Six GROWTH practices: Go, Read, Obey, Witness, Trust, Humble Yourself
Read God’s Word for You
God’s Word comes in two forms. One is the familiar Bible of almost 800,000 words over about 1,000 pages. The other is the Word that was God expressing himself in creation and becoming flesh in Jesus. This Word is the creative force that changes lives today.
There are two ways to read the Bible. One is for information. The other is for formation. The amount of information is overwhelming, especially those covering the thousand years of the Old Testament. The New Testament is only one-fifth the total length and is easier, covering only about seventy years. I don’t recommend spending much time on the Old Testament. After all, it was the Old Deal God made with his people. That didn’t work. So God gave us the New Deal focused on Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah.
I also don’t recommend reading the Bible from cover to cover, either. Most readers get bogged down in Leviticus and Numbers and give up. It is a collection of God-inspired writings of different types of literature, including the poetry of the Psalms and the symbolism of Revelation, books which were not meant to be taken literally. Every book needs to be interpreted according to the type of literature it is. Yet Scripture is infallible in what it teaches about the relation between God and his people.
Stay with that keyword “inspired,” meaning in-Spirited. It reflects the Word as the creative force that dwells among us. It is the Word through which all things were made. Jesus was that Word when he lived among us. Ascended, he and the Father now delegate that creative force to his Spirit, who dwells among us today. The writers of the various book were moved by the Spirit to convey God’s truths as that was revealed to each.
Here’s the issue. Will the readers of the 800,00 words be creatively “in-Spirited” also? They will if they are willing to move beyond reading for information to reading for formation. This amounts to being shaped by the Spirit.
Paul urged that his readers “be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2). We add, his will for you. It is certainly true for all people. But when you are reading for formation, the emphasis is on what this creative Word means for you personally. How will your life be transformed by what you are hearing from God? Elsewhere, Paul described how “we are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (1 Cor 3: 18).
How do you read God’s Word in order to be shaped by the Spirit? Slowly and with the realization that the Spirit comes at his initiative. What you can do is take the initiative to place yourself in the Spirit’s workshop. Reading by yourself is a good start. Add to this by carefully reading a well-written devotional that interprets a passage and applies it to daily living. But the best workshop is where the Word is being shared and applied by others around you. That happens especially in small groups that discuss the meaning of a particular Word for them personally.
Traditionally, most believers absorbed God’s truth through listening to sermons. In earlier centuries most believers were illiterate. Still today in our developed society many still cannot read well. After all, reading is a learned skill. Also, some are dyslexic. My barber once told me it took him a whole hour to read a magazine article. The usual advice to just ”read the Word” has limited value.
Sermons can be productive. But too often they stay focused on conveying information. The payoff is the application, which many preachers don’t get around to. As a preacher, I earlier thought my job was to announce biblical truths. Over the years I have grown to more conscious of the need to offer practical illustrations and applications, and I admire preachers who do that well. Preaching for formation is an advanced skill.
My own approach to the formative Word is unusual in that I enjoy and am trained to be analytical—trying to figure out how something works. After writing books about understanding church leadership, I felt called to figure out how the Spirit works in churches. This I did for two years, working through Paul’s 169 references to the Spirit as studied by Gordon Fee in his book God’s Empowering Presence. After writing three books on the Spirit, I was in-Spirited to turn those insights into these short essays. I love the challenge of writing blogs like they engaging and, I hope, easily understood.
Bottom line: Find a way to experience God’s Word that you enjoy. Don’t slavishly follow someone else’s technique. If it doesn’t fit, you probably won’t do it long. Let the Spirit guide you into what works to get yourself where the Spirit can transform you.
Kristine McAfee says
I do have to say that I used to think the Old Testament wasn’t very relevant and would tend to skip over it, but then I did a few in-depth studies on it and realized how critical it really was to my understanding of so many key biblical teachings, especially understanding who God really is.
I would argue that some doctrines of Scripture are best understood only from the OT. We need the OT to fully understand God’s work in history. And when we read the OT and NT, we see that it’s the same God in both. The OT foreshadows the “good news” so much and when we have the context of the OT, we see that Jesus came to fulfill what was said in the OT. The entire OT points to Jesus.
The OT also reveals God’s love and character. It shows us how God calls his people to live holy lives, and offers grace time and again when they fall short.
The OT sets the stage for the NT. The NT t is the continuation of a story that began in Genesis. It is the fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem humanity and conquer sin.
And again, it goes back to the history of our faith and provides us with so much background as to why we have sin, why we need God, etc.
