On Reading Scripture and Living for God Through Christ
Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. - Psalm 119:129
Maybe you have asked yourself, “How do preachers study the Bible and not get bored? It’s hard enough to read it, never mind studying 5 verses and preaching for 50 minutes!” But there is an open secret among faithful preachers, teachers, and students of the Bible all around the world. I’ll let you in on it: The Bible is an inexhaustible mine of the richest and most important knowledge in the universe - the revelation of the eternal and triune God.
In a helpful book entitled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper writes, “We don’t think until we are confronted with a problem.” The point is not that our minds do not work unless we are actively working on a problem, but that the best thinking happens when we are on a quest to answer a question. How appropriate that the very word “quest” is embedded in the word itself!
Because the Bible is the revelation of the eternal and triune God, there can be no knowledge more true, interesting, captivating, amazing, wonderful, authoritative, delicious, instructive, useful, convicting, joyful, important, hopeful, accurate, essential, helpful, fascinating, or revealing than what we find in Scripture. Whether we find wonders in the Bible is directly dependent on the questions we ask of it. The Bible does not fail to amaze us because it is unimpressive, but because we are uninquisitive.
By way of illustration, imagine one book and two people: the book is a survival guide full of information on how to survive in a desert. The first person lives in a loft in the city directly above a coffee shop. This person might find the guide amusing or interesting, but it’s easy to see why there’s nothing particularly amazing about the survival guide. The book answers questions this person doesn’t have, so we understand intuitively why they don’t find the book interesting or important. It’s simply not needed.
But the second person is stranded in the desert and stumbles upon the book in the sand. To the stranded person, this book represents the key to life: how to get water, where to find food, how to build a shelter, where to get help. The book has answers to this person’s most pressing questions!
In light of this illustration, perhaps we can begin to understand why the psalmist calls God’s testimonies “wonderful”. What questions are more pressing than, “Where do I come from?”, “What is wrong with the world?”, “Is there hope?”, “How should I live?”, “Where do I find happiness?” and “What happens when I die?” The Bible answers all these questions, and in spectacular fashion.
And not only does Scripture answer these, but it also shows us God himself. Scripture is the revelation of God to the world. It is God peeling back the curtain that divides the eternal from the limited, the infinite from the finite, the transcendent from the inferior, the creator from the creature.
The Bible may be summed up as the authoritative and comprehensive account of the gospel. From Genesis to Revelation we find recorded for us from God himself all we need to know for life and godliness. The Bible is not less than a sort of survival guide, but it is inexpressibly more. God’s testimonies contain the definitive and authoritative answers to the world’s most pressing questions. Are we asking them of the Bible, or are you finding them somewhere else?
Proverbs 25:2: It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. (ESV)
If the Bible is a mine filled with gold and jewels, then questions are the pickaxes and shovels that bring them to the surface. And every once in while you will ask a question that explodes a text open like TNT, and you sit calmly in your chair while gem-filled debris showers down on your mind. To fail to ask questions of what we read is like arriving at the spot where the treasure is buried and failing to pick up the shovel.
In every part of the Bible you will find that tracing the story, themes and instructions will lead you to the keystone that holds it all together: the finished work and imminent appearing of Christ Jesus our Lord. The cross is to the Bible what the center pole is to a big top circus tent: it holds everything together and stands in the most prominent place.
Why don’t we ask questions naturally? Isn’t that what children do? Indeed children do, but isn’t so much of growing up unlearning tendencies present almost from birth? I suspect that because we believe that because the Bible is inspired it is disrespectful to ask questions, so we sacrifice understanding to maintain a healthy respect. But can this be anything other than a ploy of the devil? The consequence is that reading God’s Word makes us feel further from Him rather than closer! As a result, the Bible begins to fall into the same category as, say, trigonometry. Everyone says you have to know it, but you never use it. When you study it, you’re not questioning whether it’s true; you just don’t understand it. And because you don’t understand it and seem to get on well enough without it, you lose interest in knowing it at all.
Incredibly, we can be within arm’s reach of incalculable value, yet all we can muster is a figurative shrug of the shoulders.
Ask the Most Important Questions
“Ok”, you say, “I agree I should be asking questions when I read. But what questions should I ask?” I’m glad you asked! To answer this question, the following is a quote from the final address of one pastor serving as chaplain in Australia in 1792. In it he is referring to 1 Peter 1:12, Revelation 7:9-17 and 14:11:
Oh, I entreat you, brethren, to consider what is contained in these two words, salvation and damnation! The one implies every thing that an immortal soul can want or desire to make it happy. The other includes an idea, the most gloomy and dreadful that can be conceived. The former will be the admiration of angels, and the song and joy of the redeemed; the latter will be the torment of devils, and of all impenitent sinners, for ever and ever.
There are many things mentioned in the passages on which he bases his entreaty, but we intuitively understand why asking the question, “What do these passages say about salvation and damnation?” is more important than asking, for example, “How tall are the angels in God’s throne room?” The latter question is not evil, but it is far less pressing for famished and perishing souls. Not all questions are created equal. Nor are shovels. Some are flimsy and turn up little. If we’re going to read the most important book then we will surely want to ask the most important questions.
The first question I recommend asking is this; “What does the passage say?” It is necessary to ask this question to move onto the next one: “What concerns did this passage address for its original readers?” Once I have a sufficient grasp of the answer to this question I can ask, “What do I share in common with the people for whom or about whom this was written?” These questions may not seem like much; but then again, neither does a shovel. As some are fond of saying, "Don’t knock it ‘til you try it." You can also ask of any passage, “What does this have to do with Christ?” and immerse yourself easily enough in a scriptural vein lined all along the way with precious gems, each calling glitteringly for your attention.
Careful listening to faithful preaching is probably the most underrated and underused method for learning to read the Bible. Faithful preaching opens God’s Word and shows its meaning. If you listen carefully to faithful preaching, you will learn to ask the same questions that the preachers ask. In this way, you will acquire questions like a handyman acquires tools. Just like doing each job right requires the best tools, so understanding each text well requires asking the best questions.
Receive the Most Important Answers
We have a constant need for God’s help to live for God through Christ. Therefore we do well to open the Bible with a prayerful awareness that we are sinners in need of the gospel, Christ’s ambassadors in need of instructions. as Christ’s sheep thirsty for the water of life, a a wandering people hungry for bread from heaven, redeemed sinners eager to put off the works of the flesh, pilgrims in need of spiritual guidance, worshippers desiring a glimpse of the glory of God. As we do so, we find that amazingly, incredibly, glory be to God, this is precisely what we find in Scripture! In short, we find God’s Word to be full of wonders. And through the illumination and sanctifying world of the Spirit, we will desire not only to read these wonderful testimonies, but also keep them.
The path to knowing and communing with God leads straight through Scripture. This is by God’s design. The person who meditates deepest benefits the most; the person who goes the fastest and furthest makes the smallest impression; whoever would find the most precious jewels must dig deepest. That means asking questions of the text, and not just any questions, but the most important ones. The more you learn the skill of asking questions, the more you will see the sense in turning around the original question. It is not, “How do preachers study the Bible and not get bored?”, but “How do preachers stop in time to write a sermon?”
 I have benefitted immensely in my study from Brian Chappell’s “Fallen Condition Focus”. These questions are adapted from his article here: https://www.preaching.com/articles/the-fallen-condition-focus-and-the-purpose-of-the-sermon/