In our six-part interview with Kathleen Nielson discussing her latest book Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word (P&R Publishing), we’ve discussed the fact that the Bible is God speaking; that His Word is powerful and understandable; that it is a literary work; and that it tells a single, redemptive story.
In this final installment we asked Nielson about the direct benefits of Bible study. Why, exactly, is studying the Bible worth the time and hard work required?
To answer this question about the benefits of Bible study, we’d have to go right back to the beginning question—the one about the Bible being God speaking. If that is true, then not only is the benefit clear but the call is urgent. In His Word God speaks, reveals Himself, and tells us how to find life through His Son. In a world full of urgent pleasures and needs, it is challenging to ask ourselves how wholeheartedly we believe Peter’s claim that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises …” (2 Peter 1:3).
The specific benefits of Bible study might constitute a long list of “all things that pertain to life and godliness,” with new life in Christ at the top. Perhaps the point to be made here is that we tend to separate out those benefits from the process of studying the Word. Consider evangelism, for example. For many of us, the topic of evangelism is a separate one, one for which we take a special course in evangelizing, and one for which we hold periodic events to which we invite unbelieving friends. All that special emphasis is great. But isn’t it the Word itself which, as Paul tells Timothy, makes people “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15)? Do we really believe that about the Word? If we do, then we might be more likely to invite a friend to study the Bible with us. We might be more likely to include in our daily conversations a mention here and there of Scripture we’ve just been studying. The most thriving Bible studies I have witnessed and experienced have been those whose members have a heart for evangelizing in the very process of doing Bible study. Some of the women doing this are quoted in my book; they are doing great gospel work for the kingdom.
Consider, for another example, the way we tend to run to Scripture when we need guidance for a certain course of action. In so doing we separate out the benefit of guidance from the steady process of studying the Word. In the context of Covenant College, my husband and I speak often with students who are trying to figure out what job to take, or which person to marry—or not to marry. The tendency of all of us (and it’s not a bad tendency) is to search the Scriptures for specific guidance in relation to these specific questions. A more dangerous tendency these days is the practice of asking God for a special, direct word of guidance, just for me, and in addition to the words of Scripture. The Bible speaks of itself as a lamp and a light along a path—not a light to be turned on once in a while when we need it, but rather a light to shine regularly, more and more brightly with every passing day, as we faithfully read and study and grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus. As that knowledge grows, through regular reading and study, we will then be ready to face the decisions that will come, with the wisdom of the Word stored up in us.
Consider the way we tend often to approach Bible study with specific topics in mind, picking and choosing both the subjects we will study and the passages that apply to those subjects. Certainly there is a place for topical study. But certainly that kind of study must take place within a comprehensive and ongoing study of the Word, book by book, as God has given it to us, so that we will not be the ones regularly determining our needs and separating out the Word’s application to those needs. If my Bible study group is studying Isaiah, I will trust that book to speak into a whole myriad of areas of need among our women. It will again surprise me with its power to speak utterly relevantly, because it is the living and active Word of God. The Word itself, as we read and study it through and through, tells us what we need and speaks into all parts of “life and godliness.”
Comfort from the Word of course works the same way. It’s good to run to the Word for comfort in times of sorrow. But perhaps it’s even better if we’ve stored up the Word in advance; sometimes it’s hard to begin reading in the midst of grief. I recall hearing someone say that he hid the Word of God in his heart so that, when his heart broke, the Word would be there to seep into all the cracks.
What about the benefit of joy that comes from taking in the Word? Bible study is hard work, but Bible study, we should not forget to say, is full of surprising joy. We’re not all that used to or good at delighting in words these days. Scripture is full of expressions of delight in the Word! It is “perfect … sure … clean … true … more precious than gold … sweeter than honey,” repeatedly cry the Old Testament poets! The delight is ultimately in the Lord who breathes out these words and so reveals Himself, but these words are not just a means to an end; they are our living, personal connection to Him. No wonder Jesus is called the Word. To delight in God’s words takes time—time to take in the words and savor them and digest them for their full flavor and nutrition. Those people who gathered for hours to listen to the Law in Nehemiah 8 went away “to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Nehemiah 8:12). Philip’s newly baptized eunuch friend went on his way rejoicing, after understanding the gospel from Isaiah (Acts 8:39). Taking in the Word with understanding, both individually and together as God’s people, brings the kind of joy for which we all hunger. We were all made to hear God’s voice. How merciful that He has spoken, and that He enables us to hear.
In the course of receiving all these benefits from Bible study, we are changed by the Word—not just finding light but becoming more and more full of light ourselves, as we come to know Christ and to be more and more conformed to His image. The Word propels us forward toward Christ Jesus, preparing us as His people for the day when we won’t need the words written down, because we will be face to face with the living Word. The Word makes us aim and long for that day, and it makes us ready for that day.
To learn more about Bible Study, please visit here.
To read the earlier portions of our interview with Kathleen Nielson, please see: