Happy New Year! We are again talking about Bible reading in 2019. Here’s today’s question. “Hello, Pastor John, I am Kennedy from Uganda. I have been listening to your sermons, and I thank God for using you to impact our lives through the word that you preach. My question: Whenever I am reading the Bible, I find it hard to understand what the author intended for me to understand when he wrote it. Currently, I am doing my devotions in the book of Genesis, but I so often find myself totally blank after I’ve read a text. What’s the first basic skill in Bible reading to find meaning for myself?”
Now I know that our friend from Uganda is asking about the first basic skill — to use his language — in Bible reading. But based on the description of what’s happening when he reads, I want to come at his question a little differently instead of giving just one basic skill, since I don’t think that’s the key when in our devotions we find ourselves blank, which he says he does.
“If we lose motivation, we will not read the Bible. And if we don’t read the Bible, we miss everything God has for us through the word.”
He’s not the only one, by the way. It’s not just a problem for beginners, but for me as well, at times. Let me point to three things that are essential to ongoing fruitful encounters with God and his intended truth through the Bible.
I can describe these three things that I hope will be helpful in three ways. I could call them motivation, skill, and illumination. Or I could call them the want to, and the able to, and the see through. Or I could call them the desire, and the act, and the reward of Bible reading. Let me give a brief word about each one in the hope that God will create them in us, even as I speak.
First, a word about motivation. If we lose motivation, we will not read the Bible. And if we don’t read the Bible, we miss everything God has for us through the word. I was just reading yesterday in John 17, which is Jesus’s prayer for the disciples. I saw a cluster of precious things that are owing directly to hearing the word of Jesus, which motivated me tremendously to want to read the Bible.
Jesus said, “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). There is a fullness of joy that we will miss if we don’t continually listen to what Jesus speaks — that is, listen to the Bible. And I think that principle holds for the whole Bible, not just the words of Jesus in the Gospels.
Second, Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The second thing we’re going to miss if we don’t feed on the truth of the word is sanctification. God has designed that we be made more holy, more sanctified by the truth. And then he says, “God, your word is truth.”
The third motivation was in John 17:20, where he says, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” So how do we come to believe? How do we keep on believing? We believe through the word, through the word of the apostles. And where is that found? It’s found in the Bible.
So there are three powerful motivations to read our Bibles. If you want faith, if you want holiness, if you want joy, they all, Jesus says, come through encountering God in his word. That’s how we get motivated.
We want these things, and therefore we want the word. So that’s the first of my three essentials, which I know our friend didn’t even ask about. But I think this is just absolutely crucial that we see how to motivate ourselves, because if we go blank when we’re reading the Bible, we quickly lose motivation.
Now, let me give just a sentence about each of the other two. The first was motivation. The second is skill or the ability to read. Here’s my single suggestion. There’s lots more in my book Reading the Bible Supernaturally. That book has lots and lots of practical things about how to beef up your natural skill in getting meaning from the Bible.
“May God grant strong motivation, increasing skill, and bright, transforming illumination in all of our Bible reading.”
But here’s the one thing I want to say here. Something mysterious happens when we pick up a pen or a pencil — not a keyboard, but a pen or a pencil — and we either write out the text, or if it’s too long write down, questions you have or observations you make about the things that you’re reading in the text.
You may think, “Well, good grief, that’s just going to record my ignorance. I’m asking for help to see.” And I say, “No, no, no. That’s not true. No, it won’t just record your ignorance.” Writing down the text causes you to have thoughts you wouldn’t have otherwise had. Asking questions, which you write down, causes your brain to have thoughts you wouldn’t have otherwise had. So that’s my one single suggestion for him to make progress in the skill category. And here’s the last one.
The third of these essentials is illumination. That’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. He causes God himself — his character, his will, his ways — to shine through the Scriptures. The key to having this illumination is prayer. I say that because in Ephesians 1:18, Paul prays for it. He prays that the eyes of their hearts would be illumined. So pray for illumined reading.
Whether it’s our friend in Uganda, or anywhere else in the world, my prayer is, “May God grant strong motivation, increasing skill, and bright, transforming illumination in all of our Bible reading in 2019.”