Pastor Ray Ortlund reveals the most important things (outside the Bible) he’s ever read here.
Steve Weaver (Ph.D., SBTS) serves as the senior pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, Puritan, Baptist: Hercules Collins (1647-1702) and Particular Baptist Identity in Early Modern England (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015). In an article entitled “Standing on the shoulders of giants: The preacher and his books” he writes:
One of my favorite quotes is from Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of the law of gravity. In a letter to Robert Hooke on February 5, 1676, Newton wrote, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton saw farther than anyone had before, precisely because he was willing to learn from those who had gone before him. Just imagine what life would be like if all anyone ever knew was the knowledge they accumulated on their own. There would be no electricity, no light bulb, no telephone, no computers, no cars, no airplanes, no space travel, and, gasp, no iPhone.
But because men learned from those who had gone before, these inventions and many more were possible. Sadly, many preachers like to work in an anti-intellectual vacuum, gleaning nothing from the God-gifted men who have gone before them. God has especially equipped the body of Christ with teachers, evangelist, and pastors. I thank God for men like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Newton, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and a host of others, who are, without a doubt, God’s gifts to the church. By studying the writings of these gifted men, we are enabled to “stand on their shoulders.”
The Word on reading
I believe that there is actually a biblical admonition to learn from others found in Ephesians 4:11-13 where Paul explains how the resurrected and ascended Christ has gifted his church.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
I don’t think what Paul said here applies only to those living in our contemporary generation. Nor do I believe that it only applies to those in the same location. The church universal is much larger than our local congregation. It extends to all those saints, past and present, from east to west who have placed their hope in Christ and his sacrificial atonement. Therefore, the teachers, evangelists, and pastors from whom we have the privilege of learning stretch across the 2,000 years of church history (chronologically) and from pole to pole (geographically). In order to access this rich heritage, we need to read books.
Baptists and books
Historically, Baptists have recognized the importance of learning from the works of others. In his book on pastoral ministry, The Temple Repair’d, the seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor Hercules Collins provided his readers with a list of recommend books. Furthermore, when young men in his Wapping church expressed a desire to begin preaching, they were provided with key biblical and theological works. Collins believed that ministers must labor in their study of the Word of God because of the exalted nature of their work as ministers. Commenting on 2 Timothy 2:15, he wrote,
“We should study to be good workmen because our work is of the highest nature. Men that work among jewels and precious Stones ought to be very knowing of their business. A minister’s work is a great work, a holy work, a heavenly work. Hence the Apostle says “Who is sufficient for these things?” O how great a work is this! What man, what angel is sufficient to preach the gospel as they ought to preach it! You work for the highest end, the glory of God, and the good of immortal souls. You are for the beating down of the kingdom of the devil, and enlarging and exalting Christ’s kingdom.”
Do not be idle and lazy in the things of God Continue reading
C.S. Lewis’ famous quote from his essay on “Old Books”
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
Here are three big ideas for people who read the Bible aloud:
your job is to communicate, not just read;
you can’t communicate what you don’t understand;
meaning is not conveyed through words alone.
Your job is to communicate, not just read
It’s possible to read every word from a passage perfectly and clearly, but in such a way that no-one understands what the passage actually means. Worse, it’s also possible to read a passage in a way that gives people a wrong understanding of the Scriptures. Take 1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (NIV). I once heard this verse read with the emphasis as, “All of these must be done …”. The speaker was trying to convince me that Scripture commanded us to speak in tongues and that, if we didn’t do so, the church would not be strengthened! Thankfully, every other time I’ve heard this verse read, the emphasis has been where it should be—on the words, “for the strengthening of the church”. Reading the same words differently completely changes their meaning. Your job as a Bible reader is not to ‘just read the words’ but to communicate what those words mean. Continue reading
I very much enjoyed reading an article Dan Phillips wrote entitled, “The public reading of Scripture: ten pointed pointers”, found here:
Some of the specifics of the elements of our services have little or no specific Scriptural directive; some are just common-sense. For instance, there’s no apostolic instruction about how to handle (or whether to have) announcements, or the welcoming of visitors. There’s no order of service. No dress code. Nothing about hymnal-color…or hymnals. Though singing is enjoined (Col. 3:16), not a whisper of specific direction deals with beat or rhythm or octave or number of verses or choruses or types of instruments — except that we can be fairly assured that none of us precisely does what apostolic churches did, stylistically.
