Early morning . . . the warm glow of the lamp falls on the opened Bible in my lap. Steam curls up invitingly from the mug in my hand. It’s the quietest it will be all day, and something deep in my spirit reaches out expectantly toward these treasured moments with my Bible. But the pages to which I’ve turned seem almost too familiar today. I could quote some of their verses perfectly. Others I could finish with just a word or two out of place. Some I’ve taught or preached through more than once. All of them I’ve read over many times.
In his classic on the ministry, The Preacher: His Life and Work, John Henry Jowett called what I’m struggling with this morning a special peril of the preacher. He termed it a “deadening familiarity with the sublime.”
I think this is one of the most insidious and perhaps the predominant peril in a preacher’s life. A man may live in mountain-country and lose all sense of the heights. And that is a terrible impoverishment, when mountain-country comes to have the ordinary significance of the plains. The preacher . . . lives almost every hour in sight of the immensities and the eternities. . . . But here is the possible tragedy: he may live in constant sight of these tremendous presences and may cease to see them.
Several years ago I came across a message preached by the English pastor Thomas Watson that solves this problem: “How We May Read the Scriptures with Most Spiritual Profit.” It amounts to a kind of personal inventory of the factors necessary to be able to really feed on even very familiar passages. It proved to be so helpful that I condensed its points down to a single Bible-page-sized sheet for my people at church. Some subsequently laminated the sheet and have resorted to it regularly for readjusting a frequently skewed focus. Here, with some editing and additional applications to preachers, are the ways Watson gave his people fresh eyes for the Bible’s familiar passages.
The Heart’s the Place to Start
(1) Prepare your heart. A heart is an instrument which needs conscious tuning. This is particularly the case when it is employed in any spiritual discipline. The hymn writer felt himself constrained to plead, “Tune my heart to sing Thy praise.” Part of my problem this morning, therefore, may lie more in an untuned heart than in an overly familiar Bible. How can I adjust it to embrace God’s Word?
Over 2400 years ago a scribe enjoyed God’s good hand upon his life to an unusual degree (Ezra 7:9). The Holy Spirit was concerned that preachers know why. “For,” He informs us in the next verse, “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD.” The word translated “prepare” means to form or fashion something so that it is fixed and firm. Picture this man, this devoted scribe, rising with the dawn and taking, as it were, his heart in his two hands to form and fashion it for ransacking an ancient scroll of Deuteronomy or a parchment page of one of David’s psalms.
This kind of fashioning, according to Watson, consists first in summoning our thoughts together to attend to that solemn work we are going about. Thoughts are stragglers; therefore, rally them together. Secondly, we must purge out those unclean affections which indispose us to reading. Before we come to the water of life, let us cast away the poison of impure affections. This purging is so critical that it must be developed in a major point of its own.
(2) Remove those things which will hinder. Evict the love of every sin. A physician may prescribe everso- good remedies, but if the patient takes poison, it will hinder the virtue and the operation of the medication. In addition, we must weed out those thorns that choke the Word. These thorns our Savior expounds to be the cares of this world (Matt. 13:22). A man with such cares, Watson explains, has his eye upon the Bible but his heart upon the world.
What are the “cares of this world”? In His magisterial Sermon on the Mount our Lord was specifying these when He warned against “taking thought” (a form of the same word “care”) for our food, drink, clothing, and future (Matt. 6:25–34). Our morning Bible reading is the acid test of the extent to which we practice conscious obedience to this simple command. If we are worrying over earthly things, even in the secret place, we most surely are struggling for faith every other waking hour as well. Devotional time nagged by thoughts of unpaid bills, broken appliances, or declining health is the sure sign of a heart not at rest in the Lord. Perhaps it is His gentle chastisement for faithlessness that, as an inevitable consequence, we are rendered constitutionally incapable of feeding on His Word in such a state.
(3) Come to the reading with a humble heart. This conscious act of humbling ourselves is an antidote to worry, for humility includes submission to future providence. Therefore, acknowledge how unworthy you are that God should reveal Himself in His Word to you. God’s secrets are with the humble.
(4) Come to the reading with an honest heart. This is the test of our heart’s humility. Watson is referring to a heart that is willing to know the whole counsel of God. When men pick and choose in religion, when they will do some things the Word enjoins them, but not others; these are unsound hearts and are not benefited. These are like a patient who, having a bitter pill prescribed and a julep (a sweet syrup drink), will take the julep but refuse the pill.
John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) testified to the gracious effect of this honesty even prior to conversion. “I will study the promises, and comply with the commands I find there,” he decided when he was finally at the end of himself. “God who revealed it, and sees my sincerity . . . will undoubtedly assist me, and enable me to understand it by degrees.” We all know God’s response to Newton. We must likewise come, Watson said, as Naaman to the waters of Jordan, to be healed of our leprosy.
(5) Leave not reading until you find your heart warmed. Let it not only inform but inflame you. Go not from it until you can say with the disciples, “Did not our heart burn within us?” (Luke 24:32).
This was George Mueller’s own spiritual secret. Once he saw the critical need for reading until his heart was affected, it changed his approach to the morning devotional hour.
It has pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, the benefit of which I have not lost for more than fourteen years. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever that the first great primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. . . . My practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer after having dressed myself in the morning. Now, I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the Word of God, whilst meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord.
The Dependence to Have
(6) Pray that God will make you profit. Pray David’s prayer, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps. 119:18). Implore the guidance of God’s Spirit. “Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them” (Neh. 9:20). Though the ship has a compass to sail by, and a store of tackling, yet without a gale of wind it cannot sail; though we have the Word written as our compass to sail by, and make use of our endeavors as the tackling, yet unless the Spirit of God blow upon us, we cannot sail with profit. When Philip joined himself to the eunuch’s chariot, then he understood the Scriptures (Acts 8:35). When God’s Spirit joins Himself to the Word, then it will be effectual.
… To be Continued …
Dr. Mark Minnick pastors Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)