What does God want? A man came to the Lord Jesus, and that is what he asked:  “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12:28).

1,500 pages, 66 books, one of them comprising 150 individual pieces, 1,189 chapters in total, 31,103  verses, rich with stories and laws and drama and  prayer and praise and wisdom and prophecy and doctrine and exhortation and vision and a host of  other things – genealogies, letters, decrees, riddles and much more – how is it possible to boil this  down to one single commandment?

But that is what the scribe asked. Here was a man who had spent many long hours day and night bending over a writing desk, painstakingly  copying manually the scrolls of the Old Testament,  counting every letter, every word, every line to  ensure as far as possible that he had made a perfect  copy – and obviously he had thought long and hard  about this question, and he wanted to know what  Jesus thought. It was a test, but this test was from  somebody genuine, who really wanted to know  the answer.He had probably put his question to many people  over the years, and received many unsatisfactory  answers. But here in front of him was somebody  different, somebody who could bring all of Scripture  to bear on a point and give an answer that was so  obviously right and so completely satisfying, that  this scribe felt moved to put his favourite question  one more time.

The answer

“And Jesus answered him, The first of all the  commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our  God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord  thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul,  and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength:  this is the first commandment. And the second is  like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as  thyself. There is none other commandment greater  than these” (v29–30).

The Lord had been asked for one commandment  – but one was not enough! It is not possible to love  God without loving our neighbour.

Immediately the lawyer recognised the truth of  what Jesus had said: “You are right, Teacher. You have  truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides  him. And to love him with all the heart and with all  the understanding and with all the strength, and to  love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all  whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v31–33, esv).

“And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly,  he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom  of God” (v34). God is not far from any one of us;  but we are often far from Him. It is when we love  Him with an all-consuming love and go on to love  our neighbour as ourselves that we are on track for  the kingdom of God, and His righteousness. “And  no man after that durst ask him any question” (v35).

The basis

This exchange between the Lord and the lawyer  was based on two places (Deut 6:4–9; Lev 19:18).  There are eleven references to loving God in the  books of Moses, all of them in Deuteronomy, and  this is the first: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy  God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and  with all thy might.”

The God who is our God is the one God, and  His love calls forth a love from us that holds back  nothing at all, a love that comes from every corner of our being, and focuses all of our energy and all  of our powers. And that love will be informed and  sustained by “these words”:

“These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them  diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them  when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou  walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and  when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a  sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets  between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon  the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.”

We are to put this Word front and centre in our  lives: to tie it to our hands and lace it to our feet and  spray paint it to our walls and nail it over our front  door, so that wherever we go and whatever we do as  an individual and in a family, in the workplace and  in the community, in the local ecclesia and in the  brotherhood shall be decided by our love for God  and our neighbourly love for all.

“On these two commandments hang all the Law  and the Prophets” (Matt 22:40).

The difference between failure and success

Throughout Scripture, therefore, even in times when  few people had their own Bibles, we find model brothers and sisters attending to the Word of God.

Joshua, with his great mentor dead, and the  enormous responsibility resting on his shoulders  to bring a wayward people over the Jordan and to  lead them in wresting their inheritance from the  Canaanites, is bluntly told by God that he will be  successful. “I will be with thee: I will not fail thee,  nor forsake thee.” His success factor? Reading the  word of God in the morning, carrying it in his  heart all the day, reading it again in the evening  (Josh 1:7–8). That was God’s command to Joshua,  and the secret of his success. That is how he would  defeat all the power of the enemy and come at last  to the Kingdom of God, with the seed of Abraham.

In the Law God looked ahead to the time when  Israel would want a king, and he instructed the  king to write his own copy of the Law. Every day  the priest would walk around to the palace with a  scroll, and the king would copy it out with his own  hand, letter by letter, word by word, line by line.  He was to keep the copy by him and read it every  day, “he and his children” (Deut 17:19–20). As his  children grew up in the palace they were to see him  reading from his own copy of the Word of God, they  were to be taught by him what the Word of God  said, how it guided him in his life, and how they in  turn should live. Again the Word of God was the  difference between failure and success.

And as Paul prepared Timothy for a challenging  ecclesial environment beyond the apostolic age,  he instructed him, “Give yourself to reading, to  exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim 4:13–16). “Practise  these things, immerse yourself in them, so that  all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on  yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so  doing you will save both yourself and your hearers”  (esv). This was Paul’s answer to “perilous times”.

Whether the Lord Jesus had access to the  written Word of God only at the synagogue in  Nazareth, or also at home, we do not know. It is  obvious from the gospels that his mind and heart  were saturated with the Word of God, and that was  in addition to the voice of God speaking directly  to him every day.

