In the dead of night, when most people are savoring the final hours of a good night's sleep, some teenage boys were wide awake and about to experience the final moments of a tragedy. A powerful motorcycle, a bold dare, youthful folly, a dark slippery street, and a tree converged in time to send our seventeen-year-old nephew careening into eternity.
Family and friends who gathered in Dallas for the funeral had more questions than answers about the events leading up to Jesse's death and many more about the state of his soul-questions we could no longer ask him directly but were left to piece together from bits of information we could recall and from conversations with his grieving young friends. During a candlelight memorial service, his high school science teacher, a committed Christian, read aloud a personal letter in Jesse's handwriting that revealed a lot about the inner workings of our nephew's heart-a priceless document in our estimation that we were all eager to get our hands on. One by one, family members poured over that letter, not in search of some memorable quote or to pick up tips for raising teenagers, but to catch a glimpse into a young man's soul and thus to know and understand him better.
Thousands of years ago, the Spirit of God began mobilizing what would eventually become an army of writers to take up parchment and pen to write letters, poetry, biographies, history, and sermons that would eventually be placed into our hands. For centuries, God's people have poured over these writers' words in an effort to grasp what would otherwise be impossible to know: God's character and ways.
Until the sixteenth century these sacred documents, sixty-six in all, were secured under lock and key, handled only by professionals and experts. If you wanted to know what they said, you had better show up when the priest, the prophet, or the rabbi unrolled a scroll or opened the Bible and began the public reading. Private copies didn't exist. Memories were fine-tuned, and meditation was indispensable. After listening, people mentally played and replayed the words that had been read earlier. Artists portrayed the stories in stained glass windows, paintings, and sculpture to help people recall what they had heard.
Today, a dramatic change has occurred. Battles have been fought, blood shed, and lives lost to give every Christian ready access to the Scriptures. This was a controversial decision, fraught with risks. Many had serious misgivings about what would happen if untrained people got their hands on the Bible. There was talk of heresies, misinterpretations, and abuses of Scripture to come. Sadly, as anyone can corroborate by listening to some of the wild interpretations of Scripture that abound today, far too much of this has come to pass. Yet spurred on by the conviction that the Bible was written for all of God's people, the reformers pressed their case. With the advent of the printing press, their achievements exceeded their wildest dreams. Today, Bibles abound in private households, on hotel bedside tables, on bookstore shelves, and even in the local Wal-Mart.
God's Word in Our Hands
Knowing what it meant to read a copy of Jesse's letter, it isn't difficult to imagine how God's people felt when they held God's Word in their hands for the first time. Now we have hundreds of aids to make these ancient writings user-friendly: modern translations, study Bibles, commentaries, and study helps. With so much at our fingertips, you would expect accurate Bible knowledge to be at an all-time high and our generation unsurpassed in understanding God.
What you find is something very different. Although the Bible still maintains its best-seller status, the number of people actually reading it is in decline. In Christian circles, we've gotten out of the habit of reading the Bible from cover to cover, as a book with a unified message that we desperately need to understand. Instead, we read in snippets, picking and choosing favorite passages that make us feel good and give us the emotional lift we need. We sidestep sections that seem difficult, boring, or unsettling, leaving vast portions of the Bible unexplored.
Sometimes we completely ignore that these writings weren't initially addressed to us. Without stopping to figure out what the Bible meant to the original readers, we fast-forward to find out what the Bible says to us. By spurning any detailed knowledge of the ancient world, which is so essential to a clear understanding of these ancient writings, we detach the people of Scripture from their cultural moorings, proceeding as though these ancient writers embedded secret messages in their texts to help us to resolve some personal problem or to give us hidden formulas to help us succeed in marriage, parenting, and business. I know of one woman who scoured the Bible for verses to assure her that her marriage would recover from a disastrous beginning and of a businessman who discovered promises that the value of his investment portfolio would skyrocket.
At other times, we treat the Bible like a lucky charm, a magic talisman that, if handled regularly, obligates God to provide us with a convenient parking place at the mall, successful closing of a lucrative business deal, effectiveness in ministry, or fewer bumps along the road of life-or so we think. Like those tiresome individuals with the uncanny ability to redirect any conversation to themselves, we have turned the conversation of the Bible back to us. In the process, we've lost our way and are missing Scripture's heart.
Missing the Message
Sooner or later, we may bump into the consequences of our faulty methods. One woman, hardly a novice to the Bible, was dismayed to learn she had completely misunderstood a Bible verse she had been leaning on for years. I remember feeling bewildered and a bit betrayed when I took the time to look up an impressive string of passages that a Christian leader had offered to support a belief I cherished. The further along I got in the list and the more carefully I examined those verses within their contexts, the weaker his argument seemed. Those verses simply didn't support his claim.
