In our latest article on the holy habit of biblical teaching, Ed Mackenzie explores a stern warning from the New Testament letter attributed to the apostle James.
29 October 2023
Living the word
But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
James 1:22 (NRSV)
The holy habit of biblical teaching invites people not only to listen to the word, but also to live it. As James’ letter especially emphasises, listening to the word without being transformed by it is risky. We can end up deceiving ourselves, thinking that we’re faithful disciples when what we hear is like seed thrown on the path which the birds snatch away (Matthew 13:4, 19). Instead, our prayers should be for the word to descend into our hearts like the good seed that settles deep in the soil and bears great fruit (Matthew 13:8, 23).
The Bible itself uses a range of other images for how to put its teaching into practice, and these images can help us as we seek to teach the Bible or learn from it as disciples of Jesus.
To illustrate his emphasis on doing the word, the letter of James uses the image of a mirror (James 1:22–25). Those who hear the word without heeding it are like those who look in a mirror but immediately forget what they see, while the ‘doers’ of the word are those who ‘look into the perfect law’ and do it. The image suggests that the one who seeks to live according to scripture studies it closely, while also remembering its relevance for everyday life.
In terms of biblical teaching, the image of the mirror reminds us to ask the ‘so what’ question when reading or hearing scripture today. The ‘so what’ question asks what does the Bible mean for our lives here and now, and encourages us to link biblical teachings addressed to ancient audiences to our own contemporary context. Good preachers do this naturally, but the ‘so what’ question is something we can also ask in our private reading of the Bible.
Our prayers should be for the word to descend into our hearts like the good seed that settles deep in the soil and bears great fruit
Build on rock not sand
A second image for living out the scriptures is found in Jesus’ famous illustration of building a house upon a rock rather than on the sand (Matthew 7:24–28). The image comes at the end of the sermon on the mount, and Jesus begins by comparing the man who builds on the rock with the one who hears Jesus’ words and acts on them; when the floods come, the house stands. In contrast, the one who builds his house on the sand is compared to the one who hears Jesus’ words and ignores them; their house quickly collapses when the storms arrive.
While the image of building our house on the rock refers to constructing our lives on the words of Jesus, it can also lead us to consider more broadly the way in which the Bible as a whole is foundational for our life. Good questions to consider in this context are who or what do we turn to when making major decisions in life, and how might scripture be a part of that process? Even if it may not tell us specifically how to act in the particular situation we face, the Bible will give us wisdom about the priorities to keep in mind as we make our decisions. In that way, it helps us to live out biblical teaching: to be doers not just hearers.
Even if it may not tell us specifically how to act in the particular situation we face, the Bible will give us wisdom about the priorities to keep in mind as we make our decisions.
Change from the inside out
A third image which powerfully illustrates putting the word into practice is found in 1 Peter 2, where the author instructs his readers to ‘crave pure spiritual milk’, since – like babies – they need nourishment to ‘grow up’ into salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Having already tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:3), Christians are encouraged to stay thirsty for growth! While such an image might be uncomfortable for readers today, and is followed quickly by the image of Christians as ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2:5), it emphasises that biblical teaching is meant to change us from the inside out.
But how do we know if the ‘milk’ of scripture is helping to shape us, or if we’re putting its words into action? One helpful criterion we can turn to is the double ‘love-commandment’ as taught by Jesus (Mark 13:28–34). We can use this as a guide, asking whether our reading of scripture helps us to love God more deeply and love our neighbour, including our enemies, better. If so, we’re on the path of scriptural transformation.
As all these images remind us, scripture is meant to be lived and not just read, embodied and not simply heard. As we live out the Bible, God helps us to grow as disciples of Jesus, forming us as salt and light in today’s society (Matthew 5:13–16).