Iron sharpens iron

These reflections are based on a blog from September 27th, 2009 when I was in the early stages of recovery from a brain hemorrhage.  I share them here because this column encapsulates a simple, helpful way to come at the Bible, and lays out just a little of the tremendous depth we find when we start digging in its pages.  

I attended a class yesterday on prayer ministry. No, I didn't drive myself to it, and yes, I had two cups of decaf coffee during the course of the six-hour class. I honestly don't miss coffee that much, which is a truly amazing thing for those of you who know of my former addiction. I had backup plans in case my endurance level wasn't up to sitting in class that long, but it worked out fine.

The most amazing thing, though, for me yesterday: I came away from that class so impressed with the Bible. I have read and studied the Bible my whole life. Spent two years in a college devoted to biblical studies. I have taught more Bible studies and preached more Bible-based sermons than I can remember. I have read the entire Bible at least a dozen times and parts of it I'm sure a thousand times. I've studied Hebrew (all of which I've forgotten, though I can still sing the song with the names of the alphabet characters) and Greek (which I still remember and use after a fashion) to understand the Bible better. More often than not each of my days starts with reading something out of the Bible. So this is familiar territory for me, right?

But yesterday I heard Bible verses used, interpreted and applied in ways I've not heard before. Now sometimes that means you're listening to heresy -- someone takes a verse out of context and applies their own meaning to it. But this wasn't like that. As the teachers went through the Bible asking the question, what does God desire for the inner life of his people, they found answers right there in the Bible that I have read and re-read for decades without seeing what they saw. And it's right there. It just convinces me again that there is so much depth in this book. It's a collection of ancient manuscripts, yes, and fascinating to study from that point of view -- but it's also somehow the Word of God, and it has depth and richness beyond my ability to grasp. I keep going back to that well and I continually find things that I have not seen before.

And it's nearly impossible to find this depth on your own. I believe it's important to read and study the Bible individually. (If you haven't done much of this, try just reading through the gospel of John like a story, asking yourself, "Who is this Jesus guy?" It's a great way to get started.) But to truly start getting at the depth of the Bible, you need to listen to others who are studying it. Hear their insights, because I guarantee that the way God speaks to them through this word will be different than the way he speaks to you. Hear what they see and share what you see. Listening to the teachers yesterday I wanted to pause the whole scene each time they pulled out a new verse of the Bible and say, "Wait a minute! I want to dig into this!" So now I have homework.

One of the most helpful ways I know of coming at a Bible story or some other section of the Bible is to ask three questions.

First, what is it saying? Don't look for deeper meanings, just see the basic content of what this text is saying. Don't read your own meaning into it, don't apply it to a particular situation. At this level, just read the text. "It says Jesus healed a blind man" (this might be your answer if you just read John 9) or, "Jesus tells his disciples to remain in him like a branch remains in a tree" (if you are reading John 15:1-11).

Second, what does it mean? Now try to use the figures of speech to get at the meaning behind the words. So if you're reading John 10, what is Jesus saying when he says, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Dig into the meaning (this is different from applying it to yourself, which will come in step three.) So Jesus isn't talking about herding sheep, he's talking about his relationship with his followers. He's like a shepherd and he's "good" because he's willing to sacrifice himself for his followers. The Bible is full of figurative language like this, and it's important to ask, "What does this text mean?"

Third, how does it apply? Once you know what a text says, and what the meaning of the words is, at least at some level, you can begin to apply it. So maybe you're going through a rough patch and you read about Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4What it says is that Jesus was going across the sea in a boat with his disciples and a storm came up, and Jesus spoke to the wind and made the waves stop. What it means is that Jesus has authority over storms and he is strong enough to save his disciples. How it applies might be that you begin to see that Jesus has authority over the turmoil in your own life, and he is strong enough to save you.

So when you hear a sermon, or listen to someone teaching, don't just sit passive like a bump waiting for them to inspire you. After church take that Bible passage and dig into it. Or better yet, get the text ahead of time and spend time digging into it on your own. You'll find that the sermons become a lot more interesting because you've spent time working through that text and letting God speak to you. Then as the preacher deals with the same verses, iron sharpens iron -- the preacher's interpretation runs up against your own studying, and there's some friction and some agreement and some interesting intersections. And you grow. And you learn.

Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, I hope you make time to open a Bible for a bit. Dig in. Let God talk through these ancient words that seem to be new every morning.