“We gotta take up and read
Or we will never proceed
In growing up into maturity, we oughta take heed
In these last days what we need
We gotta take up and read
And be the People of the Book!
Gotta be the People of the Book!”
So begins the song “Take Up and Read” by Philadelphia-based hip hop artist and church-planter Shai Linne. I was a senior at Tulane University when I first heard the album that featured this song. At that point in my life, I hated to read but I loved hip hop! Music was so much easier to listen to than to “take up and read” a book. Today, many people feel the same way about books that I felt back then. “Too much effort. Not worth it. I’m too busy. Reading is only for theologians.”
There are a couple of ways in which we can overcome these thorns and thistles and become avid readers. I would also argue that one of the Church’s (and especially the local church’s) greatest needs this day is that we be Christians who read and meditate on the great truths in books. In order to do this, we need to be motivated biblically, historically, and experientially.
In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul is writing to Timothy at the end of his life and tells him to “bring…the books, and above all the parchments.” Now, Paul knew that he was at the end of his life and was now not wasting any words and any time with Timothy. What Paul wanted, Paul needed; and in this case, Paul needed to read. Why did he need to read? Shouldn’t he just reflect on his life and his influence, and shouldn’t he glory in what he has done for God? Shouldn’t Paul stop worrying about reading any more since the Holy Spirit already inspired him to write much of the Scripture? Wasn’t Paul already sanctified enough to worry about learning more about the Lord Jesus Christ?
Commenting on this passage, John Calvin says, “Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise?... Let us know that this passage gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading, that they may profit by it.” Paul knew what he had written earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:18, that it is as we behold the glory of Jesus that we are transformed into the same image by the Holy Spirit. It is as we read and meditate upon the Lord Jesus Christ that we behold the glory of Jesus. God has given us a Book rather than a voice recorder or a long YouTube video. The biblical mandate is for us to be readers!
In history, we see men such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones who was a lover of books. He was known to take theology books onto the beach with his family. Many nights in the Lloyd-Jones’ home would end with reading and praying no matter who was there. Elizabeth Catherwood, Martyn’s oldest daughter, once said, “He read a lot, yes, but he didn’t read quickly.” But she also said, “He was the great reader. It was his work, it was his enjoyment. It was part of him and so it became part of us.” Lloyd-Jones’ reading became contagious to others, just as it can become now. He was a man who preached regularly to 3,000 people, and spoke at many conferences around the country, yet he made reading a priority because of the true knowledge it gave him.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his Banner of Truth booklet “Read any good books?”, says that much of the health of the Church comes from reading. “Christian history, biography, and personal experience show us that Christians who read have tended to be stronger Christians than they otherwise would have been…In fact, what we discover in many biographies is that those who have been the greatest Christian activists have also been the most prolific producers of and readers of Christian literature.”
We also see that reading gives us experiences that are unlike any other. S.D. Smith says that there are five reasons we need to read fiction: “Stories help us escape into reality. Stories shape our identity. Imagination is a crucial capacity for faith. Stories reinforce--or undermine--our allegiances and affections. And, experiencing vicarious pain and conflict [through stories] is a good primer for life.” This wouldn’t merely apply for good fiction but also for the deepest doctrinal books you can find. Understanding the truth about life helps us to see the true Story we are in. Studying biblical doctrine dramatically impacts the way we do even the simplest things such as cook, drive, or use our phones. When we grab hold of God’s theology then we see His theology grab hold of us. When we gaze upon the beauty of Christ through books the echo of His beauty is heard in our souls.
It is said by some that the Church has never had more resources yet has never been so uneducated in the truth. It was the printing press that caused the Reformation to flourish and the bonds of Satan to be loosed through the reading of the truth. It will also be through the reading and meditating upon good books that the Church today will attain to greater depths in the knowledge of the infinite love and beauty of God. We should also beware of being fooled that the many books in our homes tell the true story of the love of God in our hearts. We must read but we must take what we read to heart.