From Again Magazine Volume 15, Number 3-September, 1992 Page 20-22
MATTHEW THE POOR
HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE
There are two ways of reading. The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others. The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.
The first way is suitable for any book in the world, whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second gives God mastery as the all-wise and all-powerful Creator.
But if man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from them both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles. And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small; the divine being appears limited and His awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things—the very same forbidden thing that Adam committed in the beginning.
UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPEL
There is no intellectual means of entering into the Gospel, for the Gospel is spiritual. It must be obeyed and lived through the Spirit before it can be understood.
If anyone living outside the Gospel tries to understand it he will stumble and fall, and if he dares to try to teach it, he will be a stumbling block to those who follow him. But if anyone has true zeal, burning love, and total obedience to God and carries out just one of the commandments of the Gospel precisely, that person enters into the mystery of the Gospel without being aware of it.
The first thing we discover is God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises in our own souls. This makes our minds eager to receive the spark of living faith that settles in the heart and kindles there a great fire of love and fear of God. Spiritual experience increases and the level of understanding of the Gospel deepens according to the degree to which we carry out its commandments faithfully and precisely.
A sincere and humble acceptance of obedience to God that springs from a heart undefiled by falsehood, hypocrisy, love of display, or exhibitionism, and not looking for any particular results, may be considered the beginning of the true way to the knowledge of God. This is because intentions are tested by temptations as we try to carry out the commandments; we are helped according to the degree of our faith and perseverance, and in so far as we receive help, our trust increases and our knowledge of God and His ways grows surer.
All this is to say that the spiritual understanding of the Gospel and of God is the result of the formation of a relationship with God through obedience to His commandments. This is not simply an understanding of texts and verses, but an understanding of the power of the word and knowledge of the life that springs from the verse based on experience, trust, evidence, and an unshakable faith in God.
ACADEMIC MEDITATION AND PRACTICAL MEDITATION
There is an academic understanding of meditation on the Bible and a practical understanding of it.
Academic meditation is the product of ideas resulting from study, research, pondering the meanings of the verses and their relation to each other, and arriving at facts by a process of logical deduction.
Practical meditation comes through inspiration, which the soul perceives as a result of its experience and its trials and struggles with the truth when it follows the commandments of the Gospel. This is also supplemented by the illuminations and promptings of the Spirit, which we receive in due time without having previously acquired knowledge of the things revealed.
Academic meditation on the Bible stimulates the mind but leaves the spirit unmoved. It makes the listener desire the truth without showing him how to enter into it. It provides us with an image of God but cannot bring us face to face with Him. Academic meditation alone, though useful in itself, without practical implementation leads to a worship that is merely formal and
to a false intellectual devotion to the Gospel. ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6).
Regrettable as it is, this type of reading, understanding, exposition, and teaching of the Bible has precedence in our Church and indeed throughout the world at the present time. The Gospel has been reduced to a source from which one may quote verses or prove principles, and the ideas it contains have become academic points to support sermons and articles.
So the Gospel has become a reliable way of gaining fame, academic degrees, and the admiration of the world, though the basis of the Gospel and the truth it contains is the enemy of fame and false worldly knowledge, and the enemy of the admiration of the world. The Church thus suffers a great loss when it abandons the practical teaching of the Bible and is concerned with the academic.
As for practical meditation on the Bible, it is attained by receiving divine truth through secret obedience to the commandments, and as a result the heart faithfully clings to God in seemly fear and true humility. This builds a practical and sure relationship with God.
That is to say that practical meditation builds an inner life with God that impregnates a person’s words, thoughts, and teachings with divine power. Thus with a single word he may convey truth to a listener, as did the Fathers, who lived the Gospel with all their heart, mind, and power. Their words were not eloquent or full of high-flown meditations, but they conveyed the mystery since they had the power to give new life to the listener.
In the sayings of the ascetic Fathers of the fourth century and later, this was the normal pattern of instruction: A novice would go to the old Father and say, “Speak to me a word that I may live.” The old man would say very little to him, but because of the power of his experience and the grace it brought, this little would be enough for the novice to live by and overcome all the difficulties he faced. This is the truest picture of how the Gospel should be understood and preached.
