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Bible (Part I) – Read It, Study It, Pray It [B1]

Updated: Feb 3

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The second topic of the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP, “B”, is about the Bible, the Word of God in written form. The Vatican Council taught that the “Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord… She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith.” (Dei Verbum (1965), 21). As we begin this discipleship process, we must start on the right foot which is to dig deep into God’s Word because it is only in the Bible and the Church that we can encounter Jesus in His entirety.


Opening Prayer


Dear Lord, let my cry come before you; in keeping with your word, give me understanding. Let my prayer come before you; rescue me according to your promise. May my lips pour forth your praise, because you teach me your statutes. May my tongue sing of your promise, for all your commandments are righteous. Keep your hand ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. I long for your salvation, Lord; your law is my delight. Let my soul live to praise you; may your judgments give me help. I have wandered like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments. Amen (Psalm 119:169-176).


Introduction


Saint Jerome by Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649)

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”. This is the famous saying from St. Jerome, and it is a true statement which he is emphasising. This maxim reminds us that our discipleship journey with Christ must involve Scripture. Like any strong relationship, it must be built upon getting to know the other party and loving them fully. If we do not read, study, and pray Scripture, then we really do not know who Jesus is and any relationship with him will be shallow.


So let’s dive into what the Bible, the Church and the Saints have to say about the Word of God – which we may summarize into three main points. Read and be transformed. Study and be awed. Pray and be loved.


1. Read and Be Transformed


Some people say that the No. 1 favourite verse of Singaporean Catholics is “Come to Me, all you who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Given that Singapore ranked as the 2nd most overworked city in the world in 2021 (just behind Hong Kong), this may perhaps come across as unsurprising. 😊


Nevertheless, the transforming power of God’s Word cannot be underestimated because as St. Paul says “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). We will look at examples of how reading the Word of God has changed the lives of people in and outside the Bible.


Old Testament


God’s Word is so powerful that it moved the hearts of His people, the Israelites.


In the Book of Nehemiah, we are introduced to Ezra, a priest and a scribe living in a time where the Israelites were living in foreign lands and had only begun to return to the Promised Land. He and many Jews were sent by the King of Persia back to Jerusalem, and the King even gave him gold and silver to make an offering to God as well as to restore the Temple. The Israelites, because of their time in exile away from God, had become accustomed to the practices of the pagan people around them and they had not been following God’s law.


Ezra worked to teach his fellow Israelites the Law of God. At one point, Ezra reads the Law of Moses to the people. This reading took 2 days, but the people listened intently and were shaken by how they had fallen away from God. They ended that event by celebrating the Feast of Booths which had not been celebrated for a long time. The Israelites took to heart the commands of God – so much so that they entered again into covenant with God and they divorced their pagan wives and children. They did this because they recognised that continuing in such relationships could lead them away from God and back into the slavery of sin.


New Testament


The Word of God leads us to Christ.


In Acts of the Apostles chapter 8, Philip is led to an Ethiopian eunuch who had gone to Jerusalem to worship and is on his way back to Ethiopia. This eunuch was reading Scripture and in particular the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah provides the most insights into the Messiah and he is the most cited prophet in the New Testament. Isaiah prophesises that a young woman will bear a son, and he will be called Emmanuel (God is with us), and the Messiah will be the Suffering Servant. Unfortunately, the eunuch does not understand what he is reading, so God sends Philip. Philip proceeds to instruct him and share with him how all the prophecies are about Jesus, who is Emmanuel and the Suffering Servant. Upon hearing this good news, the eunuch immediately requests to be baptised and goes back rejoicing.


Saint Philip Baptising the Ethiopian Eunuch by Aelbert Cuyp (ca. 1655)

This mirrors an earlier story in the Gospel where Jesus appears to 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus. The 2 disciples were walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem, disappointed and sad that Jesus whom they hoped to be the Messiah was crucified.


Jesus proceeded to walk them through Scripture to show them how the Messiah was meant to suffer to achieve His glory. This teaching by Jesus culminated in the breaking of bread, the Mass, where the disciples recognised him and his fulfilment of Scripture. They felt the burning of their hearts and went back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the apostles.


These scripture passages truly show how our relationship and discipleship must involve Scripture because when we do not dive into Scripture, we will miss who Jesus is.


Saints


In the early Church, many people were touched by Scripture. St. Antony of Egypt is one such individual. He is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism, and is also another example of the transforming power of Scripture. He was the son of well-to-do Christian parents who raised him to be Christian. His parents died when he was about 18 years old, and he was left with his parents’ fortune and the care of his younger sister.


One day he was at mass, praying how he could better conform to Christ when he heard the Gospel passage of Jesus speaking to the rich young man being read. Jesus challenges the rich young man to sell all that he possessed and give it to the poor so that he could be more perfect. It was the message that St. Antony was looking for. He proceeded to sell all that he had and gave it all to the poor, setting aside a small sum for the care of his sister. He then proceeded to live a life of discipline and austerity which gave birth to monasticism, a Christian way of life that is revered up to today.


St. Augustine had a strong encounter with Scripture too. After his conversion, he was so torn and saddened by his sins. He felt the temptations to return to his old ways and he was appealing to God to help give him relief. It is at this time, he heard a voice that told him to “Take it and read it”. He went to read the Gospels and he was struck by Romans 13:13 “let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy.” These words gave him strength and resolve. He knew what he had to do, he put aside all his immoral ways and embraced Christ.


We are challenged by Scripture to live lives that conform to God’s will. Are we ready the sacrifices necessary to align ourselves with God? To set aside relationships that could take us away from God as the Israelites in the time of Ezra? To follow the path of righteousness that St. Augustine took? And to be singularly focused on Christ without being distracted by our wealth like St. Antony?


Saint Anthony Abbot Shunning the Mass of Gold by Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455)

From the stories above, Scripture has excellent power to help us conform our lives to Christ, but this comes only when we engage Scripture:


"For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, struck as we are by so many forms of blindness." - Pope Francis (Aperuit Illis (2019), 8)


2. Study and Be Awed


The passages about Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and St. Philip with the Eunuch are prime examples of what it means to study the Bible. Studying the Bible means using the tools available to get to the meaning of the Scripture. We dig deep to discover Christ in the pages of the Bible and the love story and life-changing messages he left for us in his Word.


Here the Church offers some tips, and it introduces us to the senses of Scripture. Just like the human body has five senses which allow us to engage the world and to make sense of it. The senses of Scripture help us to perceive what Scripture is trying to say to us and to engage the text in a meaningful way.


Literal Sense


The primary sense of Scripture is the literal sense.[1] We must always approach Scripture with this sense first. The literal sense is to get the meaning from the words without allusion, to look at what the written word was meant or intended to convey.


Read the passage using the literal sense. Pay attention to the literary genre of the text. Read the passages before and after to situate the passage within the context of the Bible. Understand what is being said by the author. Read the passage in the light of its historical context. Are there special phrases and idioms being used? What is the cultural context and who is the intended audience? It is in the literal sense where the bulk of the studying of Scripture comes because we are reading a text that was written in a very different time and place. We would recommend starting by getting a good bible commentary or participating in a good bible study. There are many available resources online such as Formed.org also which can aid your growth in Scripture.


In Scripture studies, reading into scripture your own intentions, bias and presuppositions is called Eisegesis. The opposite, which is what we want to do, is Exegesis - where we glean from the passage the meaning the author intended. A proper literal sense reading helps us to avoid Eisegesis.


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