HOW TO READ THE BIBLE
The Second Letter from Paul to Timothy, Chapter 3 Verses 16 & 17:-
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
In this tape, and those following it, we shall be studying the Scriptures in order to try and find out how to study the Scriptures. This is a very practical approach. I have often given the illustration that I can feed a man with fish, but that it is far better that I teach the man to fish so that he will not be hungry again. It is one thing for you to hear me as I expound the Word of God. That is tremendous and in that sense I feed you with fish. But in these tapes I am not just going to feed you with fish; I am going to teach you how to fish. In that sense there is a great possibility that you will never be hungry again.
Now, when we look at the Word of God, how do we read it? What is our attitude to it? The one fact that I understand from the very beginning of the Bible is that man is made in God’s image. Man then is a person. Man is a communicating person for God, and God then holds fellowship with His man. The very first thing that we find out in the Book of Genesis about man, is that he and God walked together in the cool of the garden. And so the first thing that we should understand about man is that he is able to receive a communication from God. I think we have really got to understand that. That is the foundation. We are able to receive a communication from God. It is the way we have been made. God made us in His image and in His likeness, and that means that He is able to talk to us and we to Him. We can be one with Him; we can come together; we can communicate.
Many people feel that only an elite few are able to hear from God. That is the most damnable heresy that has come down through all the twisted, distorted doctrines of a Church that has fallen away from God. There is no elite in the Church of God. In the true Body of Christ there is no hierarchy. There are no gurus. The Church of Jesus Christ is one of the only religions in the world that does not have an elite. You do not have a set of people who tell you what God has to say. You can know for yourself. There is within you what we call a spirit. Now think about that, every one of you. Even you young people, I want you to know that inside you there is a spirit, and that spirit is a receiving station. God is the eternal transmitter and you are the receiving station. And you can hear God speak to you for yourself. God your Creator has revealed Himself.
It is no shock to me to find among men a Book that claims to be the Word of God. That is no shock to me because if God is the communicator and He made me a communicator, I would expect that He would talk to me. If God made me in His image and in His likeness; if God made me in such a way that I could receive from Him; then I would expect to find somewhere on the face of this earth His communication. That really is logic, and I find among the words of men that there is one Book, and only one, that claims to be the Word of God. There are many sacred books in the world. There are many books that claim to be the foundation of a religion. But no other book apart from the Bible claims to be the Word from God. And as I come to the Bible I find that God has revealed Himself.
What is my Maker like in His character? In His personality? Who is this Person who created me? Well there is a Book, set among men, where God has said, ‘Here I am. This is what I am like.’ Now of course, because God is infinite – that is, He is boundless and limitless – I believe there are limitless things that God has not told us about Himself. But God has told us all we need to know and, in a Book called the Bible, God has revealed Himself and said ‘this is what I am like’. So I can know everything I need to know about my Creator.
Secondly, God has shown me who I am. Quite frankly, apart from the Bible, I have not got a clue who I am. One day I think I am this and another day I think I am that. I oscillate. I am backwards and forwards. But the moment I come to the Bible, God shows me who I am, and that makes sense to me. If God made me it makes sense to me that He told me what I am like, who I am, what my potential is, where I came from.
Thirdly, God has shown us the nature of this universe. When I look at all of creation, when I look out to the universe and see the stars, it makes sense to me that the One who made it all has told me where it came from. So now I can look at God, I can look at myself, I can look at the universe, and I can get it all in perspective.
Now, God has said all of that in a Book, and that is what these tapes are all about is that. It is so simple but it revolutionised my life. God has said that in a Book. Now notice what He did not do. He did not reveal all that to us in a fleeting vision. I know some of you would love to have a vision, wouldn’t you? Oh yes, fantastic. But I think a vision would not really be too meaningful. I mean, you tell me the vision you had last night. Are you sure you remember everything you saw in that vision? Are you sure? I could get a lawyer and begin to question you and you would soon be cross-examining yourself on what you supposedly saw last night. And by this time next month that vision would have grown greatly. You know, visions are very, very fleeting things – they are here today, they are gone immediately.
