that we are saying and writing.

I think one of the pieces of pushback that we get – and I will use the word attack but we’re certainly not attacking this – is the way that we point out individual Bible reading and how it’s handled within the world of Christianity today.

Perhaps you’re engaged by the title of this podcast. What we really want to discuss today is how we understand, how we view, and how we believe the Bible talks about reading the Bible.

What are the ways that people tend to read the Bible? As the common Christian person approaches the word of God, what are the ways in which they are doing this? What are the ways that people tend to read the Scripture that are common to their church and their experience of Christianity? Then we’re going to move on into how we think the Bible speaks about reading the Bible itself.

Justin Perdue: One of the ways that people approach reading Scripture that is less than helpful, we might say, is they approach it from a sentimental perspective. It’s a very subjective perspective where they are looking for a kind of feeling or emotional takeaway from their time in the word. This is unhelpful for people partly because our feelings and emotions vacillate like crazy by the moment, and most certainly by the day. You’re going to feel different ways about reading the Bible. You’re going to feel different ways reading it. There are going to be some days where you might be affected and stirred, and they’re going to be other days where it’s just flat. Nothing’s happening.

What usually is the takeaway from all that? On the days when we feel something strongly, we think that time was productive and useful and we marvel at how it has blessed us. If it’s a day where we didn’t feel anything while reading Scripture, or maybe we didn’t read it at all because we didn’t feel like doing it, then we are just discouraged. Instead of putting any wind in our sails, it robs us of any motivation and we start to doubt all kinds of things. It’s definitely an unsteady way to approach Scripture when you are looking for some kind of sentimental takeaway or some sort of warm, fuzzy, good feeling, or good vibe that we might glean from the Bible.

We’re going to pivot later to how we should read our Bibles, but this is certainly not a way to approach it.

Jon Moffitt: Another way of saying that would be looking for an experience every time we open God’s word. We hear language like one needing to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or one needs to cultivate that personal relationship with Jesus Christ and it needs to be intimate. They’ll even say things like, “If you don’t spend time with your wife, how are you going to have a relationship with her? So if you’re not spending time with Jesus, how are you going to have a relationship with him?”

What ends up happening is that we assume that every time we spend time with Jesus, it needs to be this euphoric experience. You almost the pressure of having the first date syndrome: you always want that feeling that you had on a good first date. Anybody who has been married for a long period of time knows that that’s not how relationships work and neither is it how you build it. You’re not shooting for your first date every time – sometimes a trip to the coffee store is just what’s needed, and not a $75 dinner.

The dangerous part of that is that when we look at Scripture, you don’t see Paul giving us instructions on how to have this experiential moment with God. I would say a lot of people become discouraged in their interactions with God’s word because it doesn’t produce this experiential moment where their lives were transformed that morning.

Justin Perdue: There was a very popular devotional Bible study called Experiencing God that went around in some churches, even to the one that I was a part of. I can’t remember the author, but to your point, it’s like we are looking for this experience of communion with God. Communion with God is legit and real – we just are not always going to have that conscious experience as we’re reading Scripture by ourselves. It’s unhelpful.

Jimmy Buehler: A lot of times when people approach the Scriptures, they’re approaching it as if it’s an 80s prom dance: the lights have gone down low, the disco ball has come down, the slow jam has come out, Jesus is out on the floor, and we have to go and like meet Jesus and dance. It’s very much like we have this moment where it’s just myself and Jesus on the floor.

A distinction that I want to make is that certainly there are aspects of the Christian life and faith that are personal, but when people use the word “personal” what we often mean is “private”. The idea of a private relationship with Jesus is very foreign to the Bible; the Bible is very upfront about corporate realities and the corporate life of the church. That isn’t to say that the Holy Spirit doesn’t personally save believers through the work of regeneration. However, the Christian life is not a private experience. It’s not a solo experience. Unfortunately, this is often what people mean when they say we need to have this private experience each and every morning, to have our prom dance with Jesus so that my day goes a particular way.

It’s kind of like Facebook meme Christianity where there is a mountain scene, there’s a light, and then the words “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” We’re supposed to look at that and have this emotive response. Often that’s what people are looking for: a spiritual navel-gazing way of reading the Bible. I need to get my spiritual McNugget for the day to carry me through.

