Reading the Bible in Community with the Local Church

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This article is the first in a series on “How to Get More Out of Your Bible Reading.” Discussion questions and exercises are included for using this content in a class or group setting. A PDF chart that illustrates some of the key content in this article and the next article in the series can be downloaded here: Reading in Community.

Watch:God Wrote a Book: Where Else Will We Run?” What stood out to you?

Class Prayer: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent)

How can we get more out of our Bible reading? While we might jump to answer that question in terms of tools and methods for personal Bible study, there’s something more fundamental: reading the Bible in the community of a local church.

1. Join a healthy local church where the Bible is read in public and carefully explained by qualified pastor-teachers.

By all means, delight in the Bible and learn everything you can about it; however, you don’t have to be (and shouldn’t try to be) an independent Bible expert. In his little book on Bible reading, Jeremy Kimble hits the nail on the head:

God doesn’t want his people holed up in cubicles reading Scripture only for themselves. Instead, when God saves us, he makes us part of a people (Col. 1:13–14; 1 Pet. 2:10). He calls us to join a church—a community of fellow Bible readers. When we join a local church, we’re committing to live according to God’s word and in fellowship with his people. God saves us into his church and, in turn, the church points us back to God, the gospel, and Scripture. So if you want to learn the Bible, join a local church—God’s school for Bible instruction. (How Can I Get More Out of My Bible Reading? [Crossway, 2021], 14–15)

Having a personal copy of God’s word is an incredible privilege, and one that we should take full advantage of; however, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the church. For over 1500 years, most of the church’s history, it was rare for a layperson to have a personal copy of Scripture. The Scriptures were read and expounded in and by the church. While there are innumerable benefits to putting a copy of the Bible in the hand of every plowboy (to use William Tyndale’s expression), we’ve sometimes made Bible reading an almost entirely private affair, which comes with innumerable dangers.

You don’t have to be (and shouldn’t try to be) an independent Bible expert.

If Bible reading and interpretation is a team effort, then pastors are the interpretive coaches. Christ has given pastor-teachers to the church to model biblical interpretation by carefully expounding the Scriptures week after week. What we need more than Bible reading methods are Bible reading models, and the church’s senior pastor-teacher is the church’s Interpreter-in-Chief.

What stands out to you in the following Scriptures which are written about or addressed to pastors: 

  • “[Christ] ascended far above all the heavens … And he gave … the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints … so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:10–14).
  • “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, … preach the word … with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2).
  • “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
  • “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:15–16).
  • Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).
  • “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).

In the second century, Irenaeus described how faithful pastors/elders hold fast to the apostolic teaching: “they expound the Scriptures to us” (AH 4.26.5). The church’s teaching ministry is not inerrant or above being questioned; however, it is the ordinary means by which the Holy Spirit leads the church into all truth, and should be highly valued.

The most important step that most Christians will ever take to become better Bible readers is to join a church where the pastors are skillful in teaching” (1 Tim. 3:2).

The most important step that most Christians will ever take to become better Bible readers is to join a church where the pastors are “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) or “skillful in teaching” (1 Tim. 3:2, NASB) and “able to give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9).

2. Actively engage with the sermon and with the church’s other educational opportunities: show up, take notes, ask questions, and share insights.

It is incumbent upon us to take full advantage of the church’s teaching ministry. The whole church after Pentecost “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Luke commends the Bereans for being “more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). Question 90 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?” Answer: “That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.”

Here’s a practical tip: If you want to get more out of your Bible reading, show up early enough on Sunday morning to pray and prepare your mind to receive the word as it is read throughout the service and expounded in the sermon. I once visited a conservative Presbyterian church (PCA) while on vacation. Since it was located in a city, I was worried about parking and arrived extra early. To my pleasant surprise, there were a number of people already in the sanctuary nearly a half-hour before the service. Soon a pastor walked to the front of the sanctuary and explained that their time of silence would begin. For nearly 30 minutes, the church prepared their hearts to receive the word. Slowly the stress of finding a parking spot and walking into a new church began to melt away. I relaxed in God’s presence. I began to pray and read Scripture. I listened to the music that was being played. When the service began, I was in the right frame of mind to receive the word.

