Too Many Settle for Too Little in Bible Reading

Why are you here? First Peter 2:9 says that “once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” in order that you might declare “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

That ought to be while you’re here because that’s why you are a people — in order that you might declare the excellencies, virtues, beautiful things about him who called you out of blindness, deadness, darkness, into stunningly marvelous light. Are you doing that? If you’re not, I hope when we’re done here, you’ll be able to do better because that’s what 1 Peter is. It is those things. It is those excellencies, and the list is very long.

If you want a reason for being here, if you just came in kind of woozy about your life and you don’t know what you’re on the planet for or why you’re doing what you’re doing, here’s something where the Bible is crystal clear why you exist as a Christian. You exist to make known — and we’ll see that it’s both deeds and words — to make known the excellent things about the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. That’s why we are here.

The Plan

Now, let me try to tell you where we’re going and what the plan is. We’ve got a couple of sessions tonight, and then how many, three or four tomorrow, I can’t remember because I’m just going to go flat out for the time. Stop, take a break, flat out, and we’ll see how far we get in 1 Peter.

But since this is Look at the Book, and there is some emphasis on method — though I hope we focus mainly on the content of the book and God who inspired it — since there is some emphasis on method, that’s where we’re going to start with some reflections on how we read the Bible here and how I’ve learned to read the Bible over the years. That’s where we’re going. After that, I’m going to recite for you, from memory, the first two chapters, just like Andy Naselli did.

Why We Memorize Scripture

This is what we do around here, by the way. We memorize Scripture. The Old Testament professor memorized Zephaniah this summer and recited it in churches. Andy memorized all of 1 Corinthians. The Vice President for Advancement is working on John, he’s up through John 4. Dozens of people in this room probably know Romans 8 by heart.

Just to say a word about that so I don’t have to say it when we get started, I suppose all of us have different motives, with some overlapping for all of us, why we would put that work into it, and then why we would say it in public, and why we would do that.

When I was 29 years old, I heard my very first paragraph of the Bible recited from memory. Twenty-nine. I went to church every Sunday of my life between zero and twenty-nine, almost. My dad knew a thousand Bible verses by heart. I heard him rattle him off in his preaching just shotgun. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang — it was powerful. I never heard him recite a paragraph, let alone a chapter, let alone a book. But when I sat down in the chapel at Bethel College in 1975 and Art Lewis, Old Testament prof, came back from a sabbatical and stood in the pulpit, and opened his mouth and recited Matthew 5:25–33, “Don’t be anxious about anything” from memory, I was stunned.

Today, I’m not stunned, but I was stunned. I was stunned. I just thought, “Where have I been? What have I been doing? That was powerful!” I’ve stood behind Communion table and recited Isaiah 53, Romans 8, numerous things over the years. I can remember people come up to me and they say, “I’ve never heard the word of God like that. I’ve never in my life been moved by the word of God like that.”

There are reasons for why some of us, very personally, have been rocked by the word of God, spoken eyeball to eyeball to us by somebody who cared enough to put it in. I’m seeing Sam sitting over there. I remember Sam walking back and forth on a Wednesday night here and recited the entire Sermon on the Mount — executive pastor back in those days and works at north campus now. I remember he walked back like this when he got to the thing, and those of you who have a log in your eye and he grabbed this thing.

That’s powerful. He had the timing all worked out. Remember that? So I worked on the Sermon on the Mount that next summer. Couldn’t do it now, but I worked. I’m 69. This is hard for me. It’s not getting any easier. You, young people, work while it is day! Night comes. It’s called Alzheimer’s, and senility, and other kinds of weaknesses of the brain. Well, that’s enough introduction for why I’m going to do that maybe in ten minutes or so.

Here’s the strategic reason. I’ve taught 1 Peter in Look at the Book Weekends twice already. One was in Vancouver and we got through 1 Peter 1. One was in Birmingham, we got through 1 Peter 2. I’m picking it up at 1 Peter 3 tonight and I have no idea how far we’ll get, but the powers that be at BCS and Desiring God said, “Don’t rehash that. Don’t take the whole time teaching that again because we’ve got that on video and we want new stuff.” That’s it. I’m a man under authority. It’s like 1 Peter says you’re supposed to be.