Justin Perdue: It’s a Precious Moments approach to reading Scripture.

Jon Moffitt: We assume the act of reading the Bible is beneficial for us spiritually when we take the time to discipline ourselves, sit down, and have our eyes gloss over the words. Then God will use that to protect us. It’s almost an earning of favor. God requires this of me, and if I don’t meet my required minimum of reading per day, God, won’t be happy with me. I’ll probably be more vulnerable to sin and I’ll probably have less blessing.

Jimmy Buehler: I can hear people kind of pushing back and I can see the question marks above their head. Jon, when you say we assume that it’s going to be beneficial, are you saying that when we read the Bible, there are times that it’s not beneficial? What do you mean by that? Can you explain it?

Jon Moffitt: There are two answers to your question. One, what I’m trying to get at is that the act of reading is not promised in Scripture for you to have spiritual benefits. Some people think that if they read these holy words, it will work like charms. If I say these holy words, they will then charm me with whatever. There are a lot of people who read their Bibles and at the end of it, they literally say, “I didn’t get anything out of that. I ran the genealogies today and I got nothing out of it.”

Justin Perdue: The big question to ask is this: what did you expect to get?

Jon Moffitt: What they feel is that if they don’t do it, then they’re going to be less than. Secondly, there are at times when people do read and because they don’t know what they’re doing while they’re reading the Bible… Let me put it this way: the Bible is not the Book of Proverbs. We want to read the Bible as if there are these one or two spiritual nuggets that can come out of it. You’re reading about guts and glory and blood and promises, and then you’re saying, “Nothing here.” People have applied stuff out of the Old Testament where I think, “It would have been better if you didn’t read that and didn’t apply it in the way in which you applied it.”

Justin Perdue: When people approach especially the Old Testament like it’s some handbook for living, or it’s a handbook for mental, emotional, and spiritual health, and then we start to apply the Scripture that way, we do all kinds of bad things with it.

Jon Moffitt: The Daniel diet is not intended for you to apply.

Justin Perdue: It can be unhelpful to read Scripture if you’re going to grossly misunderstand and misapply it. One way we do that is when we read and we look for impressions. I’m reading the text and I get this impression, feeling, or this thought that pops into my head, and then we take that and run with it. It’s the classic Bible study where we’re being asked, “What do you get out of this text when you look at it? What does it mean to you? What’s your takeaway?” I don’t really care what this means to you or what your takeaway is. The question you should be asking is this: What does it mean? What is God revealing? What is God promising? What does this mean for faith? What does this mean for redemption and things like that? That kind of impressionistic reading of the Bible takes us to all kinds of weird places, too.

Jon talked about earning favor with God, wanting God to be happier with me, and the protection pieces. This is where we turn. Not only do we turn the Bible into a charm, but we turn Bible reading into this kind of karma-like reality. It’s almost quid pro quo where I do this and then God does that. It’s meritorious in some sense in our minds. People think they’re going to have a great day because they had a great quiet time. You may have had the best quiet time you’ve had in a year, whatever that means to you, and you pull out of your driveway and you’re in a car wreck. What then?

Jon Moffitt: Or you run over your kid’s bike and say a swear word.

Justin Perdue: You think, “I was doing great and now I’m doing terribly. Now I’m angry and I’m sinning all over the place.”

Jimmy Buehler: To offer an illustration with the beneficial piece, about year and a half ago, one of our kids had broken something in our home – and it was something that could be easily fixed with tape. So we did that. What my child had learned from that is that everything could be fixed with tape. Then things of a large and heavy nature would start to break and I would begin to find things around the house that were covered in tape. Tape is a good thing and it is beneficial for very specific purposes. Here I had my child treating, not even duct tape, but scotch tape as the cure-all for everything in our home. A lot of times, that’s how we view the Bible.

The Bible is beneficial. Paul writes this to Timothy that it is beneficial for all sorts of good things. However, when we view it through the lenses by which we are discussing, a lot of times it can be unbeneficial because we’re all applying it in all sorts of weird ways. We’re treating it like Proverbs exclusively in that we’re just looking for that practical truth to get us through the day.

Even the word “practical” has been overused in so many ways. We have trained arbitrarily, in the past 20 years, that there’s always going to be a practical application in a sermon, or there’s always going to be a practical application in Bible reading. Certainly sometimes there may be, but a lot of times there aren’t any.

