I have heard many pastors and preachers tell of how much they love reading the Bible, how it’s a living word to them, and how every time they read it, it comes alive to them and they get something new and fresh from it. I have a dirty secret; that doesn’t happen for me. Yes, I love reading the Bible, but what generally happens is that I pick it up, and I go: I know this. I’ve read it, many many times, forward and backwards, in English and Japanese, Greek and Hebrew. This is not new information for me.
But I’m not sure that I actually need a fresh revelation right now. And I’m not sure that’s what God wants for me either. I don’t think God wants me to come up with a new, creative interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan; he just wants me to love my neighbour. I don’t think I need to notice something new about going into the world and making disciples of all nations; I just need to go, and do it.
The problem isn’t understanding, it’s obedience. God can give me a fresh revelation just as soon as I’ve finished carrying out the old one.
And actually, I wonder that this whole consumerist hankering for a fresh payout from the Biblical slot machine is really all that healthy; how many more David Koreshs and Jim Joneses do we need with their unique ideas of what the Bible really says?
This all made me wonder what the Bible says about reading the Bible. As far as I can tell, we only see Jesus reading the Bible once, when someone handed him a sermon text, and he then immediately applied it to himself. (Ah, so that’s where we get that habit from.) He spends a lot of time in prayer before God, but I don’t see a lot of time spent poring over the pages of the Bible. In fact, there really isn’t much personal, individual Bible reading in the NT at all: the only example I can find is the Ethiopian eunuch—but all that shows us is how ineffective personal Bible reading is because he didn’t understand what he was reading.
No, much more often we see the Bible read in community, in synagogues, in Temples, in mass readings before the people of Israel, the Bereans fact-checking the preacher. (Why didn’t we pick up that habit?) And that’s where the Bible really comes alive to me too. Recently I made the mistake of preparing a sermon by shutting myself away with the Bible (and dictionaries and commentaries, of course) and coming up with what I think it was about, and thankfully I talked it over with my wife before I preached the thing and was able to get back from the garden path before I led others there too. Because once you’ve preached it, it’s too late.
After that mistake I swore to myself (again) that I would only preach on passages I had discussed in community. (I’m aware that using commentaries is discussing the Bible with a community stretched across time, but the point remains.)
On Monday, a bunch of us looked together at Genesis 3, and in particular verse 6. One of Eve’s problems was that she didn’t really know what God had said and ended up misquoting Him (to be fair, she didn’t even exist when He had said it), but the other problem is that she grasped for something which looked good, tasted good, and was going to give her understanding. All good things, but in doing so, she failed to obey the instructions that God had given her.
The problem isn’t understanding, it’s obedience.