Agassiz among the Arts

Okay, method. Before I show you that, Jennifer Roberts, why don’t you go ahead and put that picture up? Jennifer Roberts is a professor at Harvard, Professor of Humanities, and she teaches a course in Art History. We have years and years, for years and years here in my life at the church used the story of Agassiz and she’s the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of Humanities at Harvard.

Agassiz was a humanist in the 19th century at Harvard and he was a specialist in teaching students how to observe nature. He would, on the first day, put before them a fish or some other object like that, butterfly, and he would assign them, “Watch it, look at it, and write down what you see for the rest of the day.” They would look at him like he’s just crazy. “Got a head, it’s got tail, he’s got several fins, I’m finished.” He would say, “Well, just keep looking and if that’s all you have at the end, you’re going to leave the school.” You come back the next day, he did the same thing for several days.

Well, she does the same thing in a constricted wing with this painting. She assigns the students in Art History. She says,

Say a student wanted to explore the work popularly known as Boy with a Squirrel, painted in Boston in 1765 by the young artist John Singleton Copley. Before doing any research in books or online, the student would first be expected to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where it hangs, and spend three full hours looking at the painting, noting down his or her evolving observations as well as the questions and speculations that arise from those observations.

That’s what Professor Roberts says. Then she gives some examples of what she did. She said, “I made myself do this so that I wouldn’t require what I don’t do.” She said,

It took me 9 minutes to notice that the shape of the boy’s ear precisely echoes that of the ruff along the squirrel’s belly—and that Copley was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each.

You’re kidding me. Nine minutes. Nine minutes and she saw that.

It was 21 minutes before I registered the fact that the fingers holding the chain exactly span the diameter of the water glass beneath them.

Might have significance, might not, I suppose, but that’s what she saw and she noted it.

It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.

The Art of Looking

Those are the three examples that she gave. This man put a lot of thought into this and he’s trying to say something. Here’s the point. She requires three hours. I was trying to think today of my 33 years of sermon preparation here at this church and what proportion of my time, every week, as I prepared to preach the word of God, I spent looking at the text versus reading commentaries.

I think I would be conservative to say ten to one. Ten to one — that is for every minute looked at a commentary, ten minutes looking at the text, for every hour at the commentary, ten hours. Actually, that is so conservative. I’m ashamed to say it because I don’t think I ever spent an hour reading a commentary compared to ten hours.

I didn’t use them that much because of this, because I felt like when I read commentaries, sometimes ideas are triggered that I didn’t see and that’s really valuable. Sometimes I learn some background things that I didn’t know and it’s valuable, not really but valuable. But I’m never set on fire in a commentary. I never come away from a commentary feeling authority in my bones. I never come away with my heart pounding for what I’ve seen of God.

The payoff is just too small. It’s too small to do it. I must stare at the painting called the Bible. This text has riches in it. It has things to see and I need to say them because I’ve seen them and I’ve seen through them to God. Her conclusion,

What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it.

Amen. Just because you’ve looked at the book doesn’t mean you’ve seen it. Just because you looked at a text, even memorized it, doesn’t mean you’ve seen it. She says,

What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.

Yes, that’s a given. If you are so antsy to find out what somebody else said about this text, so that you will not spend ten minutes staring at the fish or looking at the painting or looking at the book, the payoff for you is going to be very small all your life. You will always be a second-hander.

Why Second-Handers Are Inauthentic

Second-handers don’t make great preachers. They don’t make great parents. They don’t make great Bible study leaders. Second-handers are inauthentic and people feel it. “Where’d you get that? Who told you that? That doesn’t sound like you’ve owned that, that you found and loved that. You picked that up somewhere along the way and you’re aping that.” That’s not power.

I would add: Just because you have looked, read the Bible, doesn’t mean that you have seen what’s there, let alone what it means or what it implies for your life. See, there’s the looking and seeing of things like that, of patterns in words. Then there’s “What does that mean for the meaning here, the author’s intention, and then what does that mean for me tomorrow, as I face this challenge in my life?” Those are multiple layers of reading that we try to get across here at Bethlehem.