But there is a word about what ESV (perhaps over-)translates as “the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Apostolic-age church services involved reading some portion or portions of God’s Word (cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 1:3). That fact alone makes the reading of Scripture important; God thought enough about it to mention it. Nor is this the first time reading the Word came to the fore, as it featured prominently in the Water Gate Revival (Neh. 8:3, 8, 18).
While there are many and excellent books about preaching, and plenty about music and singing, and truckloads about praying, there is less of any prominence about this facet of the worship of God. I’m sure others have blogged about it, but I keep learning that some of the most helpful posts are about fairly basic issues. So we offer here a few brief and pointed pointers about the public reading of Scripture.
Take it as seriously as the preacher takes his sermon. God said to do it. That makes it important. Unless you’ve no choice, do not let the pulpit be the first time your eyes touch and your mouth forms these words. Some may think, “It’s just reading. How hard can it be?” That makes as much sense as a preacher sneering “It’s just talking. How hard can it be?”
Do not underestimate the importance or potential of this moment. This is the word of God. These are the most important words you will ever speak, the most important words your hearers will ever hear. I know you’ll think as I do, “It’s Spurgeon!”; but consider this story from Spurgeon’s autobiography:
The Lord set His seal upon the effort even before the great crowd gathered, though I did not know of that instance of blessing until long afterwards. It was arranged that I should use the Surrey Gardens pulpit, so, a day or two before preaching at the Palace, I went to decide where it should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from Heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God. Years after, he told this story to one who visited him on his death-bed. [Spurgeon, C. H. (1899). C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from his diary, letters, and records, by his wife and his private secretary, 1854–1860 (Vol. 2, p. 239). Chicago; New York; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.]
Understand the passage you read. Wouldn’t it be strange if the preacher preached on a passage he didn’t understand, hadn’t studied? Give thought to this passage, so that you can by inflection convey the meaning of the passage.
Master any difficult words. God’s people are gracious, and will not hound you for stumbling over Mahershalalhashbaz or Sepharvaim or Hazarmaveth or Arpachshad. But you knew it was in the text, and you knew it would be challenging, and you were probably asked to do this days in advance. So why would you not have worked at it until it flowed fluidly off your tongue? We want attention on the text, not on our lingual gymnastics.
Pray for God’s help as you prepare. Wouldn’t it be odd if the preacher’s first prayer for his sermon were that uttered in the seconds before his introduction? Pray that God help you understand the passage, that He apply it to your heart; pray that He will apply it to all the hearts of all the hearers. Seriously — and I say this as a preacher — what you will read will be of absolutely vital importance. God will judge you and your hearers for how you respond to these words (cf. John 12:48)! It’s no small thing; it’s a moment of crisis.
Practice it aloud. Reading to yourself is a different dynamic than reading to others; it simply is. Try to imagine yourself reading to others. Get a room alone if possible, and speak up, just as you will during the service.
Take your time. This is a vital part of the service, not a bit we rush through so we can get to the meat. It’s God’s Word! Announce it, wait for the majority of page-turning to stop. Then read in an unhurried pace. Don’t verbally drag your feet like a zombie, but don’t race like a dragster. It isn’t an auction.
