Podcast: 8 Questions to Ask Every Time You Open Your Bible (Matthew Harmon)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Bible Study Is for All Christians
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Matthew Harmon, author of Asking the Right Questions, discusses eight simple questions to ask when studying the Bible, questions that help us get at the true meaning of Scripture, and how to apply it to our lives today. He explains why all Christians, not just those with a seminary degree, can study the Bible deeply for themselves. He highlights what Jesus himself teaches us about how to rightly read Scripture, and explores how to move from understanding to application without making the Bible all about us.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Is the Bible Always Easy for Us to Understand?
- Common Objections about Understanding and Applying the Bible
- Why We Need to Ask the Right Questions of the Bible
- Using the Bible to Make Decisions
- Why We Need to Ask the Right Questions of the Bible
- Learning the Read the Bible from Jesus
- Can We Overinterpret the Bible?
- An Important Distinction about God’s Instruction for Us
- What Makes a Question ‘Wrong’?
- Why God Chose to Reveal Himself through Scripture
- Questions for Application
- When We Feel Unqualified to Read and Understand the Bible
- Tools for Daily Devotional Time
Asking the Right Questions
Matthew S. Harmon
This incisive and accessible book trains Bible readers to ask the right questions when reading God's Word to help them understand and apply the text to their lives.
Is the Bible Always Easy for Us to Understand?
In your book you lay out eight simple questions that you say will help us to understand, and then to apply, Scripture to our lives in a very straightforward way. I wonder if one question that people might immediately have is, Is it really that easy? Is it really just eight questions and then I can understand and apply the Bible?
Let me give a qualified, Yes. I want to say that those eight questions serve as a foundation that you can use in any passage and get to the heart of why God gave us the Scripture. So for example, the four questions that deal with how to understand the Bible—What do we learn about God? What do we learn about people? What do we learn about relating to God? What do we learn about relating to people?—those four questions come out of Matthew 22 where someone asked Jesus, What's the greatest commandment? And he says, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. Then he says something to the effect of, On these two commandments rest all the Law and the Prophets. What I see Jesus saying there is every passage of Scripture—no matter where you're at in the Bible—is given to us to, in some way, help us love God and love others. If you have that framework, you can approach any passage—whether you're in the middle of Leviticus and reading through seemingly strange regulations about how you should treat different types of people, what clothes you should wear, what you should put in your field, what you shouldn't put put in your field. We can get lost in the details. But if you step back and look at the larger picture and say, God gave me this passage to help me love him and to love my neighbor. So, what am I learning about God? What am I learning about people? How should I relate to God? How should I relate to other people? These questions can form a framework for us so that even if we don't understand all the details or the particulars, we can walk away saying, This is showing me something about who God is and about how I should relate to him. So that's why my qualified Yes is there. I won't claim that it will give you an exhaustive knowledge of a passage; but I think that based on what Jesus himself says, it gives us a good starting point to say, God gave me this passage to help me love him and to love other people. So if I start with that and I come away with knowing more about who God is,, and how I should relate to him and how I should relate to other people, you've gotten at the heart of what God wants you to get from the passages of Scripture.
Common Objections about Understanding and Applying the Bible
Framing a passage along that first set of questions—the understanding questions—is really helpful. You are a professor of New Testament and you also worked with Cru for a number of years with college students, leading Bible studies and discipling them. What are some of the most common objections that you've heard from normal Christians when it comes to their ability to understand the Bible and apply it?
Some of the most common include this impression that you have to have a Bible degree to really understand the Bible, or you have to know the original languages. I think oftentimes this actually is the result of people sitting under preaching or teaching where—although there wasn't the intention to give this idea—by the way that the Scriptures are taught, it can almost feel like, Well, if you don't know the Greek and the Hebrew, if you don't have the understanding of the cultural background and that sort of stuff, you really can't read the Bible. And so a steady exposure to that kind of teaching actually, instead of helping people understand the Bible, can actually discourage people from opening the text themselves because they think, Well, I don't have the training. I have never read these ancient Jewish authors like Josephus or Philo, so how could I ever understand the Bible? I'm not against theological education. I'm a professor at a school that offers that, so I want people to come and study. But I think that there can be this objection, Well, I don't have formalized training and that's the only way you can really understand the Bible is to have that kind of advanced training. So that's one of the more common objections that I get. Another is interpretive pluralism, Well, that's just your interpretation. So that's my interpretation, that's your interpretation so—
That may come up a lot in small group contexts, or something similar, where no one really wants to disagree with anyone else, and so you kind of just offer your own version of something. You don't want to get into a conflict.
