Advice for Reading the Bible from George Whitefield

I read a sermon this evening by George Whitefield on three words from John 5:39, “Search the Scriptures.” The greater context is those witnessing Jesus searching the Scriptures for eternal life. There is of course a right way to search the Scriptures and to come to Jesus looking for eternal life. Whitefield instructs his hearers on how to come to the Scriptures. His sermon is titled, The Duty of Searching the Scriptures.

What I would like to do is share with you some of what Whitfield preached.

Whitefield’s words will be italicized, while my thoughts shall remain in plain text.

He begins his sermon:

When the Sadducees came to our blessed Lord, and put to him the question, “whose wife that woman should be in the next life, who had seven husbands in this,” he told them “they erred, not knowing the scriptures.” And if we would know whence all the errors, that have over-spread the church of Christ, first arose, we should find that, in a great measure, they flowed from the same fountain, ignorance of the word of God.

Truth matters. The Lord has given us the Bible that we might have truth. This is why searching the Scriptures is so important. What has God revealed to us in his word?

What does God in his written word do more or less, than show thee, O man, how thou art fallen into that blindness, darkness, and misery, of which thou feelest and complainest? And, at the same time, he points out the way to what thou desirest, even how thou mayest be redeemed out of it by believing in, and copying after the Son of his love.

As I told you before, so I tell you again, upon these two truths rest all divine revelation. It being given us for no other end, but to show our misery, and our happiness; our fall and recovery; or, in one word, after what manner we died in Adam, and how in Christ we may again be made alive.

God has revealed to us the truth of the gospel in the Bible. There can be no greater news, nor a more important truth.

Whitefield gives seven directions to better search the Scriptures.

1. Have always in view, the end for which the Scriptures were written, even to show us the way of salvation, by Jesus Christ.

If you’d like a good lesson in hermeneutics take heed to the following:

Have Christ always in view when you are reading the Word of God, and this, like the star in the east, will guide you to the Messiah, will serve as a key to everything that is obscure, and unlock to you the wisdom and riches of all the mysteries of the kingdom of God.

Christ is indeed the lens through which we should gaze upon the Bible. He bears witness that the Scriptures speak to him. I think this to be one of the most important lessons in Biblical interpretation we can learn.

2. Search the Scriptures with a humble childlike disposition.

Fancy yourselfs therefore, when you are searching the Scriptures, especially when you are reading the New Testament, to be with Mary sitting at the feet of the holy Jesus, and be as willing to learn what God shall teach you, as Samuel was, when he said, “Speak, Lord for thy servant heareth.”

Approach the Bible knowing that God speaks through his word and that you’re there to learn from him to further glorify him. Don’t approach the bible just as a a text to be criticized or as a book to load your theological quiver full of arrows with. Come to meet God with a humble childlike disposition. God gives grace to the humble, but opposes the proud.

3. Search the Scriptures with a sincere intention to put in practice what you read.

If you read the Scriptures be prepared to fall under conviction, but come with a contrite heart that is ready to repent. Come with a desire to do the will of God. As Whitefield described it,

A desire to do the will of God is the only way to know it; if any man will do my will says Jesus Christ, “he shall know my doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”‘

4. In order to search the Scriptures still more effectually, make an application of everything you read to your own hearts.

For whatever was written in the book of God, was written for our learning. And what Christ said unto those aforetime, we must look upon as spoken to us also: for since the holy scriptures are nothing but a revelation from God, how fallen man is to be restored by Jesus Christ: all the precepts, threats, and promises, belong to us and to our children, as well as to those, to whom they were immediately made known.

The Scriptures are God-breathed, living and active, and still at work in the lives of its readers through the work of the Holy Spirit. Come to the text ready for it to bring you to action.

5. Labor to attain the Spirit by which they were written.

In and off ourselves we can’t come away with the truth of the gospel. The Spirit who inspired the words of the Scriptures can also give you understanding to that which He has revealed.

Indeed, how should it be otherwise, for God being a spirit, he cannot communicate himself any otherwise than in a spiritual manner to the hearts of men; and consequently if we are strangers to his Spirit, we must continue strangers to his word, because it is altogether like himself, spiritual. Labor, therefore, earnestly for to attain this blessed Spirit; otherwise, your understandings will never be opened to understand the scriptures aright: and remember, prayer is one of the most immediate means to get this Holy Spirit.

6. Before you read the scriptures, to pray, that Christ, according to his promise, would send his Spirit to guide you into all truth; intersperse short ejaculations whilst you are engaged in reading; pray over every word and verse, if possible; and when you close up the book, most earnestly beseech God, that the words which you have read, may be inwardly engrafted into your hearts, and bring forth in you the fruits of a good life.

I cannot commend to you these words of Whitefield enough for if you:

Do this, and you will, with a holy violence, draw down God’s Holy Spirit into your hearts; you will experience his gracious influence, and feel him enlightening, quickening, and inflaming your souls by the word of God; you will then not only read, but mark, learn, and inwardly digest what you read: and the word of God will be meat indeed, and drink indeed unto your souls; you then will be as Apollos was, powerful in the scriptures; be scribes ready instructed to the kingdom of God, and bring out of the good treasures of your heart, things both from the Old and New Testament, to entertain all you converse with.

7. Read the scripture constantly, or, to use our Savior’s expression in the text, “search the scriptures;” dig in them as for hid treasure; for here is a manifest allusion to those who dig in mines; and our Savior would thereby teach us, that we must take as much pains in constantly reading his word, if we would grow wise thereby, as those who dig for gold and silver. The scriptures contain the deep things of God, and therefore, can never be sufficiently searched into by a careless, superficial, cursory way of reading them, but by an industrious, close, and humble application.

To better understand the Bible one must spend time in it. Take these words of Whitefield and apply them. Diligently search the Scriptures as the Bereans and spend time in it and find your delight with David. Know with the Apostles that in the Word are the words of eternal life.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise,
that you may be feared.
Turn away the reproach that I dread,
for your rules are good.
Behold, I long for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life! – Psalm 119:33-40

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