When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:13, NIV)
Was it writing paper, personal notebooks or favourite books that Paul asked Timothy for in this, his final published letter? We cannot be quite sure, and, of course, there were not printed books then. But that the Apostle read, we can be in no doubt; not only does he have encyclopaedic knowledge of Christian scripture, but he is able to quote pagan poets and sayings in common circulation. Here, whatever form it takes, he is longing for his reading matter!
All God’s people will benefit more than they realise by giving themselves to quality Christian books.
Expositions of Bible books preach passages to us and help us enjoy the treasures of Scripture. Many have been the holidays when I’ve been reinvigorated by taking one of Dale Ralph Davis’ volumes on books of the Old Testament, or a classic like Don Carson on the Sermon on the Mount.
Explanations of Christian belief deepen our understanding of God’s Word, and show us who he is and the wonder of what He’s done. Delve into great books such as Packer’s Knowing God or Stott’s The Cross of Christ and you will come out profoundly taught and encouraged. Such books will build convictions in us, and help develop what might be called a ‘theological sense of smell’. They will give us reasons to rejoice and motivation to serve.
Biographies of useful Christians are simultaneously challenging (read about Fraser of Lisuland and his lonely praying!) and encouraging (learn how the Lord has used weak, sometimes unlikely, people in His service). Here we see in others how Biblical principles can be lived out, and how mighty and faithful our God proves Himself to be. One tip though: if you read biographies, read plenty, for you will more likely be yourself if you see our Redeemer’s genius in using a great variety of people than if you make heroes of a few.
Then there are books of Christian history. Do you understand the Reformation? Or the 18th century revival? Or how liberalism infected the churches in 19th and 20th centuries? Or the mighty work of God in China over the past 150 years? We need to learn the lessons of history: how we got to where we are today, the trends that repeat themselves, the issues that were (and are) worth contending for. Some mistakes we make in our churches would perhaps have been avoided had we known our history better.
Books on particular topics will also greatly help us. We have to navigate a world of many faiths: how much do we understand about how radically different Christianity is from those? Do we have a good grasp of the reasons Christianity is true - the evidence for our faith? How do we answer tough questions? (I have a friend who resolved never to be beaten by the same question twice - he’d do the necessary research.) Can we explain the gospel clearly to our colleagues and friends? How do we navigate the complexities of living in a world of changing medical technology? How do we deal with the world’s hostility to Christianity over sex? How can we pray better? Or deal with the complexities of relationships? I am convicted as I write this by my own need to read more.
Books are also for giving. I have profited hugely from books given to me. Why not get a friend a book we’ve found helpful - or keep a pile of outreach books by the front door for visitors?
Reading is a mark of hunger (a desire to know and grow) and humility (for the reader admits they need help). But to do it in a world in which we are bombarded with busyness, emails and social media requires what Sanders here calls consecration: deliberately setting apart the time. The historian Owen Chadwick records that the great Thomas Cranmer, martyred in 1556, spent three-quarters of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury studying! This may not be practical for Christian leaders today, but certainly the minister who clears each morning for Bible study, prayer and reading (as opposed to emails and admin) is more likely to have a congregation that is deeply nourished. All of us might do well to make a habit of taking time on Sundays to read a Christian book, or using our commute more fruitfully.