Reading is one of the keys to learning the Bible. Read and read and read and read.
Reading is the key to learning in general. It is the key to being an autodidact or self-educator.
It has been said, “The man who doesn’t read is no better off than the man who cannot read,” and, “Five years from now you will be the same person except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
The apostle Paul was a student and a reader to the end of his life. Even when in prison awaiting his death, he said to Timothy, “The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13). “Bring the books” said the stalwart old warrior! “Bring the books” said the man whom we are told to imitate. “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1 Cor. 4:16). “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Philippians 3:17).
Charles Spurgeon had very little formal education and no formal theological training, but he had a great passion for learning. He was reading theological books by Puritans in his grandfather’s library by age 10. He read constantly and widely. It is said that he read six books a week.
The revivalist preacher George Whitefield read Matthew Henry through four times during his lifetime. And this is a man who preached an estimated 18,000 sermons, an average of 500 a year or ten a week.
John Gill, Spurgeon’s predecessor at New Park Street Chapel, modeled the same thing. Gill’s formal education ended at age 11, partway through grammar school, because of the government requirement that every student attend services in the Anglican church. His father, a deacon in a Baptist church, refused to compromise his spiritual convictions. But John mastered Hebrew using a grammar book and spent so much time at the Kettering Bookshop that he became a local proverb. The people would remark, “That is as sure as John Gill is in the bookseller’s shop.”
B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), first president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, “read history, all history, ancient, mediaeval, modern, civil, political and religious; biography and autobiography he absolutely devoured. He read all science, all romance, all poetry. For at least sixty of his seventy-one years, he averaged reading 300 pages a day. During his latter years even more than that. Only a little while before his death he was known to average 1,000 pages a day for ten consecutive days. ... He always read history with a map before him, and always kept near him the best and latest of the world’s atlases.” He told one young preacher, “My boy, you are in great danger. You have no library and do not read” (Dr. B.H. Carroll: The Colossus of Baptist History).
Consider John Broadus (1827-1895), Baptist pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “As a result of his severe discipline in independent study, he had, even as a young man, a large fund of general knowledge to draw upon. He not only sought to master his favorite studies, the Bible and ancient and modern languages, but he read widely in history, philosophy, art, literature, and current events. These studies strengthened and elevated the powers of mind and modes of expression and gave him a large mental store upon which to draw in sermon preparation.
John Wesley exhorted a preacher friend as follows: “What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps by neglecting it you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep: there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no; read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a petty, superficial prayer” (John Wesley to John Trembeth, August 1760)
William Evans, in his course on preaching, said, “Reading good books acts as water poured down a dry pump--it primes ... To be prolific in thought one must be a faithful reader. Reading makes a wise man. The constant reader will not be at a loss for thoughts. The man who does not read much will not make much of a preacher. One good sermon a day, and one good book a week, at least, ought to be the intellectual diet of every man who would be a good preacher. Not to read is to have nothing to draw from except oneself, and ofttimes one feels himself to be a dry subject indeed. Reading is a tonic; it has a reactionary effect upon the mind” (Evans, How to Prepare a Sermon, 1912).
Of reading commentaries like Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon said, “You will acquire a vast store of sermons if you read with your note-book close at hand; and as for thoughts, they will swarm around you like twittering swallows around an old gable towards the close of autumn.”
Reading is the key to collecting illustrations for preaching.
Reading is the key to interesting preaching. If the preacher is a student, he is always learning new things that enrich his preaching.
Reading is one key to using one’s time wisely. My iPhone is filled with books that I can read anytime anywhere. I never sit around doing nothing. If I have to wait for something, I am equipped to spend that time profitably.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other walks of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading” (Preaching and Preachers, p. 177).
Recently a pastor told me, “Brother Cloud, I am not naturally a good student, but I know that this is a necessary part of the ministry, and I work hard at it.” Actually this man puts large numbers of preachers to shame by his studiousness. Not only is he a diligent Bible student, but he keeps informed about current events and dangers facing his people so he can protect them.
