“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” — Augustine of Hippo)
A basic Christian spiritual discipline is Bible study. This is correct and must continue to be emphasised. The Bible is God’s special revelation to us. It is the only book that is “exhaled” (inspired) by God (2 Timothy 3:16,17) and, when properly interpreted, is the authoritative guide for what is right and wrong belief and what is right and wrong behaviour. Yet many Christians struggle to read the Bible regularly. Maybe the word “study” puts the focus on the content of Scripture when people are actually hungering for an encounter with a person, God Himself.
Ok, before I get a barrage of attacks on the dangers of a personalised, subjective approach to Bible study, let me quickly say that God chose to communicate with us through language and we need to do the hard work of properly interpreting Scripture, guided by the best hermeneutical principles. There is no short cut to grappling with the written Word. It’s just that beyond the written Word we want to encounter the Living Word.
In the Emmaus Road passage and the following verses in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:13–49), Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the Word (Luke 24:45). He explained how the Scriptures talked about Him (Luke 24:27). Bible study must engage the mind and needs hard thinking. Indeed, our goal is to know the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). We don’t only study the passages that appeal to us. The Lord gave us 66 books and I don’t think any of those books are to be ignored.
Therefore, while I believe the Lord may sometimes speak a specific word to us, we need a healthy balanced diet of the whole counsel of God. I am also not convinced that the Lord will lift up a verse or a passage totally out of context from the book where it is located just to use the words of that verse/passage to speak to us. This is a dangerous precedence where you can make the Word say whatever you want. A sincere belief that the Lord is using just the words of a verse/passage is no guarantee that that is what is happening. Disciplining ourselves to understand a verse/passage in context protects us from a subjectivity that may lead us into error.
Having said that, we also need to be clear that what we are aiming for in our study of the Word of God is to hear the voice of God. In the Emmaus passage, Jesus explained Scripture to them but that exercise also resulted in their hearts being seared (Luke 24:32). They encountered God. And that is our goal in the study of the Word — that we encounter the divine fire.
We live in a lonely world where people hunger for community and to connect with transcendence. Let’s not make Bible study something akin to studying for an exam. Let us remind ourselves that the Living Word is waiting to speak to us and that studying the Bible is a visit to a Burning Bush (Exodus 3) where God is waiting to address us. I know it is a bit longwinded, but I prefer saying we need to “encounter God in the study of the Bible” rather than just “Bible study”. May you encounter God in His Word in 2020.
P.S. I am encountering God in Jeremiah and 1 Timothy in my present readings.