How to Read the Bible Well

Live Look at the Book | Portland

Now, the next thing I want us to do is to talk about reading. The guys at Desiring God who helped me do these things and want to get video footage and all that stuff, they’re always telling me how to do it. They like it when I precede my exegetical efforts with methodological efforts, so we’re going to do that for a little bit here. I don’t want to do it too long, but a little bit. I love to do it because I just think this is enormously important. So here we go.

Read to Perceive

We’re in Ephesians 3, and there is a statement here. It’s the only one like it in the Bible that I know of. There may be a few others that point, clearly others that point in the same direction, but none say it quite like this. Let me show you something. “I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (Ephesians 3:1–2).

So God called Paul, made him a steward, a household manager of grace. Isn’t that a beautiful picture? Here’s “grace,” “manage it well,” “Paul, for the Gentiles.” Oh, what a life calling. Hand out grace to the family morning, noon, and night. Don’t let them get too hungry.

“How the mystery was made known to me by revelation as I have written, written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight, my apostolic, divinely inspired insight into the mystery of Christ, which wasn’t made known to the sons of man in other generations as it was made known. It was made known in hints and parts and shadows, but not as it has been revealed to his holy apostles like me and prophets by the Spirit.”

How the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight [ my apostolic, divinely inspired insight] into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles [like me] and prophets by the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:3–5)

That’s breathtaking. When you read Ephesians, you can perceive divinely given insight into the mystery of Christ. There is no other way in. Reading — or, I don’t want to be careless here — or depending on the words of somebody who did read. If you can’t read, little children, maybe little children can learn by having mommy and daddy read, tell them what they can’t read yet. If they’re faithful in the telling, they can, by the work of the Spirit, see, perceive.

I want you to feel the weight of this. God has appointed reading, reading, reading as the means by which minds and hearts discern, perceive, have access into apostolic, inspired, prophetic insight into the things that haven’t been revealed clearly in the Old Testament, but now are being given with such clarity and force and beauty in the apostolic word. Your way in is reading.

Read to Fight

That is staggering to me. It has been staggering ever since I was made to think hard about it in my early 20s as I was learning to just see the Bible for what it is. Let’s draw out a few implications from that. You should learn to read well. There’s poor reading and there’s rich reading. There’s fruitless reading; you’ve all done it, I’ve done it, and there’s fruitful reading. There’s reading that sees what is there, and there’s reading that does not see what is there. So it’s not every kind of reading here that will yield insight into the mystery of Christ, but good reading, real reading, reading that’s reading. What is that?

Here’s one way to describe what’s at stake, jumping over to Ephesians 6. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). Leaving out the rest of that, just so it will fit on the slide.

Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14–17)

Now, we could just read that quickly and say, “There it is. That’s the point he wants to make.” The sword of the Spirit is the word of God. Therefore, if you don’t read the word of God in such a way that you can wield it, you’re going to fall before these powers, these cosmic powers of darkness.

Do you feel tonight fit and ready to take down the devil? Cosmic powers of darkness, spiritual host of weakness in the heavenly places, rulers and powers, supernatural beings that if you were to meet them you wouldn’t have a chance, not a chance. They are so powerful. Are you ready? Can you take them out tonight when you go home? They will be there.

We’re going to see in Ephesians 2: “the prince of the power of the air.” Air? Got any air in your house? Got any air? They’re there; it says so. The prince of the authority of the air in your bedroom, that’s where the powers are, your bedroom, your kitchen, your den, right around the TV especially thick. Or maybe on the couch especially thick where the clicker is; that’s where they thicken.

What are you going to do to stand? Well, don’t just go here. Don’t just go here and say, “Oh, we’ve got to have the sword ready to juke him.” Yes, you do. But if you think about all of these armors, they’re all word, aren’t they? More or less. Belt of truth, that was obvious. You’ve got to have your belt of truth. Otherwise, your clothes just start falling off, and you’re going to be embarrassed and shamed when you try to give testimony to Jesus with your clothes falling off. Or you won’t be able to run — maybe that’s more likely. Put the belt on, you can run, because you gird up your loins. “Having put on the breastplate of righteousness.” Do you know anything about what that means, apart from the Bible? Put on righteousness, put on righteousness like a breastplate right here. You wouldn’t have a clue what that’s talking about without the Bible.

Or as shoes, the readiness of the gospel, that’s the Bible. Circumstance, shield of faith, faith in what? Promises in the Bible, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one. Thank God, because there’s so many and so violent and so powerful. Take the helmet of salvation, we don’t want anything about salvation apart from the Bible and reading and so on. See, you can see you don’t have a chance against the devil without reading. Knowing how to put on the armor, because these things are not magic.