Absolutely. So people walk away from that saying, Well, if Jimmy thinks that it means that, and I think it means something different, and Sally thinks it means something different . . . How are we supposed to even adjudicate between those claims? How are we supposed to figure out, Is that really what the passage means? Can the passage mean anything I want it to mean? Are there any sort of restrictions, checks, or boundaries that tell us, No, the passage really can't mean that because it says here in this part of the passage this, or because of this other piece of Scripture that helps us understand it. So I think those are some of the common frustrations that I see among both people in the church and students in the classroom having come out of that experience of wanting to understand and apply the Bible, but having those kind of frustrating experiences that serve as a discouragement. Then it only gets compounded by the fact that they're constantly told, You should be reading your Bible. Which is true—we should be encouraging people to read their Bible—but that ends up being even more frustrating because they think, Well, I want to, but I'm lost. I don't even know where to begin, or I get so frustrated when I hear one person say a passage means this and another person says it means the exact opposite. So what do I do with that?
Why We Need to Ask the Right Questions of the Bible
You write, “The questions we ask when we read the Bible will largely determine how we understand and apply it.” Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by that?
I think that's connected with our expectations of what kind of book the Bible is. If we go to the Bible and expect it to have detailed instruction for us on how to make specific life decisions, we're going to find ourselves frustrated. The Bible's not going to give you a specific verse that says whether or not you should take that job, or whether or not you should date that person, or whether you should move to that location. There's no chapter and verse that's going to give you the direct, Yes, you should do that; or, No, you shouldn't do that. Now, I want to be clear: the Bible speaks to all of life. It provides a framework, it provides a worldview, it provides instruction, it most importantly shows us who God is and what kind of people he calls us to be. So making a move from those realities, the Bible does give us wisdom to make those kinds of life decisions so that we're not completely left on our own to say, I don't know, should I take this job or should I not take this job? The Bible does give you wisdom in how to assess that kind of decision—what sort of factors should play into a decision like that. But it's not going to give you the specific answer that you're looking for.
Using the Bible to Make Decisions
I think we've all probably been in a small group context, or a Sunday school context, or just had a friend who maybe did think that the Bible gave him some specific direction. Maybe they were wrestling with a difficult life decision—whether it was a job or who to date—and then that morning in their Bible study read this verse where it said, And Moses led the Israelites east or something; and they think, Oh! Maybe I should take that job out on the East Coast. What do you think about that way of reading Scripture?
I think that it is certainly possible that God can use any variety of ways to guide and direct us. I do think that there are clearly times where—and I think many believers have this experience—where they're going through a situation, and they hear a sermon, or they're in a Bible study that has a passage where it seems to directly connect with whatever issue they're wrestling with. Through the process of reading the passage, of thinking about it, reflecting on it, praying on it, it does seem like the Lord will use that to move a person in a direction. I certainly believe that that happens. But I also think that is usually the culmination of a series of factors that the Lord has been using in that person's life to move them in a certain direction—whether it's a conversation they have with a fellow believer the day before, whether it's something specifically they've been praying about, or other factors that are involved in that. So I think as part of that larger picture, yes, certainly God can do that. But I get a little nervous if someone is basing an entire decision based on something like that where it's, Well, this one word in this passage seemed to directly answer what I was looking for. And this is part of where I think one of the dangers we face in our Western culture is we tend to be so individualistic that we have this mindset that it is just me, and Jesus, and the Bible. And so even in those kinds of situations where a person is really wrestling through a decision or something like that, I always want to encourage them, Are you seeking wise counsel from fellow believers? Do you have people in your life that you can bounce things off of and say, I'm thinking the Lord might be moving me in this direction; or, I'm not sure—will you pray with me? Will you help me process this using your own experience and biblical wisdom to think through this? So that can also be another check in some of that decision-making process that can hopefully avoid some of the worst uses of that kind of approach.