Meditation

We cannot separate meditation from reading. They  go together. The Hebrew words for meditation are  also used of speech generally, and so meditation is  inner speech. We are all conscious of the stream of  words, of thoughts, the inner narrative, the chatter  that is going on in our heads all the time. Meditation  is taking that stream of thought and fixing it on the  things of God.

Once we have read the Word of God, we can  carry it with us wherever we go.

“His delight is in the law of the Lord; and in  his law doth he meditate day and night” (Psa 1:2).  “I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches. Because thou hast been  my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will  I rejoice” (Psa 63:6–7).

“Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within  me; my heart within me is desolate. I remember  the days of old; I meditate on all thy works; I muse  on the work of thy hands. I stretch forth my hands  unto thee: my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty  land” (Psa 143:4–6).

“On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and  on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Psa  145:5, esv).

Whether we are lighthearted and joyful and  confident in God’s promises, or anxious and  afraid and desperately searching for answers and  explanations in the middle of some great personal  trial, reading and meditation and prayer will bring  us back to God, and the certainty of His love, and  the greatness of His power.

What better way to go to sleep, or to spend a  sleepless hour if we wake up with an anxiety attack  in the middle of the night? What better way to  spend time driving in the car, or if we have a quiet  moment in a park during the day, than reading,  and meditation, and prayer? Let us switch off the  radio and the television, log off the computer, turn  off the mobile phone and fill every corner of our  minds with the Word of God!

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true,  whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are  just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things  are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if  there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think  on these things” (Phil 4:8).

The dangers of not reading

Can we get by without reading the Word of God  for ourselves?

At least seven times the Lord challenged the  people of his day to read the Word of God, or  criticised them for not reading it. The passages  to which he refers come from all over the Old  Testament. He clearly expects us to be reading the  Word of God widely and thoroughly.

And there are terrible consequences of not  reading. Our spiritual perspective becomes badly  distorted (Matt 12:3; Mark 2:25; Luke 6:3). Service  becomes stagnation (Matt 12:5). We work the love  of God out of our lives (Luke 10:26). We bend  God’s law out of shape to serve self–interest (Matt  19:4). We cannot see Christ as he is, and rejoice in  him (Matt 21:16). We fail to see the true greatness  of Christ, and the reality of his return, and judgment  to come (Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10). We lose sight  of the true power of God, and end up believing  nonsense (Matt 22:31; Mark 12:26).

Pray God we will dedicate ourselves to reading  the Word of God with care and insight!

How to read

First, we must make time for reading. It is essential  that we structure our day to put the first thing  first – reading the Word of God. Whether we use  a diary or whether we have a straightforward life  where every day is fairly predictable, we need to  ensure that there is time with God over His Word.

Second, we must read with prayer. Sincerity, not  quantity, is what impresses God. We could do worse than take the words of Psalm 119:

“Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word. Open thou mine eyes, that  I may behold wondrous things out of thy law. I am  a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me” (v17–19).

Until we have really come to terms with the power of the Word of God for its first hearers or  first readers, we will not really understand what it is saying to us. So we must start with the then and  there, the original situation.

So when we read Joshua 24, for example, it will  help us a great deal to see that old, white-haired  warrior standing before the people in the plain  between the two high hills of Ebal and Gerizim as  he points to them and reminds Israel of the blessings  and the curses and calls on them to make a choice.  Or when we read Psalm 119, it will help us to  revel in its rich celebration of the great wealth and  awesome power of the Word of God if we are able to  see a young man, scorned and persecuted, ardent for  God yet conscious of his own temptations, moved  to tears by the pressure he is under yet rejoicing  in the Word of God, poring over the heavy scrolls  of Scripture by the light of an oil lamp, searching  through each chapter for the assurances and the  promises of God, tracing the thread of God’s  faithful love for His people through their turbulent  history and his own experience.

Every chapter of the Bible has its story: every  proverb, every law, even those genealogies, with theirlong lists of Hebrew names. Each of them was a real  person, with a real place in history, and they have  a powerful spiritual story to tell if we will read it.

So put yourself in the situation and feel all the  drama and the emotion, flinch at the failure, feel  the sting of rebuke, smell the fear, experience the  agony of defeat, and taste the victory. Every effort to  bring these things to life will pay off and the Word  of God in all its power and glory will break over us  afresh like a surging wave.

When you have done that, it will be time for  our fourth step: to move from the then and there to  the here and now, to apply the living and powerful  Word of God to ourselves, and ask what we can  learn, what we can believe, what we can do or avoid  doing, or hold onto, or love, or share, or pray about,  from that Word.

The questions opposite may help us as we read.