Christianity is not a magic religion like, “Here’s the book. It’s just army, army, army. That’s magic.” God did not come to you that way. Words, subjects, verbs, prepositions, nouns, grammar, syntax, power. No other way. No other way. So, it really matters that we figure out how to read.

Read to Fulfill the Great Commission

Before I talk to you a little bit about what reading is, just one more. Randy mentioned I love missions, I sure do, I sure do. My heart grieves for hard times in missionaries’ lives, nobody gets beat up like missionaries do. Everybody gets beat up, because that’s what it means to be a Christian. Take up your cross, the cross is the place where you get beat up. Missionaries are right in the face of the evil one. Jesus came and said to them, it’s the last thing he said in Matthew, Jesus came and said to them, “All authority.” We’re going to see this big time. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” You should understand a big “therefore” right there. It’s not written, it’s just clear. “Therefore go.” Oh, it is there. Read.

“Therefore, make disciples of all nations.” Yes, let’s do this, let’s do this. Let’s get this done. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all, all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20). Are you going to do that and not read it all, understand it all? How can you do that? How can you begin to do that if you haven’t read, studied, understood?

Five years ago, six years ago, I think it was 2006, I took a five-month leave, went to Cambridge to the Tyndale House, sat down, read this sentence, “Teaching them to observe all that I commanded.” I said, “I want to help missionaries do that.” I don’t know any book that exists that tries to sum up all that Jesus commanded, so I wrote one. Every commandment of Jesus, five hundred of them, every imperative, everything that looks like an imperative in the four Gospels, I wrote them all down — five hundred of them.

Then I stared at them for about a week. How do you make a book out of that? Goodnight. Then I grouped them into fifty chapters called What Jesus Demands from the World, just so that I’d have a book to do this. I want to do this. I want to help people do this. Teach the nations to observe and do all that Jesus commanded. Not just teach them to know it. That’s easier. Teach them to do it, that’s harder. Only God can make that happen. So I’m saying that to do the Great Commission, we have to read. We have to read well, we have to read enough in order to teach. So a lot of things are at stake in reading.

The Written Word and the Word

So just a thought or two about the relationship between the word written that we read and the word incarnate that we love and worship. So John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . and the word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). That’s incarnation, so God’s divine Son, as he’s called later, now takes on human flesh.

He was with God, so he’s distinct in some sense from God, and he was God, so he’s one with God. His divine essence, and he’s two, this is why the Trinity is a faithful effort to put into words what the Bible teaches. This word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Then all Scripture is breathed out by God.

So the Son is sent out by God, clothed in flesh, and the word of God, his mind, his thought is inspired into people with words and syntax and grammar. The syntax and the grammar of the Bible are to God’s word what the human flesh of Jesus is to God’s Son. God’s Son became flesh, God’s word became words, human words. There is a miracle of a similar kind, not identical, but similar kind in the divine Son becoming human flesh and the divine thought, mind, idea, intention becoming human words.

It’s a stunning and important correlation that we need to realize because there have always been heretics who deny that Jesus came in the flesh. First John talks about them, and one name for them was, once upon a time, Docetists, which meant they said “he seemed to be a man” — “seemed to be,” from the word dokeó, “just seemed.” “He seemed to be a man, but somehow the deity, which is hovering around. He wasn’t really in there, so this was a ‘god-man.’”

That’s heresy. The same thing tends to happen about this book with its human grammar and syntax and vocabulary, that people say, “This is not really a divine word here. It just hovers, hovers up here and maybe you might, you might get through these imperfect human words to the divine word.”

The analogy that I’m drawing says that’s not the way to think about it. These Scriptures are so breathed out or inspired by God that the writings, that word right there, writings are themselves the very God-intended divine word, the way the man Jesus is the God-intended divine Son.

Reading Defined

Which brings us now to a few practical questions about what is reading? It’s that important, what is it? What does it mean to read? Here’s my definition of reading. This weekend here, look at the book, is an exercise in reading. I’m going to read with you. What does read mean? It means to understand the use, understand and use the language conventions.

I’ll talk about what that is in a minute, that you share. You’ve got to share them because if the author’s and yours are different, it’s a foreign language, that’s the meaning of foreign language, with an author. So language conventions that you share with an author, or translator. So as to think his thoughts after him.

The first time I heard that phrase I thought, “That’s an odd phrase.” I loved it. Here, so I was 22 years old, your goal is you open this book and you read Ezekiel or Paul, is to think his thoughts after him. The only means you have to do that is his words that he gave you with a view to making that happen. He wants that to happen. Paul doesn’t want me to read his words and think Joe’s thought, or my thought.

He wants you to think his thought. That’s why you write, right? You write a love letter, you don’t want her or him to put a wrong meaning in there. Even if you do like I do, increasingly leave out important words like “not,” or more common in my typing errors change “not” to “now.” I will not come, means I will now come. I do that all the time. I’m trusting the guys at DG get my meaning because I really want to be understood for my meaning, my intention.