Recently, faculty in biblical studies at Wheaton College raised their eyebrows at the disappointing results they received from a biblical literacy test that they had administered to incoming freshmen. Bear in mind, these students are intellectually ambitious and spiritually passionate. Most are from strong evangelical churches and have a long history of personal devotion and involvement in church, youth groups, camps, and missions. As author Gary Burge has summarized it, these freshmen, "use the Bible regularly-but curiously, few genuinely know its stories. The Bible has become a springboard for personal piety and meditation, not a book to be read."
There are pitfalls at the other end of the spectrum, too. People with a passion for study can easily reduce God's Word to precepts, definitions, and outlines, forgetting to get personally involved with the truths they are dissecting. They may not get stuck at a devotional level like some Christians, but their understanding is just as stunted if it only proves useful as ammunition for debates or for heady, philosophical discussions.
In Jesus' day, the Pharisees were the ones who seemed to be missing the point. Admired for their impressive knowledge of Scripture, they had nevertheless reduced it to a moral code-a list of do's and don'ts they believed God used to measure the loyalty and righteousness of his followers. Today, our inclination to view Christianity as a self-improvement program, rather than as a transforming grace relationship, is a sign that plenty of us have fallen into that ditch, too.
So, why did God give us the Bible? In the grand scheme of things, who cares if we know for sure who comes first chronologically, Abraham or Moses, or if we can rattle off the apostles' names or locate Haggai without consulting the table of contents? In a world of cancer, dysfunctional families, threats of terrorism, and a wildly fluctuating stock market, Bible literacy is the least of our worries. We're more concerned about finding help.
But that is exactly the point. We may rock along happily without realizing there's a problem so long as things go smoothly. But when the bottom falls out-the pathology report comes back with a cancer diagnosis, children rebel and go off the deep end, marriages crumble, or an early morning phone call brings the shattering news that a nephew has been killed in a motorcycle accident-our need to know God better is exposed. Sometimes life has a way of getting our attention and showing us what really matters. When it does, suddenly we are asking questions that should drive us back to the Scriptures to take a closer look at God. Is he good? Is he in control? Does he care about me? If he does, why won't he step in and do something?
In crises, our formulas tend to fall to pieces, and we can be confronted by a God we cannot manage and don't know as well as we should. But until then, we may very well have left God in the margins of our Bible reading, more interested in what he has to give us than in actually knowing him. So the danger for us is far more serious than simply being wrong or scoring poorly on a Bible literacy test. J. I. Packer put it bluntly in his classic book, Knowing God:
We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life, blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you.
How then can we read and study the Bible in a way that avoids our tendencies to get off track? What can we do to keep focused on God? Three simple questions-powerful Bible study tools-can take us back to the main road and help us avoid the pitfalls we've been discussing; namely, What does this passage tell me about God? What does it tell me about myself? And what difference does it make for me to know this?
Looking for God in the Bible
After publishing his book, The Greatest Generation, author and news anchor Tom Brokaw was approached by dozens of readers from his own generation who thanked him for helping them to understand their World War II veteran fathers for the first time. For years they had wondered about the war and what their fathers had seen, done, and endured. It took an outsider to break the silence and reveal those they had called "Dad" for more than fifty years.
In the Bible, God opens up to tell his own story, but not simply to satisfy our curiosity or fill our heads with facts. His intent is to draw us closer to himself, to cultivate his relationship with us, and to tell us the truth about himself, ourselves, and our world. He tells a war story too-a rescue operation where he fights to redeem, reclaim, and rebuild his family.
But God has no taste for a one-sided relationship where he does all the work. Just as we long for those we love to take a deep interest in us, so God longs for us to hunger to know him and to make time to know him better. So he has given us the Bible, a book that literally begs to be studied, where we will get to know him best. Here we discover his passion for us, the lengths he will go to secure our good. Through stories of ancient people, he gives picture after picture of how he parents his children. Honest stories, including upbeat episodes where his people's faith was strong and their victories great, are placed alongside dark chapters where they were baffled, disappointed, and even angry with him. His ancient people wrestled to understand and trust him, just as we do today. Their stories show, again and again, that he is good. He knows what he is doing and is worthy of our trust.
To unearth the message of the Bible, we must always read in search of God. The Bible springs to life when we are looking for him. Well-worn passages we thought we had mastered yield fresh and deeper meaning when we probe in search of him. One woman, awestruck by what she was discovering, remarked, "God is a lot bigger than I thought."
Newcomers to the Bible may think this sounds overly optimistic. After all, the Bible isn't always easy to understand: ancient Middle Eastern cultures, foreign customs, patriarchs, polygamists, bizarre visions. Often our initial attempts to figure out the meaning on our own turn up little, if anything.
