Reading the Bible is an important part of our personal devotions. How we read the Bible is very important. The Bible is the infallibly inspired record of the revelation of Jehovah God, the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ. I used to explain to my students in Seminary that the Bible was a “portrait” of Christ; and that through the study of the portrait, we could come to know God. Jesus himself said this in John 14:9: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” God is made known to us through Jesus Christ.
Paul uses a similar figure in I Corinthians 13:12: “:For now we see through a glass (mirror), darkly; but then face to face.” The Bible is like a mirror. While we are on this earth all we have is the mirror. Christ is, so to speak, behind us, but is reflected in the mirror. When we get to heaven, we turn around, look away from the mirror, and see him “face to face.”
We make the Bible an important part of our devotions when, as we read it, we ask ourselves the question” What is God saying in this passage about himself? We can find an illustration of this in the passage I have quoted before in I Peter 5:6, 7: Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you”
When we ask ourselves, first of all, what does this text say about God? there are several answers. For one thing, the text says that all the afflictions of this life come to us from the hand of God. That is, he is sovereign over our whole life. That surely is a good place to start in our meditations.
Second, the text says that God’s hand is mighty. We know that this is true, for God is omnipotent – all-powerful. But in this context, it means also that when God’s hand is upon us, and our afflictions are very great, we indeed experience it as a “mighty” hand of God.
Third, the text says about God that God exalts the humble. That is a wonderful promise – especially when we look at the verse just before it: for the God who exalts the humble also resists the proud. Those are important things about God that we ought to know.
Fourth, the passage also tells us that God cares for us. There are times in my life when it seems to me that God cannot possibly even have time for me. He is so great, so immense, so glorious that we cannot even comprehend it. And, as Isaiah says, all the nations of the earth are as grasshoppers in his sight. He moves the stars in the sky. He rules sovereignly over all the billions of people in this world. He has much to do. How can he possibly take the time to pay any attention to me? I am so small, so wicked, so insignificant. But there it is in the text: “He cares for you.” That says a lot about God: about his grace, his mercy, his compassion, his love.
And I think anyone can see that if once we see what the text says about God, the text means a lot more when we ask ourselves the second question: What is the text saying about me?
Even here we have to be careful. There are all kinds of pitfalls and traps into which we can fall. Let me mention a few. Sometimes God says nothing about me personally, but rather about his church. And he speaks to me only because I am a member of the church – something he says elsewhere. But it is very different to ask: What is God saying to me? personally? from the question: What is God saying to me as a member of the church. If we are, as Paul says, members of the church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Timothy 3:15), then
when in that verse he speaks to me, he speaks to me in the church; and he says something about my calling and my responsibility as a member of the church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth. Ah. Then what he has to say directs me to ponder my responsibilities as a member of the church, which is created and formed by God to stand for his truth in the world.
Sometimes God simply says things about his own glory and power. I used to read Isaiah 40:18-27 to my students. And then, when it sank in what God was saying about himself, especially in comparison with idols, then we could read verses 28-31. What a powerful word that is to me – after letting everything in verses 18-27 sink in. Try it once. Read it for your devotions. Think about it carefully, sentence by sentence. Hear God telling you how great he is. And then when you get down on your knees to pray, read verses 28-31. If those words do not make your heart soar on the wings of eagles, there is nothing that can move you.
Sometimes God speaks directly to us with fierce reprimands – as he does, for example in Isaiah 1:10-17. Don’t say that those words are spoken only to the wicked reprobate in Judah; they are, of course; but they are spoken to you and to me. They cut like a whip into our souls; they break all our stubborn hearts. Or read James’ words: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because y ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:1-4). And do not say that this is spoken to wicked people, and not to you. James spoke these words to the church of which you are a member. The cut like a whip into our souls. They almost knock us senseless as a caning would. They come like thunder from heaven. God says this to me!
Yes. What does the Bible say to me? That is an important question. But we do not always like that very well and would rather slide over such passages with a hasty glance and immediately forget them. But when the publican in the temple did not dare to look to heaven, but cried out as he beat his breast: “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and went home in the joy of forgiveness, then God is speaking to us also, and leading us gently and kindly to the cross to tell us what he did there for such sinners as we are.