If God spoke to us in visions then either we would forget them or we would embellish them but we would not for long remember exactly what they were. God does not speak to us in subjective sensations, in experiences. But of course I know that in some Christian circles everybody longs for a sensation, an experience. I suppose most of us have at one time in our lives felt God speaking to us. It was a subjective sensation and we could walk away and say that on that day God spoke to us.
Let me state that God does not speak through subjective experiences. All of those things are mere corollaries on the side. They are good: I am glad that they happened to you, but they are neither here nor there. If you had a vision, good. I am glad you had it. If you felt God’s presence; if you sensed something going through the very nerves of your body; I am glad for you. But that is not how God speaks. That may happen once in a lifetime and never again, and you should never seek to have it happen again because it is not the way God speaks. If it happened, it happened from God, and if God gives it to you, that is good. If He never gives it again, that is good too. It is neither here nor there. But there is a way that God speaks that is not dependent on a fleeting vision or upon a subjective experience. He has spoken to us in a Book.
When I found that Book I was fifteen years old, and now I am whatever age I am and the Book is still there. It is an objective Book. It does not matter what I feel today. It does not matter how much I sense of God’s presence. The Book is still there. Here is a Book in which God has spoken, and I can return to that Book and I can study it. I can ponder it and I can say ‘I think it says that’, and I can go back to check if it did say that. It is not something that happened to me so subjectively that I have to remember it is there. I can read it. I can study it. I can read it again. I can go back to it and ponder it. I can turn it over inside of me. God has spoken in a Book.
Now, that may be so obvious but it is the foundation of all that I am going to say on these tapes. That is the way that God has chosen to speak. A Book. And the only way to understand what God has said is to understand that He spoke in a Book. Out of all the ways that God could have spoken, He said ‘I am doing it in a Book’. And you will never get anywhere in hearing God’s voice until you understand that. God has spoken in a Book, and a book must be treated in a certain way. And until I treat the Word of God as coming to me through a Book I will never hear the Word of God.
Now let me turn on the negative to show you how some people miss that, even though they use the Bible. This is how I began. When I first became a Christian I was told that I had to read a few verses every day. I was given fifteen minutes, actually, as the time limit. It did not matter where I started; it did not matter where I finished. As long as I read fifteen glorious minutes of the Word of God every day, that would be terrific. I just read a few verses or, after I had got over that hurdle, a chapter a day. You know, ‘a chapter a day keeps the devil away’. It was my vitamins in the Christian faith.
If I sent you a letter and you said ‘I’ve got a letter from Malcolm… a paragraph a day keeps the devil away’, you would have missed the point. I was not writing to you a letter that was to be read over a period of ten weeks, one sentence each day. At the end of that time you would not know what I had said. I think that makes absolute sense. The whole point of a letter is that you read all of it. It is a letter. The person who reads one sentence of a book every day and finishes the book two years from now does not know one thing that the book is talking about.
A book is meant to be read right through so that you get the feel of it. You sense what it is saying. And if you come to the Word of God and read ten verses a day, you have not yet read the Word of God. Now that may shock some of you because I know many of you for a long time have been reading ten verses a day as your regular spiritual diet. You have not yet heard what God is speaking about because, you see, verses and chapters were not inspired. Did you know that?
When Paul wrote his Epistles, when Isaiah wrote his Prophecy, when Jeremiah wrote his Prophecy, they did not write in chapters and verses. Did you know that? When Paul wrote to the Ephesians or Philippians or Galatians, he just wrote ‘Dear Galatians’ and wrote a letter. Then in the middle of the Middle Ages a Jesuit priest divided these books up into chapters and verses. And, God bless him, it was the worst thing that man ever did to the Bible in my opinion. It just helps you locate a verse, but I am afraid it destroyed the idea that it was one whole thing that was coming to us. And so we divided, we divided, we came and we read our verses and, in so doing we completely missed what God was saying.
