It is of great importance for the welfare of our souls that we should have an appetite for the Holy Scriptures. Much, however, depends upon the spirit and attitude with which we approach them. It is possible to study the Bible in schoolboy fashion, just as people learn geology or botany. I do not want to encourage you to do that; there is already too much of it. It is well known that the Bereans searched the Scriptures. However, we are not only told that they searched, but why they searched. Having heard the preaching of Paul and Silas, they were neither sceptical or indifferent, for they received the word with “all readiness of mind, daily searching the scriptures if these things were so” (Acts 17: 11). They searched, not like the historian who pores over an old will with curiosity or scientific interest, but like the person who has been told that a great legacy has been bequeathed to him in it. I thank God if you have received the report of the marvellous blessings of His grace, but fear that some of you have not been sufficiently interested in them to search the Scriptures daily to see whether these things are so. The result is that you are not as stable as you ought to be, and if you were challenged as to some of the blessings which you think you have received, you might not be able to give a very good “account of the hope that [is] in you” (1 Pet. 3: 15).
There is often a carelessness amongst the children of God as to divine things which has no parallel in the ordinary affairs of life. If a man buys an estate he does not content himself with the bare word of the vendor––he will have the deeds searched with the utmost care to make quite sure the title is good. If a man has property left him in another country, and a detailed account of it is sent to him, you may be sure that he will read it through carefully, and probably more than once. If I were to go to some wealthy businessman and tell him that the Queen had conferred a knighthood on him, he would insist on seeing the official documents to verify the statement. The more important a thing is, the more anxious people are to be sure about it. Thus I think that if we got a right sense of the immensity of the very smallest bit of Christian blessing we would go to the Scriptures as the Bereans did to make quite sure that these things were so. I think that where there is carelessness as to this, it indicates that we do not have a right sense in our hearts of the greatness of Christian blessings––or if we did they would become matters of more earnest and anxious inquiry.
I am often surprised that Christians who have listened for years––apparently with interest and attention––to ministry of God’s Word seem to know so little of divine things. They seem to enjoy the ministry, their faces are bright in the meetings, and yet when you come to talk to them you find that very little of it has got into their souls. I believe the secret is that they listen to what is said, but value it so little that they do not take the trouble of going to the Scriptures to verify it for themselves. Ministry of the Word has its place, but I do not believe that any ministry will be of permanent profit to our souls if it is not followed by searching of the Scriptures.
In 2 Tim. 1: 13, Paul exhorts his child in the faith to “have an outline of sound words”. Timothy was to have in his mind an outline of the truth so that it was clear before him. When I was at school we sometimes had to draw outline maps from memory, and very strange outlines used to be presented that would have puzzled anyone to tell what country they were intended to be like. Now suppose someone asked you to give an outline of Christianity, could you do it? It is the will of God that we should have a clear outline of the truth before our minds, and we cannot have this without searching the Scriptures. Without this, our thoughts on divine things will be vague and indefinite, and we may become the prey of some plausible system of error. If we desire to be tenacious of the truth, it is more necessary than ever that we should search the Scriptures “daily”.
Searching gives the idea of a definite object being in view. A great deal of Bible reading is profitless because it is aimless. The reader is seeking for nothing and finds nothing. I believe that we profit most when our souls are interested in certain subjects, and exercised before the Lord about them, and we turn to the Scriptures to search whether these things are so. There are surely many things with each one of us that we are anxious to have divine light upon. Many of us do not know the doctrines of Scripture very clearly, questions arise as to practical details in our walk, and each of us ought to be spiritually exercised as to our soul experiences––all these things should oblige us to search the Scriptures.
