“Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice” (James 1:22 GNT). Thorough Bible study does not end in your head. It filters out through your synapses and sinews. You become a doer of what God says, putting into practice what you’ve learned.
The details can get confusing. Old Testament laws nixed certain foods, but the New Testament takes a different approach. The book of Proverbs discouraged drinking, but Paul suggested that Timothy soothe his stomach with a little wine. Jesus did, after all, turn water into wine, not the reverse. And yet we’re asked to restrict our behavior if it would badly influence a “weaker brother.” When Jesus told us to “turn the other cheek,” was that really a workable solution to playground bullying, or was he just being poetic?
Can the Bible tell us how to drive, how to tweet, how to invest, or how to vote? If so, how can we figure this out?
- Love comes first, and last.
What’s the most important thing for God’s people to do? That question actually comes up, in various forms, a half-dozen times in the New Testament, and the answer is always the same: Love. We are called to love God and our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40). Love was Jesus’ “new commandment,” the distinctive mark of his disciples (John 13:34-35). It’s more important than self-sacrifice, charitable giving, or speaking in tongues. Without love, those religious acts are worthless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Love is “the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:10). It is greater than even hope or faith (1 Corinthians 13:13).
We’re taught that the fear of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). This was written in a book intended for young people. It’s certainly important, at any age, to understand the awesome power of our Creator, but the New Testament indicates that full-grown love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
The Bible moves in the direction of love.
It’s tempting to try to find rules in the pages of Scripture. The Old Testament has plenty of them, but these are generally re-evaluated in the New Testament. The emphasis turns. It’s not just about following rules in order to escape punishment. It’s about seeking to please the Lord we love.
So as you try to apply the Bible, don’t just assemble a working list of “Thou shalt nots.” Look for ways to love.
- Let Scripture operate on you.
I still remember two important Bible verses about the Bible that I memorized as a kid from the King James Version. One of them, 2 Timothy 2:15, urged me to “study” to prove myself as an able “workman,” “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Modern translations turn dividing into handling, but I still love the idea of standing like a surgeon over the biblical text, sorting eternal principles from temporary ones.
The other verse was Hebrews 4:12, which described the power of God’s word: “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow.” Yikes! Now I was on the table and the Bible was operating on me.
One terrible temptation afflicting many experienced Bible students is mastery over the text. When you feel so sure of your interpretive powers that you can make the Bible say whatever you want, something is very wrong. Humility is the cure. Let God do his surgery on your soul.
- Get the full story.
So you read a specific instruction in one Bible verse and you want to follow it. What could be wrong with that? Nothing, except maybe the next book of the Bible has a different take on the subject. It’s important to get the full story from Scripture, not just a “proof-text” here and there. That impulse to read-and-obey is a wonderful thing, but let it drive you into deeper study of the issue, so you’ll know how to follow this teaching.
For instance, Jesus told a wealthy would-be disciple to “sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Luke 18:22). Is that something we all should do? It’s right there in black and white! Jesus made this a condition of following him. Sure, he said it to one rich guy who loved his possessions, but don’t we all love our possessions? Log onto eBay and let’s start divesting!
Well, we need to look for other biblical teaching about money and possessions. Elsewhere Jesus warns against storing treasures on earth rather than heaven, serving Money as if it’s a god, worrying about money, and seeking financial security rather than God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:19-34). It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), and we should give cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Do your own study on this, and you’ll find that the full story doesn’t contradict Jesus’ challenge to the rich guy, but actually enhances it, challenging us to dismantle our worship of wealth and follow Christ sacrificially.
Sometimes a “full story” study will put a particular verse in its place, as a specific response to a specific situation, but it will always teach us much more, leading us to a broader strategy for pleasing God in our lives.
- Take a team approach.
You’re not alone. There are other Christians asking the same questions. Gather with them and dig through the Bible together. A group can help to fill in your blind spots, showing you different angles on a text. A group should also encourage you to get serious and stay serious about putting God’s word into practice.
And God might ask us to do some things we can’t do alone. If you envision a ministry to, say, homeless veterans in your town, you will need others to come alongside you to make it happen. Often a whole Bible study group can become doers of God’s word together, by launching a common project.
- Let the Spirit blow through the pages.
Remember whose word you are studying. As you begin each Scripture session, ask God to send his Spirit blowing through the pages, bringing light and life to your soul. You may already feel a sense of his presence in these devotional times, but consider taking it one step further. Ask God to show you what to do about what you read. Ask him to fire up your muscles to enable you to enact his truth in your world.
This blog is the second in a three part series. Check out Part 1: “How Do I Start Reading the Bible?” on our blog post from November 28 and Part 2: “How Can I understand the Bible?” on our blog post from December .
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