Sometimes in our grief and sorrow God through Christ comes with love and tender compassion. I need to hear the word of Christ again and again: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden. And I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). How sweet those words can be to my troubled soul.
There are other things that are involved in this part of our devotions. I mention a few. First, in order really to learn what a text is saying about God and about us, we have to read the text in its context and hear God’s Word in the context of the whole chapter, and the whole book.
Some outrageous explanations of Scripture have been preached because this important rule is forgotten. One minister preached a series of twelve sermons on the twelve lions on the steps leading to Solomon’s throne (I Kings 10:20), one sermon on each lion. He made each lion a Christian virtue, such as love, hope, compassion, wisdom, etc. At the end of his series, one of his parishioners said to him: “You preached twelve sermons on Christian virtues, but there are more than twelve Christian virtues mentioned in the Bible. Why did you not preach on them?” The minister responded: “I couldn’t because there were only twelve lions”. (Anyone who makes those lions symbols of Christian virtues is putting into the text something that God did not put in.)
Another minister did not like the new fashion in women’s hair-dos. The new fashion was to pile one’s hair on top of one’s head. And so he preached on the text: “Top-knot come down.” After the service, some women, not too happy with the sermon, asked him, “Where in the Bible do you find that text?” His response was, “The text is in Matthew 24:17: “Let him which is on the housetop not come down.” (This sort of thing is playing with Scripture and making a game of it.)
And yet ministers are fond of doing similar things, especially some Baptist ministers. I heard one Baptist minister once tell his people that the purple cord by which Rahab let down the spies from Jericho was a picture of an artery in Jesus’ body, for just as the spies escaped wicked Jericho by this purple cord, so we escape the wicked world by the artery of Jesus that poured out blood when a spear was pushed into his side. We must not do this sort of thing, for we make Scripture mean more than God wants it to mean. And the person with the most vivid imagination becomes the best preacher, because he can find the most surprising things in a text. The way to avoid this evil is to explain a text in its context and in the light of the rest of Scripture. “Scripture interprets Scripture,” the Reformers shouted. How true. Let us follow their good advice – also in our daily devotion.
In such a way as I have described we “meditate” on Scripture. Meditation on Scripture is the key to our devotional life. Arthur Pink, the author of “The Sovereignty of God,” a book you all ought to read, said somewhere that the way to meditate on a given verse is to ask yourself what every word in the text means. I think that is solid advice. There are, of course, words that are only prepositions or exclamations, but paying attention to each word helps us to understand the text.
We must, after such thorough meditation, then face the question: What does the text as a whole mean? I do this when I make a sermon. I think about, write notes on, every word and every point of grammar. Only then do I proceed to ask myself the question” What is this text teaching? What is its main theme? And how does every part of it say something about this one theme?
To succeed in this we frequently have to read a text over and over and over again until we are completely familiar with it. You say, “Yes, but all that takes too much time.” Well, it is better to read only one verse, or even a part of a verse, and understand it than to read fifty verses and not know five minutes later what they said. God’s word is worth our best efforts, and our best efforts will give us much blessing.
Questions for discussion
- Find a passage in the Bible and apply to it the principle of “Scripture Interprets Scripture.” It would be good if at a discussion, the group would all work with the same text in private, and each would report back at the next meeting.
- Look up Galatians 5:4 and discuss what this verse means when taken out of context and interpreted by itself. How do you harmonize it with Galatians 6:15?
- Why is it very wrong to misinterpret a text? Is there a difference between misinterpreting a text out of ignorance and by mistake? And deliberately making a text say what one wants it to say?
- My father had a lady in the congregations who told him that she was commanded by God to marry a certain man, who turned out to be married to another woman. She told my father that if he would not approve, he would be telling her to disobey God, something she would never do. What was the right answer to give her?
- Why is it so wrong always to do nothing else but apply the Bible to ourselves only?
- If some friend from another church says that John 3:16 proves that Christ died for every person, how will you deal with that? Is it possible that the Bible has two meanings? What if the person is a sincere Christian?
Written by: Prof. Herman Hanko | Issue 6