Let us pray.
God of life and truth,
you have taught us
that we cannot live on bread alone,
but on every word
that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Feed us with the word of life,
and by your Spirit
lead us into truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Peter is away today so he invited me to preach on the next topic in the series he is doing on the Bible called, ‘The Heart Attitude we need to bring to our Bible reading or study.’
Most books I have on Bible study spend most or all of their time on methods of studying the Bible, which are very helpful and useful. However, very few focus on how we should prepare ourselves to approach Bible study.
In his book called Methods of Bible Study, the Rev Dr Griffith Thomas says quite bluntly I think, ‘Anyone with brains can become an expert in the first four stages of Bible study, which he lists as Textual Criticism, Literary Criticism, Biblical Exegesis, and Biblical Theology. The fifth stage needs qualities and conditions far beyond intellectual capacity and attainment.’ That is quite a statement from someone with a Doctorate of Divinity! I’ll repeat that last part: The fifth stage needs qualities and conditions far beyond intellectual capacity and attainment. So what does he say is this fifth stage? To be a Christian, that is a believer who has accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord and received forgiveness for their sins and received the Holy Spirit. Why? Because we need God’s Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible to us and help us discern what God is saying to us through the Bible. Without the Holy Spirit, Biblical interpretation is just an academic exercise. He adds that the Christian must be growing in their faith and closely following what the Bible teaches if Bible study is to be of the highest and best value. God wants a growing and deepening relationship with his people. Bible study is an essential way of doing that.
So what Biblical qualities does God want the Christian person to be growing and developing as they approach studying the Bible? Isaiah 66:2 is a good place to start. ‘This is the one I esteem: the person who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.’
Firstly we need a humble spirit. A humble spirit grows in a proper understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship to Him. God looks for a particular spirit as we approach His Word – precisely because it is His Word. The Bible is communication from the high and lofty One, the One who lives forever, whose name is holy, but who lives with the person of a humble and contrite spirit (Isaiah 57:15). This Word (or the Bible) is the most complete revelation given by God who is eternal, divine, holy, and personal. God gives His Word a place of highest honour, Psalm 138:2 says, ‘for you (God) have exalted above all things your name and your word.’ When we grasp the reality that we’re actually studying God’s Word, we realise that we cannot come to this Book on an equal footing with it. The human mind cannot fully fathom the thoughts, the character, the person of God.
We also need to be hungry to study the Bible and hear God speak. As Christians we need to be keen, willing and eager to study the Bible and keen to hear what God wants to say to us. If not, God is unlikely to speak if we are really not hungry to listen. We need to be teachable so we can hear God speak to us. There is always more to learn and hear from God. To think we know it all and can learn nothing more or new from the Bible is to place ourselves equal with God, which is very arrogant as none of us are divine and equal to God. That is far from the humble spirit God requires!
God calls us to emulate this spirit of humility and hunger, whether we are accomplished students of the Bible or new converts. Intelligent, diligent, careful study is important, but the Bible doesn’t relinquish its bounty to high IQs and polished Bible study skills alone. While it is true that the Bible is in many ways like any other book, it is absolutely unique. This Book reveals “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Corinthians 2:7). Wisdom that no eye has seen “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:10).
Biblical truth isn’t discovered; it is revealed, interpreted, explained, and taught by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God alone knows the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:11), and He communicates “spiritual truths in spiritual words” (2:13) to the human spirit. The language He uses is not Greek, Hebrew, or English; it is spirit. The Holy Spirit whispers it to humble spirits. So like the psalmist, let us cry out, “Let me understand the preaching of your precepts” (Psalm 119:27). Charles Simeon (1758-1836), an English preacher who taught others how to preach, wrote, “The more lowly we are in our own eyes, the richer communications we shall receive from Him (or God).” It is important as we approach Scripture that because the Bible is God’s Word to us, God is divine and perfect and we are human and imperfect, that we let the Bible judge us, and point out our sins and shortcomings, not the other way around. If we sit in judgement of the Bible, deciding what is credible and what is not, we will not hear God speak and we will be ruled by our sinful nature eventually running the risk of putting us back into a non-Christian state. If we want to follow God we must obey God. (Matthew 28:20).
