Reading to Live
You are reading a text at this moment. Did you ever think of what actually happens when you read?
One who thought about it said: ‘The eye follows black letters on a white paper from left to right, again and again. And beings, nature or thoughts, that another man has thought, just now or thousands of years ago, step forward in our imagination. It is a miracle greater than when a grain from the tombs of the Pharaohs is made to sprout. And it happens every moment.’
Reading is not only a miracle but can give you a powerful experience. A text creates a different reality from your own and as long as you keep reading you ‘live’ in the world of the text. Reading enables you to grasp another person’s inner mind which you will never reach in ordinary people and not even in people you know well.
So, what is good to read? There are books about good books, about how to read books, and about the history of reading books. We read for many different reasons – for information, learning, and experiences. But have you tried what the French author Flaubert suggested? In June, 1857, he wrote in a letter: ‘We read to live’. If you find the idea of reading to live attractive, the Bible is clearly your best option. That is my experience. Hundreds of millions of people in the world are experiencing the same at this very moment.
Why the Bible?
In these days of ‘Pottermania’ (the summer of 2007), people marvel at the sales figures of the latest Harry Potter book – 8.3 million copies in the first 24 hours after its release. But did you know that they have stopped counting how many copies of the Bible are printed, sold and distributed every year and that they now rather count the number of languages in which the Bible exists?
From 1456 when Gutenberg completed the first printed Bible (in Latin) until today, countless Bible copies have been printed and distributed. The Bible or a book from the Bible now exists in 2,370 languages! It is therefore accessible to over 90% of the world’s population. And if English is your language, you may even choose among many different kinds of translations. Choose one that you like. Try it out in a bookshop or a library or with a friend.
Why are all these people reading the Bible?
We Bible readers have discovered the power of the Bible to maintain a spiritual reality in us which provides rest, strength and security. An observer who was not a Christian noted about reading that ‘As long as you hold on to the text you find rest. The text is firm, unchangeable, rests in its innocence and purity, and allows for examination and study. I understand the power Christian people find in the Bible. The Book becomes their unshakable rock. The god that is outside the book is uncertain and unreachable.’
Reading the Bible not only awakens a longing for God but also satisfies that longing. It is both the menu and the food. Reading the Bible does something with you. It leads you into the world of God and the mind of God. If you wonder about God, but feel that He is somehow absent or silent, then reading your Bible or talking to someone who knows God will bring you in touch with Him.
What is the Bible?
Perhaps you wonder about what kind of text the Bible is? It is a collection of 66 books, all written before 100 A.D. The Hebrew (Old Testament) collection (39 books) was defined no later than around 100 A.D. (following the Jewish author Josephus). The Greek (New Testament) collection (27 books) was in all essence established around 200 A.D. (as evidenced by Canon Muratori), but a few books were discussed until the Church finally fixed the number before 400 A.D. The oldest parts of the Bible were written more than 1,500 years before that. The process of collecting these sacred books went on for nearly 2,000 years.
The books in the Bible are very different from each other. It is therefore good to choose not only an appropriate translation but also an appropriate book in the Bible to read. You are free to choose!
If you are a beginner, you may want to start reading the love poetry in the Song of Songs, or the philosophical approach to life in Ecclesiastes, or the different wise sayings in Proverbs, or even have a go at the treatise on human suffering in the book of Job. Even if you are not exactly religious, you will find yourself at home in these books.
If you are looking for God, the prayers and hymns in the Psalms may be a good start, as well as the story of Jesus according to the gospel of John. Elsewhere in the Bible you will find historical books starting at the creation of the world, legal material used in ancient Israel, religious instruction in prophetic and wisdom books, four versions of the life of Jesus, stories about the foundation of the Christian church, letters of instruction to young churches, and the apocalyptic vision of the book of Revelation.
When you read the Bible, your approach may be focussed along five avenues:
- Basic beliefs (theology)
- Information (history)
- Being together (community, worship)
- Life guidelines (moral and practical instruction)
- Expressions of your relationship to God (prayer)
Through its variety and mixture of forms, the Bible challenges you to read it as the word of God for you. Try it and don’t give up too soon! Your own experience is important. The experience of your friends is important too. Reading the Bible together in a group that meets regularly is a good way to start. What you like and understand can then help others, while they in turn may help you with the questions the Bible raises in you.
