By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
(Talk given at a Youth Meeting, November 2018)
In this talk we will explore how to read the Bible. In order to achieve this it’s important to first understand what the Bible is. The Bible is the written Word of God. It is a book written by human beings, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in order to communicate the message of salvation in and through the Person of Jesus Christ. It is thus a book that has been given by God to man, in order to aid man in his journey of becoming Christlike; of becoming filled with the Holy Spirit, being healed from sin, and being filled with the presence of God; unto transformation of life here on earth, with the goal of spending eternity in loving union with God for all eternity. It is a Book overflowing with grace that has words spoken by God Himself, words whose goal is to lead as many people to salvation as possible.
Why do you think it’s important to understand all this? Why is it important for me to know why the Bible was written and its purpose? It’s important to understand why the Bible was written as this knowledge transforms how I approach the Bible and helps me be aware of certain pre-requisite necessary to understand the Bible. As a Christian, if I know that the Bible is the written word of God, containing words spoken by God Himself, designed to assist in the journey of salvation, overflowing with grace through His anointing presence, then my response to this book is that I should desire to read it daily.
I should yearn to read it, desire it greatly, as I understand that this Book has been given by God Himself to aid my salvation, to break me down and to build me up, to renew me, challenge me, aid me unto eternal life. Thus it changes from being a Book that sits on the bookshelf, to a Book that I read with great longing and desire on a daily basis.
If we know the above, why do you think some of us as Christian barely read the Word of God? If we don’t read the Bible as Christians it indicates we are probably only Christian by name. Our hearts have been untouched by grace, we probably resemble most people who live in the world without God. We enjoy the ways of this world, its music and enjoyments and don’t really enjoy God very much. Reading the Bible makes us yawn and sleepy, prayer is too difficult and tiring to even think about, but if there’s a new season of Suites or Limitless on Netflix, bring it on! If we fit into this category we are actually not really Christians at all. We can call ourselves that if we want, but our lifestyle reveals we are more like our modern day pagan neighbours in the societies we also occupy alongside them. The Bible is clear that a person in this category will not inherit eternal heavenly life. They’ll go somewhere else for all eternity.
Thank God though our sweet Lord Jesus has given us a beautiful gift that can bring us out from the pits of worldliness and give us a fresh start, repentance. Repentance is the first step in understanding the Bible. Before I approach the living Word of God; God’s love story for all humanity through His crucified Son, I need to be right with God. I won’t be able to understand God’s Word at all if I enjoy living in sin. Sin creates a barrier between me and God; it distorts my vison of God and thus distorts my understanding of his Word. How can I then understand God’s Word if there is a barrier between God and I? I won’t understand anything. Have you tried to read the Bible when you’re angry with someone, or when you’ve stuffed your face with food, or when you’re envious of others? It will all be scrambled, I’ll read and nothing will make sense. Thus repentance is the first step in knowing God through His Word.
And this applies to every single Christian, to those advance in their spiritual journey and to beginners who have just come out of the darkness and into Christ’s light. All of us need to be right with God through being genuine in our relationship with Him and acknowledging our faults and weaknesses. Repentance brings us close to God and draws His grace powerfully toward us like a magnet. We can then approach the Word of God in a humble and contrite spirit and allow Him to speak to us and help us understand His Word.
But what is repentance? Repentance is a total realigning of my mind, body, soul, spirit and heart toward God. A turning of my whole being toward God, turning away from the ways of this world and toward His amazing love and mercy. Thus repentance is a desire to live for God every moment of the day, with all my being and desire and to allow Him to perfect His ways and His will in my life. A person who has this stance, of daily, hourly, minutely repentance, of realigning their whole being toward the Lord, will remain in an unceasing communion with Christ in the heart.
Their heart burns for Christ, desires Christ, and this of course allows Christ, after a long period of time, and after the person has been purified from their sinful ways, having prepared themselves through their communion and unceasing burning heart, for the Lord to come into their lives and be enthroned in their hearts.
John 14: 23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.
Do you think that if a person has Jesus dwelling in them, through their radical love for Him that it will affect their ability to understand the Bible? If a person through prolonged longing, yearning and desire for Christ has had Him come and dwell in them, through the Holy Spirit, then the grace of God communicates to their minds and hearts knowledge of God. Their understanding of God changes from being theoretical to experiential. Their knowledge was first a theoretical knowledge, acquired from reading books, attending Sunday school, listening to talks. They gathered bits of information from various sources and created a theoretical model of who God is and of their faith through this information.
On the other hand when this same person continues in their longing for Christ, as the years pass and they continues to love Him daily, yearn for Him daily, obey the commandments with a relentless zeal, they have Him eventually come and abide in their hearts, and thus this theoretical knowledge is transformed.
Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Through their being purified through a genuine Christian lifestyle over many years of love, they see God with the eyes of the heart. This is not a vision with the eyes, it is a imparting of grace and knowledge through union with Christ in the heart. The knowledge then becomes experiential as the person now knows Christ, not just through hearing about him, but rather through being united with Him through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Of course this journey never ends and there are even greater experiences of God that a person will encounter if they continue on this path of zealous divine love, but we’ll leave the greater stages to be discussed when we ourselves start to experience those stages in many years from now.
We realise then that to understand the Bible requires a Christian to live up to this name in order to have their eyes opened to be able to see and experience God in their hearts and in their lives. But of course we are all beginners, we aren’t yet at this level, we are on the way there for sure, through trying with all our being to love the Lord, but we still have a long way to go. That’s okay, God in His love will give us day by day the grace necessary to know Him more, every day we gain new insights through devotedly reading the Bible.