Learning to Read the Bible from Jesus
Yes, definitely. This kind of goes back to something you mentioned early on—you mentioned that Jesus has some things to teach us about how to read the Bible, which I think maybe to some people might strike them as a little bit surprising. What do you mean by that? What is it that we can learn from Jesus himself that helps us to know how to read our Bibles?
One of the passages that fascinates me the most in the Gospels is Luke 24. It's Luke's account of the resurrection and one of his emphases in that whole chapter is that the risen Jesus tells his followers how to read the Bible. So you have the story of him appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they're explaining to Jesus—who they don't recognize—all that's happened, and Jesus says this very pointed comment, Don't you get that all Scripture had to be fulfilled? And then the text says, Beginning with Moses, he explained to them, from the Scriptures, all these passages and ideas about what the Christ had to suffer. They still don't get that it's Jesus there. When they have the aha moment and he disappears from them, they return back to Jerusalem that very night, all the disciples are gathered together, and Jesus appears again. In Luke's account, he says that part of what Jesus does there is to explain how they're to read the Bible. So he gives this beautiful summary of what the Old Testament message really is. Basically, he says, All the Scriptures—the law, the prophets, and the writings—had to be fulfilled in me. And then he says, Thus it is written: the Christ should suffer, die, and rise from the dead; and repentance and forgiveness of sins should be announced to the ends of the earth. So that's basically Jesus's summary of the Old Testament. He's like, If you want to know what the Old Testament is about, it's about this: it's about the arrival of the Messiah—his death, his resurrection—and the announcement of the good news to the ends of the earth. So Jesus himself is saying, That's your framework. That's your rubric for reading the entirety of the Old Testament, so that in some way every passage of the Old Testament connects to that narrative about the Messiah, about the announcement of the good news to the ends of the earth. Granted, some passages much more clearly and directly make that connection for you. Others take a little bit more work to see the connection; but Luke 24 is one of the most important passages, I think, for reading the Bible.
Another key passage is in John 5 where Jesus is rebuking the religious leaders of his day and he says to them, You searched the Scriptures because you think in them you have life, and they point to me. Basically his point is, You've missed it. Here are these experts in the Old Testament Scriptures and he's saying, You're experts in these and you've missed the main point because I'm standing right in front of you, but you can't see it. So I think that if we're going to take seriously that Jesus has things to say about how to read the Bible, I think those are some of the passages we have to start with. And then, of course, the apostles in the New Testament are Jesus's authorized interpreters, so that they continue to show us how to interpret the Old Testament—how to read the Bible in a way that points to Christ.
Can we Overinterpret the Bible?
As you think about that, are there any guidelines that you would offer to the average Christian for doing that well? I think maybe all of us can think of examples where it seems like the interpretation gets a little fanciful, or you're kind of finding Jesus around every bush.
In any attempt you make to make that connection, especially from the Old Testament, you always want to make sure that you're checking it against the New Testament to make sure you're consistent with what the New Testament directly teaches us about Christ and about the work of the gospel. I think beyond that, one of the most helpful tools that I've used in my own study of Scripture is recognizing that the New Testament presents Jesus as our ultimate prophet, priest, and king. He is the ultimate embodiment of those realities. So anytime you read the Old Testament and you see one of those kinds of figures—a prophet, a priest, or a king—pay attention to what we learn about that king. In any way that he fails, what that shows is the need for a king who will not fail, who will perfectly obey in that area. And any success that the king has is a shadow of the even greater success that Jesus, as our ultimate King, has through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And then do the same thing with the prophet and the priest. That gets you a long way in the historical books in the Old Testament. Recognize that Jesus is described to us as the temple—he is the embodiment of God's presence. So anytime you see references to the temple in the Old Testament, you should be thinking, This is in some way pointing forward to God's presence with us in the person of Jesus. In key events like the exodus, the Old Testament itself uses the original exodus as a pattern of what the work of Christ is going to be eventually. So just having some of those initial categories can really start to open up your eyes to see that recognizing how a passage points to Jesus may not be as challenging as you might think if you've got some good categories in place.