Justin Perdue: This is true of many things in the Christian life. We all tend to be very shortsighted in how we approach the Christian life. We tend to overestimate greatly what can happen in the short term. And we underestimate greatly what can happen over the long term. This is true with respect to how we approach the Bible.

Let’s use a better word. Our meditation on the word of God over the course of a lifetime will bear fruit in ways that we don’t really understand and can’t even fathom. It will have nothing to do with how you felt or what your takeaway was from the word on any given day.

To set people free from this bondage of expecting their Bible reading and meditation that day to be life changing. That is just not the norm and frankly, it is a dangerous and difficult way. It’s going to produce more discouragement for people over the course of time than encouragement

Just continue to trust the Lord in all things, including this matter that he will do a good work in your life over the long haul, as you trust Christ.

Jon Moffitt: We’re about to make a transition here. Let me jump in as we change directions here and turn this towards the positive.

What would you say about the Bible promises? What benefits does the Bible give us for our reading of it?

Jimmy Buehler: The Bible actually does not give us an explicit command on an individual level to read the Bible. We just don’t see it. Some of the things that we do see are the practice of meditation, which is another conversation. Some of the other things that we do see are the public reading, teaching, and preaching of Scripture.

To put a bow on our previous segment of unhelpful ways that we read the Bible: one of the most unhelpful ways that we read the Bible as we read it in a vacuum. Jimmy wakes up at 6:00 AM, has a nice strong cup of coffee with a candle lit and lights down low. Then he has this individual time and he reads it in a vacuum because it’s all about his personal spiritual health, it’s all about his personal spiritual discipline. I don’t think people do this purposefully or with an ill will, but it’s read in a vacuum that has no benefit to the body of Christ that you are personally involved in. Insert your church name here.

I think the way that the Bible points itself out as a way that’s beneficial is when the Bible is read, and I would say specifically taught and preached, in a corporate gathering of believers.

Yeah.

When we as fathers and husbands make life-altering decisions – moving states, changing jobs, buying a car – we always make those decisions and do our research on the premise of me being a father and me having a wife. I have to make the decisions based upon those. Even little decisions like gauging if its too much money for this particular thing that I want to participate in. If you’re a good father and you’re a good husband, you naturally think about life in that context of family. But we don’t do this with our relationship with the Father. We think we’re only children: it’s me and God, and we’ll figure this out together. If I have a struggle with sin or if I want to grow in my faith, I need to work on that.

I would even say, to Jimmy’s point, that your Bible reading should be for the benefit and in the context of family. I’m reading this because my family and I would benefit from ways in which I can consider how to build them up into love, because I am consuming our Father’s information that He has given us. I can then use that for worship. I can use that for encouragement. I can use it for those who are discouraged; I can encourage those who are growing. But that’s not how we see it: we see it as a need to get me through my day.

Justin Perdue: It’s all about your own personal development for your own sake. That’s not a biblical concept.

A drum that I’m happy to keep beating is that the common notion for the evangelical is that the real important stuff of the Christian life happens when we’re by ourselves. This certainly is true with respect to how we approach Scripture or God’s word. The common notion is that the most important interaction that I have with the Bible occurs when it’s just me and Jesus with whatever beverage you want. It is commonly believed that private time in the word is the real interaction that I have with Scripture; Sunday morning and gathering with the church are surely beneficial, and God says we should do it, but this private stuff is the real thing. That is not the thrust of the New Testament.

The New Testament speaks in corporate realities. The letters in the New Testament are written to congregations. The mention of Scripture and the ministry of the word is always in the context of the body of Christ, whether it’s public reading, teaching, or even just interacting with it. It’s always assumed it’s together that we do that.

Something that we need to really embrace as believers biblically is that the corporate reality of the gathered church drives my private life, not the other way around. Most people assume that my private devotional life drives everything else. No, the corporate reality drives your private life. That’s a very disorienting thought for many evangelicals but it’s a very freeing one. This is important for a number of reasons – and we’ll continue to unpack why.

