I sat the last exam for my engineering degree in January 1973. I had to sit it in January because I'd failed one of my final exams the previous June. That had nothing to do with the fact that I'd got married three months earlier nor that I'd just started reading Lord of the Rings a few weeks before the exams, nor that the 1972 Lords Ashes Test was being broadcast on the radio late at night just before my exam. All those things may have contributed to my poor performance, but the real reason was that I hadn't studied the subject well enough. When I sat for the post I made sure I studied very hard and as a result I did quite well. But I remember walking out of that exam thinking, "Aah, that's the last exam I'll ever have to do. I don't plan to do any more study ever again!" Well, those were famous last words weren't they? The day I began my job as an engineer, my boss handed me a bundle of manuals to study so I'd understand the way things were done in the Dept of Civil Aviation. Often when I was given something new to do I had to read up on the best ways to do it. In fact anyone who works in a professional field knows that you have to refresh your knowledge constantly if you're going to keep up.
And it wasn't just in my professional life that I continued to study. In those days I used to catch the tram to work and I discovered that that 40 minute tram ride was a great opportunity to read Christian books. So while people around me were staring out the window at the same old scenery day after day I'd get out the latest Christian book and read it in peace and quiet.
What I was discovering you see, was that we're always students, whether it's in our professional life or in our Christian life. There's always something new to discover, always another question to ask, or another step to take in following Jesus.
Why is that? Well, because we're disciples of Jesus. Disciple comes from a Latin word that means student. The disciple was the person who followed a Rabbi and studied under him. So when Jesus called the first disciples, do you remember what he told them he was going to do? He was going to teach them, how to fish for people. They were going to be his students.
Well, Christians today are still called to be Jesus' disciples. It's just not as easy as it was when Jesus was around. We can't follow along with him and ask him questions and listen to what he teaches the crowds. He's not here any more. So how can we be students of Christ when he's no longer here?
Paul tells Timothy just that in our first reading today. He says "Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."
If we can't learn directly from Jesus we can still listen to what he's said, to the things that God's arranged to have recorded for us as our manual for Christian living. God's instruction manual contains everything we need to deal with anything that life might bring. It can teach us, rebuke us, correct us; it can train us in godly living, it can help us to develop proficiency in good works. And all we have to do is to study it and then do what it says.
The problem is that there are all sorts of things that tend to hinder us, even stop us from studying God's word. Let me suggest a few of these and you can think about whether these are issues for you.
In that story we just heard of Mary and Martha, Jesus was visiting and when he began teaching Mary dropped everything to listen to him. Martha meanwhile was slaving away in the kitchen preparing food for all the visitors and she was getting a bit cross. So she comes and complains to Jesus and what does he say? "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42). I think Bill mentioned this danger last week. Martha was distracted by the good, but she missed the best.
Sometimes we can be distracted by our Christian activity and fail to notice that we've overlooked the important aspects of discipleship, especially studying God's word, either individually or with others in a Small Group. Often I find the activities of ministry are much more enticing, or pressing, than sitting down to study and meditate on God's word. So watch out for activism.
Sometimes we're deflected from our study of God's word by others who don't want us growing in our faith. Paul warns Timothy of the danger he'll face from wicked people who'll go about deceiving others and being deceived. There's no shortage of people like this both within and outside the Church today who are either deceived themselves or are seeking to deceive others.
The way to avoid being led astray by such people is to keep our eyes on Jesus. As we read last week, once you've put your hand to the plough don't look back, watch where you're going.
In the parable of the sower Jesus explained that the seed sown among thorns stood for those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke out the word, and it yields nothing. Materialism rears its head in all sorts of ways. It might be the desire for better and more things. It might take the form of professional ambition, wanting a bigger and better job. It might be desiring more power or status. All of these can be overcome if we remember that God promises us everything we need, to be fulfilled in both this life and the next.
By humanism here I mean the sort of kindness that indicates a true humanity. Sometimes though, being kind to someone might not be the most helpful approach. You all know the expression you've got to be cruel to be kind. Well sometimes we tiptoe around an issue because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings or we don't want to offend them, when in fact they badly need us to tell them, in the nicest possible way of course, that they should pick up their act.
Peter made this mistake once with Jesus. Jesus had just finished explaining to the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he'd be killed and Peter told Jesus to forget it. There was no way they'd let that happen to him. And do you remember how Jesus answered him? Jesus "turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'" (Mat 16:23) Peter thought he was being kind but he was actually turning Jesus away from God's word.