Remember, however, that it must be daily. I press upon you the necessity for the daily study of the Scriptures. You cannot maintain a vacuum in your mind. If it is not occupied with divine things it will be occupied with human or earthly things. The habit of searching the Scriptures grows upon you as you go on with it, but if you neglect it you will soon lose your relish for it. I have heard Christians say something like this: “I wish I could enjoy the Word of God more. When I read my Bible I don’t get the blessing that some people do. I hear so–and–so say how his soul is refreshed by the Word, but I don’t get it”. I like to ask such persons, “How often do you read the Bible? Once a week?” The one who reads his Bible most is the one who enjoys it most, and turns to it with the greatest delight. On the other hand, if you neglect the Bible today, you will have less taste for it tomorrow, still less the day after and so on, until it becomes a dry book to you. You must make a point of being in the company of the Scriptures every day. It is not a question of a great deal––perhaps you have not the time for that––but you must have it daily.
It is a very difficult thing for anyone to attempt to prescribe for another the proper method of studying Scripture. The infinite depths of Holy Scripture, like the exhaustless resources that are in God, and the boundless glories seen in Christ, are only unfolded to faith and need. This makes it so very simple. It is not cleverness, or intellectual power that is needed but the artless simplicity of a little child. The One who indited the Holy Scriptures must open our understandings to receive their precious teaching––and this He will do, if we only wait on Him in real earnestness of heart.
We must never lose sight of the important fact that it is as we act on what we know that our knowledge will increase. It will never do to sit down like a bookworm to read the Bible. We may store our intellect with biblical knowledge, and we may have the doctrines of the Word of God and the letter of Scripture at our fingertips, without one particle of spiritual power. We must go to Scripture as a thirsty man goes to a well, as a hungry man goes to a meal as a mariner goes to a chart. We must go to it because we cannot do without it. We go, not merely to study, but to feed. As the newborn babe desires the milk by which it is to grow, so the instincts of the divine nature lead us naturally to the Word of God.
Hence it can be seen how very real and practical is this question of how to study Scripture. It is intimately connected with our entire moral and spiritual condition, our daily walk, and our actual habits and ways. God has given us His Word to form our character, to govern our conduct, and shape our course; and therefore if the Word does not have a formative influence and a governing power over us, it is the height of folly to think of storing up a quantity of Scriptural knowledge in the intellect. It can only puff us up, and deceive us. It is a most dangerous thing to traffic in unfelt truth; it induces a heartless indifference, levity of spirit, insensibility of conscience––perfectly appalling to people of serious piety. There is nothing that tends so much to throw us completely into the hands of the enemy as a quantity of head knowledge of truth, without a tender conscience, a true heart and an upright mind. The mere profession of truth which does not act on the conscience, and come out in the life, is one of the special dangers of the day in which our lot is cast. Better, by far, only to know a little in reality and power, than profess a quantity of truth that lies powerless in the region of understanding, exerting no formative influence upon the life. I would much rather be honestly in Romans 7, than fictitiously in chapter 8. In the former case I am sure to come right, but in the latter there is no telling what I may come to.
As to the question of making use of human writings to help us in the study of Scripture, great caution is needed. No doubt the Lord may, and does make use of the writings of His servants, just as he uses their oral ministry, for our instruction and edification. Indeed, in the present broken and divided state of the Church, it is wonderful to mark the Lord’s rich grace and tender care in feeding His beloved people with the writings of His servants. I repeat, however, that great caution is needed, with earnest waiting on the Lord, that we may not abuse so precious a gift, that it may not lead us to trade on borrowed capital. If we are really dependent upon God, He will give us the right thing; He will put the right book into our hands; He will feed us with food convenient for us. Thus we receive it from Himself, and hold it in communion with Himself. It is fresh, living, powerful, formative; it tells on the heart, and shines in the life; and we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Precious growth! Would there were more of it!
Finally, we have to remember that Holy Scripture is the voice of God, and the written Word is the transcript of the living Word. It is only by the Holy Spirit’s teaching that we can really understand Scripture, and He reveals its living depths to faith and need. Let us never forget this.
This paper may fall into the hands of some who can read, but who never read the Bible. Are you one of them? Now just as the health of a man’s body may be known by his appetite, so the health of his soul can be seen in his treatment of the Bible. Whatever you say, your neglected Bible is plain evidence that you do not love God. Others, thankfully, are willing to read, but want advice on the subject. Let me give you a few hints.
