HOW TO READ A BOOK
I want to speak now on how to read a book. We have established that God has spoken to us through a Book. Then it follows very quickly and very simply that we are to actually read the Bible as a Book. And before we can ever find out what one verse, as the voice of God, is really saying to us, we must first of all read through the book that that verse is contained in, and get the whole context of that one verse. That follows from what I have said before. You would never think of reading just one paragraph of a document or book. You need to take the whole.
So it is with the Word of God, the Bible. Within that one Book there are sixty-six books, and if we are going to find out what one part of one of those sixty-six books says we must first of all read the whole of that particular book. We shall be reading others of the sixty-six books later. But for now, let us take as our model book Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. If we are going to find out what any one verse of Ephesians is saying to us as the Word of God, we must begin by reading the whole Book of Ephesians.
Sit down and read right through the entire book and read it through at one sitting. Now I know that some of you find that very difficult. Well, work at it. You know, it is not that long. It is only because we have it in the form that it is in that it looks a lot. If you were to take out the Epistle to the Ephesians and just put it in columns, one after another, you would find that the entire book could be fitted into approximately two columns of a large newspaper. Looking at it like that, it is not very much. You do not read just two columns of a newspaper. You read a lot more than that. But when we come to the Bible we have already got a mental block and think that there is a lot to read. And already we have got this silly notion in our heads that we are only going to read a few verses because that is God’s Word. Well understand that God’s Word came in one large helping. And you had better receive it as such, and never sit down just to read a few verses to begin with.
Let me say it again, and I am not apologizing. This is not a magical book that you pick up and read a verse and say ‘God spoke to me’. No, he did not. You are reading into that what you think God said. It is only when you read the whole book that you can go back to that verse and say ‘in the light of all that I have read, I know what this means now’. And it may mean something very different from what you thought it did when you first read it. Do you know that the Bible says ‘curse God and die’? The only way that you can find out what the Bible means when it says ‘curse God and die’ is to read the whole Book of Job in which that one verse appears.
You have got to come to this as a whole book and be prepared to give up the idea of reading a little bit every day. Sit down and absorb a whole book. You do not need to look in any way spiritual. Just sit there with a book and read it. You do not need to read from the type of Bible that some preachers use. That may be ideal for preaching, but I tell you the print is far too small for most people to sit at night and read. No wonder you go to sleep when you read the Bible. You should get a Bible with suitably sized print. You do not need a fancy one with leather covers and thin pages. You should buy it like a book and read it like a book. You are going to sit down and really convince yourself that God has spoken through a Book. And you are going to read through one whole book of the Bible. You are going to read it rapidly so that you can grasp the whole message. If you find it hard to read, then why not buy the New Testament or the whole Bible on tape. Read it at one sitting. In the same way that you would treat a letter from me, treat God’s letter to you. Also, buy one that you are not afraid to mark up and write in
Read it with an open journal beside you. Now nobody ever has to see this, but I believe that every person who is going to be a serious student of God’s Word has to have a pencil in hand and a notebook beside them. Do not tell me that you have got a good memory. I do not believe you. Sit with either a journal beside you or a tape recorder in your hand; in some way you must note what you read. I would say that eighty percent of what I hear today I shall have forgotten by tomorrow. Many times I read and I write down in my journal the things that come to me, the questions, the problems. But when I read them again I have almost forgotten that I wrote them. That is how quickly we forget.
So as you begin to study, always read with a journal beside you in which you are going to write. Nobody is going to see it, so you should not mind what you are going to write. Sometimes you will think that what you write is a silly question. Well, write your silly question. That is good because nobody is going to check it. It is not an examination. Everything that comes to your head in terms of question or insight, write it down. Learn to live with a pencil in your hand. Learn to live with a notebook in your pocket. Never go without them. I always have a notebook and pencil in my pocket. I also take a tape recorder with me, because I need to be able to record while sitting in the car or walking along the street.
When you get an insight or a question you had better have some way to put it down in a hurry, because God puts questions in your heart. The questions lead to answers. There are answers all around you. If you were not asking the question you would not hear the answer, but when you ask the questions you suddenly find all the answers. So questions are very important, and probably the one thing that I am going to teach you on these tapes is how to ask questions.