If you want to get more out of your Bible reading, actively engage with the sermon and with the church’s other educational opportunities.

Here’s another recommendation: Bring a physical copy of the Bible to church and keep it open throughout the service. Turn to the passages that are read and expounded. Take notes on the sermon, writing down key insights and questions (a wide-margin or journaling Bible is great for this purpose). A friend of mine once visited Alistair Begg’s church. To his surprise and refreshment, nearly every person had a Bible open on their laps throughout the service and took notes on the sermon. The people were eager and expectant to learn God’s word in God’s school for Bible instruction—the local church.

As you actively listen to the sermon, pay attention to the exegetical moves that your pastor makes. Don’t just pay attention to what he says, but what he does. For example, my Easter sermon drew heavily from Old Testament passages to explain baptism. I said that “as Israel passed safely through the waters of the Red Sea and Noah’s family passed safely through the waters of the flood, God brings his people safely through the waters of baptism” (see 1 Cor. 10:2; 1 Pet. 3:20–21). An attentive layperson would not just listen to what I said but reflect on what I did, drawing correspondences between the Old and New Testaments (typology) and explaining NT concepts in light of their OT background. They might ask themselves, “Have I ever read about Noah’s flood or the Red Sea crossing and thought about baptism? Why not?”

This is where it’s important to discuss the sermon with other people in the church, including your family or spouse (see Deut. 6:6–9). If you ride home from church with someone, have each person in the car take a turn sharing (1) one thing that stood out to them and/or (2) one thing they’d like to learn more about. Then discuss. If you don’t ride home with anyone, think about someone else who’s driving home alone, and give them a call!

3. Remember that personal Bible study is not just about growing in your personal relationship with the Lord; it’s also about learning something to give back to the community.

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). Hebrews 3:3 likewise says, “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). We each have a role to play in sharing the good things of Scripture with one another. The pastor is the coach, but the church is a team, and each member has a role to play in reading, learning, interpreting, and applying the Bible. Paul commended the church in Rome, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14).

We each have a role to play in sharing the good things of Scripture with one another.

Discuss what you’re reading with others in the church. For example, ask, “Where are you at in your Bible reading?” or “What’s been standing out to you in your Bible reading?” Or simply say, “I’ve been reading…” Humbly share your observations. Say, “It seems that this passage says…” or “I think verse 12 might be referring to…” And respectfully ask honest questions: “What do you think about…?” “Can you help me understand better understand…?” “I’d like to learn more about…”

How much time do we spend, inside and outside the church, talking about the weather, politics, how bad things are in our nation, gas prices, and the like; how little time do we spend as Christians talking about the things of the word? The church should be a learning community of Bible readers overseen by qualified pastor-teachers. Let’s each do our part to make it so.

Group Exercise(s)

  • Practice reading in community with the First Letter/Epistle of John (not to be confused with the Gospel of John). (1) Have someone in your group read Chapter 1 of 1 John while the rest of the group follows along and actively listens—pen in hand, marking things as the passage is read. (2) Once you’ve read Chapter 1 in its entirety, discuss what stands out to you. What are the key words? Key ideas? What might you put a question mark (?) beside for further study? What might you put an exclamation point (!) or asterisk (*) beside because it stands out to you? Etc. (3) After you’ve discussed Chapter 1, appoint someone different to read Chapter 2. (4) Discuss the chapter in the same way. Also note its connections to the previous chapter, keeping in mind that chapter divisions were not in the original text of Scripture. (5) Repeat the process with each chapter or until the time runs out.
  • Review the main points and practical recommendations in this lesson. Discuss what action steps can you take this week.

Reading

Works Consulted for this Class

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.