Family Bible reading

Like the kings of Israel, we are to read for the next  generation, and with the next generation. It is  critically important that we make time for this each  day. Like personal reading, if we don’t prioritise it  and build it into the structure of the day, it’s very  likely not going to happen at all. We find the best  time is after tea, straight after doing the washing-up,  but other times might work better for you.

If we don’t know much about the chapter, then  we can take the questions above and go through the  chapter and answer them for ourselves first. That  quick ten minutes will enable us to implant the key  points of that chapter in the hearts and the minds of  our children, a small investment of our time that will  repay itself many, many times. A Bible dictionary  and a Bible atlas will fill in most of the gaps; and  books and study notes are also very useful.

It is also helpful to explain the story and the  implications for our lives as we read, taking a few  verses at a time, so that our children understand as  they read. That’s what Ezra did, and that was for  adults. When it comes to children, it is even more  important to break it small.

There are other ways of helping children to  take away something of value, like choosing a key  verse that sums up the purpose and point of a  passage, or pencilling in a few words that sum up,  or spending some extra time to mark something  into our Bibles. The Sunday School Association  publishes worksheets for this purpose. You might  have seen the ‘Know Question’ series that is being  distributed by the Scripture Study Service, which  includes questions against every chapter of the  Bible, structured around the daily readings program.  All of these things are there to help us.

Do we value Sunday School?

One other place where our children learn to read the  Bible is Sunday School. We should never, ever treat  Sunday School homework as a task to get out of the  way, or even worse, to skip over during the week.  We will get the most value out of it on Monday  night, when the teaching diligently prepared and  delivered by the teachers the previous day is still  fresh in the mind.

It is important to get actively involved not just in  settling children down to the task, but in reminding  them of the lesson, helping them with their answers,  vetting the amount of effort that has gone into the  homework and the quality of the outcome.

A structured approach reminds children every  week that Sunday School is important, that Sunday  School homework is important, and that they need  to value the work of their teachers and the Word of  God from which their teaching is taken.

Are we teaching our members how to eat their Bibles?

In “the book of the prophet Isaiah” (29:10–14) the  prophet speaks of the Word of God being handed  to an educated man. “I cannot read it”, the man  replies, “because it is sealed.” So the scroll is handed  to an uneducated man. “I cannot read it”, he replies,  “because I have never learned to read.”

The first man is making excuses, and feeble excuses at that. He will grow close to God only  when he takes his Bible off the shelf, and begins to bend his capable mind to the task of reading  and understanding it. We have never been so well educated, and particularly our young people. Many  of us have one, or two, or three qualifications.  How many of us are applying those skills – time  management, research, critical enquiry, imagination  – to our Bible reading? The time may come when  we cannot! If we refuse to open the book, God may  seal it against us.

But the second man is also at fault. He has not  invested the time, and equally his ecclesia has not  invested the time in helping him develop the skills  to read it and find meaning in it for himself and  his family. He will grow close to God only when  he learns to read the Bible for himself. And even  though there is a critical personal responsibility  here, there is also an exhortation to every ecclesia to  provide the tools, keys, helps and skills that people  need in order to read and understand the Bible for  themselves.

The one could, but would not; the other would,  but could not. Consequently the Word of God was  neglected in Judah – and will be in our ecclesias unless we address these same issues.

Are our Sunday Schools and our Youth Groups  and our Bible Classes, our Sunday morning and  Sunday evening activities teaching our members  how to read the Word of God by themselves, for  themselves? Is it working?

Jeremiah said, “Thy words were found, and I  did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy  and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy  name, O Lord God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16). But Amos  warned Israel, “The days come, saith the Lord God,  that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine  of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the  words of the Lord: And they shall wander from  sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they  shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord,  and shall not find it” (Amos 8:11–12).

If we serve up a cracker talk, we feed our  listeners for a day. If we teach them how to read and  understand and draw nourishment from the Word  of God for themselves, we feed them for a lifetime,  and we give them the means to feed others in turn.

Teaching our members how to eat their Bibles  must be a high priority for the Arranging Brethren  of every ecclesia.

Reading must issue in action

Reading must produce results. James speaks of  a natural man, looking into a mirror, walking  away, and instantly forgetting how he looked (Jas  1:22–25). Is that how we read the Bible?

Unlike a mirror, the Word of God has the power  to read us, and change us, if we will continue in it.  “The one who looks into the perfect law, the law  of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who  forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in  his doing” (esv).

If we sow to the Spirit we will reap a great  harvest, a field of blessing that stretches to the  horizon and beyond – eternal life in the presence  of our Lord Jesus Christ and the great company of  those who have known him, and loved him, and  followed him.