I have posted before Bible reading habits and plans. I’ve come across a couple of resources in the past few weeks that have shaped my current reading habits (you might call this flavour of the month, I tend to change things up frequently). Before we start, obviously primary considerations when reading the Bible devotionally are
a) What does the text mean? (draw your own mindmap from that concept involving historical and textual context, writer intent, original reader context, literary qualities, etc)
b) What might God be trying to say to me through it, or want me to get out of it?
Starting more specifically on the latter, we heard a sermon in church the other Sunday (entitled “Jesus’ Words” if you look for it) about “the difference between reading the Bible and listening to God’s words.“
Thus crux of it is this – we read the Bible, often for and to ourselves. That is not how its original recipients would have consumed it (maybe apart from the more personal letters, Luke-Acts), and you could raw conclusions from there about author intent. However the text was first received, Jesus’ words were first and foremost heard, the OT scriptures were heard as they were read aloud in synagogues and discussed in community, as we see Jesus reading aloud in the temple in Luke 4:31-44 (a small synagogue like the one in Capernaum might have only had a part of one of what we now call books in our Bible, so it’s remarkable that they had that passage for Jesus to read, really).
The same applies for the letters to churches such as Corinthians, Galatians – they would have initially been read aloud to groups of people, many of whom were not literate, and likely most of our current cannon were heard by the early church rather than read. Whatever was available, I think, early on – we see in Colossians that they were to swap letters with Laodicea. Later on towards the Medieval era the priest was often the only one who could read and the Bible in the church the only copy for miles around, if a copy was available at all. Hearing aloud and processing what we now call scripture as a group/family seems to have been a practice of the early church.
Now, the first take away from this is a desire on my part to read passages with a group and discuss, on a regular basis.
But the other takeaway is more significant on an individual level: Jesus’ words were heard and responded to.
We often read scripture looking for certain things, like a manual or academic text to be studied. Not terrible, but it is more than this.
The Bible is God’s words.
The Bible is God speaking to us.
And we (I) could do with “listening” as we read, more often and more effectively. And, although this may sound heretical or odd – but not just “listening in my heart/with my spirit” – but actually paying attention to the words on the page (or that I hear) with my mind as if God Himself were saying them directly to me.
It sounds simple, but this concept powerfully changes how I view scripture. Makes me want to procrastinate reading it, for a start.
Obviously, some exegetical, hermeneutical common sense is necessary. Genesis – God is obviously(?) not suggesting I sacrifice my son by fire, or leave here for Ur, or Canaan. Right?
But rather than looking through Acts for church structure and community tips, looking at it as a letter to me telling me what happened after Jesus was taken up, as an outworking of “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). And the epistles a written to me and my church (context taken into consideration).
To put a finer point “listening always demands a response (unlike mere reading).”
I get kinda hesitant to read Matthew chapters 5-7 – I mean if I read it as if Jesus is saying it to me…well, that demands something of a challenging response. Flesh-wise, anyway (there is and I hope always will be a part of me routinely desiring to sell all and move (semi?) permanently to Africa or somewhere).