Why We Engage Scripture in Discipleship

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We recently began a new Bible study at my church. I’m leading a group of about twenty people through the Gospel of Luke. We’re going to take four months to work through Luke from start to finish, reading the entire book slowly and carefully.

During our first meeting, I asked the people who joined what they hoped to get out of the study. The answers told me a lot about how believers hunger for the sustenance of God’s Word. Here are some of their responses:

• “I want to learn more about God’s Word.”
• “For a closer, more personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
• “I am interested to know more about the content of the Bible.”
• “I like the idea of the benefits of a group Bible study. We can learn more from one another’s perspectives on the biblical material. And we can also benefit spiritually from the relationships that will form in our group.”
• “To learn the ways of Jesus.”

I think these are all wonderful reasons to commit to searching the Scriptures. The common element that I see in all of those responses is this: they all desire to embrace Holy Scripture as a means of grace.

Perhaps the most important point to realize about taking our study of the Bible more seriously is that we don’t study the Bible in order to master it. We study the Bible so that it might master us. That means that the first thing we need to do in approaching the Scriptures is to come with the right attitude—a willingness to humble ourselves, open our hearts and minds to Christ Jesus, and ask that the Holy Spirit be present in the midst of our study.

Remember the apostle Paul’s description of the nature of the Scriptures: “breathed out by God.” The Bible’s power is a spiritual power, meaning that it comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit working through it. In order for that power to transform us within, we need to set aside all our presuppositions and claims and agenda items so that a space is made for the Spirit to do what the Spirit will. Prayer is a central part of taking on that attitude. So in other words, the first step in adopting the discipline of searching the Scriptures as a means of grace is humility.

When we move from preparation to practice, we should recognize that it is possible to search the Scriptures in a number of different ways. The Wesleyan approach to this calls our attention to the three elements of reading, hearing, and meditating on Scripture. I think of these three elements as connected to three common discipleship activities:

  1. Reading: connected to . . . personal study
  2. Hearing: connected to . . . worship (sermons) and group Bible study
  3. Meditating: connected to . . . spiritual contemplation

When we put personal study, worship and fellowship with others, and spiritual contemplation together, we have the framework for how to embrace the Bible as a means of grace in every part of our spiritual lives.

1. Reading: Personal Bible Study

The first part of searching the Scriptures involves personally opening your Bible and reading it on a regular basis. This is easy to understand, but for many people it can also be intimidating.

The word “Bible” means “book,” but the Bible is actually a collection of sixty-six books, written down over the course of many centuries and consisting of a lot of different types of literature. It has history, genealogy, and chronicle. It has poetry, prophecy, and proverbs. There are letters and gospels and apocalyptic visions. Many of the place names sound strange, and the names of people can be even stranger.

The study Bible on my desk right now runs to more than 2,700 pages! It’s no wonder that a common experience of pastors is for their church members to admit to them that they find the Bible hard to understand and more than a little daunting.

When I started to read the Bible seriously for the first time, it was important for me to find ways to make it seem more manageable. Devotional guides can do that, and Bible commentaries do it at a more advanced level. While a devotional guide often focuses on a topical approach to Bible study, I think it is also important for people to get a sense of the flow and scope of whole books of the Bible. The Scriptures weren’t written in little two- or three-verse chunks, after all. They were written as whole books. For me, that means reading them as whole books is the best way to get a sense of the message contained within them.

Fortunately, there are plenty of study materials available to guide a reader through the Bible in a manageable way. The key to personal Bible study beyond finding a good study resource, of course, is committing to a daily discipline.

2. Hearing: Sermons and Group Bible Studies

The second part of searching the Scriptures has to do with hearing them spoken and described by other people. The most common form of hearing the Scriptures for most Christians is through a sermon or homily during Sunday worship. I think that this form of searching has to be a cornerstone of any Christian’s engagement with the Bible.

Most preachers work very hard on their sermons in ways that are not always obvious to a congregation. They read the Scripture passage they will be preaching upon over and over again. They pray about it. And they consult biblical commentaries by scholars and pastors who offer their interpretations on it. Then they reflect on how to put the message of that Scripture passage in a relatable context, including illustrations that help to shed light on aspects of the biblical message. So if you really focus on what a preacher is saying in the context of a sermon, you are likely to receive spiritual food that can sustain you throughout the week.

Another way we can search the Scriptures by hearing them is through participating in a group Bible study (check out some of the ones available through Seedbed here) When we do that, we have the advantage of listening to the reflections and interpretations of other people who have read and prayed about the same Scriptures we have been studying.

My own primary work at present is a teaching ministry, which I do both in seminary and church contexts. I love teaching the Bible in a group study format at my church because of the tremendous gift I receive from all the people in the Bible study. Personal Bible reading is very important, but so is searching the Scriptures in fellowship with other Christians. (In fact, I believe we are much more likely to stick to our personal discipline of daily reading when we are also involved in a group Bible study.)

3. Meditating: Sitting with God’s Word

The third way we can search the Scriptures is through meditating upon them. This may be the least obvious approach to many people, but it can also be among the most fruitful. How you go about meditating upon Scripture can be understood in different ways. For many people, it will be through pondering a preacher’s message during the Sunday sermon. Others like to focus on memory verses, which they will commit to mind and then repeat in a reflective manner. I do this sometimes when I am mowing the lawn or running on the treadmill. One of my favorite passages for meditation is Proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and rely not on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (NRSV).

I have also known people who find benefit in reading the Scripture in a meditative manner. They will select a Scripture passage and then read it slowly, again and again, often stopping to offer a prayer for God to illumine the mind and heart to understand the Scripture’s meaning more fully. By reading in a contemplative way, we are reminded that engaging the Bible is not just about learning its content. It is instead about sitting with God’s Word, allowing time for the Spirit to meet us there. In our present culture and its unlimited distractions, shutting off all our devices and opening up the Bible can be one of the most important things we can do.

Do you want to learn more about how engaging Scripture and the other means of grace can transform our lives? Get The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice for Today’s World by Andrew Thompson from our store! It’s September’s Book of the Month, which means when you buy one copy, we’ll send you a second one FREE!

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Andrew C. Thompson is a pastor, teacher, and scholar in the United Methodist Church. He is an award-winning author and frequent speaker, focusing on the thought of John Wesley, the history of Methodism, and contemporary Wesleyan theology. Andrew is an ordained minister and has served pastoral appointments in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. He currently teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN, and he serves as the Wesley Scholar to the Arkansas Conference of the UMC.

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