Primer on Reading the Bible

Primer on Reading the Bible

The Bible is not an ordinary book, and we will never taste its choicest fruits if we approach it in an ordinary manner. Here are seven short pieces of counsel, from a lifelong Bible-reader, to help you make the most of your own study of the Scriptures.

1. Exalt God’s Word

God exalts his word and name above all things (Psalm 138:2). His words are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace, purified seven times (Psalm 12:6). They are perfect (Psalm 19:7). Because the words of the Bible are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), they are living, active, able to penetrate our hearts (Hebrews 4:12) and to give life (John 6:63, 68). Therefore, Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Bible is not just true; it is truth itself — God’s divinely revealed standard of truth.

2. Live by God’s Words

Jesus said we are to live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Obeying God’s word is the hallmark of a disciple and the test of true love. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). But “he who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:24). Love shows itself in obedience, which God rewards with increased fellowship with him.

3. Honor the Bible’s Two Natures

Jesus has two natures — divine and human, without sin. So also the Bible has two authors — God and man, without error. The Bible is the words of God in the words of men (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16). What the Bible says, God says.

4. Recognize the Bible’s Purposes

God gave the Bible to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15), to equip us “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Paul prayed that our love for Jesus “may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,” so we can discern God’s will and lead lives that please him and result in his worship (Philippians 1:9–11). Loving Jesus increases our understanding of God’s word and will, deepens our worship of him, and fosters richer fellowship with him.

5. Beware of Pharisaical Leaven

Bible study can fan the flames of our love for Jesus or drown it in a sea of knowledge. Studying the Bible with Jesus is life-changing. Studying the Bible without him is an exercise in intellectual pride.

Jesus’s harshest words were reserved for Bible scholars and religious leaders. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their proud, deceitful hearts: “You have never heard the Father’s voice . . . nor does his word dwell in you. . . . You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:37–40).

Similarly, Jesus chastised the Sadducees for their poor understanding of the Bible and God: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).

According to Jesus (in John 5:37–47), he is the subject of the Bible (see also Luke 24:25–27 and 2 Corinthians 1:20), and the proper goal of Bible study is not the acquisition of knowledge, but hearing God speak to us in his word, having his word dwell in us, and coming to him for eternal life — in other words, life-giving fellowship with God.

6. Seek Fellowship with God

First, approach God’s word with a humble heart. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), and God opposes proud people (1 Peter 5:5). God calls pride a “detestable thing” (Proverbs 16:5) — the same Hebrew word used to refer to pagan sacrifices and practices. Pride begets spiritual death, but humility brings life (Proverbs 22:4) because God “gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5), who “tremble at his word” (Isaiah 66:2), and he revives them (Isaiah 57:15).

Cry out for supernatural help. Ask God to give you a “spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17) and to open your eyes so you “may see wonderful things in his law” (Psalm 119:18). Ask to hear Jesus’s voice (John 10:4, 16, 27) and for him to open the Scriptures so your heart might burn with increased passion for the Son of God (Luke 24:32). Invite the Author of the Book to help you understand his Book. God delights in giving the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13)!

Second, approach God’s word with a pure heart. Only in Jesus are we able to enter God’s presence as a passionate worshiper who has “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3–4), not just by justification, but increasingly in terms of our own sanctification. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) and separates us from God (Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 59:2). Without the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), we cannot understand God’s word (1 Corinthians 2:12–14).

Before studying the Bible, ask God to reveal any sin in your life (Psalm 139:23–24). Confess your sin. Ask God to cleanse your heart (Psalm 51:10). Then thank God for forgiving and cleansing you through Jesus’s blood (Hebrews 9:14; 10:19–22; 1 John 1:9).

Third, approach God’s word with a seeking heart. Only if you earnestly seek God, believing he will speak to you in his word, will you hear what he has to say and experience his presence, for without faith it is impossible to please him (Hebrews 11:6). Seek God above all. Learn to pray David’s prayer: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

7. Seek to Love What God Loves — And Hate What God Hates

The main purpose of Bible study is knowing God personally and deeply in a life-transforming way (Philippians 3:10) so that the character of Christ is formed in us (Galatians 4:19) as God conforms us to the image of (Romans 8:29) and transforms us into the likeness of (2 Corinthians 3:18) his Son, Jesus.

Godly Bible study will lead to an increased love for what pleases God (John 8:29; 2 Corinthians 5:9) and a corresponding hatred for the things God hates (Hebrews 1:9). It will lead us to seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33) and to do all that we do for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). It will lead us to have passion for Jesus and compassion for people (Matthew 22:37–40; 1 Timothy 1:5; Revelation 2:4). Jesus prayed that the Father’s love for him would be in us and that he would be in us (John 17:26). He prayed that we would experience the Father’s love for us, have deep fellowship with him, and then love him as his Father does (Romans 5:5; 1 John 4:19). Such love is upward-facing toward God and outward-facing toward others. To say that we love God while failing to show love to others signifies a failure to love God truly (1 John 4:20).

God-pleasing Bible study will deepen our experience of God’s love, resulting in greater love for him, deeper fellowship with him, and greater compassion for people.


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John J. Hughes is president of Bits & Bytes, Inc., and a former professor and pastor.