So we are taking Ephesians as our model book. You are going to read through Ephesians at one sitting. It is a short book. But I am warning you that you will probably end up with a whole page of questions to which you have no answers. But that is good because it means that the moment you have asked the questions, you have opened yourself up for the answers. You can all do this, the newest Christian and the oldest one, the youngest in age and the oldest in age. If you only have ten years of life left you can fill those ten years with some constructive understanding of God’s Word. Begin to ask questions even if you do not have answers to them. The Holy Spirit will lead you to the answers. Even if it takes ten weeks, He will lead you.
As you begin to read through, you ask the question, ‘Who wrote this?’ Now, let me repeat what I said on side one of this tape. God spoke through certain individuals. God’s Word did not just suddenly appear on paper. God’s Word came through certain people. Certain people who were of certain temperaments, who had certain ways in their approach to life, who were of certain nationalities, who spoke certain languages. God took into account all those things when He spoke through those people. He said, ‘I need that man to speak that language. I need that man to be in that situation so that in that situation he will say what I want him to say.’
Therefore you must find out who wrote the book. It is very important. The person who wrote the book is part of God’s Word. If you get a letter, the first thing you do is look at the end to see who wrote it. It makes a big difference. And fortunately, most of the books of the Bible begin by telling you. That was the way the writers did it. They started out by telling you who was writing. So ask, ‘Who wrote this?’ because he is a part of God’s voice. Secondly, when did he write it? There is a big difference between my writing you a letter when I am ten years old and my writing you a letter when I am thirty years old. When did this man write this letter? For example, if Paul wrote a letter in AD30, we know that in AD30 he was not even a Christian. If Paul wrote a letter in AD50 we can find out with very little problem where he was.
But you also ask the question, ‘Why did he write it?’ You must understand that there is no author of the Bible, except maybe Moses (who wrote the first five books of the Bible), who actually declared that he was writing the Word of God for all time. Obviously they did not know that they were doing that. That is the genius of the Bible, and that is why the authors come through so naturally, so spontaneously. They did not realize that they were writing the Word of God. Therefore they were not sitting down to tabulate ‘God says, God says, God says’. Except Moses — he knew he was writing God’s Word to a particular community of people.
In every letter of Paul and Peter and John, and also in every Gospel, there is always a ‘why?’. Have you ever asked the question, ‘Why did Matthew write his Gospel?’ He did not just sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write for the people of the next two thousand years.’ He wrote for a very specific reason. Now, if I write you a letter in which I am answering questions and you do not know what the questions were, how can you really know what I am talking about? You should find out, or at least seek to find out, why Matthew wrote his Gospel? We have Mark and Luke and John. Why did Matthew have to come in on the act? Why? But then, come to think of it, why did John write? Why did Mark write? Why?
And then why do we need the Acts? Oh, I know that you just read the Acts of the Apostles because they are there. But why did Luke, who wrote the Acts, write it anyway? Luke is trying to prove something there. He is arguing with somebody about something. If you do not know his arguments, how do you know what he is talking about? He talks about the Day of Pentecost. Well, why does he? It is nice, and it gives a foundation for many Christians. But why does he do it? He is writing to someone somewhere and he is arguing about something. And in order to prove his point he needs to talk about the Day of Pentecost. So in order to really find out what he is saying and what God is saying to you through him about the Day of Pentecost you had better find out whom he was talking to and why.
Every Epistle, too, has an argument to it. Paul is arguing a point and he is proving it logically from A to Z: he is moving along in an argument. You had better know what the argument is or you will never know what he is talking about. The same is true of the prophets of the Old Testament. They spoke in historical situations. When you find out when they spoke, then you can find out to whom they were talking. And when you find out whom they were talking to you can hear what God was really saying. Does that make sense?