Give full and meaningful inflection. It is God’s Word! He did not entrust it to angels, but to men! It’s a fearful and sobering thing for us to take His word on our lips. So work this out during your practice: vary your pace, your pitch, your tone. Read it with meaning. You’re rightly put off by a bloodless, bland, lifeless preacher who sounds like he’s reading a legal document or instructions for assembling a tricycle. Don’t be that man. This deserves your best effort. For instance, don’t read Mark 15:24 as “And-they-crucified-him-and-divided-his-garments-among-them…” Perhaps read it as “And [pause a beat] they crucified him [pause a double beat, at the horror of it] and divided his garments among them…” Don’t dash coolly through Galatians 1:6, “I-am-astonished-that-you-are-so-quickly-deserting-him…” as if you were a Dalek. Sound astonished! Perhaps, “I am… astonished… that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ, and are turning to… a different gospel…” You don’t have to Shatner it, but don’t Robbie the Robot it, either. Nor is there any virtue in a sepulchral, unnatural, affectedly “holy” intonation. The words of God should ring in your hearers’ ears, and stir their conscience.
Use what you’ve got, as appropriate. Some of us are gifted as readers, some are not. As with giving, I think “if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Cor. 8:12). If it’s all you can do to get through a passage without collapsing into burbling, God bless you, give what you’ve got, God will be pleased and glorified and the saints edified. But if you can convey the tone and tenor of the passage in your reading, do that. And so there are passages of Scripture that should be fairly shouted, and parts that should be fairly whispered. It isn’t a question of dramatics, it is a matter of adorning. Inflection and emphasis are as much a part of communication as is word choice. We suit the manner of reading to the content of the passage for the same reason we don’t wear swim suits or clown suits to the pulpit.
Consider a closing word. I often close a reading with, “This is the Word of God,” or “This is the Word of the Lord.” In some churches, hearers respond with “Thanks be to God.” Some say something like “God grant that we hear and head God’s inerrant Word,” or “Thanks be to God for His inerrant and infallible Word.” It may be a response in unison, it may be left to individuals to say that, “Amen,” or nothing at all. It’s a time-honored practice, and in my opinion it makes reverent sense.
The reading of Scripture is a vital and apostolically-enjoined facet of the gem of divine worship. If these exhortations serve to enrich readers’ and hearers’ experience of the Word in worship, glory to God.
From C. S. Lewis’s the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology…
Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
Charles Spurgeon, where Paul wrote to Timothy:
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments”
We do not know what the books were about, and we can only form some guess as to what the parchments were. Paul had a few books which were left, perhaps wrapped up in the cloak, and Timothy was to be careful to bring them.
Even an apostle must read.
Some of our very ultra-Calvinistic brethren think that a minister who reads books and studies his sermon must be a very deplorable specimen of a preacher. A man who comes up into the pulpit, professes to take his text on the spot and talks any quantity of nonsense is the idol of many. If he will speak without premeditation, or pretend to do so, and never produce what they call a dish of dead men’s brains—oh, that is the preacher!
How rebuked they are by the apostle!
He is inspired, and yet he wants books!
He has been preaching for at least thirty years, and yet he wants books!
He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books!
He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet wants books!
He had been caught up into the Third Heaven and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books!
He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!
The apostle says to Timothy, and so he says to every preacher, “Give attendance to reading” (1 Tim. 4:13).
The man who never reads will never be read.
He who never quotes will never be quoted.
He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains proves that he has no brains of his own.
Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers and expositions of the Bible.
Here’s how John Piper put it in his chapter “Fight for Your Life” in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (new edition coming from B&H in February 2013):
I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones that the fight to find time to read is a fight for one’s life. “Let your wife or anyone else take messages for you, and inform the people telephoning that you are not available. One literally has to fight for one’s life in this sense!”
Most of our people have no idea what two or three new messages a week cost us in terms of intellectual and spiritual drain. Not to mention the depletions of family pain, church decisions, and imponderable theological and moral dilemmas. I, for one, am not a self-replenishing spring. My bucket leaks, even when it is not pouring. My spirit does not revive on the run. Without time of unhurried reading and reflection, beyond the press of sermon preparation, my soul shrinks, and the specter of ministerial death rises. Few things frighten me more than the beginnings of barrenness that come from frenzied activity with little spiritual food and meditation.