‘If You Have You Will Be Given’
As you become a Bible reader, the most important preparation is to be somewhat aware of what the Bible claims to be and do for you.
It sounds a bit strange, but you cannot read anything unless you have some pre-understanding. Jesus worded this principle when He said: >To the one who has it will be given.= In fact, scholars of textual interpretation know that the more appropriate and developed your pre-understanding is, the more likely is a fruitful outcome of your study.
As a Bible reader, therefore, you need a view of the Bible that helps you understand its message. But be careful! There are many opinions and far from all are trustworthy or fruitful. Which view would you want to take?
Why not read the Bible on its own terms? Any text is written on its own terms and says to you: ‘Try to read me as I was intended to be read’. While the author is not available and his intentions may remain unknown, a good author seeks to build into his text certain instructions to help the reader discover how the text should be read. Understanding a text well requires that you are somewhat congenial with these implied claims. Being fair to a text is seeking to understand what it wants to say and how it is said. You wouldn’t read tonight’s TV program as if it were poetry or a love letter, would you? So, give the Bible a chance to be what it claims to be! By opening yourself to the Bible, you give it a chance to be understood. When you understand it, you will be able to decide what to believe about it.
If you see what I mean, your primary need as a reader is a reasonable biblical view of the Bible. This is found in the Bible as a whole and trained Bible readers are able to identify it. For the beginner, it is useful to start from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, chapter 3, verses 15-17. This is an important text that concerns the nature and function of the Bible.
The intended reader of this passage is Timothy, a young leader of the church in Ephesus – the beautiful remains of which can still be seen in modern Turkey not too far from Izmir – and Paul’s two letters to this young man give instructions on good community leadership. In the second letter, Paul is writing from prison in Rome and urges Timothy to come to him before the winter (4:21), to bring his cloak and his books (4:13). We don’t know if Timothy got there before Paul died, but this letter is sometimes considered to be the ‘last will and testament’ of the apostle Paul.
In chapter 3, verses 14-17, Paul says:
‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.’ (NRSV)
A few comments may be helpful here. The ‘sacred writings’ in Paul’s day were the Old Testament writings, the first 39 books of the Bible that were also sacred to Jewish believers. We don’t know if he included also some Christian books, but we know that Paul wrote his letter before the Bible as a whole had yet been collected. But the text indicates certain basic elements of a biblical view of the Bible. Let us take a closer look at them.
Inspired Writing and Reading
‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching…’ This translation fits the context and Paul’s intention to defeat false teachings. It means that, not only some parts of scripture and not just any ‘scripture’ claiming sacred status are useful for building up life and faith in God, but the whole of the (recognised) scripture is ‘inspired by God’, and therefore it is useful for teaching and the like.
The Greek word theopneustos, ‘inspired by God’, is used in the original text as it was commonly understood among the Jews and early Christians in those days, namely, indicating that the Bible originated with God, not humankind.
The same idea is very strongly expressed in Peter’s second letter, chapter 1, verses 20-21:
‘First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.’ (NRSV)
The texts of the Bible, then, were inspired by God but expressed in human modes of written communication (the Greek word for ‘prophecy’ means both ‘forth-telling’ and ‘fore-telling’ and may refer to an inspired saying and/or a prediction). There is a blending of human and divine in the Bible. You may therefore read it at the human level, and it will make some sense to you. But only when you read it as both human and divine, you will be reading it on its own terms. Only then you can claim to be reading it in its fullness.
In Paul’s passage to Timothy, an emphasis is placed on the function of the Bible. Because it is inspired by God, it is (consequently) useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training. Its authority as God’s inspired word makes it a useful and effective book to read-for-life.
The Bible teaches that God reveals His ‘secret wisdom’ by His Spirit, who ‘searches all things, even the deep things of God’. It says that ‘no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’. In fact, the Bible teaches that God’s Spirit and His Word have a specific revelatory function: the Spirit is the bearer of the divine Word and reveals God’s secret wisdom through the Word.
Not only the Old Testament writings, therefore, but also the speeches and writings of the early Christian leaders are ‘inspired by God’. Paul speaks to this in his first letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 2, verses 6-16. He claims that ‘we speak by words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words’ (verse 13). He also claims that in order to receive and understand the words of God’s Spirit, ‘we have received the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us’ (verse 12).