An Important Distinction about God’s Instruction For Us
One of the things that you emphasize in the book is that the Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us. Why is that distinction important?
I think that it is too easy to make the mistake in thinking that God's word is directly written to us. What I'm trying to get at in that distinction is to say, we are not Israelites wandering with Moses in the wilderness. We are not subjects under David's kingdom. We are not Jews living in exile in Babylon. We're not first century Jews listening to Jesus preach on the streets of Capernaum. We're not first century Philippians, or Romans, or Galatians, or anyone like that. It's trying to take seriously that when God inspired the human author to write that particular book of the Bible, it was addressed to a particular group of human beings at a particular point in human history. So it's designed to help us give a little bit of a distance before we then say, But wait a minute; this is God's word—it is inspired and God gave it for our instruction, for our encouragement, to build hope and perseverance. That's what Paul talks about in Romans 15:4 when he talks about how Scripture was written for us. Even as you read the Old Testament—even if you don't have a drop of Jewish blood in your body—those are your Scriptures. If you're a follower of Jesus, those are for you so that you have been given something by God to help you see more clearly who God is and how you should live as his people—even though you live thousands of years removed from the experience of the Israelites, even though you live under a different covenant than the Israelites did. And really, that piece of it is one of the best benefits of recognizing that. Honestly, all of us, at some level, have this understanding, right? So when reading through Leviticus, very few Christians think, I should be sacrificing birds as a step of obedience to God. They don't do that. Why? Well, at some level they understand, That's not written directly to me. I'm not an Israelite in the wilderness with Moses, and I'm not under that covenant anymore. And so there's still something to learn about who God is—about what he values, about his character, about his conduct—about who human beings are—our sinfulness, our frailties, our tendencies—and from that to say, God has a message for me through this text, even though it wasn't written directly to me.
What Makes a Question ‘Wrong’?
That gets back to the point that you made earlier about the importance of asking the right questions—not the wrong questions that maybe don't reflect that distinction that is important to keep in mind.
Yes, I think in one sense any type of literature—if you don't understand what kind of literature it is and you go to it with the wrong set of questions and the wrong set of expectations—you're going to get either really bad answers, or you're going to experience deep frustration. If I go to the ESPN website to read an article about college football, I should not expect that to give me any help in how to prepare a healthy meal for my family. That's not what the purpose is. But if I come to it with this wrong set of questions and this wrong set of expectations, I'm going to either get really bad answers, or I'm going to get frustrated. So we have to take our cues from the Bible itself, which is why I think that passage out of Matthew 22 is so important where Jesus says, This is the greatest commandment: loving the Lord your God and loving your neighbor as yourself. And in Luke 24, Jesus says, All of Scripture, in some way, points back to who I am and what I'm going to accomplish through the gospel.
Why God Chose to Reveal Himself through Scripture
Have you ever wondered why God chose to reveal himself to us through, not just the written word, but through written words, as you're saying, that were delivered to specific people at a certain time? I'm not really sure what the alternative would have been, but I wonder if people sometimes can think, I just wish he would tell me what I should do, what I should believe—just give me a list—instead of making me decode these things from all these ancient cultures. Have you ever wondered that?
I think the most satisfying answer that I've come to is, God wants to build his relationship with you. He doesn't want to just give you a set of rules—or even a set of principles, or even a set of ideas—he wants you to relate to him. And so I think that as part of that, by him not maybe conforming to what we might think we want or would be best—Just give us the whole list—instead, it forces us to trust him, it forces us to use wisdom, and it forces us to rely on fellow believers around us. One of the passages I love sharing with my students is from Deuteronomy 29:29 and it basically says, The secret things belong to the Lord our God. So it's like God is saying, There's only so far that you'll ever be able to understand who I am, and what I'm doing in the world. But it goes on to say, But the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we should obey them. It brings together beautifully this sense of God has said there are things that you will never understand—and that makes sense because if God is who he says he is in Scripture, he's so far beyond us. How could we ever possibly fully understand, even if he tried to explain it to us? It would be beyond our brains to be able to comprehend. But it goes on to say, But I've revealed enough that you should trust me and you should obey me. You should walk faithfully with me.
