So how do we most effectively listen to the Word and his word? Find out in our new article on practical strategies for hearing the Word through Scripture – published today on our sister website, here.
As Christians, we must listen to both the “word” of God – the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and the “Word” of God – Jesus Christ (John 1:1). In fact, as Jesus himself showed, the one testifies to the other: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39, emphasis added). But Jesus’ point in saying this was that we can be studying – even diligently – and still not hearing the One we should be hearing.
So how do we most effectively listen to the Word and his word? Find out in our new article on practical strategies for hearing the Word through Scripture – published today on our sister website, here.
I remember seeing a cartoon a number of years ago that had the unlikely subject of a group of fleas sitting in what appeared to be a lecture hall, listening to an impassioned speech from a flea behind a podium.
On the podium was a sign reading “There is no dog!” – and then it became clear that the “pillars” of the lecture hall were, in fact, the hairs of a dog magnified many times!
So the subjects of the cartoon were obviously “Afleists” who did not believe that dog existed, but the context was not one in any way suggesting that human atheists were to be equated with fleas – it was simply looking wryly at the idea of how it is possible to be very unaware of things around us.
The cartoon might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words to the learned philosophers of Athens regarding the creation of all things by God: “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being….” (Acts 17:27-28).
Like those earnest fleas debating the dog’s existence among the very hairs of the dog, we humans sometimes “don’t see the forest for the trees” when it comes to seeing the nature of the ultimate reality in which we live. But religious people can be no less susceptible to this problem than atheists or agnostics. We may not ignore the clear imprint of the Creator in the physical creation, but the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees can apply to us in a different way, nonetheless.
We read in the Gospel of Mark the story of how shortly after performing great miracles in which Jesus fed the multitudes: “The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread’” (Mark 8:14-16).
When Jesus realized the disciples’ lack of vision in this situation, he chastised them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see ….” (Mark 8:17).
In this situation, the disciples missed the meaning of Christ’s message by looking too closely at their own circumstances, the details of their own situation. Sometimes we can make the same mistake: we miss the message because we take it too personally.
It is often said that when studying the Bible we should always ask “How does this verse apply to me?” That is indeed a useful principle of personal study, but we should also be careful not to let our study of the Bible become self-absorbed to the point that we miss the bigger picture that is sometimes there.
It is always good to remember that we are not the subject of the Bible, and that God is. The Bible is not just the revelation from God, it is primarily the revelation about God. Our study should also ask the question “What does this verse show about God?” If we study only to see what applies to us and to others, we can miss the message that is of forest-size proportions by concentrating only on what applies to some of the trees.
Are biblical “statistics” on the numbers of appearances of certain words meaningful? We have all heard or read statements such as “The word ‘praise’ occurs over three hundred times in the Bible,” though of itself this fact may be of little value.
The number of times a given English word appears in a biblical book, Testament or the whole Bible depends, of course, on which translation is used. For example, while the word “joy” appears exactly 61 times in both the King James Version (KJV) and New International Version (NIV), the word “praise” actually occurs only 26 times in the KJV of the New Testament, but 41 times in the NIV New Testament. So such statistics can be a bit misleading, or even very much so, without context and other factors being considered.
It’s important to remember that most statistics are pretty meaningless unless they are compared with another statistic. The fact that there are 50 million people in a country is only meaningful compared to the size of the country and how many people are in other countries. The same is true in looking at biblical words. Take the word “faith.” Only appearing 2 times in the Old Testament of the KJV, and16 times in the Old Testament of the NIV, both versions of the Old Testament are in clear contrast when compared with the New Testament. We find 245 instances of “faith” in the KJV and 254 instances in the NIV New Testament – showing a big difference between the two Testaments.
Also it is sometimes interesting to compare the number of times a given biblical word occurs in a given translation compared to another word. For example, “faith” actually occurs a little more often in the New Testament in almost all translations than “love” does (254 compared to 232 in the NIV), showing that faith was certainly a very important quality for the writers of the New Testament.
This much may be obvious to us, but in other cases, numerical differences may show subtle variance in the stresses of different biblical writers. For example, using the NIV, while John’s three epistles talk about love more than the writings of any other New Testament author (as we might expect), the word “faith” only occurs once in his combined three epistles as opposed to ten times in the two epistles of Peter and 13 times in the epistle of James. Likewise, “hope” appears once in each of John’s three epistles, as opposed to five times in 1 Peter and not at all in James. Again, such “statistics” do not really prove anything, but they do show some general tendencies in the writings (at least the ones we have) of a number of biblical writers.
