In the context of the Christian faith, a disciple is not only one who subscribes to the teachings of Jesus and seeks to spread them, but one who seeks to relive Jesus’ life in the world. Discipline for the Christian is the way we train ourselves or allow the Spirit to train us to be like Jesus, to appropriate his spirit and to cultivate the power to live his life in the world.
So discipleship means discipline. We have to work at being Christian. The purpose of discipline for Christians is spiritual growth and ultimately our total transformation. Study is an important way of “abiding” in the teaching of Jesus and using the tools Scripture provides to rightly discern the truth. We want cultivated in us the deep desire to rightly divide the truth.
Renewing and Abiding
Paul sounds the mandate for those who would be disciples:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
We are what we think. We are transformed by the renewal of our minds. So study is a necessary discipline for spiritual growth.
Moreover, consider the relationship between transformation and abiding. The word “abide” appears frequently in John’s Gospel, particularly in Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches (John 15). In that setting, it is often translated “remain” (“remain in me”…that is, “stay with me”).
In John 8:31, the word is translated “hold to” (“hold to my teaching” in the NIV), “continue in” (“continue in my word” NRSV), and “remain faithful to” (“remain faithful to my teachings” NLT).
What might these various renderings mean for the way we discipline ourselves through study?
Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
Unfortunately and shamefully, study is not often high on the priority of most Christians. For some, there is even a suspicion of learning, and to be “smart” and to be Christian are incongruent.
A story from John Wesley’s life chides us here. He received a letter once from a pious brother who declared, “the Lord has directed me to write you that while you know Greek and Hebrew, he can do without your learning.” Mr. Wesley replied appropriately, ”Your letter received, and I may say in reply that your letter was superfluous as I already know that the Lord could do without my learning. I wish to say to you that while the Lord does not direct me to tell you, yet I feel impelled to tell you on my own responsibility, that the Lord does not need your ignorance either.”
Jesus made it clear that knowledge is essential, absolutely essential: knowledge of the truth. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Some in the crowds that were following Jesus believed in him. But Jesus dealt with the issue of how deeply they were committed. Would they break loose from the crowd and cast their lot with this one who was claiming to be “the way”? Could they handle the pressure of their leaders who felt that this itinerate preacher was threatening their religion and way of life?
He makes clear the terms of discipleship for those who believed him. They must not only hear what he was teaching, they must “abide” in his word if they were to be a part of his company (John 8:31).
To Jesus’ word we add Paul’s word to Timothy, “study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).
Paul is specifically addressing Timothy in his vocation, urging him to distinguish himself from the false teachers by being a teacher of the truth. Yet his word has general application to us. The phrase that is relevant to our discipline of study is “rightly dividing the word of truth.”
William Barclay in his commentary, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, provides unusual insight into this phrase by examining the Greek word for “rightly divide.” It is the word orthotomein, which literally means to cut rightly. It has many pictures in it. The Greeks themselves used the word, or the phrase, in three different connections: for driving a straight road across country; for plowing a straight furrow across a field; and for the work of a mason in cutting and squaring a stone so that it fit into its correct place in the structure of the building.
When we rightly divide, we rightly handle the word of truth, driving a straight road through the truth and refusing to be lured down pleasant but irrelevant bypaths. We plow a straight furrow across the field of truth. We take each section of the truth, and fit it into its correct position, as a mason does a stone, allowing no part to usurp an undue place or an undue emphasis, and so to knock the whole structure of truth out of balance (Barclay, 198-99).
What Scripture Provides
In practicing the discipline of study, we seek and hopefully find the truth, which makes us free.
- Teaching It is true that Christianity is not founded on a book but on a living person. Before we had a New Testament, we had Christians and the Christian church. But not much time passed before it was necessary for these first Christians to present this living person, Jesus, by writing his story – the Gospels. So, the fact now is that we get our firsthand account of Jesus and his teaching from the New Testament. There is no place else to get it. The Bible is irreplaceable for teaching us who Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are, what they have done, and what they are calling us to be.
- Reproof We normally think of reproof as finding fault and criticizing. Here it means conviction. Scripture convicts us, confronting and convincing us of our sin and error, but also bringing us face to face with the pursuing grace of God, the forgiving love of Christ, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.
- Correction We considered earlier Jesus’ claim about knowing the truth and the truth setting us free. The correcting work of Scripture is the testing of truth. We must always use our minds, dedicating them to the pursuit of truth; and truth is truth wherever we find it. The point here is that we are to test all theology, all ethical teaching, all moral codes by the Bible’s teaching. The key to this testing lies in the teaching of Jesus Christ as the Scriptures present it to us. That means that isolated teachings of the Bible must be tested by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In him the divine Yes has been spoken.
- Training in righteousness This is the end of it all, training in righteousness, and for what purpose? “That everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:18).
We study the Bible that we may live a godly life now, doing the will of God, being used by God for the salvation of others.
We Are What We Think
In Romans 12:1-2 Paul calls us to be renewed by the renewing of our minds. In Philippians 4:8-9, he urges us to meditate on those virtues, that is, on what we want to become. Paul might even say, “we are what we think.”
The body of evidence to confirm this assertion is growing daily. Yet we each have to learn this lesson for ourselves: we are what we think. Sour dispositions create not only sick souls but also sick bodies. Feelings of worthlessness, bitter resentment, and self-pity diminish us to fragments. A possessive nature, self-indulgence, self-protectiveness, and self-centeredness shrivel the soul, create dysfunctions within us, distort perception, blur perspective, and prevent the healing we need.
The opposite of this is also true. Those who fill their minds with positive affirmations, who concentrate on the noble virtues that make life meaningful, set the stage for healing and make possible the wholeness that is God’s design for all. Two thousand years before psychologists were teaching this truth, Paul discovered its power. “Meditate on these things,”he said – things that are noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report. We are what we think.
The discipline of study is important because how we use the dynamic power of our thinking determines whether it is Christian or not. Much of our culture reflects a perversion of this power. The “power of positive thinking” is supposed to make us millionaires, yet all too often it also turns us into self-serving people bent on satisfying all our desires. Thus we have a consumer economy of indulgence and waste. It is not arrogant, I think, for Paul, as he calls people to meditate on the great virtues, to add, “the things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9, NKJV). You cannot separate what Paul said from the style of his life and his passionate commitment to Christ as Lord of his life. Christians can use the “power of positive thinking” with integrity by keeping in mind where we are to center our thinking. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who…emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant…humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:5, 7-8, NKJV).
The disciplines we pursue are aimed at letting the mind of Christ grow in us. Jesus spoke of having ears but not hearing, eyes but not seeing. Seeing clearly and understanding the significance of what we study is why we practice study as a spiritual discipline.
Over and over again in his letters to the early Christians, Paul insisted that the power to live the Christian life faithfully came by studying God’s word. In fact, on 19 different occasions in his letters Paul says to the faithful, if you want God to truly resurrect the power of Christ in your own heart, it begins with knowing God’s word. That’s why God gave us his word, so that the more we know of it, the closer we will be drawn into understanding God’s will.
We study Scripture because it informs us about God’s presence in our lives and it warns us when our will and God’s will are moving in different directions. Ultimately, when we study God’s word we are nurturing our souls to be closer to God, to have God’s image restored in us, and to be like Jesus.