O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.”
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: “Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God’? Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said, ‘If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will. ‘ I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.” (Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions)
John Wesley’s sermons were saturated with Scripture. His summary sermon on salvation is even titled “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” For Wesley, Scripture was a means of grace—instituted by God—by which to measure all Christian doctrine, and by which to sustain our practice of faith. This conforms with the rule and practice of the historic church.
The final goal of our reading Scripture should be to embrace its saving truth and lead us into a deeper love of God and neighbor. But how can we make sense of everything in the Bible, and how exactly does it lead us into this holy love? Using Wesley’s above words as a basic guide, we may glean the following 6 steps as a fruitful strategy for reading Scripture:
1. We Read (“I read His book”)
The basic starting point for anyone is simply to begin reading. This is the first step in coming to know God as he revealed in Scripture. When Jesus corrected the Sadducees for their mistaken doctrine concerning the resurrection, Jesus said to them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). For Jesus, knowing Scripture was the foundation for our knowledge of God and living in the power of his resurrection. It is also an essential part of resisting temptation (Matthew 4:4).
So read entire books of the Bible in one sitting. Get on a reading plan (check out the many YouVersion reading plans). Memorize lists, charts, and stories. Our culture resists this kind of study, but it was modeled by the early Church. Just remember this isn’t a sure way to intimacy with God or holiness—it is simply a tool that gives the Holy Spirit more to work with.
“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Joshua 1:8 (NIV)
2. We Pray (“I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights”)
The Bible teaches that the things of God are spiritually discerned (2 Corinthians 2:14). This means that the Holy Spirit is what makes understanding the Bible possible in the first place. He illuminates the meaning of the text for us. Paul prayed for the church at Ephesus that “the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” (Ephesians 1:17 NIV) Jesus indicated that without the gift of the Spirit, the apostles simply would not understand the gospel (John 16:13).
Again, this is no fast ticket to knowledge or absolute certainty concerning the Bible’s message. Remember that even the apostles and the early church had to wrestle with the meaning of the gospel and its implications (see Acts 10 & 15). Also the help of the Holy Spirit is not an excuse to “skip our homework.” We must do the hard work of study. Recall that Paul was trained in the Torah since he was a young boy, the disciples lived with Jesus for 3 years, and even Jesus himself read Scripture and “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).
However, praying that the Holy Spirit would illumine our hearts puts us in the right posture to begin seeing with spiritual eyes. By asking God to illuminate us, we acknowledge our dependence on God’s grace in leading us into all truth.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5 (NIV)
3. We Compare (“I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture”)
There is a principle of biblical interpretation that says, scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres. This means “Scripture is its own interpreter.” Notice that in the proclamation of the gospel, the apostles always referenced the Old Testament (see “How the New Testament Uses the Old Testament“). On the road to Emmaus, Jesus used Scripture to reveal his messianic and divine identity to those who accompanied him (Luke 24:13-35).
This means that each part of Scripture must be read in light of the whole canon of Scripture. The New Testament cannot be understood without the Old Testament, nor the Old Testament without the New (see “Do We Really Need the Old Testament?“). Also, the more difficult passages such be read in light of the clearer passages.
So we must ask questions like: Where does this passage sit in the grand narrative of Scripture? Are there other places the Bible speaks to this topic? Do Jesus or the apostles provide further direction on earlier revelation?
Another important thing to compare your reading with is other literature of the time. This is sometimes referred to as “Bible background,” and includes knowing the historical and cultural customs of the day. The insight this provides for interpreting Scripture is often invaluable (see “Why Bible Background Matters“).
“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11 (NIV)
4. We Meditate (“I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable”)
After doing considerable reading across Scripture, it is important to stop and reflect on what is being revealed about God and what it means for today’s reader. This affords us time to break from gaining information to focus ourselves once again on formation. Part of the meditation process is asking in our own spirit, What does this mean for me? This takes seriously the claim that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV).
This step may involve praying, thinking, or journaling. If we do not do the work of relating God’s Word to our lives, we are no better off than before we began to read the Bible.
“I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” Psalm 119:15 (ESV)
5. We Consult (“I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak”)
This step may perhaps be interchangeable with the previous one. John Wesley probably wasn’t laying out a strict step-by-step guide. So regardless of whether you choose to “consult” or “meditate” first, both are critical.
After familiarizing ourselves with the biblical text, it is important to consult with other readers of Scripture in your community. One of the surest ways to produce the latest heresy is to read in isolation. We must resist the temptation to elevate the private reading of Scripture as the primary way we use the Bible. The Bible addresses communities and should be read in community. This includes interpreting the Bible according to the ancient rule of faith, which means allowing the canonical creeds and catechisms of the church protect us from deviant interpretations.
So read with your local church. Read with the global church. Read with the ancient church. Read with the marginalized voices. Buy some additional resources such as The IVP Bible Background Commentary (New and Old Testaments) by Craig Keener and John Walton. Or if you’re more ambitious, there is the very helpful Inductive Bible Study by David R. Bauer, which walks readers through a systematic and comprehensive approach to reading and studying the Bible.
Jesus chose twelve apostles who had to struggle through the meaning of the gospel together after he ascended to heaven. The early leaders made important decisions together (Acts 15).
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
6. We Teach (“And what I thus learn, that I teach”)
What would be the point in learning the Bible if not to share it with others? Recall that proclamation is at the heart of the Christian faith, and the missional thrust of the Bible compels us to share our faith with others. John Wesley believed this to be his imperative.
You don’t need be an official teacher nor hold an office in the church to proclaim the gospel. Wesley himself was an innovator in this respect. When barred from parishes because of his teaching on Scriptural Christianity, he took to the “profane” fields and highways to preach the gospel. This is what offered him access to the everyday people that needed to hear God’s message most, and this ultimately led to the Methodist revival.
Teaching can mean being upfront and clear about your identity as a Christian. It means being prepared to give an account for your holy life with simple words like “I live this way because the gospel has freed me from _____,” or, “I live this way because I follow Jesus’ example in _____.” This means that waiting in line for coffee, tipping in the service industry, running your small business, or working with the marginalized in our society, will invite the surprising opportunities for sharing the gospel of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.
“And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Romans 10:14b (ESV)