Another way, of course, is reading the whole Bible through every year. That is the Olympic Games approach, the marathon. Now, actually that is the reverse of what I have just said and I think that there is a lot to be said for it. I believe everybody should read through the Bible at one sitting as far as possible; that is, you will sit down and you will read for the sake of reading through. That is good, but in so doing you are only acclimatizing yourself to the Bible. The person who sits down and reads through the Bible once a year every year has missed the point.
So I do not think that reading a few verses a day has its place. But reading the Bible through as near to one sitting as you can, just reading it through as on a marathon, does have its place. However, some people sit down year after year and read through the entire Bible over and over and over again. They have missed the point. If I sent you a letter, I would trust that having read my letter through you would then sit back and consider what I was saying in that letter. And to have read through my letter twenty times at a marathon pace does not necessarily intimate that you have understood what I have to say.
Other people never read the Bible without books and commentaries. Now I write books all the time and so I guess I am putting myself out of business by saying this, but I am afraid of people who endlessly read the Bible along with other books. If God is speaking, would you let God speak? You see, there comes a time when God speaks to you through me, and you would not be here unless that was a fact. But I totally believe that God also speaks to you without me. You do not need my books. You do not need my tapes. They have their place. They will always have their place. But God speaks to you as much as He speaks to me, and you have a right to hear God’s voice for yourself. You need to know that. And to come to the Bible with another book open beside it that tells you what the Bible says, is missing the point. In my library I have three thousand books, so I am not against books. But I say that coming to the Word of God in the Bible takes first place, second place and third place. After that you can turn to books to see what other people have said.
There is another way of coming to the Word of God that I find very disturbing, and that is when you just open it and put your finger down and find the latest word from heaven. That is very dangerous, and I suppose I am concerned about that because of the danger that it brings. It is funny in one sense but in other senses it is very frightening. Do you realize what you are saying, if every time you open the Bible and read you claim that God is speaking to you? I was speaking to someone once and they said that they had taken the Bible and it had opened at Genesis Chapter 12. And in Genesis Chapter 12 there is a verse that says that you are to rise and go to another land. And they said that that verse was God’s confirmation that they should sell their house and move. Now I am afraid of that. I am afraid because when they move and the whole deal falls through and they are not happy where they go to they are going to say ‘But God told us’. No, God did not tell them. They were using the Bible as it was never intended to be used.
When you do that, you are saying that the Bible is a microphone. Here are words. The words are nothing. But you are saying that when you open the Bible, out through those words, as surely as out through this microphone, comes the Word of God. It doesn’t matter what the words are really saying — they could be myth or legend for all you know. You are saying that those words do not in themselves mean anything, but through them God speaks to you. If you open the Bible at Genesis Chapter 12 you had better find out where Genesis Chapter 12 fits into the whole of Genesis. That means that you had better read the whole of Genesis and find out what relationship Chapter 12 has to Chapters 1 to 11 and to Chapters 13 through to the end of the book. Chapter 12 is part of a whole; and the Word of God comes as a whole and not as an isolated piece.
I am very disturbed that people today are using the Bible as a magical book. They say that it is just like a crystal ball. They open it to see what God has to say. Or their daily reading becomes their directions for that day. So they take out five verses that are supposed to talk directly to their present circumstances. That is very, very dangerous. If you have a messed up life because you did something based on a verse of Scripture that you just took out of nowhere, then I am afraid you cannot blame God for that because God did not speak to you. You might as well open a book of Shakepeare and take out one sentence and say that God is speaking to you. God does not speak like that. I come back to my original statement that God has chosen to speak through a Book.
Now, coming to a book is a very different matter from just coming to a magical instrument, and saying that if I open it I shall hear a voice speaking to me. With a book there are certain rules, certain laws that I have to observe. And when I come to this Book, the Bible, I have got to understand that it was not originally written in English. If I have a letter from one of my French brothers and it is translated for me into English, there will be certain things he says that I will have to recognize. He wrote it out of a French head. I mean, he was speaking out of a French way of looking at things, and the French people do not look at things the same way as American people do. I would have to appreciate that and would have to take that into consideration as I read it.