For one thing, begin reading your Bible this very day. The way to do a thing is to do it, and the way to read the Bible is to actually read it. It is not meaning, or wishing, or resolving, or intending, or thinking about it which will advance you one step. You must positively read. If you cannot read yourself, you must persuade somebody else to read to you. But one way or another, through eye or ears, the words of Scripture must actually pass before your mind.
For another thing, read the Bible with an earnest desire to understand it. Think not for a moment that the great object is to turn over a certain quantity of printed paper, and that it matters nothing whether you understand it or not. Some ignorant people seem to fancy that all is done if they clear off so many chapters every day, though they may not have a clue what they are all about! This is turning Bible reading into a mere form. Settle it down in your mind as a general principle, that a Bible not understood is a Bible that does no good. Say to yourself often as you read, “what is all this about?” Dig for meaning like a man digging for Australian gold. Work hard and do not give up in a hurry.
For another thing, read the Bible with childlike faith and humility. Open your heart as you open God’s book, and say Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. Resolve to believe implicitly whatever you find there, however much it may counter your own prejudices. Resolve to receive heartily every statement of truth, whether you like it or not. Beware of that miserable habit of mind into which some readers of the Bible fall. They receive some doctrines because they like them, and reject others because they are condemning to themselves, or to some lover, relation or friend. At this rate the Bible is useless. Are we to be judges of what ought to be in the Word? Do we know better than God? Settle it down in your mind that you will receive all and believe all, and what you cannot understand you will take on trust. Remember when you pray, you are speaking to God and God hears you, but when you read, God is speaking to you, and your place is to listen.
For another thing, read the Bible in a spirit of obedience and self–application. Sit down to the study of it with a daily determination that you will live by its rules, rest on its statements, and act on its commands. Consider, as you travel through every chapter, how does this affect my position and course of conduct? What does this teach me? It is poor work to read the Bible from mere curiosity, and for speculative purposes, in order to fill your head and store your mind with opinions, while you do not allow the book to influence your heart and life. That Bible is read best which is practised most.
For another thing, read the Bible daily. Make it part of every day’s business to read and meditate on some portion of God’s Word. This is as needful every day for our souls as food and clothing are for our bodies. Yesterday’s bread will not feed the labourer today, and today’s bread will not feed the labourer tomorrow. Do as the Israelites did in the wilderness. Gather your manna fresh every morning. Choose your own seasons and hours. Do not scramble over and hurry your reading. Give your Bible the best and not the worst part of your time. But whatever plan you pursue, let it be a rule of your life to read the Bible every day.
For another thing, read all the Bible, and read it in an orderly way. I fear there are many parts of the Word which some people never read at all. This is, to say the least, a very presumptuous habit. “Every scripture [is] divinely inspired, and profitable”, (2 Tim. 3: 16). To this habit may be traced that want of broad, well–proportioned views of truth, which is so common in this day. Some people’s Bible reading is a system of perpetual dipping and picking. They do not seem to have an idea of regularly going through the whole book.
For another thing, read the Bible fairly and honestly. Determine to take everything in its plain, obvious meaning, and regard all forced interpretations with great suspicion. As a general rule, whatever a verse of the Bible seems to mean, it does mean. The right way of interpreting Scripture is to take it as we find it, without any attempt to force it into any particular system. Indeed when a literal construction will stand, the furthest from the literal is commonly the worst!
Above all, read the Bible with Christ continually in view. The primary object of all Scripture is to testify of the Lord Jesus. Old Testament ceremonies are shadows of Christ. Old Testament judges and deliverers are types of Christ. Old Testament prophesies are full of Christ’s sufferings, and of His glory to come. The first and second advents, the Lord’s humiliation and kingdom, the cross and the crown, shine forth everywhere in the Bible. Remember this rule, and you will read the Bible rightly.