Questions for Application
So we've talked about the breakdown of understanding the Bible verses applying the Bible, and you kind of walked through those first four questions relating to understanding the Bible. What would be the following four questions that you would then encourage us to use as we seek to apply the Bible to our lives?
Before I give the four questions, let me just give a brief. When people think about the topic of application, the first thing that they gravitate towards is, Okay, what do I do? They think about a specific, tangible action.
How does my life look different tomorrow? is often something I've heard.
Yes, and I think that's a good thing to wrestle with, but I think that's too narrow. When the Bible presents us with this idea of applying Scripture to our lives, we have to think of it more holistically. So that's why I have four questions. The first is, What does God want me to understand? The second is, What does God want me to believe? The third one is, What does God want me to desire? And the fourth is, What does God want me to do? So let me just briefly unpack each of those questions. When it comes to the idea of What does God want me to understand?—this is concerning basic thought structures and reforming our biblical worldview: understanding that God is the Creator, that we are accountable to him, what do we need to understand about God, about the world around us, etc.That sets the foundation for the second question, which is What does God want me to believe? And this can be a subtle distinction that can be hard to try to grab on to, but that distinction is trying to get at this idea that we all have a set of knowledge; but when it comes to belief, we're talking about it functionally shaping how we actually live. So for example, if you were given a quiz: Do you believe that God is sovereign? Sure! Yeah, absolutely. True. God is sovereign. Okay, great. So when you're sitting in traffic, and you're late to an appointment, and there's a backup and you can't even see what's causing it, and you're experiencing that frustration and almost road rage of, I can't believe this—I'm gonna be late! And you can feel the the anger and the frustrations are boiling up inside of you and you're like, Ah! God, don't you know I have to get to that appointment? It's really important! Well, you're grumbling against the sovereignty of God. And so in that moment you don't functionally believe in God's sovereignty. You might understand it, you might be able to write a paragraph about God's sovereignty, and quote Scripture verses; but in the moment you're not functionally believing in God’s sovereignty because you're allowing your anger and your frustration to, in essence, say, God, if you just let me take over things for like two minutes, I could fix all this and we could just get on with life.
I could do a better job, right now.
Exactly. So you're not functionally believing that God is sovereign in that moment. So that distinction is trying to get you to move from the understanding to the, I'm putting my trust and my confidence in that. Then the third question, when it comes to application, is What does God want me to desire? The great American pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, liked to talk about the affections—the sort of well, or the spring, from which all of our desires, our inclinations come from. And so this question is trying to get at that idea of, What is it that God wants me to love, to desire, to long for—or, not to long for? For some people that can be a little scary, depending on their background, because some people have been brought up in a context where emotions are all bad, emotions are completely untrustworthy. There can be an emotionalism that is bad, but the Bible all over the place engages our emotions. If you read the Psalms and if you don't have some sort of emotional reaction or response to engagement with that, you're not reading them rightly. The Bible does tell us how we should feel—the sort of emotions and the desires that we should have. And so the third question is trying to tap into this notion that there are things that God wants me to love, and to desire, and long for; and there are things that God wants me to not love, and not long for. Often a passage will point us in that direction. And then from all of that foundation comes the last question of, Okay, so what do I do? How does this tangibly affect actions that I'm going to take today, this week, this month, etc.? It's my hope that that more holistic approach to application is faithful to what the Bible really talks about when it refers to transforming us so that we more clearly reflect Christ. The kind of transformation that we want to see is not just external behavior conformity. I fear that too many of our churches have people in the pews who've figured out how to conform their external behavior to certain Christian standards; but their hearts, their minds, their desires, are not transformed at all. So they act one way around their Christian friends or family; but if you get them away from that, then suddenly their true desires and and heart are revealed as they have opportunity. Trying to reflect this holistic transformation is really what, in theology, we simply refer to as “sanctification”—growing in godliness. And even that term “godliness” is an orientation of life that is oriented towards God and works itself out in our thoughts, our actions, our inclinations, our beliefs, our attitudes etc.
I love how that conception of application and those four questions really reflect a view of a human that is more fully formed than just, What am I doing? What are my physical actions or my words that I'm speaking? But those all flow out of something. They flow out of our thoughts, and our inclinations, etc.