Questions Create Sight

Further, I would add, not just time and strategic patience are needed to see what is really there, but the habit of asking questions has great power in opening the eyes to what is really there.

Suppose Ms. Roberts, as she sent them to stare at the painting, said, “Look for the relationship between the ear and the squirrel.” Or she said, “What is the relationship between the ear and the squirrel?” Well, she’s done half the seeing for them. Questions create sight.

Now, professors should be trainers in question-asking. When students leave, they should have formed a habit of asking themselves such penetrating questions, that anything they face, anything they read, any advertisement on the road, anything on television, they would just ask questions. Bang. They’d just go right through.

They would hardly be able to watch the Republican debates. It would be so frustrating. “I cannot. I cannot!” That’s a moral cannot, not a physical cannot. That would require another seminar to explain the difference between that. I’ll give you an example here and then we’ll turn to 1 Peter.

Look at Proverbs 6

Here’s a text from Proverbs. Now, I’m going to ask you to look at this fish with me, this painting called the Bible, and see what you see. I’ll read it. “There are six things” — now you just be asking yourself some questions. I’m not going to say it because as soon as I say it, you will see it, so I’m not going to say it.

There are six things that the Lord hates,
     seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
     and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
     feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
     and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16–19)

There’s seven there. Yes, there are. What do you see? Now, if you’ve been in any classes, one of the questions you’d be asking is, Do you see patterns? Do you see order? How are they grouped?

I’d be inclined to say if there’s seven, maybe the one in the middle is special because there’s an odd number and that’d be three-one-three. I’d try that out. Is there anything like that here? The middle one here, I know where I’m going for it.

The middle one here is a “heart that devises wicked plans.” You got a heart. If you move out in both directions, on this side, you’ve got hands that shed innocent blood, and on the other side, you get feet that make haste to run to evil. And you say, “I think I’m onto something. I think I’m onto something. Heart at the middle; hands, feet both run into evil. Something’s going on here.”

You keep broadening out, and here you have “a lying tongue” is next if you go backward, and next down here is “a false witness who breathes out lies.” This is done. This is not an accident. This is not an accident that we’ve got the heart at the middle, we got hands and feet doing evil, and we’ve got lying on both ends.

Then you get socked in the jaw by the next pair because it doesn’t work, and you wonder if you’ve made it up. “Haughty eyes” and “one who sows discords,” and you might say, “Oh, I guess he didn’t plan it all the way out.” Well, if you were my student and you gave up like that, I’d say, “Don’t assume that. Assume more for Bible authors. Assume more.” It may not be more, but just assume more.

It’s a good idea to assume more because you won’t quit if you assume more. Here’s my guess, and then we want to check it out to see if this thing is done elsewhere in Proverbs or in the New Testament. I think I found one in the New Testament, almost like this, is the reason that “haughty eyes” is here and “one who sows discord” is here precisely non-parallel to tell us where discord comes from?

Pride. Is that what maybe is going on between these two? The others correspond so well. You got a heart that’s evil; it moves hands to shed blood, it moves feet to do evil. It yields lying from a false witness here and from a tongue here, and it reaches out to haughty eyes — eyes now, and one who sows discord because that’s what haughty eyes do, right?

Humility in 1 Peter

We’re going to see a lot of that in 1 Peter. Humility is a big deal in 1 Peter.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6–7)

[Let there be a] unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)

Because without humility, families, churches, small groups come apart. I don’t know how long it would take you to see those things, kinds of things, but my guess is if we stayed with this, we would see ten more things in this text.

For example, I do not know what’s going on with this pattern in Proverbs between “I got six and I got seven.” It occurs a dozen times in the book of Proverbs, with threes and fours usually. “The Lord knows three things. No, he knows four things.” Three things. “Baffle a man like an ant on a rock and a woman’s love.” Things like that. I say, “What?” “A sailing ship.” I could spend all my life thinking about things like that, which I do. That’s what I do.