So some biblical statistics can be meaningful if they are properly compared to give context, but “statistics” such as “the word ‘praise’ occurs over three hundred times in the Bible” really tell us little more than the fact that “praise” does occur in many biblical books. But we knew that, of course.
Effective Bible study can be a lot like good photography. If you are a photographer, or know someone who takes professional level pictures, you know that good photography is all about lenses. Different lenses give you a different view of your subject and reveal different aspects of it.
Using BibleGateway.com (BG) for personal study of the Scriptures gives you an equivalent situation for effective Bible study – ways to open up the subject and reveal more that you might not have otherwise seen. BG has a host of features you can use in daily Bible study, and many of these work like lenses you would use on a fine camera:
Standard Lens: Photographers use standard lenses for general use. They are quick and give a clear overview when special effects are not needed. In the same way, just calling up a Bible verse, chapter or book on BG can give you quick access to its basic message. And that’s a good perspective – it’s the primary way the Bible was designed to be read and should never be neglected. Besides, BG gives you some useful bells and whistles to help with this: you can highlight sections for future study (and, unlike printed Bibles, change the highlight whenever you wish) and also add and save notes as thoughts come to you in your reading.
Wide Angle Lens: That’s what photographers use when they want to get a wider view – get more details into the picture by “stretching the screen.” You can do that in BG study by setting up the page with a number of translations side by side to see extra details that you would have missed using just one translation. Simply click the “Add parallel” button (looks like two pages side by side) above and to the right of the scripture to add more translations – it’s as easy as clicking a shutter button!
Close-Up Lens: You have doubtless seen some of the amazing pictures people take of flowers and insects using a close-up or macro lens. Once you enter a keyword, topic or Bible passage in the BG search box, you can click the blue “STUDY THIS” button at the top right of the scripture to take a close-up look at a verse or chapter in some of the available commentaries. You may be amazed at the details and insights a good commentary can add that you wouldn’t have seen without that close-up “lens.”
Telephoto Lens: Photographers use these lenses not only to bring distant objects up close, but also for taking portraits. On BG use the “Keyword search” feature (under “BIBLE” on the black drop-down menu tab at the top left of the page) to see scriptures on specific topics from the beginning of the Bible to its end. Or, just like focusing a lens, you can set this feature to “focus” on the Old or New Testament or specific books or groups of books. You may be studying the Book of Acts, but the keyword search will pull up a relevant scripture that may be quite distant from where you are studying. This feature is also good for “portraits”: use the keyword search like a telephoto lens to give a good view of all the scriptures on a biblical person you may want to see more clearly.
Zoom Lens: These lenses are so popular because they give many of the benefits of the individual lenses – you can let the lens show close-up details or a wide view depending on what is appropriate. That’s great when you don’t want to have to change lenses all the time and don’t need to focus on just one part of the “focal range.” With BG you do this simply by selecting and using some of the devotionals (under the “STUDY” tab at the top left of the page). The devotionals are carefully selected and many have done much of the preliminary work for you, so they may move quickly from a small detail such as the meaning of a word to wider, overall concepts.
So take advantage of the different “lenses” BG makes available to you to enhance your personal study of the Scriptures. And remember, unlike expensive camera lenses, BG is free. Photographers are known for telling people to smile, but BG’s free and varied features are something to make you smile.
It is interesting that while all the gospels record Jesus exhorting people to listen to his message (for example, Matthew 15:10: “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand.”), Luke is almost the only gospel writer who remarks about whether people were, in fact, listening to what Jesus said. If we use the NIV as a basis to count, we see Luke mentions listening seven times in his Gospel and also five times in Acts – a total of 12 times – while apart from these instances, only Mark comments on Jesus’ audience listening to him, and then only a single time (Mark 12:37). We can only wonder if Luke’s background as a physician (Colossians 4:14) influenced his awareness of people in terms of if they were listening or not, but in any case, Luke’s mention of listening is instructive.
Take, for example, how Luke doesn’t just mention Jesus talking, but refers specifically to whether people were listening to what was said: “When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening…” (Luke 7:1), and a little earlier he records how Jesus himself commented on this point: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). This clearly shows that Jesus was aware that some people were listening to what he said, while others were probably just in the crowd out of curiosity to see what was going on.