Another preacher wrote, “Thanking the Lord for the people of God like yourself who have prayerfully invested in pastors like myself. Taking your advice, I am thankful to the Lord for helping me begin to take reading and studying seriously. I have begun the Bible Times and Ancient Kingdoms and have learnt so much just from the first two lessons. And from the time I left your conference in Jan 2019 till today, I have finished reading the following books: Holiness by your dear self, The Rise and Fall of Christian Standards, Firm up the Foundation (the book dealing with the compromise of Billy Graham), Successful Fathers, Building an Outreach Sunday School, Tying the Knot Tighter (marriage enrichment for Christians) and some others. These are smaller books as I felt it wiser to start small and grow into thicker books. Please pray for me as I will be planning a clearer schedule on what books I need to read for study and learning. It has sharpened my thinking, challenged by conviction, made me bolder in my pastoring and clearer in the direction for the Lord's church.”
The effectual preacher must carve out serious time for general reading and study in addition to his study of the Bible.
- The preacher must set priorities and put the most important things first.
- The preacher must evaluate his schedule and control it as much as possible.
- The preacher must be disciplined as a good solider of Jesus Christ.
- Preachers commonly have hobbies that are innocent in themselves but can easily detract from more important things if not kept under control (e.g., golfing, fishing, woodworking, photography). I think of a preacher who grew up near Kruger Wildlife Park in South Africa and spent a lot of time there with his grandfather. He told me that as an adult he has to be careful not to spend too much time in the park and thus rob time from the ministry God has given him.
Keys to effectual reading
Select reading material wisely. Don’t waste time with junk. Junk food spoils the appetite for proper food. Avoid fiction. It creates an appetite for more fiction. Read a wide variety of material. Focus on commentaries, hermeneutics, theology (George Whitefield read Matthew Henry four times; see our report “Bible Commentaries” for a list of helpful commentaries and information about the authors, www.wayoflife.org), Christian living (holiness, prayer, separation, family, discipleship), history (absolutely essential; the more the better, start with general histories in order to obtain a good overview of history - Old Testament history, church history, world history, American history, history of missions), Bible prophecy, the church, biography (recently I have read biographies of Oliver Cromwell, William Penn, R.G. LeTourneau, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, Orde Wingate, the Rothschilds, Woodrow Wilson, Douglas MacArthur, Harry Truman, Hadrian, Golda Meir, Noah Webster, John Wesley, Voltaire, Thurgood Marshall, and William Lloyd Garrison), religion (Judaism, Islam, cults), military (lessons for soldiers of Christ!), homiletics (I have studied at least 25 books on this subject), culture and social movements, science. Consult Amazon reviews and online lists of best books on various subjects.
Read with concentration. Don’t be a shallow careless reader. The internet age is destroying people’s ability to read deeply. It is destroying the ability to concentrate. It is the age of getting bits and pieces of information. It is the age of distracted reading. Get enough sleep. Some people find short naps a helpful way to recharge their batteries. “English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts” (“Skim reading is the new normal,” The Guardian, Aug. 25, 2018).
Read critically with a testing mindset. “The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going” (Pr. 14:15). “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Co. 10:5). “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Th. 5:21). “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pe. 5:8). Know the author so you are aware of his theological bias (e.g., Reformed theology, Protestantism, allegoricalism, charismaticism, New Evangelicalism, contemplative prayer, incipient liberalism such as questioning the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and the universality of the flood and the destruction of Sodom). I read men with various degrees of suspicion and caution, depending on how sound they are overall. I don’t read unsound men for profit, only for critiquing (e.g., C.S. Lewis, John Piper, Jack Hayford).
Read to capture things; get the thesis and outline of the book in your mind; underline or highlight; take notes; capture illustrations and quotes.
Master important books and materials. “Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be ‘much not many’” (Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students).
We would emphasize that the Bible must always and ever be the primary Book in the preacher’s reading schedule. Without a strong foundation in Bible knowledge, and a serious ongoing education in the Bible, the preacher doesn’t have an effectual way to judge other books that he reads and he can easily be led astray. “If the preacher’s own mind is barren and sterile; if it is not fertile by being rooted in the Word of God; if, because of not bathing the heart in the laver of the Word the mind is dry and unspiritual, then, the choosing of a text will be a difficult task. If, on the contrary, the mind and soul of the preacher is being continually steeped in the Word of truth; and, if there is a daily walk and fellowship with God, then, it will be a comparatively easy matter to find a text from which to proclaim God’s message to a hungry world” (William Evans, How to Prepare a Sermon).
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