Writer Phillip Yancey sympathizes. For years he avoided the Old Testament because it made little sense to him. When forced to read it anyway for a writing project, he discovered he'd been missing out. Looking back, he reflected, "The rewards offered by the Old Testament do not come easily, I admit. Learning to feel at home in its pages will take time and effort. All achievements-climbing mountains, mastering the guitar, competing in a triathlon-require a similar process of hard work; we persevere because we believe rewards will come."
And those rewards do come. As noted pastor and writer John Piper has said, "The time it takes to dig deep into the heart of God is often repaid by striking a vein of gold or an oil gusher. The effort is repaid with joy and power beyond all expectation." We may have to reach for a dictionary, a commentary, or to consult with an elder or pastor to get there. But our relationship with God is worth the effort.
Thankfully, in making these efforts, we are not alone. I've heard enough reports of late-night hotel room conversions to be convinced that anyone can pick up the Bible and, by God's grace, read it with profit. When we despair of understanding Scripture, we grossly underestimate the Holy Spirit's ability to get through to us about the meaning of God's Word. But even at the human level, our understanding improves when we work together, pastors and parishioners alike.
Moreover, this is not a one-way process where parishioners always remain on the receiving end and don't have anything to give back to pastors and teachers. It is true that God has ordained the offices of pastor and teacher for our good and that part of the task of our pastors and teachers is to study the Scriptures particularly diligently to ensure that they are not interpreted in inappropriate or harmful ways (see 2 Tim. 2:15; 2 Pet. 3:16). Yet I never will forget the insights of a deaf man on Jesus' healing of the deaf man. Aspects of that miracle had completely escaped my notice because I read it as a hearing person. My father, a veteran pastor, floored me recently when he told me he was learning from me. The point is, of course, that we need each other to understand Scripture's riches. Pulpit and pew, men and women, young and old, hearing and deaf-we all have blind spots others can illuminate.
Finding Ourselves in the Story
A friend of mine was assembling a family photo album for her parents' anniversary. She meticulously arranged photos of relatives for hours, making sure every cousin was included. Thumbing through the finished product, she discovered to her chagrin that she had left out one of her own children.
God's book doesn't leave out any of his children. Our stories are bound up in his. J. I. Packer has said that "the breathtaking truth is that Holy Scripture in its entirety is the Word of God directed personally to everyone whom it reaches in order to set up, deepen, and enrich a personal love-relationship between the divine Sender and the human recipient." By looking first for God in its story, we see our own story in a clearer light.
John Calvin expressed it this way, "It is certain that no man"-or woman-"ever achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself." Martin Luther emphasized the same point by urging his students not to leave off studying until they had taken the message pro me ("for me"). No matter how much we have managed to cram into our heads about God, the message doesn't really hit the mark until we see ourselves in the story and take what we thus learn to heart. Our understanding of God's character is always incomplete until we connect the dots between who he is and what is happening in our lives.
The Power of God's Word in Our Lives
But it doesn't stop there. Martin Bucer, John Calvin's mentor and a founding father of Reformed theology, reminds us that what we learn about God and ourselves inevitably spills over into our lives and relationships. It's an outcome we are actively to pursue. True theology "is not theoretical or speculative, but active and practical. For it is directed toward action, a godly life . . . that we shall ever more firmly trust in God and live a life that is increasingly holy and more serviceable in love toward our neighbor."
In the blazing light of God's holiness, we see the depths of our sin and are drawn to him in repentance. Clinging to Christ's redemptive work with renewed tenacity, we learn to forgive those who have wronged us. His sovereignty, wisdom, and love shed the twin lights of hope and purpose on the struggles that may be dragging us down today. Knowing God multiplies our reasons to trust, obey, and worship him. Understanding his heart for the widow and the orphan mobilizes us to care for them. His character defines our calling as his image bearers who are to reflect his likeness in our world.
Learning to Learn
One of the most unforgettable moments the week of Jesse's death was seeing his older brother silently absorbed, studying his little brother's scrawl. If anyone knew Jesse, it was his brother. Yet no matter how well he knew him, he was hungry to learn more.
Old Testament scholar Bruce K. Waltke, a man who knows the Bible extremely well, calls himself "a learner." He doesn't conceal his enjoyment of opportunities to interact with students, admitting, "I learn a lot from my students." Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many Bible facts we know or how many weighty theological terms we can explain. When it comes to knowing God, each of us has only scratched the surface.
The Bible is in our hands. More than a responsibility, we have a golden opportunity to plunge ourselves into the riches of our Heavenly Father, to know, enjoy, and follow him. Let us follow in the footsteps of St. Augustine who opened the Scriptures and received salvation upon hearing the counsel of a little child who-across a garden well-was chanting, "Take and read, take and read."