The great pressure on us today is to be productive managers. But the need of the church is for prayerful, spiritual poets. I don’t mean (necessarily) pastors who write poems. I mean pastors who feel the weight and glory of eternal reality even in the midst of a business meeting; who carry in their soul such a sense of God that they provide, by their very presence, a constant life-giving reorientation on the infinite God. For your own soul and for the life of your church, fight for time to feed your soul with rich reading.
1. “Never read a book without a pen in your hand.” ~ Benjamin Franklin – That’s great advice whether you write in your books or take notes in a notebook. Personally, I write, scribble, highlight, argue and draw symbols in all my books.
2. Read a whole paragraph / section BEFORE you stop to highlight or take a note. Don’t stop right when you see something interesting; keep reading to get the “big picture” or context of what stood out to you. Then “reread” when you make your notes.
At the website www.desiringGod.org, Dr. John Piper writes:
I was reading and meditating on the book of Hebrews recently, when it hit me forcefully that a basic and compelling reason for education — the rigorous training of the mind — is so that a person can read the Bible with understanding.
This sounds too obvious to be useful or compelling. But that’s just because we take the preciousness of reading so for granted; or, even more, because we appreciate so little the kind of thinking that a complex Bible passage requires of us.
The book of Hebrews, for example, is an intellectually challenging argument from Old Testament texts. The points that the author makes hang on biblical observations that come only from rigorous reading, not light skimming. And the understanding of these Old Testament interpretations in the text of Hebrews requires rigorous thought and mental effort. The same could be said for the extended argumentation of Romans and Galatians and the other books of the Bible.
This is an overwhelming argument for giving our children a disciplined and rigorous training in how to think an author’s thoughts after him from a text — especially a biblical text. An alphabet must be learned, as well as vocabulary, grammar, syntax, the rudiments of logic, and the way meaning is imparted through sustained connections of sentences and paragraphs.
The reason Christians have always planted schools where they have planted churches is because we are a people of THE BOOK. It is true that THE BOOK will never have its proper effect without prayer and the Holy Spirit. It is not a textbook to be debated; it is a fountain for spiritual thirst, and food for the soul, and a revelation of God, and a living power, and a two-edged sword. But none of this changes the fact: apart from the discipline of reading, the Bible is as powerless as paper. Someone might have to read it for you; but without reading, the meaning and the power of it are locked up.
Is it not remarkable how often Jesus settled great issues with a reference to reading? For example, in the issue of the Sabbath he said, “Have you not read what David did?” (Matthew 12:3). In the issue of divorce and remarriage he said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matthew 19:4). In the issue of true worship and praise he said, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (Matthew 21:16). In the issue of the resurrection he said, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’?” (Matthew 21:42). And to the lawyer who queried him about eternal life he said, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” (Luke 10:26).
The apostle Paul also gave reading a great place in the life of the church. For example, he said to the Corinthians, “We write nothing else to you than what you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the end” (1 Corinthians 1:13). To the Ephesians he said, “When you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:3). To the Colossians he said, “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). Reading the letters of Paul was so important that he commands it with an oath: “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren” (1 Thessalonians 5:27).
The ability to read does not come intuitively. It must be taught. And learning to read with understanding is a life-long labor. The implications for Christians are immense. Education of the mind in the rigorous discipline of thoughtful reading is a primary goal of school. The church of Jesus is debilitated when his people are lulled into thinking that it is humble or democratic or relevant to give a merely practical education that does not involve the rigorous training of the mind to think hard and to construe meaning from difficult texts.
The issue of earning a living is not nearly so important as whether the next generation has direct access to the meaning of the Word of God. We need an education that puts the highest premium under God on knowing the meaning of God’s Book, and growing in the abilities that will unlock its riches for a lifetime. It would be better to starve for lack of food than to fail to grasp the meaning of the book of Romans. Lord, let us not fail the next generation!