One of the passages that I love to come back to in thinking about this whole area is in Philippians 2:12-13 where you have God's work and our responsibility put right next to each other. So in Philippians 2:12, Paul commands the Philippians, Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Okay, that's our responsibility—we're supposed to work out what God has worked in. And then the next line in verse 13 is, For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. So this is part of the beautiful nature of the new covenant: that God had promised—in Ezekiel 36 and other texts—that in the new covenant God would put his Spirit inside of us and give us the desire to obey and the power to obey. That should be so liberating and so encouraging because I have times often where I think, I know what the right thing to think, or to do, or to believe is right now; but I don't want to. I don't have a desire to. To know that we can pray and say, God, I believe that you can give me the desire to obey and then the power to actually step out in faith and obey you. One of the examples I use is—because I think we've often had this experience—the New Testament regularly calls us to love one another, love our fellow believers. And if we spend any significant amount of time in the church, you end up being around some people who are not the most easily loved, if you put it nicely.
That's putting it very nicely.
There's some really hard people to love. They may not just be in the church—they might be in our home, they might be in our neighborhood, they might be in our workplace, they might be at our school. The beauty of that is to be able to say, Okay, God. There is nothing in that person that draws me to them or that makes me want to love them; and in fact, they're doing things maybe even to push me away and to reject the kind of love that I want to show them. But I believe that you can give me both the desire and the power to love them. It's not going to be me doing it—it's going to be Christ living in and through us, by his Spirit, to do that. And that is so encouraging because often we face those situations where I think, I know what I'm supposed to do; I know what's right here, but I don't want to. And if we're just stuck there, then that's a miserable place to live. But when we know that God says, I will give you the desire. I will give you the power. Just ask. I'm working in your life—it says at the end of that verse—for his good pleasure. So God delights to give you the desire to obey him and the power to obey him, even in circumstances where your natural inclinations are in the other direction.
When We Feel Unqualified to Read and Understand the Bible
So what would you say to someone who's listening right now and, even after hearing you talk today, still feels a little bit intimidated by the Bible. They still feel like, I just don't know if I can open this up and really understand it by myself. I feel like I'm just going to mess it up, or I'm not smart enough for it. What would you say to that person right now?
I would say that I want to affirm your caution. We should be reading the Bible with other people. We should not be just trying to go it fully on our own. At the same time though, I would say if you are a follower of Jesus, 1 Corinthians 2 talks about the fact that he's given us the mind of Christ—that's part of what God has already given you as one of his children is the mind of Christ. He's given you the Spirit who dwells in you—the same Spirit who inspired people like Paul, and Moses, and Isaiah to write those biblical books—that same Spirit lives inside of you to empower you to understand what the Bible says. And so with that sort of foundation, when you start reading the Bible, if you have a heart that says, God, I want to understand who you are. I want to understand what it means to love you and to love others well, I am confident that God will use his word to reveal himself in the Scriptures. There are some more strategic places in the Bible to start than other places. I might not send a person directly to Leviticus, but I might send him directly to John and say, Just start with John and see all that you're able to learn. Grow in your understanding of who God is and what he's done for us. As one more piece of that, you're probably better off reading larger chunks. Don't just pick one verse and then say, Okay, I'm out of here. I've got my one little nugget of biblical input. Oftentimes, reading a whole chapter is so much more beneficial to see the larger picture and to make sure that you're not misunderstanding and pulling one verse out of its context and thinking that it says something that the larger surrounding context clearly makes it evident that it's not saying that.
Tools for Daily Devotional Time
Do you find that it's helpful to study the Bible with a pen and a piece of paper, or do you use some kind of journaling Bible? What's your Bible study setup look like? I'm not talking about when you're preparing to teach a class or preach a sermon, but what does a daily devotional time look like for you?