But then, on top of that, you have to ask the question, ‘What kind of a mood was this man in when he wrote?’ That is important. If I write to you and I am in a very jubilant mood, then that will come through in my letter. Now, you see, we have lost this. I blame the organised Church for it totally, and I am part of that, so we blame ourselves. When we go into the pulpit and we read the Scriptures we put on what we call a ‘pulpit voice’. There is no emotion in it. None whatsoever. We just read in a deadpan voice. You cannot imagine any of the writers of the New Testament going ‘ha, ha, ha’. But they did, you know. Can you imagine Paul being sarcastic? But he was. Very sarcastic. But you can not feel sarcasm if you read with a deadpan voice.
Can you imagine Peter being so excited that he could hardly get the words out? But he was. In exultant tone he said, ‘It’s a joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ Have you ever heard a preacher read it like that? But it is in the Book. You see, we have missed the point. We have turned the Bible into a dead monument. A man wrote it, and God said in effect, ‘I need that man to be in the mood that he is in so that I can say what I want to say.’ So you had better find out what mood that man is in. And that is not too difficult. It may seem an impossible task but if you will read through one whole book in one sweep, you will soon pick up the author’s mood. It comes through.
You have to ask the question, ‘Is this book full of joy or is it full of sadness?’ When I read through the Book of Jeremiah, I find tears that ooze out of every verse. The author is a broken-hearted man. When I read through Isaiah I find that it is triumphant. God is conqueror, and God will come through at any cost. When I read through Philippians I find that it is a book of exuberance, joy and exultation. It is bubbling with encouragement and comfort.
When I read through Second Corinthians I notice that Paul is battling and sarcastic. He is fighting for life in one sense. Very different. When he is writing to the Galatians I can almost hear him saying ‘good grief!’. One translation of Galatians Chapter 3 Verse 1 says ‘You dear idiots of Galatia!’ I was in a church once and the minister was reading from Galatians. I remember that he stood there with a deadpan face and read, ‘Oh foolish Galatians…’ You can not read it like that! Paul has emotions. You need to feel them and ask, ‘What mood is this man in? How is he saying this?’ Feel it. Only then can you begin to grasp what that book is saying.
Also, you should ask the question, ‘How much space does this writer give to the subject?’ In my teaching I do not give very much space to Heaven. That is because I find that the New Testament does not give very much space to Heaven. And so I take into consideration the space in a book that God gives to one subject. And each book emphasises a different subject. You too, when you go to a book, need to feel what the book is saying as a whole. What is the main subject? You might not get hold of that on the second or even fourth readings, but it will come. You will begin to realize that the book really is saying one thing. It may say a lot of other bits and pieces but really there is one main subject. That is the key to the book. Ask yourself what word the writer continually emphasises. And you will find that in every book there is one word, called the key word, that stands out.
Take the Book of Hebrews. They key word to Hebrews is ‘better’. Now you would never pick that up if you read just one chapter of the book. But if you read through Hebrews at one sitting, maybe the third time through you will see that you keep on coming across this word ‘better’: Christ is better, a better covenant, better promises. And you will realize that you have got the key to the book. Somewhere in this book God is saying that He is giving to us in Jesus Christ something better than people had in the old days. Now you have got right into the book. It may be saying a lot of secondary things, but that key is what the writer keeps saying over and over again.
You should ask yourself, ‘What kind of a book is this?’ Now, to begin with we are not interpreting. We are not coming to the book asking what it means. At this point we are only asking what is there. We are going to need that when we come to interpret it. But to begin with we ask, ‘What kind of a book is this? Is this book plain narrative prose? Is it just telling a story? Or is it a poetry book?’ You do appreciate that there is a difference between narrative and poetry? A very big difference. The Psalms are poetry, and in one of them I read that ‘all the mountains danced and the trees clapped their hands’. Well, if I read that in the Acts of the Apostles it would be different, because the Acts of the Apostles is narrative: it is the simple telling of a story. Therefore I expect the Acts of the Apostles to mean what it is saying literally, in a physical sense. But when I read in the Psalms that ‘the trees clapped their hands’, I can accept that because it is poetry and God is saying to me, ‘What I need to say at this moment, I need to say through a poetic form.’
As you read through more than once you will become aware that the book falls into certain divisions. Every book does that. If you do any reading at all you will analyse a book in your mind without thinking about it. Now I am asking you to think about this in the case of a book of the Bible because it is God’s Word. As you read through a book with a pencil in your hand, look for the main outline. That is, what the main divisions are into which the book simply falls. And, again, that is not as difficult as it sounds.