In fact, Luke seems to indicate that Jesus paced his teaching according to whether people were really paying attention. He tells us that “While they were listening … he went on to tell them a parable…” (Luke 19:11). It was precisely because people were paying attention – really listening – that Jesus extended his teaching to give them more understanding.
We can apply this understanding in at least two areas of our relationship with God. First, in our study of God’s word it is imperative that we do in fact listen and not just read. Despite the best of intentions, it is possible to sit and read several chapters of the Bible without really listening to what is being said, just as our minds may drift during an actual conversation with a person in the same room. The safeguards against reading and not hearing are to take frequent pauses to analyze or summarize what we read and to review it when finished. This isn’t always necessary in Bible reading, of course, but the more we can do it, the more it can help us to truly listen.
The same principle can actually apply to prayer. If our prayer is to be closer to a conversation than a monologue, we should be willing to pause occasionally and think over what we have said, let our minds be receptive to thoughts and ideas that may be placed there. I know many pastors and other sincere Christians who will not pray without a notepad – not just to list things they wish to pray about, but also to record things that come to mind as they do pray.
It is not that we cannot study or pray without using such hearing-aid strategies, but if we are truly desirous to hear God in our lives we have to be willing to focus on listening. It is interesting that in the parable of the Good Shepherd recorded in John 10, Jesus repeatedly describes his “flock” as those that listen to him. And we might remember, in this regard, the striking words of Christ which are only recorded – as we might guess – by Luke: “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8:18). We have all been given much, and it is as we listen that we are given more.
Even if you are not one of the world’s quarter-billion twitter users, you probably still know that twitter-sent messages or “tweets” can only be up to 140 characters in length. Those who use the social media service know that as a result of the restricted length it’s somewhat of an art form to get a perfect tweet. Anyone can say something in 140 characters, but to really get a worthwhile message across is not always so easy.
I read recently that a perfect tweet needs to do three things: get the reader’s attention, make a complete statement - preferably without abbreviations, and leave the reader with a memorable point. Each aspect is simple enough, but it’s the ability to get them all together in such a short form that makes a tweet truly excellent.
In the book How God became Jesus, Michael Bird (forgive what might seem like a pun) makes the point, in passing, that the Gospel of John “tweets” the incarnation. This is what he says: “John 1:14 in Greek is exactly 140 characters: 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’” (p. 68). This set me thinking in terms of the perfect tweet. How does John’s statement fit the rules?
Hopefully noticing who ultimately sent the message in John 1:14 gets our attention, so that aspect should be taken care of, and John’s words certainly make a complete statement without abbreviation. So how about leaving the reader with a memorable point? That’s where John really excels! In the space of those 140 characters John delivers the incredible news that God became man, and that the One who is described as “the Word,” or the Son of God, actually dwelt among us. This is a massive concept in itself, but John continues with two other amazing truths – that this is not just a story, it is something that was witnessed by numerous individuals – and not just glimpsed, but actively seen to the degree that the witnesses could see God’s nature, as being “full of grace and truth.” That’s really three hugely important statements about the Christian faith all in the same “tweet” space.
The one thing this “tweet” doesn’t tell us is why these three connected and vital things occurred, and for that we have to turn, of course, to another of John’s tweet-size statements – that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This statement tells us three things, also. It describes God’s love, shows us the need for faith, and tells us the outcome we get when the two things are put together.
Looked at that way, if we focus closely on his words and think about them, John was able to preach a very large part of the gospel in two amazingly small, tweet-sized statements. How does that apply to us? It should remind us what incredible depth there often is in just a few words in the Gospel of John and, of course, in many other parts of the Bible. It reminds us why we hear so often that we shouldn’t just read the Bible, but that we should truly focus on all that is in even the smallest statement that tells us something about God. We don’t need to focus that intently on the average tweet to grasp all its meaning, but when it is God who is sending the message, there is often a great deal in the space of only a few written characters.
Devotionals – books with a short scripture commentary or meditation for each day of the year – can be a mixed blessing. Some feel that they can too easily become a substitute for the study of the Bible itself, and that is certainly true if we allow it to happen. But on the other hand, if devotionals are used in addition to our direct study of the word of God, they can be both inspiring and helpful.
