Have you ever opened the Bible at random, asking God for your message of the day, pointed and read? Me too. But that was when I treated Christianity and the Bible more as lazy sorcery than a life of devotion to the God of love.
I remember the moment I got my first copy of the Scriptures. I was sitting in Ms. Byrd’s fifth grade class learning something about decimal points, and a stranger knocked on the classroom door. He and another fellow came in with two boxes of red New Testaments that included the Psalms and Proverbs. They said they had the principal’s permission, but they still asked Ms. Byrd, “Do you mind if we hand these out to your students?” A moment later, I was given my first copy of God’s word. I still have it. Open it up, and it says, “This book is not to be sold.” Date: October 29, 1996.
That day, I knew I had received something special. I felt holier just by having it in my possession. I knew I would keep it on my nightstand. I wanted to be able to see the holiest thing I own every day. Of course, owning something is one thing. But books are meant to be read, right? The night I came home with this little New Testament, I randomly turned to a passage, placed my finger on the page, and read a few words. What I read sounded poetic to me, which just increased my reverence for this little book. But one thing it did not do: make sense. I understood nothing I read. But that wasn’t surprising to me, as I believed the Bible was a mysterious book, and only few are blessed with the ability to understand it.
How many people approach the Bible the same way today? As I spend time with people around the world, I learn I was not alone in how to approach the Scriptures. Having a copy in your backpack, car, or home is sure to bring blessings by proximity to such a special book, right. But what if I want to read it? Since this is God’s book, surely God will guide me while I read it, right? I wouldn’t disagree with that. However, treating the Bible as a magical book of pithy sayings or incantations is an approach that’s border-line sorcery!
The Bible is made up of scores of individual books that are indeed meant to be read and understood—as complete works. We have this instruction in the New Testament:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.2 Timothy 2:15 NASB
See what I did there? I picked out a single verse in the Bible that proves my point. And what is my point? Be careful about picking out singular verses! Verse and chapter divisions were added by men over a thousand years after Scripture was completed. It’s a helpful tool to make sure we’re on the same page—literally. It helps us navigate the books and paragraphs of the Bible with ease. But it has also trained us to dip and skip, pick and choose. The verse I just read is in the middle of a book the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, a young evangelist in Ephesus. But you can’t learn that by jumping to the middle of the book. In this letter, by the Holy Spirit, Paul urges Timothy to watch out for false teachers and urge the Christians he serves to remain faithful to the Lord. All while doing so, he is to keep himself in check. And that’s when he gives Timothy the instructions to accurately handle the word of truth.
The instruction to accurately handle the word of truth implies there is an inaccurate way to handle the word. Randomly opening the Bible, placing your finger on the page, and reading is certainly an abuse of Scripture. Each book of the Bible was written at a particular time to a particular people for a particular reason.
When you receive a letter, email, or message from a close friend, I doubt you open it up, scroll to some random spot, read a sentence, and then close it thinking you’ve adequately understood the message. To understand and apply what has been written, you need to ask crucial questions: Who wrote it? To whom? When? Why? Is it formal, or informal? Is it literal or figurative? When opening an email, we usually already know these answers, and if not, we still ask them even subconsciously. So why not approach the Bible with the same courtesy?
I was studying the Bible with a lady who had been raised in a false religion, one that abused people’s ignorance of the Scriptures. But for the first time in her life, she was reading and understanding the Bible. But just like is often the case, old habits die hard. She had learned to begin asking the aforementioned questions. However, when she arrived at 2 Timothy 3:14, she was conflicted. That verse says:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them.
She thought back at some of the things she had learned and already rejected in light of Scripture. However, was this now God telling her that she should return to what she was taught? It would appear so when this verse is read in isolation, and you apply the word you to you. When she brought her questions to me, all I had to do was guide her again to ask the simple questions. Who wrote this letter and to whom? We already know that. So the “you” in this passage directly applied to—not me, not her, but Timothy. Another question: What do the surrounding verses say? Let’s find out.
But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:13–17
Before we randomly choose a verse and ask, “What does this mean to me?” Or “How do I apply this to my life?” and before we allow preachers to abuse the Bible and do that to us, we must first understand the context in which it was written. Does that take more effort? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Now, we understand how this passage could apply to my friend. If she had been taught the Scriptures from childhood, and she knew that which was profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, and if she had been equipped with God’s word, her instructions would be the same: “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them.” However, since she was not taught God’s word, this instruction did not directly apply to her, but the inference did: “Since you haven’t known the Scriptures from childhood, get busy learning them now!”
The Bible is made up of individual books, all written in a particular historical context. And if you’re anything like me, you may need to unlearn some bad habits and learn how to truly approach the Bible in reverence. Don’t see individual verses. Learn about the complete works themselves. And you don’t need to read commentaries or watch videos to find that stuff out. It’s usually found in the first paragraph of each book. But don’t stop there. Keep reading the entire thing. Only when you know the book will you understand the verses. God spared His inspiration and providence to preserve Scripture for us. We owe it to Him and ourselves to put forth the effort to understand it. It’s not that difficult.
The joke goes: A man was really struggling in life, so he decided to open a Bible to random page to find God’s message for him. He dropped his finger on Acts 19:16 and read, “they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” The man thought, “That’s not right; let me try again.” He did the same thing, this time landing on Luke 10:37 “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Again, the man thought this can’t be right, so he tried one last time. John 13:27: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘What you do, do quickly.’”
Stop reading Bible verses—thus, abusing the Bible—and start reading and accurately handling Scripture.