The great epidemic of our western world is liberalism, which of course is closely related to humanism. It's the philosophy that says what you believe is your personal business. I can't tell you what to believe and you can't tell me. It's the idea that there are no absolutes. Everything is relative. In the realm of religion that means that all religions are equal; there's no right or wrong way to get to God. Each religion has its own insights and in fact the best solution is to take the good bits from all of them and come up with some sort of amalgam.
As soon as you accept that sort of belief them there's no point studying God's word. Any religious text will do as long as it feels religious enough for you.
The opposite danger is literalism. This is when someone decides that every word in the Bible is literally true and therefore must be believed. It starts out by taking God's word seriously but then slips into the simplistic trap of blind belief often based on one's personal reading of the text or at least that of one's personal Christian community. At its root is a belief that what I believe or what my pastor has taught me must be true and I or he couldn't be mistaken. But that fails to take the Holy Spirit seriously because it denies the possibility that God could speak to me through someone else whose views differ from mine. It also closes its mind off from the work of the Holy Spirit within me. It denies the reality of the relationship I now have with God through his Holy Spirit who's been given to correct, to reprove and to train me as I study God's word.
Well let me suggest some things that we need to take into account when we're studying God's Word?
Words are just Words.
There's nothing magic about the words we read in Scripture. All translations are paraphrases. They seek to interpret the original meaning or intention of the author by choosing the closest words they can come up with. So be careful about a literal reading of the text. Remember that words mean different things in different places.
e.g. Paul says in Romans we're not justified by works, while James says we are. They seem to be contradicting each other but they're not. Paul's talking about the means of justification. James is talking about the results, the fruit of justification.
Words also change meaning. It's a little over a month since we sang Once in Royal David's City. Do you remember those lines "with the poor and mean and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy." Do you ever wonder who those mean people were that he lived among? But of course mean there doesn't mean nasty, it means ordinary or perhaps working class.
So be careful about words. Make sure you understand how the word was meant in its original context.
That brings us to context. Before you can understand a text you need to understand its context. What does the surrounding text mean or intend? What is the context of the rest of the book? e.g. I remember once hearing a sermon on fasting. The sermon was based on Isa 58:6 "Is not this the fast that I choose." Unfortunately the preacher ignored the rest of the verse which says: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" He'd chosen a neat catch phrase and built a whole theology of fasting on what was, in the context, a teaching against fasting.
The Literary Form
Finally remember that the Bible is a collection of lots of different styles of writing and it's important that we take the different forms into account when we're reading it. When Gideon's son tells the fable of the king of the trees in Judges 9 we don't think that trees can really talk among themselves do we? Or if you're reading poetry you don't expect it to be literally true do you? Listen to this example:
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow,
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe. (Ode to the Fallen) Do you think those first World War soldiers literally sang as they went into battle? Of course not. It's a poem, not an historical account.
But too often Christians read the Bible as though everything they find there, even poems and fables, must be literally true.
Well, let's finish by thinking about
How to Be a Good Student of Christ
1 Listen to God's Word
The first thing to say is that to be a good student of Christ we have to listen to what God tells us in his word. Even those parts that aren't literally true: the poetry, the parables, the fables, are true in what they teach us. God expects us to take them seriously.
2 Study God's Word
But to listen to God's word we first need to study it.
I was given a teach yourself Cantonese book and CD by N.C. & Ida last week. I've listened to it a couple of times but I still don't seem to be able to communicate in Cantonese. In fact the only way I'll ever be able to is to speak Cantonese is study it over and over again, to practice; to use what I've learnt.
The same goes for being a student of Christ. Unless we commit ourselves, our time and energy, to studying God's word we'll never be proficient at living the Christian life. And never think that you've done enough. I've been studying God's word now for around 45 years and I'm still discovering new things. So put aside time to regularly read through the Scriptures. Join a small group. Add your name to the list in the foyer so you can learn together with others.
3 Obey God's Word
Finally, not only study it; not only listen to it; but obey it. An instruction manual isn't much good if the users don't do what it says. Never complain that you can't work the DVD player if you haven't ever read the manual. And if you have read it make sure you follow its instructions.
God's word is given to us to train us in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. So if you want to please God it's simple, just do what he says. Use his word for guidance, to help you make those important decisions. Use his word to mould you into the sort of person he wants you to be. Use it when you face temptations, to help you work out what's the right way to go, what's the right decision to make; and try using it when you're talking to others, even non-Christians. That of course will require that you've studied it and know what it says and where to find what you're looking for but that was the second point wasn't it?
Do you want to be the best disciple of Christ that you can be? Then become a student of Christ, a student of God's word. And work to become so proficient that you can then teach others and that you know how to speak and act at every moment in your life.