The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God stands forever.
~ Isaiah 40:8
This coming Sunday morning I will resume teaching the Bible Survey Class that I began last Spring. This Fall we will cover the Wisdom and Poetry books of the Old Testament, to be followed by the Prophets. This is one of three Bible Studies that I teach each week. On Sunday evenings at 5:30 pm I teach a Topical Bible Study (This Bible Study is broadcast live on Periscope each week). Right now we’re looking at “Politics According the Bible,” and that will be followed after the election with an Advent/Christmas Study of the Gospels’ birth narratives – “The First Days of Jesus.” And then on Wednesdays at noon I teach an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, thought-by-thought Bible Study. Right now were just about halfway through the Book of Revelation, and when we’re finished, we’ll immediately turn our attention to the Pastoral Epistles – to I Timothy, Titus and II Timothy.
To be sure, preparing and leading these Bible Studies are a big demand on my time and energy as a minister each week. You can’t just walk in unprepared to a room full of eager and thoughtful students and expect to engage them in a serious conversation about the meaning of ancient texts that are believed to be inspired and that are treated as authoritative for our Christian faith and practice. Besides this purely human obligation to be an effective teacher, there is an enormous Divine expectation as well. More than once the New Testament warns us about the spiritual dangers of being a teacher (James 3:1-2; Matthew 23:1-11; Matthew 18:1-7), and about how it is possible for us to “misrepresent God” (I Corinthians 15:15). The New Testament says enough about false teachers – and none of it good – to know that I don’t want to be found in their number!
So, why do I do it? Why do I put myself out this way each week? Why do I invest myself so heavily in the work of these three weekly Bible studies? Why do I subject myself to the demands, both human and Divine?
Well, part of the answer has to do with spiritual gifts. You see, I know that my own particular call to ministry, and the capacities for ministry that I have, and have consciously developed, all have to do with teaching (Ephesians 4:11). Teaching is foundational to all Christian ministry (Matthew 8:20; Acts 2:42), and it is one of the spiritual gifts that God sovereignly distributes according to His purposes to build-up the church (I Corinthians 12:11). This means that no minister is off-the-hook when it comes to teaching the faith – it’s part of how we “pay the rent” for our ministries in a church – even as some of us “double-down” on the ministry of teaching as our own particular mission within the mission. This is part of the reason why I do it. This is who I am, and what I know that I am called to do, and I am truly blessed to be in a church and part of a pastoral team that allows for this kind of specialization in ministry. But there is more to my commitment to the ministry of teaching than this.
In my last semester at Brite Divinity School back in 1979 I stumbled across a little book from 1675 written by Philip Jacob Spener, one of the spiritual leaders of the Movement known as Pietism. “Pia Desideria” (“Pious Desires”) was his pastoral assessment of the sad spiritual state of the church of his day, and his specific proposals to correct it. And his first corrective proposal was a call for a “more extensive use of the Scriptures.” This lengthy excerpt is from pages 87-91 of my dog-eared and well worn copy of “Pia Desideria” (Fortress Press – 1964). It is a call for Bible Study in the local church and a proposed model for actually doing it that broadly resembles the kind of Bible Studies that we have here at Northway.
Thought should be given to the more extensive use of the Word of God among us… It would perhaps not be inexpedient to reintroduce the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings. In addition our customary services with preaching, other assemblies would also be held in the manner in which Paul describes them in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. One person would not rise to preach, but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife. This might conveniently be done by having …several members of a congregation who have a fair knowledge of God or desire to increase their knowledge meet under the leadership of the Minister, take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all. Anybody who is not satisfied with his understanding of a matter should be permitted to express his doubts and seek further explanation. On the other hand, those who have made more progress should be allowed the freedom to state how they understand each passage. Then all that has been contributed, insofar as it accords with a sense of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, should be carefully considered by the rest, …and applied to the edification of the whole meeting. Everything should be arranged with an eye to the glory of God, to the spiritual growth of the participants, and therefore also to their limitations. Any threat of meddlesomeness, quarrelsomeness, self-seeking, or something else of this sort should be guarded against and tactfully cut off…
Not a little benefit is to be hope for from such an arrangement. Preachers would learn to know the members of their own congregations and their weaknesses or growth in doctrine and piety, and a bond of confidence would be established between preachers and people which would serve the best interests of both. At the same time, the people would have a splendid opportunity to exercise your diligence with respect to the word of God and modestly to answer their questions (which they do not always have the courage to discuss with their minister in private) and get answers to them. In a short time, they would experience personal growth and would also be capable of giving better religious instruction to their children and servants at home. In the absence of such exercises, sermons which are delivered in continually flowing speech are not always fully and adequately comprehended because there’s no time for reflection in between or because when one does stop reflect, much of what follows is missed (which does not happen in a discussion). On the other hand, private reading the Bible, reading in the household, where nobody is present who may from time to time help point out the meaning and purpose of each verse, cannot provide the reader with sufficient explanation of all that he would like to know. What is lacking in both of these instances (in public preaching and private reading) would be supplied by the proposed exercises.