You do too; that’s why you write things down. We want people to get in our heads and get what we’re trying to give them. So think their thoughts after him, that is to construe his intention. It’s another way of saying “Thoughts after him.” That is what he wants you to grasp through what he wrote. That’s my definition of reading. So here are some examples.

Here’s the big operative thing: you’ve got to understand and use his language conventions. Most of you can read your Bibles in English. A few of you can do Greek and Hebrew, that’s wonderful. But I said the other two weekends ago (no, it was last weekend I was doing 1 Peter, look at the book in my home church), and I just pleaded with those folks. I said, “There are incalculable riches yet to be seen in the English Bible that nobody has seen.”

Just get a good solid translation and give life to that. Don’t ever say, “Well, I’ll never see important things because I can’t read Greek.” What? Are you kidding me? Ten-thousand glories are in the English Bible that nobody has yet seen. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I know that’s a million or whatever I just said, ten-thousand-thousand. Ten million, ten million. Ten million glories nobody has seen.

Are you kidding me? That’s an overstatement. Well, send me a question if you want to, and we can talk more about that. I don’t think it’s an overstatement, but it might need some explanation. I’m trying to encourage you not to despair that you don’t know Greek and Hebrew, because there are riches there if you would just read, if you would just see.

1. Understanding Language Conventions

Okay. Examples of language conventions. We need to discover the meaning of the words that the author uses. So I’ve got number one. I think I’ve got five of these, so that’s number one: examples of language conventions. We need to discover the meaning of the words that the author uses. For example, Ephesians 1:1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”

So what is a saint? You’re reading, and what are you going to do? Saint, saint, saint. I know what the Catholics say. Somebody was just made a saint a few weeks ago, right? That’s what it means because that’s what I grew up with. The saints are a special class of people who did some miracles and were made saints by the appropriate Catholic authorities, and that’s who they are. So let’s read that here.

Now, what should you do? “No, let’s read a Catholic commentary. Let’s read a Protestant commentary and then flip a coin.” Is that what you do when you read? That’s not what you do. You don’t even open a dictionary; you just keep reading. Or if you want to speed it up, take your Logos Bible Software — I’m glad you’re here. I use it. And click on “saint” and limit your search to Ephesians. Bang, got six or seven of these. Read them, and you’ll find this one, Ephesians 4:11–12, “Christ gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body.” Huh, I don’t think that fits this small number of people out there who did some miracles.

This is Christians, yes, it is. Then you can confirm that by looking up dozens of uses that Paul has for saints and the other writers in the New Testament as well. Saints mean the set-apart ones, the holy ones, the people God has called to be holy to himself. So you’ve got one of the most basic conventions: to get on the same page with the vocabulary of the author, right? You do that by reading, not by depending on other people’s reading in dictionaries.

You know what? I just have to, even when I’m teaching Greek to the guys at the seminary, I have to constantly tell them, “Look, we are teaching you to do exegesis in Greek so that you will be the peers of the people who write the dictionaries.” Because all people do who write dictionaries is read uses and try to decide what they mean. They don’t have a hard line to heaven. “What did you mean by saint? Oh, good. I’ll put it in the dictionary.”

All they do is read, and they read maybe a hundred uses: New Testament, some outside the New Testament, and then they give you about a dozen options to choose from. Well, what are you going to do with that? You’re going to read, you’re going to read. Even in English, you can get this. You don’t need to worry like, “Oh, I’ve got to know Greek to know what a saint means.” That will not help; it will not help at all. Okay, so words, words really, really matter. I think I know how to do this, there we go.

####2. Words Gain Meaning Through Propositions

Words have definitive meaning only in propositions. You just say a word to me, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. You say, I walk up to you and you say, “Redemption.” What do I know? I know you know the word redemption; I don’t know whether you mean, “I love it. I hate it. I don’t have a clue what it means.”

I need a sentence, give me a sentence. The cartoon years ago, one of those big political people walking about and this senator was going on and on and on, “Jabber, jabber, jabber, jabber, jabber.” The reporter says, “Excuse me, please, sir. I need a sentence. I need a sentence.” I need a proposition with a subject and a verb and an object. I know you think you’re just creating a haze. Okay, words have definitive meaning in propositions. “In Christ we have redemption, through his blood it tells you how we have redemption, not what it is, the forgiveness of sins.” Whoa, that’s helpful. That’s almost a definition; it is a definition. Right? Comma, “We have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.” So redemption, like redeem, redeem, redeem, that’s what you do at the store. You take your coupon and there’s redemption at the store.