Besides the sacred writings of the Old Testament, which were being recognised and defined during the first century of the common era, the Christians passed on a tradition, sometimes called paratheke, ‘deposit of received teaching’, and studies show that it was based on the story of Christ and his teachings, to which were added various practical applications in the course of the development of the early Christian church. In this way, the writings of the New Testament also became considered sacred and as given by the Spirit of God.
This view of the Bible implies that it is the word of God by inspiration. It also implies that the process of inspiration is not limited to the production and transmission of written signs in the text but it also includes the act of reading – the act of communication between author, text and reader that happens when we read the text. In other words, not only were the Bible authors inspired, but every time the Bible is being read, the readers need inspiration from the same source as the authors in order to understand God=s word. The Bible becomes God’s word for you through the influence of God’s Holy Spirit in your mind. Bible reading, therefore, is closely connected with the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The general view of the Bible, as reflected in the Bible itself, is that God is its ultimate source. This is clear from the many instances where messengers from God attribute their words and deeds to Him. The Christian writers of the 27 books of the New Testament constantly appeal to the Old Testament writings to confirm the truth of what they say. They also assume that their own writings have an authoritative character given by God Himself. This is not easy to grasp all at once if you are a beginner. But be patient. Let the process begin. Seek and you will find. Although born in a Christian home, I too have had to learn patience while researching and studying the Bible. God has put into the Bible the capacity to explain itself, and the more I read the more things become clear. This growth and expansion of your mind is going to be a thrilling experience and will educate you factually, morally and aesthetically. You will discover that the Bible is a wonderful source of truth, goodness and beauty. Isn’t that what you are looking for?
Instructive – Salvation, Faith, and Life
‘The sacred writings…are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’. One central function of the Bible is its ability to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. This is the primary spiritual function of the Bible. So, while we recognize that truth exists that is not found in the Bible, the Bible claims to be unique in providing the full truth needed for finding God and walking with God through Jesus Christ.
Implied here are both a promise and a condition. When we read the Bible in search of Christ, the Spirit of God will provide a spiritual understanding of the text. In this way, our spiritual communion with God through Jesus Christ becomes the central topic of the Bible. We read to live in Him.
By daily Bible reading, we make the Bible a useful tool for God to teach, rebuke, correct, train and equip ourselves, leading us to understanding and accepting important principles of a Christ-like life and having a better understanding of God’s secret wisdom in the Bible.
How Shall I Read?
Let us now summarise our findings. The biblical view of the Bible is that it is:
- Given by God and is His inspired word that reveals His secret wisdom;
- Makes you wise for salvation by faith in Jesus Christ;
- Teaches, trains and equips for a good life.
Jesus repeated the old saying that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Do you want to taste His word and see what it means to you? Maybe, then, your question is how shall I read?
If you feel that the Bible is like a foreign country, then reading the Bible is how you journey there.
Firstly, make sure you are the traveller. While there are many good guides, no second-hand knowledge about the Bible can replace your own first-hand experience of reading it.
Secondly, reading the Bible is different from any other reading experience. It demands of you to take more time to pause and examine yourself and where you are.
Thirdly, read the Bible in order to meet God and hear what He says to you. In that way, the reading becomes a part of your life – you read to live. The Bible shows you where God was found by other human beings, how they were changed by meeting Him, and how they tried to find ways to live with others in relationship to the God they had discovered. Reading invites you to imitate their experience.
Fourthly, the real meaning of the Bible is something you find when you relate it to your life. When you make such a connection between word and life, you remember what you read and let it shape you. So, your Bible reading does not only inform but it transforms. Be prepared for surprises on your journey!
The authority of the Bible is based on its own claims. It can only be tested and proven by reading. And as you engage in this experience, you will discover the spiritual power and authority of God’s word for you.
The church father Aurelius Augustinus (354 – 430 A.D.), who was converted to Christianity by reading the Bible, said in his Confessions:
‘Indeed the authority of Scripture seemed more to be revered and more worthy of devoted faith in that it was at once a book that all could read and read easily, and yet preserved the majesty of its mystery in the deepest part of its meaning: for it offers itself to all in the plainest words and the simplest expressions, yet demands the closest attention of the most serious minds.’
Countless men and women have made the same experience. It is in your hands to decide to become one of them.