When you come to the Bible you have to realize that the Old Testament basically was written in the Hebrew language. And you have to consider this fact: when God said that He would speak to the human race He began by speaking in one language. And out of all the languages in which He could have spoken, He spoke in Hebrew. The Hebrew language is a language that is full of pictures. It is a picture-language that uses many words that cannot be expressed in the abstract. For example, the Hebrew will not speak of ‘not hearing’. Not hearing is an abstract. The way it is put is ‘covering the ears’. That is a picture. When you cover the ears you do not hear. So when you come to the Old Testament you had better be aware that it is written in a picture-language, and therefore you expect to find a lot of pictures rather than abstract ideas.
The New Testament was written in Greek. Galatians Chapter 4 Verse 4 says that in the fullness of time God sent forth His Son. I like that: ‘In the fullness of time.’ It was only after the Greek language had been developed that Jesus came, because the salvation that has come in Jesus Christ cannot be shown in picture-language. The salvation that is in Jesus Christ needs to be exactly and scientifically described, and you need the Greek language for that. The Greeks had a word for every shade of meaning, and just when Jesus came forth the Greek language was at its best. Paul explains salvation in a language that is so scientific, so exact, that you cannot miss what he is trying to say, as long as you appreciate that it was written in Greek. When I am preaching from the New Testament I am always saying ‘the Greek says’, because it was written in Greek, and the English language is quite useless, actually, to describe some variations, some aspects, of the word.
You should understand that the people to whom God chose to speak, the Hebrews, had a certain way of life. Now every time I speak, I am speaking from within the context of the American system and customs. There are whole concepts in what I say that are based on the American way of life. However, when I go back to the Bible, I see that, if God is speaking through that Book, then He is speaking through the manners and customs of the people who are in that Book.
So the fact that God chose to speak to people who cooked their food in this fashion, who came to meetings in that way, who built their houses in that way, who slept at this time of day and who got up at that time of day; all of that is part of God’s Word. Have you ever thought about that? The customs of these people is part of God speaking to us. Therefore we must at least have a general knowledge of how those people did what they did. It is important. The Word of God must be understood as coming to us through the Hebrew and Greek languages, and also through the customs of the Hebrew and the Greek/Roman world of the New Testament.
We find that God spoke through an historical situation. Think of this: in the Old Testament there are the great moves of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Well, that was history. And because history was doing what it was doing, God was able to speak. And so Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel are placed in the middle of that history. It was not just that history was going on around them and they spoke in the middle of it. It was rather that because history was doing what it was doing, that they spoke what they said. If history had not been doing what it was doing, they would not have spoken as they did. Therefore I must understand that God chose the history of the Hebrew people and the history that was going on around them to be the way in which He spoke to them. Therefore I must be aware of the language, the customs, and have a general knowledge of the history.
But also we find that within that history certain people were in very specific circumstances, and because they were in those circumstances the Word of God came forth. For example, Paul was thrown into jail. Now I emphasize that unless Paul had been thrown into jail we would not have our New Testament. It was because he was in jail that he expressed himself in what we call the Epistles of the New Testament. It was for the very reason that he was in jail that he spoke to that reason in his letters. And the Word of God came out of that. In the Old Testament Jeremiah would never have spoken what he spoke unless he had been living in those few years before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Daniel would never have written a word unless he had been taken captive, a prisoner of war, to Babylonia. Nor would Ezekiel. The whole of Ezekiel’s book was written because a man was taken captive. Now I must be aware of that history.
God is speaking in a Book. It is not a magical microphone through which God speaks to us. God has said, ‘This is history. This is where I spoke. This is how I spoke. Hear it.’ So we come and study it. I do not say that you have to become an historian. I do not say that you have to become a Greek scholar or a Hebrew scholar. You do not even have to know those languages. Just be aware that you are coming to a Book that was written in certain languages, that was written among certain customs of certain peoples, that was written in certain historical situations. Until you know that, you will never truly begin to appreciate what you are hearing.