How appropriate for us today are the words of the Apostle: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).
THE POWER OF A LIFE OF PRACTICAL SIMPLICITY
If we look back to the early days of the Church, we are astonished at its power, especially that of the newly-founded Churches. In spite of the fact that the people were simple and ignorant of the Bible—for manuscripts were only rarely possessed by individuals—and in spite of the newness of their faith in Christ and the deep influence of their old pagan customs, their spiritual life and their demonstrations of faith, love, and zeal were fine examples of a powerful life lived according to the precepts of the Gospel, a model for practical understanding of the meaning of eternal life, the Kingdom of God, living by faith, dying to the world, faithfulness to Christ, expectation of His second coming, and faith in the Resurrection. Even up to the present time, we still draw on their faith and tradition, and understand only with difficulty the letters that were written to them, which they understood easily and lived out.
The secret of all this is that they lived by what they heard. Every commandment fell on faithful hearts prepared to act sincerely. All the words of Christ entered deeply into the fabric of daily life. The Gospel was translated into work and life.
Those simple people understood the Gospel. They understood that it was a life to be lived, not principles to be discussed, and they refused to understand it on a purely academic level. Up to this day, faithful followers of Christ still draw life for themselves from the living spring of the understanding of those early Christians.
These early communities, burning with love for Christ, had no creeds, no patrology, no expositions of Scripture, but the few words of Christ that reached their ears immediately became their creed, needing no explanations or teaching or interpretation, but needing, as they saw it, to be experienced and lived. Through experience they would discover the power of the words and bring to light the mysteries they contained. And so their zeal and love and faith in Christ and the Gospel would grow.
When they heard “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” they sold everything and laid their money at the feet of the Apostles.
When they heard “Blessed are those who mourn now,” they despised all suffering and weariness in the service of the Lord. When they heard “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” they bore the cruelest humiliations and insults and attacks.
When they heard “Watch and pray,” they met in the catacombs to watch and pray all night.
When they heard “Love your enemies,” history recorded no resistance put up by the Christians, whether positive or negative, against their persecutors. And they bowed their necks to the sword in humility and obedience to honor the words of Christ.
This was for them the meaning of reading the Gospel and understanding it. There was born in them a hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, and this is why the Holy Spirit was at His most active in working with them. He would give power to the word, strengthen their hearts, support them in weakness, lead them in the darkness, comfort them in distress, and accompany them along the way till they gave up their spirit into the hand of its Creator with great glory.
READING WITH AND WITHOUT PRACTICAL APPLICATION
Reading remains useless, understanding powerless, and memorization a mere repetition of empty words, unless we obey the commandment and the word becomes a law of life, no matter what sacrifice, cost, hardship, or scorn we may bear. And the Lord Jesus says even more than this; He says that whoever reads His words and understands them but does not obey them will suffer destruction and great loss, like a man who builds his house on the sand. “And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:26,27).
Perhaps you may say, with me, that it would have been better if he had never built, or heard or known or learned, anything.
The life of the Pharisees and Sadducees was like this: minute obedience to the law, skilled explanations and expositions of the commandments, legal opinions so detailed that they went beyond the truth and simplicity of the Spirit, dead works and a life that was spiritually desolate. “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered right, do this and you will live’ “(Luke 10:25-28).
The Lord compares those who hear the word and obey it with those who built houses on the rock. This points to the fact that the power of the word is dependent entirely on one’s practical experience of it (for one can only receive and know help in difficulty and danger), the mysterious aid of the Holy Spirit, and sincere obedience to the precepts of the Gospel.
A word on a man’s lips, if he truly lives by it, is like a house built on a rock; it is firm and has nothing to fear. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24,25).
Here perhaps you may say with me, “If only my house could be built on the rock, and my reading and understanding and knowledge of the Gospel be used for living, rather than as a subject for talking, preaching, conversation, and meditation.”
Matthew the Poor, Matta el Meskin, is a modern Coptic Orthodox monk living in the Egyptian desert.
The above article is excerpted from The Communion of Love (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984). Used by permission.