You will find that most books have a way of very easily dividing. If you do not know how to do it, you will soon find out if you really want to. After a while you will realize that at a certain point there is a break. It is a perfect break at that point that the writer has been moving up to carefully. That is a main division, and you can understand the book now that you have got it in my mind. You can look at the book and say that up to this point the writer is saying this, and from this point on he is saying that, and the two together say this. You will find that after a while you can immediately know almost every book of the Bible.
Some people have come to me with verses and asked what they meant. And they have stood in awe as I have told them what they mean. How did I do that? Very simply, because in my mind I remember the divisions of almost every book in the Bible. That is not difficult if you have been doing it for twenty-four years. So if you pull out a verse in the middle of Book A, I shall immediately know the meaning of that verse.
I might not remember that verse at all; but I know that that verse is in Division Two, and I know what that whole division is trying to say. So immediately I have a context. Even if I am not entirely sure what the verse means, I know the whole context in which it appears. And therefore I have already got half your answer before we have even begun. I know where that verse is and what it is talking about and in which division it is. You will find that comes very quickly once you have got the idea of dividing a book.
So your first approach to studying a book of the Bible is to ask those questions as you read it through and read it through again. Now we are not on a marathon and nobody is going to examine you at the end. And if you spend a whole year studying one book of the Bible, that is great. If you can come away after a year knowing that God has spoken to you through that book, and you know what God is saying, it has been worth that year. You are not on a marathon: it may take you two weeks to consistently read through a book until you have questions. You do not have answers yet; you are a detective. A detective does not first of all arrest the man and then try to find the clues to prove it. Nor does a doctor put you in a hospital and try to treat you, and then go off to find what disease you have got. Nor do you come to the Bible saying ‘it means this: now I’m going to prove it’.
First of all you come to the Bible with the attitude that you know nothing. You ask questions and you ask more questions, and you collect all the evidence. You do not yet know what it means, but you have the evidence. Now you are going to put it all together. You do not have answers for some of your questions, but you know that you need to find the answers. And you will find that the answers will keep on coming and keep on coming. Even if you need to read the book six or ten times, you must feel that you have a good general knowledge. Read it as many times as you need to absorb its message, and then in one paragraph write out what you feel that book is saying.
How do we apply all of that to our model, which is the Epistle to the Ephesians? Who was the writer and who were the readers? Well, Paul tells us in the first verse that he wrote it. I am giving you homework right now that you should read Ephesians through without stopping. Now you have got to assume that I have read it through. I have laboured at it. I am backtracking in my mind to try and come down to the level of the newest Christian here to tell you how I arrived at this and that conclusion. I have read through Ephesians a number of times. And you will find that, as you read through it, you will pick up certain points. First, Paul wrote it. That’s very obvious. Now the question is, ‘When did he write it?’
As I read I find that it becomes very obvious that he was in prison when he wrote it. So I ask the question, ‘Where was he in prison?’ Because, you see, Paul was in prison on more than one occasion. He was in prison in Philippi, as I read in Acts Chapter 16. Did he write a letter while he was in Philippi? Good question. I also know from the end of the Acts of the Apostles that he was thrown into jail when he was in Rome. Or, at least, he was under house arrest there: he was imprisoned. So I have to ask the question, ‘Where was Paul when he wrote that letter. When did he write it?’ I know that he was in jail when he wrote it. Which particular jail term was it?
Also I have to ask the question, ‘Where is Ephesus?’ I mean, it is the Letter to the Ephesians. When I write to some of my friends in the jungles of Africa I write very differently from the way I write to my friends in London or Paris. Where was Ephesus, and what contact did Paul have with Ephesus? Now these are honest questions that I have asked. Paul is writing a letter to the Ephesians. What is it all about? And then, why did he write it? You do not just sit down and write a letter to Ephesus unless you have a very good reason for writing it. So why did he write it?
