Biblical Piety, Part 3.2: Practice of Hearing the Word

Part 3.1 of this series.

It is not enough to remain in theory. Piety must exhibit itself in concrete and often specific examples. My aim is not to lay out a specific plan, as if one could mechanically engage in a predetermined course and end up with a certificate of piety. Rather, I descend to particular examples in order to encourage. Generalities rarely touch the heart.

Paul says to Timothy: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). Gaining a familiarity with the Scriptures happens in several ways, one of the most important of which is in the public service. Hearing the Scriptures read and explained is an important aspect. Christ saves His Body, the Church, not a group of individuals who all happen to be Christian. Regularly receiving the Word as a part of what may be called public piety also helps us avoid the temptation of making ourselves the sum and measure of interpreting Scripture. We should never be too proud or fear to learn from those wiser than ourselves. If we feel that we can “gain more” elsewhere, we ought to seriously question our motives. Even Paul in Romans 1:12 could find a “mutual encouragement” among the believers at Rome, and he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit directly! Going to church is part of learning the Scriptures.

Though we may avoid the danger of pride, it is also possible to make too much of the public reading of Scripture. I do not mean that it is useless. It is always profitable. I mean that some may be tempted to go the other way and make hearing the Scriptures publically their only time that they spend in the Word. I do not need to read the Bible, the argument goes, because I hear it on Sunday. I have to attend to other things in the week. This is equally dangerous for two reasons: (1) man does not live upon bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. To cut yourself off is to lay down your spiritual sword for most of the week, perhaps the time it is needed the most! (2) The public reading of Scripture is by necessity limited in scope. Whether a lectionary is used or a continuous reading of a single book (lectio continua), only so much of the Bible can be covered even in the course of a year. A real familiarity with the Word occurs when one engages in all three modes of piety: public (especially in the Church), private (involving a few people, especially the family), and secret (alone).

Begin every reading of Scripture with prayer. Pray to the Holy Spirit to guide your reading and to teach you what He wants to teach. Make time to spend time in the Word. A thoughtless glancing over will hardly leave an impression. The Scriptures do not work magically, as if the act of reading were enough in itself. The living Holy Spirit is speaking. Let us be attentive!

Do not be afraid to take notes here and there, especially about things which you do not understand. Take such questions to the teachers of the Church. If you have time, consulting teachers of the past can also be helpful, but avoid the temptation to leave it lingering or imagine that you can form an answer all on your own. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Study Bibles can also be helpful for this, but the temptation there is to either treat the footnotes as inspired or to spend more time in them than in the Word itself. Nor are all study Bibles created equal. Choose such Bibles with care.

As for translations, it has been well said that the best translation is the one you actually read. Every translation has its strengths and its weaknesses. All translation is interpretation in one degree or another. For that reason, it is best to avoid ones which are largely paraphrase. What those translations gain in clarity, they often lose in being more and more conformed to the translator. Some translations have proven themselves with time, such as the King James Version. Others aim at word-for-word translations and can become clunky and wooden at times. Perhaps the best answer is to choose one with advice and use it consistently. You could also vary which one you use from time to time. But above all, pick one and run with it.

Set a specific time to be in the Scriptures. Letting it happen “whenever” is an easy way to not do it at all. Satan will always bring up things that “must be done” to make you push it off. Set a schedule for reading as well. I think that there are three major ways to approach reading the Scriptures.

The first is what I call “whole book reading.” When you have the opportunity, sit down and read an entire book of the Bible. Every book of the Bible can be read within the timeframe of an average movie. Even if your reading speed is slow, the books range in length from the Psalms to Obadiah. The great advantages of this method are: (1) the Bible is composed of books, not groups of passages. Reading the whole book treats it as a unified message, exactly as it was originally written or read aloud. (2) I know of no better way to gain a basic familiarity with the Bible. Some questions which pop up in one passage are often answered clearly in a later passage or in other books. There are, of course, a couple of disadvantages: (1) Time is a factor. It is a method which does call for a larger block of time, and this is not always possible. I do not mean this as a way of encouraging carnal security. We often find no problem finding time for a two hour movie, but more than 5 minutes of reading seems tortuous. That is a problem with priorities, not the method. However, work schedules and demands of the home often present obstacles for two or three hours blocks of uninterrupted time. It is not at all impossible, just more difficult. (2) Reading the whole Bible in this way can breed the proud notion that “I have read the Bible, so I’m done.” Avoid the temptation to pride once the Bible has been read from cover to cover! (3) A general familiarity can also make it more difficult to find specifics. Do not let the “big picture” be a substitute for specifics, but let them compliment one another.

The second is “chapter reading.” This is probably the most common and for good reasons. (1) It is both broad enough to see a portion of the forest and specific enough to see the individual trees. (2) It can also take less time overall, though this should not be the primary factor. It does run the risk of making the Bible seem disjointed, though this can be overcome.

The third is “intensive reading.” While it is most suited for studying the original languages, it is more or less taking a handful of verses at a time and carefully working through them bit by bit. The Bible is, after all, inspired even in its word choices. It runs the greatest risk of losing the general context, but it is instructive in considering every aspect of the Scriptures.

Choose a method and stick with it. You can vary which one you use, though chapter reading is probably the best for most people. As for scheduling, many people try to read from Genesis to Revelation. There is nothing wrong with any particular schedule, but the Pentateuch can be hard to work through for someone who has not developed a consistent habit. My recommendation for a Christian just beginning to work through the Scriptures is to start with the New Testament and then the Old Testament. One could also read passages from both Testaments every day. The exact schedules may be left to individual preference, though one should be consistent in whatever you choose to do.

Make reading the Bible a part of family prayer. Whether reading as a family or alone, examine yourself to see what you have learned. Pray after reading the Word, perhaps wording a prayer based on what you have read. But above all, I cannot encourage you enough to read it and read it consistently. Three to five chapters a day is enough to finish the whole Bible in a year. Electronic gadgets can provide you with reminders to do it, even giving you the exact schedule. If you find it unnecessary or too difficult even for so small a schedule as that, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2).