Imagine having a conversation with someone important and your primary agenda is to see what they can do for you or what you can get out of them. Sort of like the pesky door to door salesperson just interested in the potential sale you stand for. How long do you think that conversation will last, or what do you think the odds are of developing a meaningful longterm relationship?
If all you ever do when you open your bible is read it to “hear a personal word from God” to apply to some situation or guide me in some way, then in some ways you are really no different to the imaginary conversation described above. In a similar way, but different, we should also stop reading the bible like it’s a “love letter from Jesus” to you personally. Why? Because, it’s not.
Christians live in a day and age when bible reading has increasingly become an exercise in reader-centred response, when the individual reader is the goal of the text. Our pre-occupation is to hear what God is saying to me, here and now, so it stands to reason then, to get anything meaningful out of our reading, it better say something meaningful to me, otherwise I have wasted my time! How long before you just don’t bother reading it anymore?
But, if we believe that the Bible is God speaking (whether or not to us personally does not matter), then the most important posture of the Christian before the bible is to listen. To “sit at Jesus feet” and simply listen, or as Isaiah said to the people of his day, “Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word“. (The fear of the Lord which is a deep relational reverence and been able to hear seem to be connected here?)
Back to the relationship building example. Bible reading requires the same kind of relational skills needed to develop a meaningful relationship with someone and at the top of the list is the skill of “active listening”.
That is, listen to actually hear what the other person is saying. Listen to understand the thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and context to their story as best you can. Clarify if necessary by asking questions to make sure you have heard them right and then, reflect back to them in your own words what you heard, without pre-judging or offering them your thoughts on what they should do. There you go, ‘active listening 101’ in a paragraph!
“Seeking first to understand, then to be understood” is not only relational wisdom for building strong, long-lasting relationships, but also spiritual wisdom when it comes to growing in the knowledge and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Active listening to the text as you read your bible is the beginning of spiritual wisdom.
Let us make every effort to develop the habit of first listening to what God said in the text, to the original recipients in their world, until we hear it like they heard it. The best way I know how to do this, is through reading myself into a COMA*. No, not what you think, rather a great way of really active listening to the text before you try to make it say something to you.
CONTEXT—Where does this passage fit within the immediate surrounding text, the bigger context of the chapter, book and finally the overarching Your Kingdom Come storyline of the bible? Imagine yourself been zoomed back in time and ask yourself what would it may be like to “walk a mile” in one of the character’s shoes you’re reading about? (If they had shoes…) There is plenty of other interesting outside the text stuff to find out here such as the historical, cultural, social and religious context, but don’t let this keep you out of the main story inside the text!
OBSERVATION—What do individual words and phrases mean? Are there words that are repeated a lot? How is this passage communicated? What style did the author use? Is it a narrative like many of the OT books or the Gospels and Acts? Is it an epistle or letter, like the ones Paul, Peter, John etc. wrote? Is it a Psalm or wisdom sayings etc.? What about the book of Revelation, an apocalyptic vision or prophecy? Is it literal or figurative, prescriptive or descriptive? How it is written will decide how you should hear it.
MEANING— Based on the above, what did this passage/chapter/book mean to the original hearers? How do you think they would have understood it? (Most of the original audience probably didn’t read it, but heard it read to them) This is where you can practice your active listening skills and say something like this, “So Paul, if I am hearing you right, you are telling the Christians in Colossae that those hyper spiritual flakes have nothing on what the Christian ALREADY HAS in Christ because of the gospel, so they should stop arguing with them and simply love them to death?”
APPLICATION—Why does this passage matter? There can only be one essential meaning that was intended by the author for his original audience, but a multitude of contextual applications depending on the person, place, time and circumstances. “Ok Paul, so what are you trying to say to me then? Stop eating corn flakes and have a BBQ with my new age neighbour sometime?”
I think skipping C.O.M and heading for straight A’s – “what is God is saying to me” every time, is one reason why our bible reading can become extremely boring, and is possibly why so many of us have essentially given up reading the bible altogether. It’s easy to become spiritually bored when it’s always about me, myself and I.
I have to admit it, but the story would actually be incredibly dull if the plot always revolved around me as the main character, I’d probably die of boredom within the first couple of chapters. Not so however if I am just a foil to the true and better main character in the Great Gospel Drama of God’s history making, earth invading, epic rescue mission! The Kingdom Comes, and sin, satan and death are defeated in the death and resurrection of the humble and unassuming Messiah. Yet the Kingdom is still to come, so its empowered citizens take the news of the ascended Kings victory to the ends of the realm where the Drama of Redemption is played out again and again in the lives of countless, hopelessly lost “walking dead” antagonists, from every age and every nation and every tongue and every tribe under the sun. The family grows with all the new borns flooding in and the imposter’s kingdom of lies loses ground as the light shines into the darkness, liberating and restoring “peoples, steeples, places, spaces, and structures toward their divinely intended purpose.” (Bird 2013)
The Great Gospel Drama is not finished yet and there is a unique place for you to join the cast, to play your part in this Kingdom epic, and to be part of the Redemption Day welcoming party. The Return of the King, our Redeemer and Lord: Jesus and his Kingdom Come!
So every time you open the pages of your bible with the intention to do some serious listening to the Your Kingdom Come story**, it’s like you’re standing at the wardrobe and the world of Narnia beckons, come and join in the story of an eternal lifetime! It’s so much bigger than you’ve ever imagined, there’s no way you could ever get bored here, as the roar of the King is bound to wake you up from your spiritual COMA!
*Matthias Media’s: The Bible Overview by M. Brain, M. A. Malcolm, M. R. Malcolm
** What needs to be considered is that the reformers considered it a privilege to read the bible, not an essential requirement for spiritual growth (Kelly 2009). The leading way individual believers heard the Word of God for the majority of the church’s history up until the modern era, was predominately through the preaching and teaching ministries that served the churches. Not many people had their own set of scrolls/hand written Bibles/printed Bibles etc. (depending on the era). Those who did, would read together in community out loud, so those who couldn’t read heard the Word of God.
Bird, M.F., 2013. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.