Last week I was asked to give the devotional in our Basics of Biblical Greek class at seminary. I chose the text from 1 Timothy 4:16 where Paul exhorts Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and those who hear you.” I encouraged all of us, as we are being equipped for ministry, to labor to avoid the fatal (and I mean fatal) mistake of studying functionally instead of studying devotionally.
In order to “Pay close attention to [ourselves],” we must take our studying seriously, and by this I mean that we must always be primarily seeking to study for the sake of our souls , so that our preaching, teaching, and overall ministry will be an overflow of our relationship with Christ, instead of something fabricated and conjured up by mere gathering of information to give to others. In order to highlight and illustrate this truth, I read a portion from Shepherding God’s Flock by Jay Adams:
While fixing the shoes of others, the shoemaker’s own soles may wear through…It is so easy for the minister, in spite of Paul’s warning (I Timothy 4:14-16), in becoming a servant to the flock, to neglect himself. This may be remedied by continually remembering that he must glorify God and by recognizing that there is a proper self-concern that ultimately is for the benefit of the whole congregation. At the bottom of all problems of preaching and pastoral effort, there is always one basic deficiency: the deficiencies of the pastor/teacher himself. Our churches will hear better preaching only when it is done by better preachers; the congregation will receive better shepherding only when it is done by better shepherds. How vital it is not only for his own sake, but for everyone else as well, for a pastor to cultivate and sustain a vital relationship with God.
One great temptation, for instance, is for the minister to read Scriptures only in terms of sermons and ministry. Since he must preach to others, counsel with others, and in a dozen different ways minister from the Book to someone else, it is not hard for the minster to neglect the sort of reading that is calculated to penetrate his own heart and affect his life. Couple that with the problem that the seminary graduate faced every time that he studies a passage of Scripture; how can he read the English Bible “devotionally” when he wonders what the Greek or Hebrew and the commentaries have to say about the passage? If he does not reach for his study aids, he is troubled; if he does, he has ceased to worship. What is the way out of this dilemma?
One answer that has commended itself to many men is to stop divorcing personal “devotions” (as they are usually called) from study. Instead, the minister must develop a new practice of studying devotionally. When he studies for his sermons, his general reading, or whatever the occasion may be, he will study first with the aim of personal application leading to personal worship and prayer. Thus the meaning of a Greek verb tense understood for the first time may lead to praise and thanksgiving or perhaps conviction of sin and confession…Such study, that snags the life of the man as he works, that buffets and refines and shapes the student, eventuates in a different sort of preaching and teaching of the Scriptures. The man who studies first with his own relationship to God in view is a man who will preach more vitally to the lives of others (pgs. 23-24).
From having experienced the ill-effects of heartless, functional study, I would say that this is not an optional aspect of the ministry–it is a matter of spiritual life and death. If we constantly deflect truth from God’s Word onto those we are ministering to rather than absorbing it ourselves, we will dry up and be blown away – either by the trials of ministry or by disqualifying sin–because we never drank the water we were giving to others.