How to read the Bible, part 1 — Read — God speaks. We listen.

There are four steps to the process of Bible reading referred to as “sacred reading” or lectio divina. The first of these is lectio, which simply refers to reading.

As followers of Jesus, we know that we’re supposed to read the Bible, but how we read matters. (For those who preach, how we think of these scriptures that will eventually be preached determines how we approach them as readers.) For my purposes here, we are going to leave aside the words infallible and inerrant not because I disagree with them, but because they aren’t going to be all that helpful in what we’re doing. The word I’m going to insist on, though, is “revelation.”

If anything, the Bible is revelation. It reveals. These 66 books reveal two main things to us. First, they reveal God to us. Second, they reveal us to us. Without the Scriptures, we would not know who God is and, likewise, we would not know who we are. We don’t look outward to the world around us or inward to ourselves to discover either who God is or who we are. The world outside us was created good, but is broken and flawed and cannot therefore accurately reveal God. And although we were created in the image and likeness of God and reflect him is so many ways, we too are broken and flawed by sin and find all kinds of contradictions and deceptions when we look inside of ourselves for signs of God. Therefore, as a great gift to us, God has revealed both who he is and who we are in holy Scripture. These two sides of revelation are absolutely essential to the way we read the Bible.

The Scriptures are also God’s voice. Through them, God speaks to us. I love Karl Barth’s belief that in the act of Bible-reading, what was merely ink on paper becomes the living Word of God. As we read those words, God is right there speaking them to us.

This is where the first step of lectio divina comes in. God is speaking. And as my Mom taught me, when someone speaks to you, the only respectful thing to do is to listen. So, when the speaker is The Speaker, we had best do our best to listen as closely as possible.

We don’t read the Bible to write sermons or for spiritual insight. We listen because our Lord is speaking.

This is where the exegetical process kicks in. But again, we aren’t doing this to find preachable or insightful parts. We are doing this because the King of the universe is speaking, because our great Love has our attention. We are held by every word, not as scholars, even though we employ every scholarly tool we have the ability to use. We read commentaries not as cheat sheets to give us the answers to all the questions and difficulties of the text, but as friends who are listening alongside us as our Lord speaks to us.

Living in a technological era, it’s easy for the tools to take over whatever we’re doing. And the same is true of Bible reading. There are good reasons why I took both Greek and Hebrew at Regent College and why I’ve got a whole wall devoted to commentaries and exegetical tools. They are exceptionally helpful in my attempt to hear the Voice accurately. But there are times when we can lose the Voice of our God in the midst of all the scholarly chatter, where the text is so cut to pieces on the surgeon’s table that we can’t put it all back together again.

The Voice must be retained. We must always hear God speaking.

When the tools get in the way of hearing the Voice, we put them down and utter the simple prayer of Samuel: “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

The exegetical process of lectio simply asks, “If God is speaking, what is he saying?”

If it’s helpful to know when in history these words were originally spoken, then we search that out. If it’s helpful to know where or to whom they were first spoken, we search that out as well. We do everything we can to hear God speaking as clearly as possible. Scholars will give us all kinds of information that has nothing to do with hearing the Voice of God, but we don’t dismiss them out-of-hand because of this. Rather, we keep coming back to our question, “If God is speaking here — and he is! — what is he saying?”

So, when I’m doing my lectio part, I’m jotting down all of the helpful information that I wouldn’t have known from a bare reading of the text. If I’m walking through a section of one of Paul’s letters, I trace the flow of the argument that he’s building. If it’s a passage from one of the Gospels where Jesus is echoing something in, say, the Psalms or Deuteronomy, I jot down the original passage. If there’s awkward or easily misunderstood language, I parse it out. The goal isn’t to write a commentary of my own. The goal is to bring together all of the background information that’s necessary to hear our Lord’s Voice. Anything else is clutter. Anything else, as interesting as it may be, must be set aside. I want to hear the Voice.

When I’m preparing a sermon, I pull all of this together in the most simple terms as possible as the first part of a study guide for the congregation I serve. Some of it may end up in an expository part of the sermon. Rarely will all of it. This is not about exegetical showmanship. It’s about hearing the Voice of our God. Anything that distracts when it comes to the sermon is deleted. Anything that helps us hear is included.

If God is speaking, I want to hear him. The Voice is everything, because the Speaker is everything.

Links to the other three posts in this series: ReadEngagePrayLive 

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