Have you ever wondered why it was written in a certain country? Most of this Book was written in a country called Israel. God wrote it in Israel, most of it, and even if it was written outside Israel it certainly refers to Israel as the country of origin. That means that God actually speaks through the mountains, the valleys, the fauna of Israel. And you will find all the way through here references to Mount Lebanon, to the River Jordan, to Jerusalem. God chose to need Mount Lebanon to say certain things to us. God chose to need the River Jordan to say certain things to us. So God speaks through all of that, and you must be aware of that before ever you can understand it.
Also, the men of the Bible had certain temperaments. Actually Jeremiah was a very negative kind of person, a very sad fellow. Every time anything went wrong he cried. God chose to need a cry-baby in order to say what He needed to say. Paul was a fellow whom I would not have cared to work with quite frankly. He was a hard, iron kind of man, a Spartan fellow. Now God needed that kind of fellow to say what He wanted to say. I must take into consideration the person whom God used to say a particular verse of Scripture. So when I read a verse out of Peter’s letters I do not treat it in the same way as when I read a verse out of Paul’s letters. I take into consideration that this is not a magic book where words just come floating out. God said this through a man called Peter. Who was Peter? God said that through a man called Paul, an entirely different character. I can feel what God is trying to say through the temperaments of the persons concerned.
So I come to this Book, picking up every clue, collecting up all the information, recognizing all that is there. But, over and above all of that, the Holy Spirit is speaking. At the start of this tape we read from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, that all Scripture is given by inspiration from God. The Greek word there is ‘Spirit-breathed’. God breathed into the Scripture. So here is the breathed Word of God. Having taken into consideration all of those things that I have just said, I then say, ‘Within that whole context the Holy Spirit breathed His Word.’ Now I come waiting upon the Holy Spirit to breathe out His Word. He who breathed it in will breathe it out. He will never say what is not there. He takes into consideration the people, the language, the land, the customs, the manners, the history. Out of that God speaks. I cannot make Him say anything that contradicts that. But once all that is in context, then I come as a helpless little child to receive what God has to say to me.
So as we come to study we are going to adopt the method which is generally termed ‘inductive’. The ‘inductive’ method of Bible study assumes that we know nothing. We are not putting between the Book and ourselves a barrier of all other creeds and books and tapes, and declaring that we know what the Bible is going to say because we read this other book that said it was going to say this. That method is the ‘deductive’ method. That is when, having got all the facts, we then begin to work out our assumptions. The inductive method is when we do not have any facts. We are coming to find the facts, and when we have found them, then we can draw our conclusions.
So we are assuming that we do not know what is there. That is very difficult, actually, especially if you have been raised in some sort of church background that has already told you what is there. For you to come and say ‘I don’t know what is there’ could be very threatening. But we are like detectives. We are going to be finding clues. We shall say more about that later. We are like doctors examining our patients. We do not know what is wrong with the person. So we take temperature, we take blood pressure, we look at the eyes, we look at the tongue. We are going to come to the Bible like detectives, like doctors to find out what is there.
We respect all theologians. We have the greatest respect for all creeds and books and tapes. But having that respect, we still come to find out for ourselves what is there to make sure that we have personally heard the Word of God. Obviously this takes time. If only we could have a vision which would only takes a few minutes! But this takes time. Anyone who is going to consistently hear the voice of God is going to carefully study and apply the Book and take time out of every week to wait upon God.
Of course, this can be very threatening in more ways than one. We all have our little ideas of God. One of my students who is taking a Bible Study with some people began to explain to them who God is. And as he began to explain it, one individual said,
- Please, God is my friend. Don’t confuse me by telling me who He is. I’ve got this idea in my head that God is a nice fluffy teddybear of a friend. Please don’t upset me by explaining things to me. Some of us feel that this Book speaks to us. Please do not confuse me by explaining to me how God can speak to me.
Well, be threatened. Be upset. Be knocked out of your chair. However young you are, however old you are, you can hear God’s voice. Come to this Book as one to be studied. It is the method by which God has chosen to speak to us. As we study, it will open up to us. God will begin to speak to us consistently and we shall be transformed, not by visions or revelations but, as the Scripture says, by the renewal of our minds. [See Romans Chapter 12 Verse 2] The very mention of the word ‘mind’ indicates ‘think’ and ‘study’.