Jimmy Buehler: I’m thinking of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness – think of all of these things. The fruits of the Spirit do not make sense if they only exist for the private individual. You cannot be a loving person outside of the communion of saints.  You can’t be patient outside of the communion of the saints because there’s nothing to be patient with. You don’t love yourself; you don’t practice patience on yourself – that certainly doesn’t make sense. Yet this is something that we continually do, when we talk about personal Bible reading, is that it benefits me.

I encourage people in my own body to gather with other saints to study the Bible because I do think that it’s a good way for people to know one another, to be around one another, and to hear how God has uniquely wired that person to offer various insights about the Scripture. But even that is in a corporate or community sense.

Maybe now is a good time to say that none of us approach the Bible with this purely objective intention to see the Bible for what it is. Is there a way that we are supposed to understand and read the Bible?

Justin Perdue: Thinking about the corporate reality, one of the reasons it’s so important for us, particularly as it pertains to reading Scripture is this: if we are a part of a church where the word of God is rightly preached and rightly divided, one of the things that we are learning every Sunday corporately is how we are to read and understand the Bible.

What we want to talk about now are things that we talk about regularly: the big framework of Scripture. There are two different ways that we’ll describe that big framework of the Bible that are incredibly helpful for the individual Christian going to Scripture.

Two things that are massively helpful for you to open your Bible and go to any part of it, have some bearings, and be able to orient yourself in terms of what God is doing and where you fit in it are these: a covenantal framework of Scripture and a redemptive historical framework of the Bible.

Perhaps we could give brief definitions of those things for people that might not be familiar with them then maybe just talk together about how those things are so helpful.

Jon Moffitt: The easy way to describe redemptive historic is that the Bible is about the story of redemption. God made a promise to Eve after the fall that through one of her children, God would restore back what was lost. What was lost in the garden between Adam and Eve? They lost their innocence, their purity, and their fellowship with God, and they were kicked out of the garden. What God promises is that He is going to pay for those sins and restore not only the fellowship but also creation back to not be under the curse anymore. This is Romans 8. What we then read is that promise starts to gain traction: you get clarity in Abraham, then in Moses, and then in David.

You have to ask what seed of Eve is it going to be? Then when you get to the New Testament, you realize it’s the virgin birth when Jesus comes through Mary – that’s the culmination of the Old Testament. The whole thing is a story of redemption – that means to buy back.

When we put the word “history” in there, that means that the story of redemption unfolds through history. It’s not a theological book where it’s broken up into topics, but it is the revelation of what actually happened. That would be a quick definition.

To compare that real quick, redemptive historic understanding of Scripture and reading it that way is contrasted to a me-centered understanding, with the latter being finding myself in the text and where I can be like this person in history. The stories in the Bible become pure moral stories. They become wither great role models or bad role models for you, but it’s a whole me-centered way of reading it versus looking at it as a story of redemption that unfolds in history.

Jimmy Buehler: This is tying back to when we talked about how  not all Bible reading are equally beneficial. We believe that when you read the Bible with this specific lens – that you are reading the unified story of God’s pursuit of sinners through the gospel of Jesus, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and benefiting sinners through their redemption, their forgiveness, by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone – it prevents you from reading the Bible in such a way that you are looking for the spiritual McNugget.

A lot of people would say, “Doesn’t that rip the emotion out of the Bible?” Actually, it does quite the opposite. It helps you see that God made this promise to Abraham that through him, the nations of the world will be blessed – and you’re in that. You’re one of those stars in the sky. You are one of those sands on the beach that God promised to Abraham, and that through Abraham’s line would come the Messiah. Thousands of years ago, God began setting my redemption in motion – praise be to His name. That is the spiritual McNugget that you can walk away with, that as you read even the obscure places in the Old Testament, even the genealogies, what you’re seeing is the promises of God coming true. You’re seeing the promises of God, that He made to Adam and Eve in the garden, coming through the lines of men and women, all coming to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Justin Perdue: The point of the Bible is God’s plan of redemption accomplished through Christ, and then applied to His people by the work of the Holy Spirit. We never want to read any passage of scripture without that main point in view.

When it comes to the covenantal framework, the three big covenants that we understand are in Scripture are the covenant of redemption that happened before the world started where God determined to save a people. Then God made a conditional covenant of works with Adam in the garden that he broke. Then there was the promise of this covenant of grace, where the Messiah would come and would accomplish everything necessary for salvation – and it would be applied by grace, through faith, in him to sinners.

