Studying the Scriptures
Acts 17.1-3; 10-12
I’ve been introducing the sermons in this lenten series on spiritual practices in a similar way for the past few weeks. I told my family I was milking the introduction for all it’s worth. Their feedback suggests I’ve been milking it for more than it’s worth! So all I’ll say by way of introduction is that if you’re putting the spiritual disciplines into practice, and you’re still succumbing to crippling cynicism or to terminal grumpiness, we may need to talk.
Today, we’re talking about study as a spiritual practice. In particular, we’re talking about making room for Jesus as we study the scriptures. We’re talking about our minds and our very selves being remade in the image of Jesus Christ.
Why study the scriptures? Is it to increase our knowledge? That’s important, but it isn’t enough. We live in an age of great knowledge, but little wisdom. Wisdom starts with the ‘fear’, or awe, of God. Wisdom starts from our smallness, our humility before the God of heaven and earth. If we only increase our knowledge without applying ourselves to gaining wisdom, we run the risk of having St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.1 apply to us: ‘Knowledge puffs up.’ Knowledge for its own sake inflates the ego.
So why study the scriptures? Is it to get our doctrine right? Not really. Many groups read the same Bible, and they are convinced that they’re right and we’re wrong. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses read the Bible and find that Jesus is not divine, and God is not Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some Mormon sects find permission for polygamy in the Bible. And so it goes on.
The scriptures are an essential source of the Church’s doctrine. Yet they need to be interpreted. We all interpret the Bible whether we know it or not. The Bible says, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss.’ I shake David Rankin’s hand. I think that’s a mutually agreed interpretation. The Bible isn’t a source of timeless truths so much as a source of timely truth. The theologian Karl Barth told us to read the Bible with a newspaper in the other hand, so we may truly apply them to our own time.
Have you noticed that when people study the scriptures in order to get their doctrine straight, they so often use the Bible as a piece of 2” by 4” so they can batter those who disagree with them about the head?
In the Gospel reading we heard today, Jesus agrees with the teacher that the heart of the scriptures is to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. If love is the heart of the scriptures, how can we use the Bible as a weapon? Shouldn’t we rather allow the scriptures to teach us, to question us, so that we can love others?
Why study the scriptures? Do we need to study them because they’re hard to understand? Well, yes. And no.
They can be hard to understand. It says so right there in the Bible! 2 Peter 3.15-16 says:
our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him… There are some things in [his letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
Some people do need to study the scriptures to try to make difficult passages clearer. They become scholars and learn the original languages, devoting their lives to this quest. But that’s not why most of us need to study the scriptures.
Our attitude could be more like that the nineteenth century writer George MacDonald, who was a great influence on CS Lewis, who wrote the Narnia tales among many other things. MacDonald said this about the letters of Paul:
The uncertainty lies always in the intellectual region, never in the practical. What Paul cares about is plain enough to the true heart, however far from plain to the man whose desire to understand goes ahead of his obedience.
‘What Paul cares about is plain enough to the true heart.’ If we come to the scriptures with a true heart, a sincere desire to find God and live in the light of God, we’ll find plenty of plain stuff.
It won’t always be easy to read, though. Remember, our Gospel reading says the heart of the scriptures is to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. That’s plain. But do we do it? Do we do it? That’s always the question. Knowing what the scriptures say but not doing what they say is useless.
The scriptures are sometimes hard to understand, but that’s not the main reason to study them. We study them so that we might become people who do what the scriptures say. I quoted Paul earlier: ‘Knowledge puffs up’. But the full quotation is, ‘Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up’.
We are to study to that we can become people who love others, who build up the body of Christ and reach out to those outside the body with acts of care and compassion.
In Richard Foster’s words, we study the scriptures so that our minds may conform to the ways of God. So that our ingrained habits of thought might be those things that are lovely, and just, and true. So that our inner spirit may be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We study so that the words of Romans 12.2 may be true of us:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
When I studied medicine, I learned ways of thinking appropriate to that profession. I learned to assess and recognise when a combination of signs and symptoms made a diagnosis possible. I learned to determine a course of action to help someone who came to me for help. My mind was formed into certain ways of thinking.
As a Christian, I need to study so that I can learn the ways of God, the way of Jesus Christ. I need to allow the Spirit of God to conform my thinking and my acts to that way, the way of discipleship. That takes time and it takes repentance from sin. I need to let the scriptures teach me. And if I am going to study as a disciple, I need discipline.
I’d like to finish by talking about resources for study. One is well known in this congregation: it is the Disciple series. There are four studies in the series, and also a unit on the Gospels.
Disciple I is called Becoming Disciples through Bible Study. It takes participants from Genesis through to Revelation.
Disciple II is Into the Word, Into the World. This is a study of Genesis, Exodus, Luke, and Acts and considers how we are called into ministry in the world around us.
Disciple III is Remember Who You Are, and focusses on the Old Testament prophets and Paul’s letters.
Disciple IV is called Under the Tree of Life and concentrates on the ‘writings’ in the Old Testament—books such as Ruth, Job, Psalms and Proverbs. It also looks at the Gospel of John and some books towards the end of the New Testament.
We’ll be offering some Disciple courses later in the year. Unlike other years, we’ll do one half of the course this year and the second half next year. There are other resources which I’ll talk about on another occasion, but one I do want to mention is a book. It’s called How to read the Bible for all its worth. It talks about interpreting the Bible, getting a good translation, finding a good commentary and many other things. Sometimes we spend our money on things that don’t feed our faith. This purchase will feed your faith. (But only if you read the book!)
Let me finish with a personal story. When I was a young medical student, I needed to study the scriptures. I started at uni with a Sunday School faith that didn’t equip me very well when people started challenging my faith. Real study helped me to grow in faith as I was being challenged. If I hadn’t studied the scriptures, I would have ended up with a sophisticated medical education in one compartment of my mind and a kindergarten-sized faith in another. I doubt that my faith would have survived that.
Study the scriptures:
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.