Biblical Devotional Reading

August 2013



Reading the writings of some outstanding biblical preachers had a marked influence on my life as a young person. I had several favourite authors. Let me mention a few of them: F. B. Meyer, G. Campbell Morgan, A. T. Robertson, John Stott, Leon Morris, F. F. Bruce and H. L. Ellison. I valued their writings because they helped me to get into the Word, to get background information that I did not have access to which helped illumine the text, and to be nourished by scriptural truth. It was clear that these writers had studied and meditated on biblical passages carefully to see what the biblical author meant. They then attempted to apply what the passage said to the present-day hearers (some of these authors were more helpful, when it came to application, than others). These writings helped me realise the power of the Word to speak to us and transform our lives. As a young person I determined that I too would study the Word with rigour.

Nowadays I have added several other authors to my list of favourite biblically grounded devotional writers. Here are some of them: Don Carson, Robert Coleman, David Gooding, E. Stanley Jones, Derek Kidner, Dennis Kinlaw, Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, J. A. Motyer, John Piper, A. T. Robertson, Tom Schreiner, Robert Solomon, Chris Wright, and Philip Yancey.

I occasionally read such books as part of my devotions as a change or an addition to my normal routine of reading and studying the Bible inductively. I also sometimes go to the beach and spend time with such books while basking in the glory of God’s creation. I read them on trains and planes and in airports. Sometimes I read for a few minutes before going to sleep. I have found that I often need to shut off the TV and my internet connection so as to be freed to do such reading. This kind of exegetical devotional book must be read slowly, a few pages at a time, if we are to reap the maximum benefit from it. I take this as part of my pursuit of pleasure. There are few pleasures as rich and enjoyable as reflecting on the eternal truths of God.

I do not always agree with the applications that these authors make from the passages of scripture discussed. This relates to one of the challenges of application: some people will disagree with our applications. But because of this we should not shy away from making such applications. The applications are not divinely inspired and inerrant like the Word of God. These expository writers open up the inerrant Word to me so that I could understand it and consider how to apply it to my personal life. They teach me that I must seek to engage the Scriptures in a thoroughgoing way so as to let it speak specifically to the issues we face today.

When I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary we had Bishop Stephen Neill, who served with distinction in India, Kenya and England, visiting us for two days. He had one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. During a question and answer time he recommended something to the students which I have found very helpful. He recommended that when we launch into ministry we regularly read theological books slowly, a little at a time, when we can find the time, even if it takes several months to complete them.

I also recommend that every Christian develops one or more “writer-mentors,” that is, people whose life and ministry is such that it will become a model to you. This recommendation originally came to me from John Piper who had Jonathan Edwards as his mentor. I chose John Wesley as my “writer-mentor” for several reasons. He founded the denomination I belong to; he was able to combine the sound mind with a warm heart; and he was very effective in ministry among the poor. He has probably influenced by preaching style more than anyone else because I read his sermons when I was starting off as a preacher in my late teens and early twenties.

There is another helpful lesson that I learned from John Piper. He said, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.”[1] What I learned from this is that sometimes one does not have to read a whole book to be blessed by an author. When you are reading a large book slowly, it may take too long to complete the whole book. Sometimes we may leave a book after reading a substantial portion of the book, as we have imbibed enough of the author’s burden for the time being.

I have already implied that this kind of devotional reading is a major means of personal renewal. We need to be constantly exposed to means that feed our heart and mind. The most important thing here, of course, is exposure to the Bible. To that I would add the need to be exposed to the thinking of other thoughtful Christians. There is a great danger that in today’s digitalized world, Christians get exposed to limitless bytes of information that fill the mind but do not feed the soul. A pastor who left the ministry as a result of burn-out left behind his library at his office in his last church. When his successor came and looked at his library, he noticed that many of the books he has acquired early in his ministry were on Bible and theology, but most of his more recently acquired books were on practical topics relating to techniques of ministry and leadership.[2] He had probably neglected the work of feeding his mind and soul.

Devotional books based on exegesis feed us with security-building realities. These realities give us strength to go through the rigours of an active life of service to others. Without this strength we can become very insecure people because we confront many uncertainties and receive many blows in life. This is what gave the psalmists the courage to persevere against all odds. David said, “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psa. 119:92). Deep down we are braced by the reality that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). With so much uncertainty around, we cling to the belief that truth will finally triumph. As Peter said, “The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:24-25). As we are bombarded daily with messages that seem to deny this, it is easy to imbibe the insecurity of the world. This is why we need to be fed by a regular dose of the truths of God. These abiding truths give us the security to persevere amidst so many seeming setbacks in ministry.

I am convinced that burnout takes place more as a result of insecurity than hard work. Paul uses of the verb kopiaō, which carries the idea of toiling or working to the point of exhaustion, thirteen times,[3] and the corresponding noun kopos eight times[4] in connection with Christian ministry. This suggests that hard work and tiredness are inevitable in ministry. But if our hard work and passion for success comes from trying to overcome our insecurities, we would never be contented in ministry and could keep pushing ourselves until we get burned out. Therefore feeding our minds with truths which affirm our security should be a priority in ministry. So is time spent alone with God in prayer. But that is beyond the scope of this book.


Let’s bring back the practice of slow, thoughtful reading into our lives.

[1] John Piper, The Godward Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1997).

[2] This was related by Bishop Robert Solomon of Singapore in a seminar he conducted in Sri Lanka many years ago. He took it from David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), pp. 17-19.

[3] Acts 20:35; Rom. 16:6, 12; 1 Cor. 4:12; 15:10; 16:16; Gal. 4:11; Phil. 2:16; Col. 1:29; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 4:10; 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:6;

[4] 1 Cor. 15:58; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:23, 27; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:9; 3:5; 2 Thess. 3:8.