I go back and forth at times between journaling and writing, and other times not. But having those questions that I've put in the book as my sort of backdrop, that's always the filter through which I'm reading everything when it comes to my Bible intake. I try to be reading out of both the Old Testament and the New Testament at the same time. There are a number of Bible reading plans that are out there that can help you customize what's best for you. Some of it just becomes trial and error for people. It becomes, Okay, this month I'm going to read Philippians. It's four chapters, but I'm going to read a chapter each day. And then when I get to the fifth day, I'm going to go right back to chapter one and I'm just going to keep reading it over and over and just sort of live in the world of Philippians for a month. And I think that can be super, super helpful. But it can also be helpful to take larger chunks and say, I'm going to sit down for 45 minutes and just read through a Gospel account—the whole thing. You can sit down and read through the Gospel of Mark in 45 minutes, even if you're on the slower end in terms of reading speed—there's nothing wrong with that. When you have that extended time of reading, you start to see connections that emerge that you'd be harder pressed to see if you just say, Well, I read one chapter today.Then tomorrow I'm going to read the next chapter.
Starting simple, I think, can be a good thing too. I know a person who has used my book—in terms of the four questions for understanding—and she felt like that might be a little bit too much to start with. So she's just started with the question: What do I learn about God? And she read through Deuteronomy and just kept a running list of what she learned about God, and by the end she had filled pages upon pages in a journal of different things she was seeing about who God was. So even with something as simple as that, that can be so encouraging and so helpful. What I don't want people to walk away with is saying, I have to use all eight questions every time I read the Bible. So it becomes this formula, or becomes this overwhelming process. No! You can just pick one. Ask, What am I learning about God? and make note of what you're seeing there.
I really encourage people to make use of resources. There's never been a time in human history where there's been more resources available to help you read, understand, and apply the Bible. We here in the United States especially, there is no excuse in terms of lack of resources. There are other parts of the world where those resources are much more limited and more challenging. One of the products that I love that Crossway has put out are those different forms of the journals for Scripture. So you have the Bibles themselves that have the side columns on the edges where you can make notes, and then there’s the little Scripture booklets that Crossway has where it's got the text of the Scripture on one page and then a full, blank lined page on the facing page to make notes. Those are super, super helpful to be able to dive into the Bible. Make use of these resources—they are out there—and do it with other people. Not that you don't read the Bible by yourself—that's a good discipline to be in—but look for opportunities to be in the Bible with fellow believers. Even people who have studied the Scriptures and taught the Scriptures for years—I have the privilege of teaching in the local church, as well as in seminary and college, and I wrote a commentary on Philippians. I spent five years of my life poring over that letter. I'll teach Philippians in a Sunday school class, or in a college classroom, and students will either ask a question, or they'll point something out in the text that I think, I think I've seen that before, but I've never really appreciated how significant that is. Or, I've never really put that piece with this other piece. If someone who has studied a book of the Bible in depth for five years—poring over the Greek text and all sorts of scholarship—and there are still things that a freshman in college can say, Dr. Harmon, what do you think about this here? Do you see that this is happening here? And I say, Well, I guess I didn't really notice that before; but that's legitimately there—you're not just making something up—that's legitimately there. What comes to mind when that happens is there's a passage in Matthew 13:52 where Jesus describes when a scribe becomes a disciple of the kingdom—the scribes were these experts in the Old Testament law—Jesus says, he's like the master of a house who pulls out of his treasures both old things and new things. It's this beautiful picture of being able to look in the Scriptures and say, I've seen that before, and here's these new things that are legitimately there that maybe I've noticed, but not really put them together. And to be able to have that as a characterization of your life and to be able to say you can read Scripture and see things that you've always seen, and see things in a fresh light that you've maybe never seen before—that should be an encouragement to anyone who is reading the Bible. And when I hear a student say, Yeah, I've read Philippians. I think, Okay, yeah. You've read it once, twice, ten times; but have you read it and reflected on it, meditated on it, chewed on it? Have you talked with other believers about it? And then they get into a class where they're forced to do that they say, There's so much more here than I ever imagined! When I first started this class I thought, yeah, I have a good grasp on Philippians. Yeah, you know maybe about an inch deep of what's in Philippians. There's a whole lot more there.
That's a good, encouraging word for us as we think about our Bibles. They can sometimes just be sitting on our shelf and we get so used to them—we just see them all the time. But there are depths there that we can jump into and God will use his Spirit to teach us things about himself and about ourselves.
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