Those who are not fond of devotionals stress that their use can be problematic if believers get “trapped” in a habit of just cyclically reading the same things when the same devotional is used repeatedly, and that if used alone they may restrict the reader to one author’s opinions and approaches to the scriptures. The flip side of this is that if they are used in conjunction with regular study of the Bible itself, devotionals – like any other faith-based literature – can be helpful tools to enhance focused study and meditation on specific verses or concepts, and to give us understandings, inspiration and encouragement we might not otherwise have had. As with other faith-based books, articles and blogs, devotionals can also help bring the biblical text forward into modern life, giving verses and thoughts clearer relevancy and application.
So, if we elect to use devotionals in our daily walk, what are some of the things we should consider? First, while most devotionals are organized with daily readings – from January 1 throughout the year – some follow the liturgical calendar with its seasonal stresses and some do not. This can be a positive or negative depending on the reader’s faith background and expectations for such a tool. Some devotionals offer focused thoughts on quite deep theological concepts while others simply give us encouragement in everyday living. Consider these few examples which show the wide range of devotionals:
My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers is a classic devotional written in the early part of the 20th Century and still in print (and now with an updated language edition – see our mention of it in our sister site's Books in Brief). Chambers’ book is calendric but does not use a liturgical framework and focuses instead on a chain of spiritual topics.
The Cry of the Deer: Meditations on the Hymn of St. Patrick by David Adam, a more recent (1987) Celtic-themed devotional, is not calendric, but contains twelve longer essays on topics suggested to the author by the hymn. Often rooted in the outdoors and aspects of the creation, each chapter contains exercises for the application of principles discussed.
Word for Today: A Year of Daily Devotions by Sally J. Garwood (2014) is loosely structured around the liturgical calendar. It is an example of the modern style of devotionals with short meditations on topics from all aspects of life, each ending with a small prayer.
Meet Him on the Mountain: 40 Days of Devotionals for a Closer Relationship with God by Sheldon K. Bass (2014) is another example of a recent devotional. In this case the format is not calendric, but follows 40 days of meditations aimed specifically at helping the reader move closer to God.
As these few examples show, devotionals can be very different, so you may want to compare several. One excellent resource in this area is the BibleGateway.com website which has a wide selection of free devotionals here that are helpfully categorized by type – for men, women, children, parents, families, and other groups. I’m currently following one of small C.S. Lewis readings and finding it very worthwhile, and my wife is following the "NIV Couples Devotional" and liking it very much. But if you choose to use a devotional, take the time to check out the options and get one tailored to your needs and expectations. That way you will get the most out of daily readings and will doubtless find that, in addition to regular study of the Bible, a good devotional can become a valuable part of your day.
When you were young, did you experience seeing through a telescope for the first time? If you have such a memory, you know how amazing it was to see things brought so much closer – as though you could reach out and touch them. If you were like me, at some point you turned the telescope around and were just as amazed at how tiny and distant it made things seem when you looked through it the wrong way.
The Bible is like a telescope in this regard. There is a right and a wrong way to look through it. This may be surprising for some, but any spiritual activity can be done for the wrong reasons. Just as we can pray for the wrong reasons (James 4:3), and fast for the wrong reasons (Isaiah 58:4), we can also study for the wrong reasons (2 Timothy 2:15, Titus 3:9) – looking, as it were, through the wrong end of the telescope.
How can this be? We can do this if we look at the Bible so it is pointing at us – looking to see what is of interest to us, or just at the old favorite scriptures which are comfortable to us. We can do this if we study in order to justify our beliefs, our ideas. We can do it if we get caught up in primarily studying doctrine, history, prophecy or any other area of personal interest. When any of these things becomes the regular focus of our study, we are “turning the telescope” and as a result God looks small and distant when viewed in this way.
The real reason to study the word of God is God. The point of our study should always be to grow in our understanding of God and His Son. That’s where the focus should be. Notice what Jesus Himself said about this: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). The word of God does have the key to life, but it is found in the message about the promised Messiah and what His life, death and resurrection mean to us along with the role model His life is for us. That is why the apostle Peter wrote: “But grow in the grace and knowledge … of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (2 Peter 3:18): not knowledge of doctrine or prophecy, not knowledge of only encouraging scriptures, but knowledge of the One to whom all scriptures point.
It is only as we look into the Bible the right way round – with the “telescope” pointing at God and not at us – that we see God. It is then that we see ourselves in perspective, and our interests and our issues become relatively small and insignificant. It is then that God seems great and near, and our study of God’s word becomes the most meaningful.
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Unless otherwise stated, blog posts are written by R. Herbert, Ph.D., who writes for a number of Christian venues – including our sister site: TacticalChristianity.org