How to Read the Bible Fruitfully
Articles on how to read Scripture often focus on techniques – daily reading plans, interpretive methods, systems of study, etc. These can all be tremendously helpful, but what I want to write about here are not techniques that make Bible-reading effective. I want to explore attitudes that make Bible-reading fruitful.
What should be the attitude of our hearts when we approach God’s word so that its impact on us will be lasting and beneficial? Let me suggest four ways to read the Bible.
- Read humbly.
James 1:21 says, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” The word “humbly” in that verse translates a Greek phrase that means, “with meekness” or “with gentleness of spirit”. In other words, if we want Scripture to have a saving effect on us, we need to read it, not as experts who sit in judgment over the word, but rather as subjects who will be judged by the word.
This is the opposite of the way many people approach Scripture. The minute they run across an idea with which they disagree or a concept they do not understand, they immediately reject the Bible as nonsensical or irrelevant. “I don’t understand this,” they say. “This cannot possibly be the word of God.” Their instinctive response is to doubt Scripture rather than to doubt themselves.
Imagine if I read a scientific article by Albert Einstein and say, “This makes no sense to me. Einstein must have been stupid.” How absurd! It would be more logical to say, “This makes no sense to me. Einstein must have been smart – too smart for me to understand.” In the same way, if the Bible truly is what it claims to be, a book inspired by the Creator of the universe, we should expect it to contain material that defies our comprehension and that rankles our sensitivities.
It is only when we approach Scripture with humble openness that it begins to change who we are. This is the way the early Christians in Thessalonica responded to God’s word. The Apostle writes, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). Their humble reception of the word gave it an open door to work in their lives.
- Read obediently.
For God’s word to change me, I must not read the Bible as a menu from which I order the food I want and bypass the food I despise. I must receive the Bible, the entire Bible, as God’s authoritative revelation to me, informing me of what he wants me to believe and how he wants me to live.
Jesus told the people of his day, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 17:7). In other words, only those who receive the word with the intention of obeying it will ever recognize it for what it is – God’s word.
For this reason, reading the Bible can be a dangerous activity. If we read God’s word with no commitment to follow it, every chapter we read causes our hearts to become harder toward the Lord. We grow deaf to the Spirit’s voice, immune to the convicting power of Scripture. Perhaps this explains why the people most resistant to the ministry of Jesus were the Bible experts of his day. Jesus said, “They do not practice what they preach” (Mt. 23:3). They had been studying Scripture for so long without obey it that their hearts had grown numb to the power of God’s word to change their lives.
To paraphrase St. Augustine, when we open our Bibles we should say, “Lord, command whatever you desire, but give me grace to obey what you command.”
3) Read inquisitively.
It is especially important for those of us who have been reading Scripture for a long time not to lose our sense of curiosity as we approach God’s book. It is easy to slip into thinking that we have heard it all before and that there is nothing new for us to learn. Such thinking is mistaken. There is always more to learn. St. Jerome wrote, “The Scriptures are shallow enough for a baby to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom."
An ancient psalmist approached God’s word saying, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Ps. 119:18). His assumption, as he approached Scripture, was that it contained many “wonderful things” that he had not seen yet. He prayed for the Lord to help him discover hidden gems of truth that he had yet to find.
What can help us to read the Bible in new and inquisitive ways is to invite other people into the process of reading Scripture with us. This might involve joining a Bible-study group, in which participants share their questions and insights. It might also involve reading what other people have written out of their own study of God’s word.
As we read Scripture communally in these ways, it is helpful to include voices of people whose perspective differs from our own. A woman will see things in the Bible that a man might miss. Christians from developing nations often notice aspects of God’s truth that pass right over the heads of First World readers. Disabled believers sometimes notice details in a text that able-bodied people overlook. Christians from past generations, as we read their writings, often point out dimensions of God’s revelation that are obscured to us by the limitations of our cultural moment. Each person’s distinctive perspective serves as unique lens through which we can all glimpse new dimensions of God’s truth.
The point of all this is to read God’s word inquisitively. Search for nuggets of truth in Scripture that you haven’t noticed before. Comedian Tracy Morgan said, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that curiosity might kill cats, but it doesn’t kill people.” Approach the Bible with an expectant curiosity.
God told the prophet Jeremiah, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3). I believe God will do the same for us if we ask him to teach us new and important truths from his word.
4) Read with a focus on Jesus.
It has often been said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The main thing in Scripture is Jesus. The primary purpose of the Bible is not to reveal the age of the earth, to provide principles of political theory, or to teach us how to raise positive kids. The main purpose of the Bible is to draw us to Christ.
Jesus told the religious people of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39). Though they were experts in the Bible, they did not realize that God’s written word is one long story that points to Jesus, the promised Messiah sent to save the world. This is something that Christ taught to his disciples. Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
Different parts of the Bible point to Jesus in different ways. The story of creation points to God’s original plan for humankind and the way that plan was frustrated, so that we recognize Jesus as the Second Adam, the one born of woman to undo the curse on the world. The stories of the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs describe God’s promise to bring blessing to the world through his chosen people, a plan fulfilled through Jesus, the true Israelite through whom God’s covenant blessings spread to all nations. God’s moral law makes us aware of our sin and of our need for a Savior, so that we thirst for redemption. The gospel tells us what God has done to quench that thirst – how God sent his Son to fulfill the law through his obedience and to atone for sin through his death.
It is when we read the Bible with a hunger to know Jesus that we begin to experience it as a life-giving book. It took me a long time to realize this truth, which is surprising given the words of one of the first songs I learned as a child. Do you know this song? They taught us to sing, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” What sweet words! And how true!