The letters of the apostle Paul, besides revealing to us the divine will of God, serve also as windows for us to peek into the apostle’s fascinating life. He comes across to us in his letters as a man of flesh and blood, one with whom we can certainly relate.
One of the snippets we pick up on Paul’s life is his love of reading. Near the end of his life, while he was languishing in a cold dungeon awaiting his possible execution, he wrote to his friend Timothy, giving him instructions and encouragement to continue in the work of the Lord.
He also asked Timothy for some personal favours, among which was this:
“The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments” (2Ti 4:13).
There are speculations as to what these books and parchments were. It is widely agreed that the parchments would include the Hebrew Scriptures, what we today call the ‘Old Testament’.
The books might include secular writings and commentaries of the Scriptures by the rabbis. Paul was not averse to non-Jewish writings and Gentile cultures. In Acts 17 he appealed to a common understanding with his Greek audience when he paraphrased a Greek poet.
“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
Some might think it strange that Paul would need copies of the Scriptures. He was trained from young in the tradition of the Pharisees and had displayed a remarkable memory in quoting Scriptures both in his preaching and writings.As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul was guided by the Spirit.
“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).
Furthermore, books would be quite useless to a man near death.
Here we see Paul, the reader. Anyone who loves to read will easily relatethat when a person is bitten by the reading bug, he/she will remain a reader. Paul was also consistent in his study habits. He never ceased to learn and improve.
The advantages of reading are many. Reading is the best way to gain knowledge. Today we have access to instructional videos, but reading remains the best way to gain knowledge as books are still the preferred vehicles of information.
Reading, when done actively, improves our critical thinking and communication skills. Critical thinking is crucial for Christians because of the myriads of ideas disseminated through books and the media. Better communication skills are a boon not only in our interaction with others but also in sharing the Good News with them.
Attention span seems to have deteriorated ever since the day every household began to own a TV set and later on a computer. Mindless staring into a screen is numbing to the brain. Active reading forces us to engage our attention if we are to benefit from a book.
Reading also allows us to learn at our own pace. As a person who is rather ‘slow’ and finds it hard to keep up with a lecturer, reading not only affords me the advantage of learning at my own pace but also gives me countless hours of pleasure.
Reading has another advantage. It allows us to experience vicariously through others what we probably will not have the opportunity to experience: an adventurous trip, a debate with someone of a different religious persuasion, etc. Reading is truly a learning experience.
In his request to Timothy, Paul was setting an example to his protégé (and to us) that Christians ought to constantly seek to improve ourselves though learning. Unlike the apostles, we do not have the Holy Spirit to teach us all things and to bring all things to remembrance.
We are called to be diligent students of the Bible, and to train to be able to handle it correctly (cf. 2Ti 2:15). Good books are the best supplements to our learning. While none of these books are inspired and therefore infallible, through them we can tap into the writers’ minds and allow them to share with us their thoughts and discoveries.
Reading good books train us to exercise discernment. We cannot accept wholesale anything we read, even from writers reputed to be sound in doctrine. So how do we exercise discernment? Be like the Bereans.
“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).
A Christian who studies the Bible diligently is a Christian who grows. A Christian who also follows Paul’s example and learns constantly from reading good books are better placed than one who deprives himself of the riches of sharing in the learning of others.