Read your Bible.
Nothing has been more paramount to the Christian faith since its conception; however, such a basic command really carries far more weight with it than we originally anticipate. Whether we like to admit it or not, the Bible is a difficult book to read. It was written by several authors over the course of thousands of years in the midst of different cultural contexts to different audiences. In fact, no book so widely distributed today is as complex as the Bible, yet we expect our congregations to readily understand how to read such a book without any further instruction.
Sadly, it has become taboo to admit finding it difficult to read scripture. This perfect Christian archetype we have fabricated for ourselves already understands how to read the Bible innately; they need no instruction. Therefore, those of us that struggle find it sometimes difficult to seek out help because we believe that this assistance makes us weaker. On the contrary, it is this help and encouragement that the church was built for. We are not meant to do everything alone.
To be clear, the message of salvation is simple. The fundamentals of Christianity do not change with the intensity in which we study the Bible. However, it is apparent that biblical illiteracy has been and will continue to be the greatest foe to genuine Christian living and the body of Christ. From the early church Gnostics to the modern day Westboro Baptist church, biblical illiteracy has created a vast field of offshoot cults and misguided, hateful groups who falsely claim the title "Christian". This danger needs not be restricted to such extremes, however. Misinterpreting scripture can damage and stymie our growth in Christ in smaller, more sinister ways, leaving us crippled without even realizing it.
As a pastor, I encourage my congregation to read the Bible. It is the foundation off which we base our entire faith, but even as we read through scripture, we can still fall short of understanding what it is that we are reading. A common trend among atheists today is to accuse believers of not understanding their own holy book, and the sad reality is that they are correct in some cases. Many who disparage our faith understand the scriptures better than we do. Their hate of Christianity is sometimes a stronger motivator for them than our love for Christ. This is an issue.
There are also those among us who believe that they already understand scripture and claim they do not struggle with anything in the Bible. These people are to be ignored, for they are lying both to you and themselves. This arrogance is blinding. The greatest pastors and theologians draw on external resources in order to better understand scripture. We will discuss these resources momentarily.
Regardless of our reasoning, we need to overcome these hurdles in our lives if we are to truly study scripture, and there are tools out their that can help us get better at reading the Bible. Some of these tools are supplementary; some are essential. I recommend that any serious believer utilizes these while reading the Bible. It is important to note that this list is not exhaustive. There are even more resources out their to supplement our biblical studies; however, these three are indispensable.
There are no original ideas when it comes to scripture. The text says what it says, and it has said the same thing for thousands of years. Therefore, we have a wealth of scholarly resources on every verse in the Bible. Pastors and academics have been studying scripture and recording their studies for centuries, and believers should be utilizing their hard work. Of course, commentaries are written by humans, and there are bound to be disagreements and even mistakes. The key to using commentaries as a supplementary resource is to have more than one. For example, if I am reading three commentaries, let's call them A, B, and C, I should consult all three. If commentary A says something that sounds outlandish, I should also consult commentaries B and C. If both B and C agree with A, then perhaps there is merit to what commentary A was saying. However, if they disagree with A, then commentary A is most likely in the wrong. If one agrees with A and one disagrees, feel free to consult other commentaries, ask your pastor, and pray and meditate on the word. This is not always a foolproof plan, but it does check against false teachings.
Commentaries allow us to also check ourselves. When we read the Bible, we often inject our own biases into the passages we read. This can often lead us to twist scripture to fulfill our own desires instead of allowing God to speak to us through his word. There have been many times that I have had to scrap or rewrite a sermon because I was forcing God's word to say something it was not intending to say. This can be dangerous and lead to some of the issues discussed earlier. Commentaries allow us to check ourselves.
Sometimes commentaries are not enough or are not readily accessible. Whatever the case may be, consulting your church's pastor should be something members of the congregation do regularly. Pastors are there to equip people, and helping someone understand scripture is perhaps the greatest way to do this. Pastors are able to engage with your questions directly and can tailor a response to better fit the answer for which you are looking. As a pastor, I cannot stress enough how awesome it is when someone approaches me with a question about the Bible because it allows me to fulfill my purpose in God's kingdom.
Whether it is through an email or an in-person meeting, any pastor worth his or her salt would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about the Bible. Many of us have studied scripture for our entire lives, and there is no better way to utilize our studies than to instruct others. Of course, like commentators, pastors are also flawed humans. We still make mistakes, and it is possible that our answers do not align perfectly with scripture. This is why self-study is incredibly important. We aren't meant to believe what our pastors believe. We are meant to believe what the Bible says. As with commentaries, it could be beneficial to ask multiple pastors the same question. Again, when a common consensus is reached, it may clear up any misunderstandings or difficulties.
The Holy Spirit
Ultimately, we need to read the Bible for ourselves. However, like commentators and pastors, we are flawed humans. Therefore, we need to allow the Holy Spirit to influence our reading of scripture. Though this is the last tool I am mentioning in this article, this approach should be taken first. Reading the Bible and not simply reading someone's interpretation of the Bible is paramount to biblical literacy. It is through this reading that we establish a deeper relationship with God, and is through the study of his word that he molds and shapes us into the men and women he wants us to be. The Holy Spirit is not supplementary. If we read the Bible without his guidance, then we will most certainly stumble over certain passages, and we may walk away a weaker believer.
Utilizing the Holy Spirit is not a difficult task. We must simply ask God in prayer to guide the reading of his word and safeguard our heats and minds against any false interpretations, whether they be internal or external. We may still stumble from time to time, but God will keep us on track, and as we continue to utilize the other tools at our disposal, our biblical literacy will continue to grow.
The Bible is the most important book in our lives. There is no substitute for reading scripture, and we will never reach the point in our spiritual walk where we have read enough of the Bible. We may never come to a complete understanding of every verse, and we may even get things wrong at times. God will reward our hard work with a deeper and richer faith and a better understanding of who he is.