How important is personal Bible reading? The question has been eating away at me for a number of reasons.
Most people didn’t own Bibles until recently. For most of church history, followers of Christ relied on the public reading and teaching of Scripture. Personal copies of the Bible didn’t become common until well after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.
Personal interpretation of the Bible can be misleading. Although much of Scripture is self-explanatory, the apostle Peter acknowledged that difficult passages could be misused to our own harm (2 Peter 3:16).
Knowing what the Bible says doesn’t always make us better. Most of us have to admit that on occasion we have used the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support rather than light.
At times, I’ve wondered what to do with such facts. While I’m still thinking about them, I find it helpful to remember the following:
Jesus lived by the Book. Whether introducing Himself as Messiah, teaching His disciples, reasoning with religious leaders, or confronting His adversary, Jesus referred to, quoted, and applied Moses and the prophets. His insightful use of Scripture during 40 days of temptation in the wilderness gives us an example of how important the Word of God was to Him. Three times Jesus used the phrase “It is written” in response to three devilish propositions.
Admittedly, Jesus’ use of the Scriptures doesn’t answer all of my questions about personal Bible reading. In fact, the more I think about how thoughtful and insightful He was in applying the Scriptures, I have little hope of being able to follow His example. His ability to browse through Moses and find just the right words for a difficult test of character has the opposite effect on me. I could never be as good as He was in speaking truth to the powers of darkness. I can no more use Scripture the way He did than I can walk on water or control the weather.
With this admission of inability, however, I’m nudged by another thought: Jesus couldn’t even do what He did. If that sounds irreverent, it’s not. On another occasion He said to His disciples, “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30).
Even though Jesus was “God with us,” He didn’t do anything on His own. When the devil tried to provoke Him into an independent display of His power by making a rock into bread or by jumping from a high place, the Son of God refused to do so (Luke 4:1-13). As the apostle Paul later explained, when Jesus left heaven to be born into the human family, He voluntarily laid aside the use of His divine power (Philippians 2:5-11).
Jesus relied on the Spirit. As Matthew reminds us, even when Jesus did not have His disciples at His side, He was not alone. Neither did He have to rely on the prompting of His own thoughts when reflecting on Scripture that He had previously read, thought about, and memorized. As He began three years of public life, He saw the Spirit of God coming upon Him (Matthew 3:16). Soon after, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (4:1). The repeated emphasis on the Spirit’s presence with Jesus is not accidental.
We don’t have to study, understand, or apply the words of the Bible on our own either. As we carefully read and think about the intent and timeless principles of Scripture, and as we look for what the events and people of the Bible tell us about God and about ourselves, we can be sure that somewhere within our thoughts the Spirit of God is at work teaching, leading, correcting, and shaping our hearts. Even if we can’t separate between our thoughts and the mysterious way the Spirit of God is working in us, we can depend on Him as we try in every situation to orient ourselves by the compass of what God has said.
There are many ways to center our lives in the Scriptures and prayer. Before anyone had versions, paraphrases, and designer editions of the Bible, people who were thirsty for God found ways to reflect day and night on what He has said (Psalms 1; 119). For many generations, people learned Scripture by word of mouth, by repetition, and by memories not dulled by today’s information overload. Fathers and mothers told and retold the stories of the betrayal of Joseph, the miracles of the Exodus, the anger of Moses, the courage of Esther, and the scandals of Samson.
Now, as in the past, the life-changing songs and wisdom of the Bible can renew our minds and shape our attitudes. In every imaginable circumstance, the words, thoughts, and stories of the Bible can be used by the Spirit of God to relieve our fears, subdue our anger, and deepen our resolve.
So let’s end where we began. How important is personal Bible reading? The answer lies in another question: How necessary is it to meditate on what God has told us about Himself and about us?
Depending on our circumstances, spending a lot of time in the Bible today may not be possible, necessary, or even advisable. But thinking throughout the day about what is important to God is critical to our spiritual well-being. Without telling us how to do it, King David described as “blessed” the person who meditates day and night about the words and ways of God (Psalm 1).
Father in Heaven, on our own we get lost in thoughts, in opinion polls, and in beliefs about You that are not true. Please help us to find ways to think throughout this day about what You have said and shown us through Your Word. By the presence of Your Spirit we need Your Word to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. –Mart De Haan