That’s true, you turn in the coupon and you get what you want, and Jesus shed his blood and now you get what you want. That is, it is setting somebody free at the cost of a price. That freedom here is now called forgiveness, which means he’s setting you free from guilt, sin. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”

Now, the reason I put this next text here from Ephesians 4:30 is because you might go on a crusade now with all your friends in all your Bible studies and say, “I know the meaning of redemption. Ephesians 1:7: ‘Forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of sins.’” You lay that on every word “redemption” in the New Testament. That would be stupid. That would be really stupid, because words get their meaning from propositions, where they are, not from somebody else or another place.

So here we have Ephesians 4:30, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” You think, “Oh, I thought I already had this. I thought I already forgiveness of sins, I’ve got redemption now, and you’re telling me I just got sealed, so there’d be a day of redemption.” So now you have to expand your understanding of how this word can be used. There’s coming a day of freedom, a day of liberation, and a little more study would say, “Oh, yeah. Right now our sins are forgiven. That problem is over, under the blood, no guilt, I’m free. But what? I get up in the morning and speak ugly to my wife. Is that ever going to go away?” It is, I wish sooner, but at least here it’s going away.

“There’s going to be a complete and full redemption,” Romans 8:25, where we are hoping for the redemption of our bodies. This body getting old and back aches, can’t stand up straight, and everything is harder; it’s going to die someday. That’s got to be redeemed. So the point is, words get their meaning from propositions; don’t assume that the meaning in one proposition is the same meaning in another proposition. Let the propositions help you know what we’re talking about.

3. Language Conventions

We need to know how propositions are made. In Greek, in German, in English, whatever language you happen to be reading the Bible in, you need to know those language conventions. Those three, Greek, German, and English, have very different ways to construct propositions, amazingly different.

So here we go, I wrote down two propositions; you tell me what the difference between these is. “Luther saved the doctrine of redemption.” I made these up. “The doctrine of redemption saved Luther.” What’s not different in those two propositions? The words are identical, good eyes, very good. The words are identical. I hope I didn’t overlook. I meant for them to be identical. Is the meaning identical?

No, it’s not. Why not? We’ve got the same words for goodness’ sakes. A lot of people think you can translate the Bible into all kinds of languages by just going word for word. That’s a lot of baloney, right? You know that. Well, because every person in this room, though you may have forgotten the terms subject, predicate, and direct object, you may have forgotten those terms from fifty years ago, knows how they work.

In English, the doer of the action comes before the verb, and the receiver of the action comes after the verb. John hit the ball. The ball hit John. Everybody knows what that means. John hit the ball, there goes the ball, and the ball hit John, and it’s the same words just like that. That’s not true in Greek. In Greek, you’ve got different endings to tell you how this all works. So you just have to know the language conventions. You should take heart right now that you all knew that, and you may not even know the words to describe the language conventions, you just know how they work because you’re an English speaker by nature. Not everybody in this room is probably, but most of you.

4. Relating Propositions for Coherent Understanding

We need to know how the propositions relate to each other in order to know what they mean. So propositions, we need to understand how they’re constructed, but then once you’ve got two or three of them, or ten or twenty. Well, how does the thought flow? One proposition, another proposition like, “I would like to come to you in Rome, let me preach the gospel to you, for the gospel is the power of God into salvation, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith to everyone who believes.” For, for, for, for. All these propositions being linked by “for” make a chain of logic. I just put Ephesians 5:18 down here, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” So you’ve got three propositions.

“Don’t get drunk with wine,” that’s number one, that’s a proposition. “That is debauchery,” that’s proposition number two. “Be filled with the Spirit,” that’s proposition number three. Paul, bless his heart, regularly gives us help to know how this and this and this relate to each other, and he does it with words that come in between. Call them conjunctions or connectors like this, and this one is one of his favorites, and that usually means ground or because.

What if it were different? What if it were “if?” “Do not get drunk with wine if that is debauchery.” Or even more perplexing would be “when.” “Do not get drunk with wine when it’s debauchery.” Other times it’s okay to be drunk. The relationship between two propositions, same propositions, nothing changed, all that you’re changing is how they’re related, changes the meaning totally.

So when you’re reading the Bible, you’re always asking, you will always be asking from now on I hope, “How does this relate to this, and this relate to this, and this relate to this?” Nothing will cause you more agony and insight than that set of questions. But that’s a little helpful word here, “But be filled with the Spirit.” So don’t get drunk with wine, but get drunk with the spirit suggests, doesn’t it? That being filled with the Spirit is the flip side. Let’s put it like this, “wine” seems to correspond with “Spirit,” and “be filled” seems to correspond with “get drunk.” Have any implications for worship? Be careful, not that you should stagger all over the room during worship. Paul meant something by that, didn’t he?

There are people that like to get soused, to take their problems away and to make life a little easier and get some relief. I’ve got a better idea, get soused with God. Nobody’s saying? We buttoned-up, tightly laced evangelicals could maybe use a little drunkenness of the Spirit. Not the spirits. Spirit.