This is why we need to actually have set times each day, or set amounts of Bible reading that we can do every day of our lives. For example we may read a few chapters from the OT and a few from the NT each day. This would take about 20 minutes, surely an amount of time we can all give back to God. We set a rule with the blessing of our confession fathers who are coaching us unto eternal life.
We then read the Bible and our allocated amounts every day, no matter what, no excuses. Of course we also do all the other things required to show we love God, like prayer, fasting, communal worship, sacramental participation, sacrificial service, etc., but those are all subjects in themselves so we won’t expand on them in this talk.
We also realise that along with reading our Bibles we need help in order to understand what we are reading in an Orthodox manner. Thus we can use the Orthodox Study Bible so we can actually understand that which we read. Remember we are beginners, and as beginners we don’t have the purity of heart yet to have God come and be enthroned in us, and thus allow Him to help us understand His word deeply and correctly.
So it’s very helpful to use the writings of those who became filled with the presence of Christ, our forefathers in the faith, to safeguard us until one day we reach their spiritual stature through following their examples. This is where we utilise the writings of the Early Church Fathers. The writings of those who loved God with all their being and through union with the Lord, were able to interpret the Bible and write down their commentaries to help us on our journeys of knowing the Lord.
These commentaries exist online so you don’t have to spend money. Examples of such writers are St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Athanasius, St Severus, St Gregory the Theologian and others. We don’t need to read their writings, but they are definitely a must for those who want to go deeper in their understanding of the Bible and the Orthodox faith. We as beginners can choose to simply stick with an Orthodox study bible, and all the other practices of Christian living and this may suffice for us, but if we want to go deeper we must go to the Early Church Fathers.
We also have a great Biblical Scholar in our tradition as Coptic Orthodox Christians, called Abouna Tadros Malaty. He has written commentaries on almost every book of the Bible using the Early Church Fathers. His writings can all be found free online as well.
Today, many people unfortunately look outside the Orthodox faith in order to try and understand the Christian faith. This is a great error. Only within Orthodoxy and through living an Orthodox lifestyle can someone be filled with the Holy Spirit to overflowing. That is not because we are special or better than anyone else. No we are probably far worse than others as we are very weak in our faith. But it’s because within Orthodoxy we have the tools that God gave us for our sanctification, for holiness, for transformation, for Him to come and abide in us and preparing us for this indwelling.
He gave us Baptism and Chrismation so we can be born again and united to Christ and be filled with the Holy Spirit; He gave us Repentance and Confession to renew our Baptism when we fall into sin and become cleansed and holy once again. He gave us Holy Communion, to eat God and experience union with Him; He gave us an ascetic tradition, with long prayers, services, fastings, so we can put off the ways of the flesh and live in the Spirit.
All these gifts given by God allow us to be filled with His presence overtime. Other Churches that don’t believe in these gifts, or accept these therapeutic treatments from the hand of God, cannot know Him in the way an Orthodox saint can. It’s impossible. They are outside the fullness of Christ and His gifts, outside His Church and thus cannot know Him in the way He desires them to know Him, as they don’t have the tools necessary to do so.
Will I then take their study Bibles and use them to know God correctly? Will I read their commentaries so I can learn about God? Absolutely not. I cannot learn the depths of God from someone who has not utilised the gifts given by God to know Him. This is why it is absolutely essential that we stick with Orthodox sources in everything as they are sources which proceed from the life of the Church which God himself has established and ordained in the way He knows best.
I don’t import elements into the Coptic Church, a Church that already has that fullness, given by God Himself, from other Churches that don’t have the fullness of Christ’s truth as they reject it. We have been given treasure brothers and sisters. We have been given God Himself, communicated through His Church as His Body, united to Him as the Head.
This doesn’t mean we don’t read outside our own tradition. We can to learn about others opinions and views, but we don’t use their sources as our means to learn about our own faith. This is a fatal error and has caused much damage to the Orthodox Church. If we listen to the Church and what she has told us to do for salvation, the Bible will come to life, my knowledge of God will come to life, I will come to life. My whole being will be transformed through a loving union with the Lord in the Holy Spirit unto eternal life. This is the only way to truly start to understand the word of God.
I’ll highlight another important fact that I mentioned earlier and expand on it. We need to read the bible daily. Let us use a little example. Let’s say that most of you here today are between 18-25 years old. And let’s say that you start from now to read 2 chapters a day of the bible along with having a genuine Christian lifestyle and deep love for the Lord. In 20 years from now, when you are all between 38-45 y/o, if you have read 2 chapters a day you will each have read 14,600 chapters from the Holy Bible. Altogether in an Orthodox Bible there are 1,336 chapters in the Bible. This means that you will have read the Orthodox Bible 10.93 times.
As you have also grown in purification throughout this time and been filled more with God’s presence, experiencing a deeper union with the Lord, all this reading will become illumined and brought to life through the Holy Spirit, giving you the gift of spiritual wisdom and knowledge. What this means is that you’ll then be the one God is calling to give talks and hopefully assist my kids in their journey of knowing Christ.
We then see the need to be absolutely committed in reading God’s word, and that God can then bless this reading with time, to enable us to be Spirit filled servants to help others know and love our lovely Jesus. Let us all then be real with God, let us turn from a life of sin to a life of love, deep love for God and others and let us read the Bible properly, in holiness and purity and grow ever deer in our knowledge, experience and love for the Lord unto the salvation of ourselves and many other souls also.
Glory be to God forevermore, amen.