Well, you will find all the answers to those questions in the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles is the history, and the letters of the Epistles were written into that history and out of it. So your first resort in answering your questions when you read any of the Epistles of the New Testament is to go back into the Acts of the Apostles. And you find there that Paul went to Ephesus. He went to Ephesus and he found twelve men there. And he asked them whether they had received the Holy Spirit since they had believed. And they said that they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit.
So he laid hands them on and they received the Holy Spirit. That incident is in Acts Chapter 19, and following that Ephesus became the centre of Christianity in that area. Now I am beginning to get on the trail and I know that these are the people to whom Paul was writing. That is how he had a contact with them. This is how it all began. As I go on I discover the imprisonment that Paul is speaking of here. He did not write anything when he was in the Philippian jail, and so I am left with the conclusion that he wrote this letter when he was imprisoned in Rome.
Do you see how I get these conclusions? And so my question then is, ‘Paul is imprisoned in Rome. He is writing to the Ephesian Church and he is writing to them about his imprisonment. Why?’ I ask the question, ‘Why write to the Ephesians? Why not write to the people in Antioch? Why not write to the people in Rome? Why does he write to the Ephesians about being in jail?’ It has taken me about ten minutes to say this, but it probably took me three weeks to answer these questions, going over and over them. Then I stumbled across the story in Acts when Paul was arrested to go to jail. And it was the people of Ephesus that had him arrested. The Ephesian people hated Paul so much that they had him arrested. Can you imagine how the Ephesian Christians felt about that? And Paul writes and says, ‘What you are so cast down about? It is my glory. I am proud of the fact that I have been arrested.’
Why did the Ephesian people hate him? I find out that it was because he insisted that Jews and Gentiles could be in the Church together. Now I find that throughout the whole of Chapter 3 Paul is saying that he is in jail for the sake of them, the Gentiles. Suddenly the book begins to unfold to me. This book is Paul’s defence. He is saying, ‘I am in jail because the Jews of Ephesus hated me so much because I said that you Gentiles could have status in the kingdom of heaven.’ And he said, ‘I’m proud of that. I am in jail for your sake. Alleluia!’ And that is the key to the book. Now there are a million things about the book that I do not understand, but at least at this point I do understand one thing. I know why Paul wrote it.
What is his mood? As I read through the book I feel his mood. He is jubilant. He is triumphant. He is in worship. He is excited. This man is not a man who is groaning in his prison sentence. He is a man comforting those on the outside and saying, ‘Don’t be sad for me. I’m a man in jubilance.’ He is encouraging, and he is encouraged. Here is a man, too, who is worshipping. At the start of the book he says, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.’ That man is worshipping. That is his mood. Again, in Chapter 1 Verses 15 and 16 he says that since he heard of their faith he has not ceased to pray for them. And he gives a long list of the things that he is praying for them. In Chapter 3 Verse 14 he kneels while he is praying for them. This man is a praying man. Also in Chapter 3, as I have already mentioned, he is a man who is saying, ‘Do not be upset for me. I’m fine. I’m triumphant. This is for the glory of God.’ That is a jubilant man, a triumphant man.
The outline and divisions of the book are very simple. Now notice Chapter 4 Verse 1: ‘I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.’ What is the calling with which they have been called? It is all in Chapters 1 to 3. Chapter 4 is a ‘therefore’. Whenever you see the word ‘therefore’, see what it is there for. The first 3 chapters are the calling and chapter 4 is the perfect break when Paul says, ‘Therefore, now walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called. Start living it out.’ The book falls into a natural division of Chapters 1 to 3 and then Chapters 4 to 6.
That is how to read a book. There is nobody too old to start reading a whole book of the Bible, and there is nobody too young. Everybody can hear the voice of God for themselves. We are living at a very dangerous time in Church history. It may take a hundred years for my words to be seen in context, but I tell you that we are living in a dangerous time. All over the world men are raising themselves up and telling people to obey them without thinking. There are people who claim to have the only understanding of God’s Word and they are telling others to obey without thinking. That is the most damnable heresy that has come into the Church. If ever there was a time that you needed to know for yourself how to find out what God is saying, you need it now. However old you are or however young you are, I council you to plunge in now to the Scriptures.