We read all of Scripture with those understandings and it keeps us from individualizing and moralizing too much. It helps us when we come to things related specifically to the nation of Israel that can be confusing if we read Scripture, understanding that this seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman thing goes throughout the entire Old Testament, and that there is this promised One in particular who will come – who he is going to be, what he is going to be like, and what he is going to do. All of Israel’s history is building to that crescendo where at the end of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, it’s this epic cliffhanger of being sent a forerunner, that the great and awesome day of the Lord is coming, and we’re waiting for a son of David who is going to represent the people and be their redemption. It orients us. It’s like a map and a key for us. If we’re sitting under that kind of teaching corporately all the time, and we’re learning these frameworks, it makes it possible for us to go to Scripture and not do some of the silly things with it that we tend to do.

I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of sitting under good teaching and being a part of a local church, where you are learning to understand Bible in a corporate way with the help of your brothers and sisters. You’re not just running off to a mountain side by yourself all the time, thinking that is what’s going to do good for you.

Jon Moffitt: Some of these theological systems that have come out in the last 200 years have come out because people started reading their Bibles disconnected from church history and disconnected from any kind of theological training. You start hearing all kinds of theologies, different views of the Trinity, varying understandings of the end times, and the personal applications that come that have nothing to do with Scripture. We use what is called Biblicism where we are only going to believe exactly what the Bible says, and if the phrase or term is not in there, then I’m not going to use it. You’re throwing out a lot – like church membership and the Trinity – just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say this.

What happens when you appropriately understand the intention of God’s word? Your consumption of it will be so much more enjoyable because you actually understand what’s going on and therefore your understanding will then breed greater knowledge. You start to read Scripture and understand that God is unfolding this promise or this covenant that He has given to the world, which is called the covenant of grace, in that God is going to redeem His people – and this is an unconditional promise that it’s not based upon words, not based upon obedience to the Law, not based upon obedience to circumcision, and it is not a fulfillment on their part.

God is going to restore back the fellowship that we destroyed based upon His mercy and grace. How does that happen? Those are the intentions of God’s word. John even says in his gospel, “I write these things that you may believe.” He doesn’t write them so that you may use them for personal application. The Bible is designed so that your faith in your Savior is increasing all the more. The more we trust in Christ, the more rest we will have; the less we trust in Christ, the more anxiety we are going to have. Most people cannot rest in Jesus Christ because they don’t find him trustworthy. I know that’s a weird and bold statement, but it’s true. The whole Bible is designed to prove that God is faithful when we are faithless. Understanding your Bible the right way will increase that as you read it.

Justin Perdue: We come to the Scripture not for some sort of obscure personal application. As John writes in his gospel, “These things are written so that you might believe.” He even says in his epistle, “I write these things to you so that you might know.” Know what? That you are safe. That Jesus is the Son of God, and that you’re in him. That is why he is writing this letter.

Go to your Bible looking for these things: God is faithful, our God is a Redeemer, Jesus is able and mighty to save, Jesus is sufficient and he’s enough for me. It’s about faith. It’s about trust in Christ. It’s about knowing that I’m safe. It’s about assurance.

Of course there are things that I can glean from God’s Law as a guide for my life or for how I am to live. But the main emphasis is Christ, redemption, faith, and assurance. I don’t think that we often go to the Bible looking for those things.

Jimmy Buehler: As we close this out and move into the members portion, I’m going to drop something: personal Bible reading is not necessarily the litmus test of a mature and faithful Christian.

Jon Moffitt: Let me put it this way: when you go to your pastor or someone in your church and tell them you’re struggling and they ask you how your Bible reading is – is that what you’re talking about?

Justin Perdue: Or when I ask somebody how they’re doing, and the first thing that they respond to me with is what they’re reading. Lovingly, brother or sister, that’s not what I asked you. I asked you how you’re thriving.

I hope this has been a good conversation for people as you’ve listened. We thank you for tuning in and we hope that you continue to tune in and listen to Theocast is we aim to have a conversation like this every week.

We are about to head now over to the aforementioned members podcast. You might not even know what that is. You could find more information about our membership at our website theocast.org. If you are a total access member, we look forward to having a conversation with you over there in the members area.

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