…This much is certain: The diligent use of the word of God, which consists not only a listening to sermons, but also reading, meditating, and discussing (Psalm 1:2 ), must be the chief means for reforming something, whether this occurs in the proposed fashion or in some other appropriate way. The word of God remains the seed from which all that is good in us must grow. If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the Book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people….
Believing what Spener said in that last paragraph about the word of God being the seed “from which all that is good in us must grow,” and how people are “wonderfully strengthened” and profoundly “reformed” through “reading, meditating and discussing” the Bible, I made a conscious commitment back in 1979, during my last semester in seminary, to actually institute the kind of Bible Study that Spener proposed here in every church that I would ever serve as an ordained minister, and here, some 37 years later I can say that I have.
This commitment to congregational Bible Study was confirmed a couple of years ago when Willow Creek reported the results of their “Reveal” self-study.
Over a period of four years, Willow Creek polled more than 1,500 churches representing more than 400,000 church attendees at various stages in their spiritual journeys, and Bible reading and reflection, the REVEAL survey found, is the No. 1 way to help people grow in their love for Christ.
“When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible,” wrote Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in their book, Move. The churches involved in the study ranged in size from under 100 to more than 5,000 and represented all 50 states. They were both denominational and non-denominational and represented a wide range of styles, including contemporary, Pentecostal, Catholic, traditional and mainline. Parkinson and Hawkins explain that key findings in the REVEAL survey suggest people fall along a spiritual continuum, from exploring Christ to being Christ-centered—and many things advance our walks with God along that continuum.
“But of all the personal spiritual practices—prayer, confession, tithing, journaling, solitude, serving or worship we find that one stands out,” Parkinson and Hawkins state. “Scripture reflection—more than any other practice—moves people forward in their love for God and love for others.” Reflection on Scripture is much more influential than any other spiritual practice by a statistically significant and wide margin, Parkinson and Hawkins state. “For those who would say they are Christ-centered or working to stay close to Christ, Scripture reflection is twice as catalytic as any other factor. This means it has twice the power of any other spiritual practice to accelerate growth in spiritually mature people.” (http://www.americanbible.org)
Of course, the kind of transformative Bible Study that Spener first proposed 400 years ago, and that Willow Creek has more recently affirmed as being the most spiritually catalytic factor in its own life and ministry as a church, is not just about filling the head of students with information, but rather, it’s about filling the hearts of believers with the promises, provisions and presence that a serious engagement with Scripture supplies.
It was A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963) – one of my “paper spiritual directors” (somebody who shapes my soul and guides my spiritual growth through the things that they wrote) – who warned me about the academic “information-alone” kind of Bible Studies to which we who have been to seminary, can read the Biblical languages and who have shelves and shelves of critical commentaries are prone. Now, don’t take this as a rejection of the academic study of the Bible. I am someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, and that it needs to be carefully and contextually interpreted. I am a champion of theological education, and I turn to scholarship every week to try to better understand every jot and tittle that I find in the Bible. But that’s not enough. I’ll let A.W. speak –
Charles G. Finney believed that Bible teaching without moral application could be worse than no teaching at all, and could result in positive injury to the hearers. I used to think that this might be an extreme position, but after years of observation I have come around to it, or to a view almost identical to it.
There is scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth in its Biblical sense, but something else and something less. Theology is a set of facts concerning God, man and the world. These facts may be, and often are, set forth as values in themselves; and there lies the snare both for the teacher and for the hearer.
…The Bible … is more than a volume of hitherto unknown facts about God, man and the universe. It is a book of exhortation based upon those facts. By far the greater portion of the book is devoted to an urgent effort to persuade people to alter their ways and bring their lives into harmony with the will of God as set forth in its pages.
…What is generally overlooked is that truth as set forth in the Christian Scriptures is a moral thing; it is not addressed to the intellect only, but to the will also. It addresses itself to the total man, and its obligations cannot be discharged by grasping it mentally. Truth engages the citadel of the human heart and is not satisfied until it has conquered everything there. The will must come forth and surrender its sword. It must stand at attention to receive orders, and those orders it must joyfully obey. Short of this, any knowledge of Christian truth is inadequate and unavailing.
It was Albert Schweitzer who said that the Bible was spiritually explosive in his life. Any verse of Scripture, he said, had the potential of blowing up in our hands, in our heads and in our hearts, thereby blasting us to places we never thought of going on our own, to do things that we never thought of doing before. It’s catalytic.
God’s word is alive and working and is sharper than a double-edged sword. It cuts all the way into us, where the soul and the spirit are joined, to the center of our joints and bones. And it judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts. (Hebrews 4:19)
And this is why teaching Bible Study is the most important thing I do each week as a minister. When people open their Bibles they are positioning themselves in front of the instrument that God has ordained to effect real change in people’s lives, and the through them, in the world. DBS +