A monthly column by Michael Cassidy, evangelist, author, Christian leader and founder of African Enterprise whose ministry in Africa and the world has spanned more than 50 years.
The great American evangelist, DL Moody, once wrote: “I never saw a useful Christian who was not a student of the Bible. If a person neglects the Bible there is not much for the Holy Spirit to work with. We must have the word.”
Daniel Webster, the 19th Century American orator and senator, also said: “If Christian books are not widely circulated among the masses in this country and the people do not become spiritual, I do not know what is to become of us as a nation.
“If the truth be not diffused, error will be; if God and His Word are not known and received, the devil and his works will gain the ascendancy; if the evangelical volume does not reach every hamlet, the pages of corrupt and licentious literature will.”
As Christians seeking to take our faith seriously, we need to be readers of the Bible and of other Christian books and literature, which are edifying, informative, educational, inspirational or instructive.
Our reading of the book of books
One has to agree with Moody’s statement that any Christian who is useful and active in service for his or her Lord will be a student of the Bible. The Bible is practical. It leads, guides, checks and inspires.
Observed Martin Luther”: “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”
The Apostle Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
The Old Testament is almost as specific, saying: “This Book of the Law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success” (Joshua 1:8).
That’s all very well, you say. I’d like to be reading the Bible seriously, but how and where do I start?
First, get a Bible for yourself if you don’t have one. Probably the most widely used modern translation right now is the New International Version (NIV). You can’t go wrong with that. If you want a more colloquial paraphrase translation, you might like to secure Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
Then I would like to recommend securing Scripture Union or other Bible reading notes. They come in different levels of notes geared for different age groups.
Finally, make a resolution right now that you will read a portion of the Bible each day, preferably in the morning and evening. Know yourself. If you are a morning person, content yourself with something briefer in the evenings as one is usually too tired to absorb very much. If you are an evening person, content yourself with something briefer in the morning as you will not be awake enough to absorb very much.
Understanding the Bible
Of course many would say that it is all very well to read the Bible, but can one actually understand it? In general terms, I believe the answer is yes. The Reformers believed in what they called “the clarity” of scripture. By this they meant that the Scriptures had a clearness such that the general thrust of the text, apart from certain difficult passages, could be understood by any reader coming to the text prayerfully, humbly and diligently.
Even so, it is worth seeking to keep in mind some practical principles of biblical interpretation, or what the theologians call “hermeneutics”.
What hermeneutic principles should we then lay hold of in our practical efforts to read and comprehend the Scriptures?
Follow the grammatico-historical method
This means that we allow the basic grammar and syntax of the passage to bring forth the meaning of the text and then we allow the historical context of the text to give the more specific meaning. In other words, we ask:
- What does the text say?
- What did the text mean when it was first heard in its original context?
- What does the text mean to me now in my present context?
Let’s take an illustration. When St Paul tells the Christian Corinthian women that they should not cut their hair, that was presumably because the prostitutes of Corinth cut and braided their hair in order to doll themselves up to attract male customers. So Paul at the literal level is speaking of women not cutting their hair. But the proper meaning of the text, when taken in its original historical context, is that women should not dress provocatively. And so this scripture and counsel in modern times speaks to women dressing with appropriate modesty.
Let the New Testament interpret the Old Testament
St Augustine explained: “In the Old Testament the New lies hidden. In the New Testament the Old is laid open.”
Certain laws laid down in the Old Testament, say for example relating to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, were later put aside in the New Testament. The New Testament instructs us not to retaliate against our enemy, but to pray for them.
Other principles and laws of the Old Testament, however, have not been replaced. For example, the Old Testament disapproval of homosexuality is left standing in the New Testament. Sometimes the New Testament will even strengthen something from the Old. The Old Testament condemns physical adultery, whereas in the New Testament Jesus condemns even mental adultery.
The Epistles interpret the Gospels
Where Jesus and the Gospels hint at the principle of Justification by Faith, St Paul spells it out in detail, especially in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Titus.
When people asked Jesus in John 6, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” (v28), Jesus replies: “This is the work of God that you believe in him whom he has sent”. He shifts the emphasis from doing religious works to believing in him. This is what the Apostle Paul picks up on and expounds so profoundly in many sections of the Epistles.
Ephesians 2:8-9 has a good summary: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Then comes verse 10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” In other words, we are not saved by works, but for works. Our faith is the hands by which we reach out to receive the finished work of Christ on the cross, and then our attempts to live the Christian life are proof that we have genuinely received the saving work of the Saviour into our hearts.
Of course, once we have understood what the text is saying and not only what it meant in the original context but what it means for us today, then the challenge is to try and obey it and live it out. A Chinese student who had been converted in London once wrote back to his family in China telling of his conversion and adding: “I am reading the Bible and behaving it.” That of course is the biggest challenge of all.
What about other Christian books?
This brings us into what I like to call the reader’s adventure. This begins when we discover, as one writer put it, that “no other agency can penetrate so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly, and influence so irresistibly, as the printed page.” In a nutshell friends, we need to be diligent readers of Christian books.
However, as with the movies, where a high percentage are dreadful, so it is with some Christian books. Some are destructive in the way they break down confidence in the scriptures, while others are plain shallow or just sloppy and sentimental. This is why one needs to do a bit of asking around if one is going to invest in a good Christian book.
John Stott, Michael Green, Ravi Zacharias and Os Guinness would be good starters for Apologetics. Charles Colson is excellent, especially his book How Now Shall We Live? There are great commentaries from the pen of William Barclay. Christian biographies by John Pollock, probably the best biographer of our time, are always thoroughly inspirational.
If you want books on Christian leadership, John Maxwell is flooding the market with good writing. For me the best of them all, an older book, is still Oswald Sanders’ little classic, Spiritual Leadership.
If you want a very deep but slow read on the life and teachings of Jesus, I would recommend The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. If you want one classic on prayer, then get Richard Foster’s volume Prayer. And if you want to be even more adventurous, then get into the world of CS Lewis. Children particularly should be introduced to his children’s books, especially The Chronicles of Narnia.
Out of our own AE family I could recommend Stephen Lungu’s book Out of the Black Shadows as well as Festo Kivengere’s I Love Idi Amin. Trevor Hudson is a marvellous South African devotional writer.
As Christians, I believe we also need to be readers of our daily newspaper or a good news magazine. By doing this, we can learn to see new ways that our reading of the Bible and Christian books can interact with, and speak to, the events and happenings of the wider world.
Billy Graham always said that, in preparing to preach, he wanted to have the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. The Bible, and our Christian faith, have good answers for the daily goings-on in our world.
Short biographies, of both secular people and Christian leaders, even an occasional thriller or romance (maybe even a true love story) can add richness to our reading diet.
By the way, don’t forget that even if it is difficult or expensive to buy books, you can always borrow them, providing one promises to return them! To a friend who once visited Mark Twain, the great writer explained the clutter of books in his library by saying: “You see, I can’t borrow shelves too!”