In a similar vein we should not approach Scripture looking to bolster our own opinions on matters but seeking to know God’s truth and be willing to change our views when we see we are wrong. If we come with a humble and contrite heart, trembling at God’s Word we should be open to hear what God has to say, and we may need to see things God’s way rather than our own.
As we approach Scripture, our heart attitude needs to be one of openness to respond to God when God speaks to us, and make changes in our lives on the basis of what we have heard God say. As humans none of us are perfect. We all have defects and flaws, so we need to be open to make the changes God requires, however easy or tough that might be. We need to be willing to put in the required effort to preparing ourselves to study the Scriptures so we can hear what God is saying to us with a humble spirit.
Secondly, we are also to approach Scripture with a contrite spirit. A contrite spirit has an acute awareness of its failings. This awareness is accompanied by deep distress, but also gratitude that there is refuge in the mercy and grace of God.
A concordance defines contrite as “smitten, maimed, dejected.” It only follows that if we picture our fallen humanity compared to God’s holy splendour, we will be bruised by the contrast. As Isaiah lamented after seeing the Lord in His glory, “woe to me!” (Isaiah 6:5). But, of course, the glory of the Gospels is that the “bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). Jesus doesn’t break those bent with contrition. Rather, He blesses those who are poor in spirit and mourn over their sin (Matthew 5:3-4). “The LORD is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
The Word lovingly bruises as well as blesses us. If we come to the Word as self-sufficient, self-satisfied consumers of blessing, the blessing cannot penetrate the armour of self. The Word of God must pierce our thick skins, must strike stinging blows at times, must hold a mirror before our faces that we might see what our sin does to us. The Word must wound before it binds up. Otherwise, far worse sores fester out of sight, waiting to erupt and destroy us. A contrite spirit welcomes God’s work that reveals who we really are. It limps to the throne of grace to receive the healing balm.
We must face our defects and acknowledge that we have barely begun to face them. We must acknowledge our biases and blindness and know that we are still blind to them. We must come as open-minded and openhearted as we can with the full realisation that we are entangled in the sticky web of our humanity. And we must grieve. That is contrition.
Thirdly, God wants us to come to the Bible as those who tremble at His Word. That means we need to take God seriously and believe that the Lord is who He says He is, that He thinks and acts just as He says. Trembling at His Word is equivalent to the “fear God” used so often throughout the Scriptures.
Josiah was the kind of “trembler” God esteems. During his reign the long neglected Book of the Law was found in the temple. When Josiah heard the message of the book and realised the extent of the nation’s disobedience and the judgement that would surely fall on them, he tore his clothes and wept in anguish (2 Kings 22-23). Josiah approached the scrolls with a prior commitment to obey them with all his heart and soul. He reinstituted the celebration of the Passover and began a vigorous campaign to rid the land of false gods. His responsiveness characterises the man or woman who takes God’s Word seriously.
A trembling heart prepares our spirits for greater intimacy with God’s Word. God said His Word is the necessary bread that will satisfy (Isaiah 55:1-3, Matthew 4:4). It is like snow and rain that falls from heavenly realms for a purpose. God’s Word comes to nourish and refresh, to make us fruitful and effective. The Bible is not ineffectual; we can expect something to happen when we receive God’s message to us (Isaiah 55:10-11).
So before you open your Bible, stop! Reflect. Pray. This book is spirit, and you need the indwelling Holy Spirit working in your spirit to receive spiritual truth. The Author of this book is your Interpreter. Who else knows the deep things of God except the Spirit of God? He will read to your spirit the language of your Father. The Spirit works both to bruise and soften your spirit, then to unfold the mysteries of God to you when you can receive them. Be alert to your spirit because it is a Book interpreted Spirit to spirit.
As I have prepared this sermon I have felt personally challenged to improve my preparation before I study the Bible. My prayer is that this will help you all as you too continue to study God’s written Word to us in the pages of this wonderful book called The Bible.
Let us pause for a period of silence to consider how God has spoken to us this morning. In a few moments I will conclude with prayer.
Let us pray.
Lord God, thank you for your message to us this morning. Please help us to prepare appropriately to study your Word to us in the Bible. May we be the person that Isaiah describes as ‘the person who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.’
We pray this in Jesus name.