Lastly, I will say that when we are reading scripture, the way we are approaching it also has a big impact on what we read. Our we reading it through a self-focused lens? Our we looking for how this passage of scripture will help/impact/influence me? That’s not entirely bad, but we need to delve into the Word with an attitude of earnest learning and ask the Holy Spirit to show us what God wants to reveal to us.
EVERY passage of Scripture, EVERY book reveals something to us about who God is. Nothing should be left out or skipped. You won’t understand everything the first time you read it, but that’s okay. The Bible wasn’t meant to be read just one time, but multiple times throughout our lives.
David Luecke says
Wow! You are serious about your faith and your Bible. God bless you. But I think you will have more spiritual payoff working with the NT, especially the Gospels. Some cautions about the OT. The God portrayed there is often a vengeful God who punishes for not obeying his commands. God is the one who decided to emphasize his love and forgiveness in the NT. The ultimate expression of OT relation to God is the Pharisees. Jesus had scorn for them. In my terminology, the OT has lots of information that does not led to formation. You get to the personal payoff sooner with NT.
Shari Wojslaw says
I grew up Catholic and never knew you could read the Bible yourself. My ninth grade summer reading list included Genesis. I hesitantly got a Bible and of course, the day I opened it, there was a huge thunderstorm! It made me a little tense. I forgot it after that until I was in my 20’s and checking out all kinds of religion texts. And did the usual “bogging” down in the Old Testament.
Finally in my 30’s I took a Crossways course which helped me understand a great deal of both the Old and New Testaments. I began to actually mark up my Bible with notes. (that was another first as I was taught NEVER to write in a book !) After that, I read through the Bible many times using sources such as Daily Walk.
Then I realized I really wasn’t growing. So I tried other daily devotional methods such as Oswald Chambers, Billy Graham, and Henri Nouwen. Those expanded my viewpoints.
Now I mix and match. Sometimes it is a specific book that I want to understand better. Sometimes it is a verse that I explore. I have found the internet is amazing for giving me many different interpretations that help me in understanding.
And sometimes I just pick it up in prayer and see where it leads me.
I think I have learned 3 things.
There is no right way to read the Bible.
The right way for you will change during your life.
Reading the Bible is important for growth
David Luecke says
You offer a textbook example of how to read the Bible for personal payoff. Experiment to find out what works for you. Probe to get more insight into your application questions.
Frank Janzow says
I love everything you said here!! Scripture and preaching are not just for information but for transformation. In my experience, Christian people today need more guidance, which means more application. I wonder what percent of Paul’s letters wind up being application. Seems like a lot to me. I always printed the manuscript for my sermons. Maybe ten to twelve copies would be taken by folks after worship. When I switched to life application preaching more like 150 copies plus would be picked up. Some Bible studies would use them for discussion, not from my congregation. And one person’s grandson who was incarcerated started a discussion group in prison using them. I’m sure the Holy Spirit speaks to people through every type of preaching, but clearly there is a hunger for the kind of proclamation that changes people’s thinking and their lives. Thanks for this reflection!
David Luecke says
Very interesting numbers for those who picked up written versions of your sermons–from ten to 150 when you made applications. It is a professional breakthrough for many pastors when they discover applications and then preach about them in an engaging way. In many cases, they have never experienced application.
Lee Larsen says
We spent last week up at Camp Luther in Three Lakes, WI. We are part of the Family Camp with the same week every year. We happen to have an awesome pastor from a new start up church in the Madison area. Every morning we had Christian growth and he centered the week’s study on Judges. A downward spiral of leadership with history always repeating itself. So much of this study could have been talking about today’s world as we witness what happens to humanity when we drift further and further from God. So there is great value in the Old Testament, but it is something that should be covered in a well led Bible study to glean out the important points and not get bogged down in all the rest.
David Luecke says
The OT certainly calls God’s people to account. But it doesn’t do the Gospel solution very well.
Peter Herz says
Far be it from me to disparage the use of the New Testament. Had I money, I’d take a Ph. d. In NT. But, Reading the New Testament while largely ignoring the Old Testament is like having a roof without walls and foundation. Bogged down in Leviticus? Consider how this led the OT believers to look forward to the complete atonement which would come with the Messiah. Bogged down with the genealogies? Consider how God concerns himself with actual people—people with names. Consider as well how the Apostles, Evangelists, And Jesus himself appeal to the Old Testament!
David Luecke says
For personal spiritual growth, the NT has the biggest most immediate payoff. That is my criterion.